Why I Love The South Fork

Posted August 15, 2006 by Robyn Suddeth

We were having lunch at Marshall Gold Discovery State Park last week, in the middle of an Upper South Fork American rafting trip, when the father of the family on my boat that day asked me, “So is this place kind of boring for you because you also guide on more challenging rivers?” I had been zoning out, staring at the serene, slow-moving currents with golden hillsides mirrored on their surface. His question snapped me out of it, and without even having to think I immediately replied, “No… I love the South Fork.”

As if on cue, his three kids ran by right as I said that, soaking wet from their latest jump in to the water. He had two boys, thirteen and eleven, and a little girl of ten named Katie. She paused to look up and smile at us before passing by, so much more confident and exhuberant than in the morning. I told her father that getting to share the river with kids like her is a big part of what makes the South Fork so fun for me.

Just a few hours before, Katie – so energetic and excited at lunch – had been in tears, saying over and over again “I don’t want to go! I’m scared.” When the bus pulled up to take us all up to Chile Bar put-in that morning, she still had not made up her mind about whether or not to go. Finally her dad convinced her to give it a try. I watched from a distance as he leaned down next to her, giving encouragement for a minute before she finally gave a brave, tear-stained nod, and started walking towards the bus.

At put-in she still looked nervous. I told her family that they would be with me in my boat that day, and then looked at her and said “I’m really glad you’re coming along- you can help me guide in the back of the boat.” “Do I have to paddle?” she asked. “No, you can just hold on whenever you want to. But you should try and paddle sometimes because I think you’ll really like it.”

Through the first rapid she clutched tightly onto the grab handles, leaning far into the boat and turning her head away from the waves. But at the end of it she turned to me and said, “That wasn’t so bad!” “Might even have been a little bit fun, huh?” I replied. During the next few rapids she got progressively braver, even starting out the rapids with her paddle in the water for a few strokes before defaulting back to those grab handles and white knuckles. And each time we made it through another one her smile got a little bit broader.

Pretty soon she started opening up a little bit, giving me lengthy answers to questions I asked about school, her brothers, and what her favorite event was on swim team. (I told her that I, too, had been a swimmer, and I hated always getting stuck with distance freestyle.) She even started asking me a few questions of her own. Some were about the ducks we saw on the side of the river, some about why I made certain commands.

When we had gotten through the last Class III rapid I told her, “OK, you’re up! I’m not guiding anymore.” She looked at me wide-eyed, and asked “But what should I say?” “Whatever you think you should say,” I replied. Seeing that this still wasn’t enough information for her, I said, “OK, where do you think we should go right now?” She pointed directly downstream from our boat, to a slot between two islands. “Great…soooo…what should you say?” She gave me one last sideways glance as if to reply “Well alright… but I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” and then very quietly said “Forward.”

No one moved, because no one had heard her. I leaned down and whispered that she would have to be a little louder than that. And then it happened. She finally burst through her fears and timidity and yelled, at the very top of her lungs, “Forward!!!!” When everyone in the boat started paddling she broke into a huge grin, and looked proudly at me with an “I did it!” gleam in her eyes. I confirmed her success with a heartfelt, “Good job!”

By the time we got to lunch she had completely changed personalities, loving every second that she got to be in charge of the boat and asking me if she could jump out and swim the rest of the way to lunch. It was so great to see, and I knew that the day had been an incredibly special one for her; something she could be proud of and would probably remember for a long time.

When we were getting back into the boats after lunch, Katie’s dad temporarily sat in her seat in the boat to rest while he put his life jacket on. “Daa-ad! That’s my seat.,” she protested. “I get to sit next to Robyn!” It was adorable, and I was so touched to have been such an important part in this girl’s adventure. And I thought to myself, “Yup, I definitely love this river.” Because although challenging whitewater is an incredible experience itself, there is no room on those rivers for a ten year old child to discover that she’s perhaps a little tougher than she thought she was, or for holding on for as long as she needs to before she’s ready to paddle. The South Fork lets you take your time, and gives me the chance every once in a while to connect with a special kid, to do a little bit more in the day than navigate through the rapids. I think I’d trade a few Class IV river days for the huge, heartfelt good-bye hug that Katie gave me at the end of the day, and the sincere “Thank you” I recieved from her father.


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