By Shea Stephens
I’m not a typical first year guide on the Ocoee River. Most come to the river for the summer to make a little money before their next semester at school or before summering in a different hemisphere. Me, well I’m a little different. At 31, I had an early-mid life crisis. I went from martini parties in Atlanta to walking around the outpost with bare feet and PBR in hand. The transformation has been long and agonizing, shedding the dead weight of a southern socialite, morphing into a well trained raft guide. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
The crisis began when I realized how I was just cruising through life checking boxes and meeting monetary goals but not living passionately. After an exhausting run of relationships I was ready to embrace a new chapter where I was the captain and didn’t have to waiver or compromise my interests and time with anyone else. I came to the realization last January while sitting alone on a beach watching dolphins swim into the sunset. Cheesy, I know.
The winter months melted and spring brought new changes. I met a kayaker who went through the trouble to take me canoeing for our first date. He borrowed an Old Town canoe from his best friend and strapped it to his compact car with a dog bed shielding the roof from the boat. We canoed all over Lake Alltoona and settled on an island filled with tiny spiders and talked about life. I told him about my revolution and how I was trying to become more mindful and not get caught up in the race. He smiled and told me about his trip to Tibet where he and his team ran a first descent along the Parlung Tsangpo. What a charmer. He and his buddies documented the experience in their movie, Seven Weeks in Tibet. He invited me over to watch the flick. The expedition impressed me with not only the adventure that they experienced by taking passage along this uncharted river but also with the respect they showed to the Tibetan culture.
After seeing the film, I wanted to throw myself into the sport of kayaking. Although I had plenty of ambition I had insufficient skills and knew there was a lot to learn before I could take a maiden voyage to a foreign land in a tiny kayak…I needed to shake my basic fear of the river and I knew that the only way to overcome the fear is to gain knowledge of the river; I needed to understand the fluid dynamics, geology, how to read water, how to approach each rapid and – if the situation called – how to swim in whitewater.
A good friend from my Punk Rock days, Fig, (I’ve reinvented myself more than Madonna) told me about his river training experience at a whitewater rafting company. He explained how the company needs a lot of guides for peak season and searches for new recruits and begins teaching them in the spring. The “trainees” are taught how to read water and how to run each rapid carefully. After a few months of training and certification in First Aid and CPR the whitewater company tests each trainee to determine whether or not they can start taking customers down the river. After an hour I was pretty much sold on the idea. I thought it would be a logical evolution to kayaking. Plans were made to go to Tennessee’s Ocoee River for the first week to see if I would like it or not. The only problem was that I had to wait a week before I could start my new adventure on the river…All good things come to those who wait. Just ask Old Town boy.
To get more information for the movie, Seven Weeks in Tibet, please visit www.2at.com and stay tuned for more Guide Files.