Denali High.

In the summer of 2012, I took a trip that changed my life. The year leading up to it had been rough to say the least, riddled with sorrow and depression and the grief of losing someone I thought I’d get to spend a whole lot more time with. I was lost, feeling purposeless and passionless, spending evenings getting drunk to forget, because it was too painful to remember.

Then I heard about an internship opportunity through Penn State, where I had gone back to finish my degree after a couple years off. Helping collect vegetation data in the backcountry of Alaska, somewhere I had always wanted to visit. I applied, and was accepted for the position.

And thus, I found myself spending the summer in Denali National Park with a woman who would become one of my best friends, hiking up and down mountains and across icy rivers, spending a week at a time camped out far from any signs of civilization. It felt like I was getting back to my roots. The energy and optimism that had been gone from my life for too long began to return. I began to feel whole again.

I journaled a lot during my time there, while spending evenings basking in the summer sun that shone nearly 24 hours a day, on a rocky beach beside the river. Looking back through that journal recently, I found a passage that I particularly enjoy, one that talks about the feeling that Rachel and I had dubbed the “Denali High.”

 “The clarity of thought that comes with this state of mind is incredible. Never in my life have I felt so sure of myself, so optimistic about life, so convinced of my dreams and goals. And yet, at the same time, never in my life have I been so happy to simply be in the moment. I seemed to strike the perfect balance of enjoyment of the present while planning for the future. Suddenly so many of the problems that I had been struggling with seemed to be resolved. By my second week in the backcountry, I felt better physically, mentally, and emotionally than I have in a very long time…if ever. I found a piece of myself that I always thought I had but never could get to show itself very much in the past. Denali has made me a better person. Its mountains have made me physically stronger. Its challenges have made me tougher. Its beauty has filled me with wonder and inspiration that I hope I will carry with me even after I leave this place. And suddenly, I find that this experience has healed a part of my soul that was broken. A piece of me that had died was revitalized here. And for that, I will always be in love with Denali.” -H. Kotala, July 2012

 

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Denali sunrise.

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Jackson Kayak stand-up paddleboards.

Last week, the shop got in some new paddleboards from Jackson Kayak, and a few days ago after work one evening, a small group of us took the opportunity to try them out on the Juniata River. A relatively short stretch of river from the Warrior Ridge Dam to Huntingdon is a favorite for evening paddles and testing out boats, as it’s mostly calm water with one large rapid and several other great opportunities to play.

The Jackson Kayak SUPerCHARGER and SUPerNATURAL are the latest in an ever-growing lineup of stand-up paddleboards offered for sale or rent by Rothrock Outfitters.

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The SUPerCHARGER is designed for rivers/whitewater, while the SUPerNATURAL is longer and slightly narrower, a better bet for lakes but still able to hold its own in some rapids.

Both boards are much more stable than many of the others I’ve been on, even when standing all the way on one side or the other, or all the way forward or back. We had a lot of fun standing as far back as we could on the boards so that the nose was up in the air, and spinning in circles.

The boards are also clearly very durable and virtually indestructible, a must when navigating rock-strewn rivers.

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Headstand attempts.

Headstand attempts.

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The SUPerCHARGER is very maneuverable, but, as expected, doesn’t track as well and takes some extra effort to paddle in flatwater. But it navigates rapids like a champ and surfs like a surfboard. We’re all looking forward to trying it out on some bigger whitewater.

Jake gets his surf on.

Jake gets his surf on.

The SUPerNATURAL seems like a great board for an all-day river trip or overnighter. Both boards are equipped with straps to hold gear, making paddleboard camping much more logistically simple experience.

However, one of the notable downsides to both of these boards is their weight. At about 60 pounds each, they aren’t the easiest to carry, especially solo. We also found that the foam on the deck of the boards tends to be very slippery when wet, especially for bare feet.

But overall, the consensus is that we like them a lot, and we’re all pretty excited to have the Jackson Kayak SUPs as part of our fleet.

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Sitting or standing, these boards are a bundle of fun.

Sitting or standing, these boards are a bundle of fun. Stay tuned for more SUP adventures!

An evening on the river.

Often times, those of us who are active, healthy, and fit tend to take our bodies for granted. We assume that we will wake up every day and we’ll be able to do what we want to do (within reason). It’s only when illness or injury sets in that we realize just how lucky we are every day that things work the way that they are supposed to.

A broken elbow is by no means serious in the grand scheme of all the things that could happen to a person. It’s a minor setback, but spending even only a couple weeks unable to do some of my favorite activities has instilled in me a new sense of appreciation for them.

And so, an evening of paddleboarding on the river with Evan became so much more than just that. The discovery that I could indeed do this again, though in a slightly modified manner of using my left arm to do all the work and my right arm to simply guide the paddle, was a delight in itself. The mist rising off the water, the perfect temperature of the summer air, the close-up views of a couple of bald eagles, and the beautiful sunset we witnessed as we glided into town were all bonus.

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Broken.

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About an hour after this photo was taken, I found myself lying in the middle of an alley, curled up in pain, hyperventilating, my elbow screaming, Evan standing over me, telling me to get out of the street. It had been a simple curb ride—nothing out of the ordinary or spectacular that had caused some of the worst pain I’ve ever been in.

I rode the 10 or so blocks back to the shop one-armed, feeling as if I would suddenly vomit or pass out or both, immediately falling onto the improvised couch made out of a van seat that sits in a corner amongst fat bikes and cycling apparel.

I didn’t want to go to the hospital yet. My gut told me I’d have to, but I was in denial. It couldn’t be broken. It would feel better in the morning. Rest, ice, elevate…it would be fine.

I drank a couple beers. Took an Ibuprofen. Went to bed.

Morning came, and my arm felt the same. It hurt. A lot. There was no way I could go to work as a waitress, so I made the call to my boss and sheepishly made my way to the ER.

My fear was confirmed—it was indeed broken. A radial head fracture of the elbow, to be exact. They splinted my whole arm, from my tricep to my hand, and made me an appointment with an orthopedist for the next day.

Saying that I was bummed was an understatement. It’s summer, the busiest time of year for me, the time of year that I not only want to be active but need to be active—not only for my mental state but for my bank account as well.

I know injury is a risk that I take every time I get on a mountain bike, but this was the first time I’ve gotten up from a crash anything other than just bloodied and bruised, and knowing the risk wasn’t doing much to feel better about it now that I had my first broken bone (fingers and toes don’t count).

What did make me feel better was my appointment with the orthopedist. After confirming the bad news that my arm was broken, the spunky P.A. gave me the good news—the break wasn’t that bad, the splint was overkill, I should be moving my arm around to begin regaining mobility, and that I should “use my own judgement” in regards to what I can and can’t do. Basically, if it hurts, don’t do it.

While this didn’t change the fact that there was still a lot I couldn’t do, freeing my arm of the hot, sweaty splint did wonders, as did the knowledge that my healing would take weeks, not months.

Though it’ll be a while before I get back on a mountain bike (my main concern now is falling and re-breaking it), I feel like I got lucky. After my trip to the ER, I thought it would be a lot worse.

Sojourn.

It had been dark a while by the time I joined the others at camp, pulling the borrowed Jetta in beside the iconic yellow van and trailer full of boats of every shape and size and color. I was greeted by familiar faces and warm hugs of people I hadn’t seen in a year, since the last time we were all together for this event that has become an annual tradition for so many of us, the Juniata River Sojourn.

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Tony tests the fit of the Current Designs Squamish, one of the new shop boats that we both got to try that weekend.

Tony tests the fit of the Current Designs Squamish, one of the new shop boats that we both got to try that weekend.

The first Sojourn took place in 2001, when the Juniata was named River of the Year, and the event has continued annually ever since. It is one of many River Sojourns, and in its lifespan has drawn quite a following, a dedicated and enthusiastic group of paddlers for whom this is one of the highlights of their year. My first Juniata Sojourn was in 2002, when I was just a teenager tagging along with my parents. It’s where I fell in love with kayaking. It’s where I met people who would later show me the challenge of whitewater paddling. It’s where I first got to know the crew from Rothrock Outfitters who would later offer me a job and then become close friends. In the years since my first Sojourn experience, I’ve gone from novice paddler to leader and guide, but it’s always remained a fixture in my life.

Until this year, the Sojourn was organized and presented by Juniata Clean Water Partnership, a non-profit watershed stewardship organization based out of Huntingdon, PA. However, significant reductions in funding made the event nearly impossible to put on, so Rothrock Outfitters stepped up as organizers in addition to the usual role as on-water guides, in the hopes that this yearly tradition would continue.

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The Sojourn venue rotates between 3 different sections of the Juniata River Watershed—the Frankstown Branch/Little Juniata, the Mainstem, and the Raystown Branch, which was the planned locale for this year. We were to begin at Everett, and end up at the upper reaches of Lake Raystown, at Heritage Cove Resort near Saxton.

But Mother Nature had another plan in store. In the days prior to the event weekend, especially the night before, inches of rain dumped on the area, by Friday morning rendering the river much too high on which to safely and responsibly lead a group of 60 canoes and kayaks. Then we heard that the places we were supposed to camp were underwater. Clearly, the plan as it sat wasn’t going to happen.

But a new plan was quickly formed—paddle the length of Raystown Lake instead. It would be a sojourn unlike the others, but also fill a missing link that connects the Raystown Branch with the Juniata River.

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After a chaotic Friday afternoon and evening, everyone got settled in at Heritage Cove, our new camping spot for that night, and seemed to be adjusting well to the new plan. Morning brought sunshine and a respite from the relentless storms of the previous days, just in time for the colorful flotilla of canoes and kayaks to launch.

The first part of the paddle was relatively relaxing and quiet. Fewer motorboats venture into the upper reaches of the lake, and most of those that do are more interested in fishing than going fast. Evan and I tried out tandem kayaking together for the first time, in the Current Designs Double Vision, a new boat in stock at the shop. We saw multiple great-blue herons along shore, and later in the day, spied a bald eagle flying along Terrace Mountain on the eastern side of the lake.

My stoker.

My stoker.

Lunch break.

Lunch break.

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By the time afternoon rolled around, motorboat traffic had picked up, and the last half mile of paddling was the most brutal of the day, battling wakes and a headwind as we beached our boats at the Lake Raystown Resort, our camp for the evening.

The Sojourn isn’t only about paddling—it’s also about comeraderie. The evenings prove that, as friends and strangers gather around campfires and share stories and laughs into the wee hours of the morning before retiring to their individual camps to do it again the next day.

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Sunday’s paddle was the longest, and was grueling for many. We were in the busiest part of the lake, where motorboat wakes would toss our little canoes and kayaks every which way, making it hard to stay afloat at times, much less paddle at a steady pace. But we took plenty of breaks to let people catch up, during which water battles would ensue in an attempt to quench the relentless sun and heat.

We made it to our destination late in the afternoon, most everyone exhausted and ready for a dinner of wood-fired pizza. People slept well that night, the campfires and late-night giggles dying down earlier than usual.

Monday’s paddle was short and considerably quieter. Boat traffic was nearly none, the lake almost smooth as glass. The line of boats pulled into Snyders Run, the end of our Sojourn road, where goodbyes and til-next-years were exchanged.

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Leading the pack to the finish.

Leading the pack to the finish.

Despite the weather and lat-minute plan changes, it had been a success.

Check out the Rothrock Outfitters website for more info.

 

 

 

 

The things that matter.

I’ll be the first to admit, I often lose sight of what’s important.

I get lost in life’s little hassles. I worry about what I can’t control, and I spend hours stressing before finally taking action on the things I can. I blow minor roadblocks out of proportion. I cry about money. I get angry about things that won’t matter tomorrow, or sometimes even in an hour. I focus on the few negatives, and ignore the long list of positives in my life.

I do all this instead of enjoying every minute of every day, instead of being continually grateful for all that I have. For the wonderful man I share my life with and the great friends who are there through the good times and the bad. For the jobs that I love and the opportunities I’ve had to further my dreams. For the ability to live in a place as beautiful as Central Pennsylvania.

It’s nature that brings me back into perspective. After all, how can I be upset about anything while I’m sitting in a hammock, looking up at the bright green leaves of summer, on the land that is our own. Or flying through the woods on a mountain bike. Or floating down the peaceful river, where all that matters is each paddle stroke in the water.

It’s nature that has gotten me through so many hard times in my life, that continually heals my soul and eases my mind of worry, that helps me forget about my petty cares, and that reminds me of the things that matter.

And for this, I am thankful.

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This is why I ride.

Thunder rumbles in the distance, but the sun is still shining. Every now and then the wind gusts, the leaves rustle. Maybe the storm is finally headed this way.

But then it is calm again, with only the buzzing of insects and the faint noise of a motorboat speeding down the lake to disturb the silence. Thunder rumbles again, but doesn’t grow any nearer.

All is green, lush, dense. Parts of the trail are reminiscent of riding through a jungle. Briers lean out and scratch my legs every now and then.

Summer is here. There’s a comfortable warmth and humidity in the air. After this past winter, I’m thankful to not be cold. And yet, I’m still not too hot. It’s perfect.

I stop at the trail intersection. Do I turn towards home or do I continue heading farther away? I opt for the longer ride. I have much to think about, stresses to relieve, alone time to be had. A busy work schedule and never-ending list of things to do means not enough time as I’d like to just go ride. So tonight, I must make the most of it.

It’s been a while since I’ve been all the way at the end of the south side of the Allegrippis, on Allegheny Trail. I tend to favor the north end of the trails, and it’s refreshing to be somewhere slightly unfamiliar, where I don’t know every single bend and root.

By the end of Allegheny, my head clears. Problems are solved, at least more so than they were when I began. Just in time to head home.

I ride for a lot of reasons—for enjoyment, for camaraderie, for exercise, for mental release—because somehow, pedaling through the woods makes me feel a whole lot better about everything.

Tonight reminded me of all of that, of why I ride, and of how thankful I am that I discovered the wonders of the bicycle.

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