Personal Growth

7 Things I Learned on the Gulkana

Recently I was asked to be the speaker for a ladies retreat for our church. Sounds basic enough, right? Well, this one had a little catch. The retreat was a Float Trip down the Gulkana River! Let me just tell you that I saw the promotion for the trip at church and I hadn’t even convinced myself I was ready for such a trip yet, let alone be the SPEAKER for it! (This would be my second time EVER!) But God had other plans. I don’t even know why I am surprised anymore. That is beginning to sound like a mantra for my life, “But God had other plans.” It is really ironic how much of a planner I am and how much I simply don’t get to plan anymore…but that is a post for another day.

As soon as I said, “yes” to this very daunting task, God began to give me the words I would say. I knew He would show up in His own way, but that didn’t stop my anxious heart from beating a little too fast, and the tears from pricking the corners of my eyes the night before. I was afraid. Afraid of the unknown, afraid that the words wouldn’t come together, afraid I would fail. But God knows this and He keeps at it, carving away the fear and replacing it with His truth. So much truth! The more I turn to Him in my fear, the more truth I experience. The obvious ways the same verses came to me again and again through out the week blew me away.

So I took my fragile little self and these words God had given me to share and I stepped out into the unknown. Here are seven things I learned on that river…

1. There are varying degrees of river fashion.

I asked so many questions about what to wear that I’m sure people were getting tired of answering. It had been hot the week leading up to it, but the day of was calling for highs in the 60’s. I opted for a quick-dry shirt, a fleece, zip off pants and Chacos. I felt pretty confident about my decision until we arrived at the loading station and four of the ladies promptly started changing into chest waders, wading boots, and rain coats. I instantly felt unprepared….until later in the day when I noticed a couple other ladies soaked up to their waist in jeans! I then felt much better prepared for the occasion. 🙂 It just sort of struck me how perspective changes everything. In the end I was moderately comfortable, probably would change a few things next time, but realized the amount of stress I put myself under ahead of time was so unnecessary. Moral of the story: At some point you just have to make a decision, stick to it and enjoy the ride.

2. I am no longer intimidated by having to pee in the woods.

Ok, I’m not going to spend too much time here, but it has to be said. This was a real fear. I am very unpracticed in this area. I mean, if you try this in Florida there could be snakes in there! I’ll just say the days got progressively easier and the only casualty was that I lost my favorite chapstick that inadvertently fell out of my pocket on one such occasion. Moral of the story: Sometimes you just gotta suck it up and do it…and then you find out it’s not that bad.

3. A low river = a slow river

I had NO IDEA what to expect as far as river conditions were concerned. In fact, it never dawned on me that sticking to the schedule is determined by the speed of the flow of the river. Yes, I know. Anyway, as we hopped in our boats on a shallow, glassy river I thought, “How pretty. This will be so nice.” But I quickly learned that the river was at an all-time low and the oarsmen were not sure how long it would take to get to our camp for the night. That was ok with me. It meant longer to soak in the beauty all around us. We saw over 40 bald eagles, merganser ducks, a variety of flowers, and mountains all around. It was truly majestic. But as our 5pm arrival time came and went I began to wonder what this evening would look like after all. I was scheduled to speak after dinner. We just had no idea that dinner would be at 10pm! I then sat down to give these ladies my heartfelt, prepared words at 11:20pm! I gave it to the Lord and just let Him speak through the condensed version of my story. It was a short and sweet, but vulnerable time as I let these precious ladies in on what I experienced durning my first winter in Alaska and how God met me there. Moral of the story: Prepare, but don’t hold it tightly. “God had other plans.”

4. Rain changes the mood in the blink of an eye.

Even though the trip was taking longer than planned, we all didn’t seem to mind. We talked and laughed, and many times were outside of the boat trying to help get out of a jam. But as 7pm came into view so did the rain clouds. A drizzle at first, but then a steady plinking on our raincoats and ponchos as we huddled together and tried to keep some part of ourselves dry. There was almost an instant shift in the mood. The only sounds we heard were the plinking, the oarsman’s shortness of breath, and the slap-slap of the paddles on the water. We were so done, but our journey wasn’t over. This, too makes me think of our journey in life. How many times do we wish we could just stop the ride and get off, but yet there is no way out. We must maintain course and ride out the storm. Arriving at camp at about 8:45 we were able to stay in surprisingly good spirits. We were all in the same boat (haha) so there was no sense complaining about it. We just got to work, setting up camp, collecting firewood, and cheering each other on. Moral of the story: We can’t control the conditions, but we can certainly control our response.

5. Rafting is a TON of work.

The Copper River Float Ministry ran our event for us. This organization has been taking men down the Gulkana river for 19 years…AS A MINISTRY. Once a season they offer a trip to ladies. This year was our turn. It was shortly after we got on the river that we found out this was their very last trip. The ministry is having to close its doors. What an honor to be in this final group. After over 10 hours on the river the first day and 6 the next day, these men never let it get to them. I was in awe as I saw the evening camp come together and, began to smell the savory meal that was being prepared for all of us. The next day, when it was decided to end the trip as we pulled out for “lunch” at 4pm, I realized their work was far from over. Rafts and all the accompanying supplies had to be loaded up in trailers. Over and over I was humbled by their servanthood. Part of my healing took place on that river. My only job was to share my story. These men took care of the rest. What a picture of the way God carries us through our weakest times. I will never forget those 2 days on the Gulkana where God’s love was undoubtedly lavished on us. Moral of the story: You sometimes don’t know how much your work means to a healing soul.

6. You get to know each other real quick on a 36 hour float trip.

None of us knew each other well as we stood in the church parking lot at 4:15am and introduced ourselves. But there is something to be said about having to pull together on a river, where teamwork takes on a whole new meaning. We cheered each other on as we helped get the boat back on track. Water fights and laughter broke out as we slowly passed each other. It wasn’t long before we began to feel a sense of camaraderie. When you share meals, set up and tear down camp, and pass out toilet paper as you head into the woods, you can’t help but come away from it with some new best friends. I don’t know which of these women will go on to become deep, rich friendships in my life, but what a gift to say, “It all began on the Gulkana River.” Moral of the story: When you trust God to replenish friendships in your life, watch out for the surprising ways He will do it.

7. Being brave has nothing to do with feelings.

In the traditional sense of the word, brave does not describe me as I was asked to be the speaker for this trip. But God, in his love, wanted me to see it the way He does. So, He kept repeating it until I took the time to take a closer look. Brave does not mean you won’t feel afraid. The definition of brave is: a person ready to face and endure danger or pain. It says nothing about how you will feel as you face it. It just says you are ready, and as I began to sit with this word and unpack all of its meaning for these ladies, I slowly realized I was, in fact, brave.

I attended a ladies retreat a few months back where we taped a piece of cardstock to our backs that simply said, “I am…” at the top of it. With music in the background, we quietly went around the room and wrote words of character into the lives of each other, some of whom we barely knew. As we sat down and were told to remove the paper from our backs and reflect on how others and God sees us, I wept. There were many beautiful words on that paper, but none of them were repeated…except for the word, “BRAVE.” It was on that paper four times. After all I had been through last winter, this is the LAST thing I felt, but as God began to bring this word to the surface over the next few months I not only was convinced it was what He wanted me to share, but he wanted me to act it out in the process. So, like I said before, I took my fragile self and stepped into the unknown of the Gulkana. I shared with words and actions what it means to be ready to face and endure danger or pain…by trusting in the One who can not only bring us through it, but who will use our scars in beautiful ways. Moral of the story: God has a way of taking a word we have heard and understood out whole lives and infusing meaning we never knew it contained…all for our good and His glory. 

I tried, and I tried to shorten this post. If you are still reading, I applaud you! Thank you for staying, indulging me and sharing in my journey. I pray something here encouraged you in whatever you are facing today. Now, go, and BE BRAVE.

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