Being Adventurous with Diabetes: Whitewater Rafting

Note: this is a follow-up to an earlier post on Being Adventurous with Diabetes

In early November, I texted one of my best friends, asking her how she would like to celebrate her upcoming birthday.

Her response: whitewater rafting.

Her birthday was in three days. It’s something she’s always wanted to do. She had a different start to her adult life – had to grow up way too fast and missed out on what some of us call the “fun” from our early 20’s. So, now that she’s hit 30, she’s trying to make up for it. I don’t blame her, and after the year she’s had, I want to support her. Except…

I am terrified of whitewater rafting. Honestly, I’m terrified of any water that moves (yes, I acknowledge the oxymoron in that statement, but let’s just say kiddie pools don’t count). I experienced a few “almost” drowning incidences as a kid, and that ruined any dreams of being The Little Mermaid. But I wanted to support my friend, and ever since I ran that 5K in October, I’d made a commitment to myself to be a little more adventurous.

Technology is not Waterproof

Except minus my irrational fears, there was another problem. None of my diabetes supplies were waterproof except for the pod attached to my skin that carries my insulin. I thought of the supplies I usually carry with me on a daily basis: glucometer, test strips, lancets, insulin vial, syringe, personal diabetes manager for the pod, continuous glucose monitoring receiver, my phone, AAA batteries, a snack for low blood sugar incidences and water. Yep, none of them are waterproof (well, minus the water, of course).

I consulted the only person I know who’s endured whitewater rafting more than once: my dad.

“So, how likely will I actually get wet? I mean if I stay in the boat, I’ll be fine, right?”

“Nope,” he said. “You’ll get soaked. Don’t go.” But he recommended that more because it was supposed to be 50 degrees the day my friend wanted to go. He did suggest a wet bag or waterproof case for my supplies. The website did report that lunch would be provided mid-way through the trip so that should give me time to check my blood sugar and correct where necessary. The lunch options were pretty carb-heavy, and they suggested packing your own lunch if it didn’t suit your dietary needs.

I considered winging it and leaving my supplies in the car. But it was supposed to be a three- to four-hour guided trip, and I couldn’t account for what my blood sugar would do under those conditions. I decided to invest in a wet suit for my own comfort and purchase two waterproof cases that I could either attach to my arm or wrap around my neck. This didn’t ease any concerns I had about falling into the water (and knowing my track record with any sport, I was guaranteed to fall in).

Planning is not Foolproof

The day before the trip my Amazon Prime membership failed me, and my wet suit got lost in transit. I called my friend freaking out. The stress of worrying about my diabetes plus my actual fear of water was getting to me. I’m embarrassed to admit I did try to bail on the experience. I couldn’t account for all the unknowns. And how was I going to support my friend when I couldn’t control my own anxiety? Plus, it was supposed to be 50 degrees.

“This is your life,” my friend said. “I will support you no matter what. And I’m terrified, too. I had a minor freak-out this morning. But I want to do this. And I’m going to do this. If it’s about costs, I’ll cover you because I want you there with me. Don’t let diabetes dictate your life. Do what you want to do.”

She was right. I’ve had more than one opportunity to conquer my fear of whitewater rafting. And I’ve never faced it head on. The diabetes is often just an excuse to avoid things I don’t want to do. Except I wanted to do this. I love adventure. And while this may not seem like “adventure” to the average person, it was certainly a step outside the comfort zone for me.

Catching Fish

When I arrived at the kickoff point Saturday morning near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, it was 40 degrees outside. I wore my rain jacket, layers of exercise clothes, wool socks and tennis shoes. My friend was late so it gave me time to discuss my diabetes concerns with the guide. He was an EMT so understood the complications of Type 1 diabetes. I also showed him my waterproof cases, and he offered to keep my supplies in his wet bag as an additional layer of protection.

By the time my friend and another friend arrived, everyone else had cancelled (I guess it was too cold), so we got the boat to ourselves. It was a small boat. I volunteered to sit at the front of the boat. I didn’t even blink. If I’m going to face my fears, I thought, then I’m going to face them head on. But of course, as soon as I stepped into the river to get into the boat, my feet were completely soaked. I don’t think the wool socks made much of a difference.

On our guided tour, we were planning to row along the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, passing the historical town of Harpers Ferry. We would also experience Class I, II and III rapids (Class IV and V are more advanced, and as our guide pointed out, Class VI wasn’t commercially safe for tours). I was ready for Class I. I was not so sure about Class II and III. We wore life jackets and helmets, so there was that added protection.

It wasn’t until we rowed out on to the Shenandoah that we learned the tour company doesn’t serve lunch after the summer season (again, the cold). We missed that memo.

“Well, then you better get out there and catch me a fish because all I’ve had this morning is a tangerine,” my friend joked. Well, sort of joked. She was hungry.

We were the only ones on the river. No one else wanted to spend their Saturday braving the below freezing rapids. I can’t blame them, but it was nice to have the river to ourselves. There was a peaceful serenity to the experience. That is, until I heard the rapids. The guide instructed us on how to stay in the boat while going through the rapids.

“I don’t know. I don’t feel all that secure.” I was sitting on the side of what appeared to be a plastic inflatable balloon. How the hell was I supposed to stay inside this thing? Fortunately, the guide had my supplies, so at least my expensive equipment would be safe. I was at the front; I couldn’t hide behind anything. But I wasn’t alone.

Since we were rowing against the wind, I had plenty of time to anticipate and fear the sound of Class I rapids. Fortunately, once we went through them, I realized they weren’t so bad. It was a little bump, and in fact, it was kind of fun. But our next rapid would be Class III. And I thought for sure I’d fall out of the boat then.

white water rafting on Potomac River

Out on the Shenandoah River (before we hit the rapids)

Keep Rowing

My friend and I were instructed to row in sync (neither of us being well-coordinated, this proved to be interesting). And while our guide did most of the work, rowing and steering from the back, I was certainly done with rowing a mile into our ride. The guide warned us that we would want to freeze as soon as we hit the Class III rapids, but it was important that we keep rowing. Well, words are one thing. Actions are quite another. And when we went down that first Class III rapid with my entire body exposed to the water, I stopped rowing mid-fall and screamed.

“Keep rowing,” our friend yelled from behind us. I braced myself for the next wave of water and started rowing again. After the initial plunge, we all laughed at ourselves. I was no longer terrified. I was thrilled. Throughout the whole trip, I was so focused on surviving the rapids (and staying in the boat) that I hardly thought or worried about my diabetes. The guide had requested I mention if I felt anything was “off,” but the only “off” I felt was my wet foot falling asleep halfway through the ride.

We finished our tour starving and cold but proud and ready to do it again. My friends kept me warm while we made the return to the shuttle bus that would take us back to our cars. I grabbed my diabetes supplies from the guide’s wet bag. My blood sugar was 88. Perfect.

Next up: zip lining.


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