The roiling river flows over my head, flooding my nose and mouth. My life jacket holds me up, but I can’t take a breath. Above me, the flipped paddle raft makes a gray roof blocking the brilliant Idaho sky. I remember lead guide Amy’s safety talk: If you come up under the boat, don’t panic. There is an air space. But turbulent rapids slosh over me and I do panic. I think: It would suck to survive breast cancer and die here.
Then I bob up outside the boat and see Pepper, my boat’s guide. He yells, “Breathe!” He chokes on the word because he is gulping the river, too. He guides my hand to the boat’s handle.
Minutes later, hands reach for me. “Patti! Here!” Kathy, my tent mate, and Jude lean so far over their raft I worry they’ll fall into the still-rough water. I reluctantly let go of the paddle raft and stretch to reach them. They grab my hands and I’m pulled up by my life jacket.
On board the raft, my teeth chatter and my knees bang together. Toni, a wildlife biologist, rummages in her day pack. My hands don’t work, but Toni gets me out of the soaked splash gear and into dry things. It’s all part of a week-long trip down Idaho’s Main Salmon River with 14 other cancer survivors, all women, a gift from the nonprofit River Discovery.
I completed treatment two months before the trip. Some participants had been cancer-free for years, but three were still undergoing treatment. Despite chemotherapy sessions, they had signed up for a trip that requires long hours on the river and camping in tents. Cathy, a participant in her forties, was given two to eight weeks to live when doctors found her brain tumors. She began taking a promising drug as part of a clinical trial and hiked with the help of a walking stick.
The Main Salmon winds through the Frank Church Wilderness Area, the largest unbroken wilderness in the lower 48. Lewis and Clark tried to negotiate this water but failed, earning the Main the name it’s now known by: the River of No Return.
Fran and Joe Tonsmeire, local cattle ranchers and river guides, started River Discovery to promote the healing benefits of wilderness experiences. (Fran survived breast cancer; Joe died of cancer in 2007.) The program offers one teen trip and one for adults and relies on grants and donations.
By the second day of our trip, my excitement for the rapids had changed to dread, so I rode in an oar boat. After a rollicking, wet day, my enthusiasm had returned. After each rapid, the oar boats waited in eddies for the paddle rafters and two kayakers. “The river offers us a lesson,” says Ellen Nolan, River Discovery’s board president and a certified therapist. “We are invested in each other’s wellbeing.”
By day four, I was back in the paddle boat, along with Kathy and Pat, who also spilled the first day. Our guide Mary warned us that Growler Rapid is the trickiest on the Main. As we approached, growl turned to roar. Then we plummeted into hydro-pocalypse, Mary yelling for us to back-paddle on one side, then row forward hard. When we reached calm water, we lifted our paddles overhead and slapped them in salute. The people on the oar boats cheered.
My tent mate Kathy later reflected: “Alder Rapid, where we flipped, was like diagnosis. You feel overwhelmed, terrified and alone. Growler Rapid was coming through cancer, working as a team, paddling like crazy.”
On the last day, people were tired and wanted to ride in the oar boats, so I got another chance at the paddle raft. As we headed into our last rapid, Mary called out, “How about a war cry?”
“Loolooloolooloolooloo,” we whooped, and plunged into a rapid. My paddle grabbed at air. “Row hard!” Mary yelled. I leaned farther out of the boat, I dug, and my paddle found water.
Afterward the river quieted. Our takeout beach lay around the next bend. Mary asked Rachel, a 21-year-old survivor with a beautiful singing voice, “Do you know ‘Amazing Grace’?” Rachel’s soprano notes lifted to the granite walls. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
My paddle hung limp as I stared into the river. Even in this peaceful spot, water surged over the rock bed, grinding and polishing.
“Breathe!” Pepper, the river guide, had yelled. Breathe, cancer told me. Breathe.