Let’s take a quick look at whitewater rafting, because today was a rafting day for a big group of campers and counselors. Rafting at Rockbrook is a big deal. It’s easily the most popular outdoor adventure activity we offer. The Forest Service restricts us to girls who are 5th grade and older (our Middlers and Seniors), but almost everyone eligible chooses to go. Fortunately, Rockbrook has a permit to raft the Nantahala river (the only girls camp to have one!), so we can send everyone who wants to go, use our own guides and equipment, and schedule the trips at our convenience. We’ve been running whitewater rafting trips since the 1980s.
You can tell from these photos of todays trips that the girls have a complete blast rafting. They’re screaming and laughing with delight. They’re doing silly poses for the camera, making “high fives” with their paddles, for example. They’re sweating a bit from paddling, but also chilled by the splashing and spraying of the whitewater. They’re playful, silly and enthusiastic, especially when the weather is hot and sunny like it was today.
The best part of these trips, I’d say, is the real camaraderie that happens in each boat. For the entire 2-hour trip on the water, the girls are working together, chatting and sometimes singing together, and laughing hysterically whenever someone falls in (or out!) of the boat. As the boats get bounced around in the rapids, the passengers do too. One minute things are calm and scenic, and the next, someone is sprawled in the bottom of the boat with legs flailing, or is bobbing in the 53-degree river water clambering to get back into the raft. With these bright and upbeat attitudes, it’s hilarious and exciting at the same time.
The finale of the trip is the last rapid on the river, the Nantahala Falls. This is a fast, class-III, double-drop rapid that is powerful enough to toss people out of their boats, and is always an exciting thrill. You can see that in these photos (click one to see a larger version). Making it through the falls tends to bring out cheers and celebration from each boat. “Yeah! We made it!” Like all great adventures, there’s a risk that something might go wrong (being tossed, in this case), so when it doesn’t, it’s a true feeling of success.
Rafting is another great example of how the girls at Rockbrook make whatever they are doing better because they genuinely enjoy each others company. Being positive and friendly from the start, being supportive and mutually encouraging, they’re just primed to have a fantastic time. Give them plenty of snacks, and it’s almost automatic! These Rockbrook girls are good friends having an extraordinarily great time. Pretty cool.
Today, we have a special post written by Sonya Korabelnikova, one of our whitewater instructors. It’s a fascinating glimpse into what out-of-camp adventure trips are like, and what the girls learn in addition to having fun and improving their kayaking skills. Enjoy!
I knew we had a very big day ahead of us when I showed up at camp around 7:45am. Today we would be running section IX of the French Broad River, a whitewater kayaking trip that is a step more advanced. We always try to run the river and be back in time for dinner, and this trip is a long one, especially if we were hoping to squeeze in a stop at Dolly’s on the way back.
To my surprise the campers arrived ready, with all their gear, clothes, sunscreen, etc. It turns out Lula went to talk to everyone the night before to make sure they would be ready to go early. KK jumped on the trailer right away helping to tie the boats. She has perfected her truckers hitch, so while I still checked her knots, I really didn’t have to. She ties them very well. Everyone else helped too, loading the gear and boats into the van without me saying a word. By now they all know what to do and everyone finds the spot where they are the most helpful. We were able to leave camp by 9:06am, much earlier than I have expected. This was a pleasant surprise because last week it took more than twice that time.
Arriving at the river, everyone was ready and excited to go. Riley, the youngest camper (she is only 11 and this would be only her 4th time on a whitewater river) needed some extra help carrying her boat and putting her skirt on. Before I got a chance to help, Kate and Willa were already helping her. Again, with everyone pitching in, we were able to get on the river in no time.
We arrived at a large eddy and decided to practice t-rescues and rolls. As we were working, one of the girls said she was afraid. When I asked her about that, she explained she was “afraid to fail.” I’ve noticed this as a recurring conversation this year— worrying about failing. So, instead of working on rolls, we took a moment and talked about how important it was to try, even when there is a chance of failure. We talked about how not trying is often worse than not succeeding, and how failing is often a part of learning because no one ever succeeds in everything all the time, especially when first starting out. Back at our roll practice, some of them failed but tried again. Some succeeded, but everyone looked happy to keep trying.
Next up was Pillow Rock, the most difficult and largest rapid on the river. We got out of our boats and climbed up the rock to scout. Lula, KK and Willa were ready to move forward, seeing their line and having no fear. I smiled and told them to go. They climbed down the rock, got into their boats and charged one after another. Of course, they hit the perfect line.
Grape and Kate were nervous. They asked me if I thought they were ready for this rapid. I told them that I thought they were ready, but it was really up to them if they wanted to run it or not. They looked at each other, having a silent conversation. A few minutes later, there were cheers from everyone because they successfully ran the rapid!
Riley was the last one. She said to me, “I’m scared, but I really want to do it. Can I follow you?” “Sure,” I said, “we can go together.” We climbed down, she got in her boat and charged after me. After she took one confident stroke after another, I knew she would be fine. She made it to the bottom of the rapid and other girls offered her high fives and cheers.
At the Swimmers Rapid, we had the girls ferry over to practice their skills. When one of them flipped and swam, half of the other girls charged over to help get her to shore. Soon these other campers were reassuring the camper, retrieving her gear, and getting her back in her boat. I felt that I didn’t need to add anything, since these girls knew how to properly handle this situation, both the rescue part and emotional part as well.
We got to the take out and had a few minutes for more roll practice and swimming. As some of them practiced, others gave their friends tips. I was surprised again. They seemed to remember everything we taught them and some of them were really good at explaining it to their friends.
Back in the bus, the girls were fiddling with their bracelets. They get a knotted cord bracelet for going kayaking, and a different bead for every achievement like paddling a specific river, or accomplishing a maneuver. The bracelets are made by tying a fishermen knot. Kate, who perfected the knot, was teaching everyone how to do it. We discovered that Riley was missing the bracelet and she was leaving the next day. But with no time to make her one, Grape took her bracelet off and said, “Here, you can have mine. I want you to have a bracelet before you leave.”
The conversation on the bus began to get louder. This is the first time on the trip that I heard Riley join in talking. At first, she may have felt like an outsider being the youngest camper on the trip. But now, she is clearly part of the team. All of them are.
Also on the bus ride home, I asked them to list their achievements of the day. They answered, “I punched the hole. I rolled. I caught the small eddy. I ran a big rapid.” Funny enough, none of them mentioned what I think are their biggest achievements: I helped and supported a friend. I made sure everyone was included. I was brave. I was strong. I took initiative when no one asked. I was a team member. With all this, it’s easy to understand why I am so proud of them.
As we sat outside of the Dolly’s eating our ice cream, the girls talked about how much they enjoyed the day and how much they want to come back to go kayaking again. I hope they will. I hope they will have more opportunities to enjoy this sport that will challenge them, force them to be a team member, take them out into nature, and will help them grow into the strong independent women we all want them to be.
The kayakers have taken trips almost everyday this week. The interest in kayaking continues to grow, so Leland, Sarah and Stephanie have been busy meeting that demand by offering lots of trips. The beginners went to the French Broad River twice this week. After mastering their “wet exit” (sliding out of the kayak when it tips over), the French Broad is a perfect place to learn other important kayaking skills like ferrying across moving water and catching an eddy. On both Thursday and Friday, groups of kayaking girls drove over to the Tuckasegee River in Swain County to run its rapids. The river was really moving after our recent rains, giving the girls a little extra push over the shallow areas and making a couple of the rapids like Moonshot and Dillsboro Drop even more fun. This section of the “Tuck” takes 2 or so hours to complete giving the crew plenty of time to play on the water and still be back at camp for dinner.
Today, the Hi-Ups had their third “Girls With Ideas” session— a curriculum designed to foster confident girl leaders. On sticky notes, they began the meeting by writing down times that they were positive role models for the younger campers, moments that challenged them, and how they want to end their camp session. Although they only had the space of a sticky note for each answer, their responses and following discussion were quite wise and thoughtful. Between setting and scraping for each meal, putting on Rockbrook surprises, and helping to teach activities, these 10th grade campers have packed schedules! The downtime to reflect was much deserved. Personal goals of theirs for the rest of their Hi-Up year include being good team players, staying selfless, and taking initiative.
Another outdoor adventure trip also returned to camp today with stories and photos to share. We were planning an overnight canoe trip on the French Broad river near camp, but at the last minute a huge thunderstorm caused the river to rise too fast for the group to paddle safely. Shifting gears a bit, adventure staff leaders Jayne and Mattie decided to camp in Pisgah instead and show the campers several very cool spots. They first went to Courthouse Falls for a swim in the icy pool beneath. From there they camped further up the mountain along the Silvermine Ridge. The next morning, despite being pretty tired, everyone woke up early (5:15am!) to summit nearby Black Balsam mountain and watch the sunrise. Being that high up (over 6,200 feet!), far above the morning fog in the surrounding valleys, was quite a treat. Click this photo (any of these!) to see a larger version. Passing by one more waterfall on the way back to camp, the group just had to stop for a quick swim. These girls love the cold mountain water around here!
Similarly, we’ve been happy to see so many campers improving their skills in pottery. The Rockbrook ceramics program has always been extensive, with two studios, 3 professional potters who serve as instructors, and a steady stream of enthusiastic campers returning year after year to work with clay. Lately, the older girls have been doing amazing work on the wheels. Throwing on the potter’s wheel takes some practice at first, but once you learn to center the clay, stay steady and draw the clay up slowly and evenly, it’s magical to see a lump transform into a delicate, symmetrical pot. The girls are doing this beautifully. The next step is to vary the final shape of the cup or bowl, perhaps flaring the lip, bulging one side, or adding a handle. Next week after the pots dry a bit (There’s a special dehumidifying room for that.), it will be time for glazing, and the final kiln firing that will bring out the colors of the glazes. Look for incredible creations coming home after camp.
Last week, there was an open spot on a zip lining trip, and, since I have the greatest job in the world, I filled it. It was the first time I had been on our new, expanded camp zip line course, complete with three zip lines, one tight rope, and two rope bridges. I am not ashamed a bit to admit that my heart was beating double-time the whole time I was up there.
And I definitely was not alone in that sensation. Most of the girls that I was with had done the zip line before, and jumped out into thin air every time without a second thought. But hanging back in the back of the line with me was one brand new camper, whose eyes were just as wide as mine felt. She turned to me just before we got to the first zip line, and said, “I’ve never felt like this before.”
I asked her what she was feeling, and she listed out sweaty palms, dry mouth, beating heart—in short, she described fear. Here she was, far from home, standing high on a mountain, and she was feeling, for the first time in her life, fear. Now, she knew of course that she was wearing a harness, a helmet, and that she was hooked onto each line by two different tethers. She knew, intellectually, that she was safe. But that doesn’t stop the body’s natural reaction to the contemplation of jumping off a high rock face.
But still, despite her fear, she jumped.
Most of our campers, thank goodness, lead relatively safe lives. They can go through whole days, weeks, and months without feeling the rush of adrenaline that comes along with fear, and this is certainly not a bad thing. Still, in our modern, comfortable world, it can be easy to forget the immense benefits of fear.
Let me clarify that by fear, I don’t mean the spine-tingling fear associated with horror movies or true danger. I mean that moment of breathlessness felt at the base of the Alpine Tower, looking up. I mean the bottom dropping out of your stomach when you’re about to go down the Nantahala Falls in a raft. I mean the way a heart can clench in nervousness when you’re stepping out of the car on Opening Day. I mean the way a tongue can tie itself up in knots when meeting new friends.
I mean the true discomfort, the adventure, of being utterly outside of your comfort zone.
Here at camp, we live outside of the comfort zone. We brush our teeth in sinks shaped like troughs, we live in cabins with screens instead of windows, we try new things each and every day that seem crazy and terrifying. We push ourselves, in a safe environment, to challenge ourselves, grow, and find new limits to our bravery.
And yes, this can be scary. It can be terrifying. But it can also be a transformative experience. That fear can precede the moment in which a girl decides that she wants to spend the rest of her life paddling, rock climbing, or even just putting herself out there and trying new things. That fear can precede a moment of true growth.
My zip lining buddy grew that day. I knew it the moment she flung herself off onto the final zip line—the longest and fastest zip line. I heard her scream out in joy, and saw her smiling hugely as she went zooming away. She met me on the other side (after my own breathless ride), with her cheeks flushed, and her smile undiminished.
With so much going on at camp and with so many people involved, all simultaneously, it’s astonishing to add it all up. While some girls are screaming as they fly by on the zipline, others are silently stretching into yoga poses listening to quiet flute music. As floor looms click back and forth slowing revealing their weaving patterns, pottery wheels spin splattering mud when a bowl forms in the exact center. One girl rides a horse and another the water slide. Campers shoot bows and arrows, as well as .22 caliber rifles. They hit tennis balls with rackets and volleyballs with their fists. As some girls tie a figure-eight into their kernmantle climbing rope, others tie embroidery floss into square knots to make a friendship bracelet. Campers are leaping off the diving board into the lake, while others are jumping on the mini tramp to flip in gymnastics. With plenty of tie dyes, paints, markers, and glitter, we have an army of girls happy to add color to just about anything. In these ways and others, camp is an energetic mass of movement, and an awesome swarm of smiling busy girls.
Have you written a letter or sent an email or two to your daughter? Here’s some info about the addresses and such, but it’s worth repeating that receiving mail is a big deal at camp. After lunch and just before the girls return to their cabins for Rest Hour, everyone checks their mailboxes. Seeing a card, letter or folded piece of paper (a printed email) is always a nice surprise, and it’s the perfect inspiration for writing a response home! In your letters, tell your girls how you’re proud of what they’re accomplishing at camp, sprinkled with some encouragement to try new things. Pass along lighthearted, upbeat news from home, while trying not to dwell on what she’s missing while away or how much you miss her. Maybe include one of these kid-friendly jokes written by our own Sofie Ehlinger. Do you know why the pig was red, for example? He was out all day BACON in the sun! Here is some more good advice about how to write to your kids at camp. In the end, “Just write!”
“Hey Middlers! Hey Seniors! Do you want to go whitewater rafting?” That was the question we asked all of the girls on those lines, and perhaps predictably, about 90% of them said “yes,” with some choosing to do even more by camping overnight at Rockbrook’s Nantahala Outpost. These overnight rafting girls drove over on Monday night and had a great time eating dinner, making ‘smores over a campfire, goofing around in the platform cabins (with a package of glow sticks for each cabin making it even cooler), and simply enjoying this “middle of nowhere” campsite. The next morning, the girls hit the water under bright sunny skies, the perfect weather for a trip down the icy Nantahala river. For several of these Middlers it was their first time rafting, yet almost immediately, even before the first named rapid, they were laughing and squealing with delight. The Nantahala provides a nice balance of thrilling rapids with sizable waves and calm spots in the river where the girls can splash each other and even jump out for a brief swim.
I was able to take a little video as a few of our rafts came through the final rapid, the Nantahala Falls (or “Lesser Wesser” as some call it). Have a look and you can see why rafting is HUGE fun!
Our afternoon group of rafters, which was primarily Seniors this time, likewise had an excellent adventure trip with hot sunny weather, and just as much high-pitched fun.
When we all arrived back at camp, a special event dinner was ramping up, a jungle/animal themed meal we called “A Night at the Zoo.” This was a fun opportunity to dress like your favorite animal and have a dinner party singing jungle and animal songs. So tonight we had an entire table of cats, a few butterflies, a squid, a platypus, bears, a turtle, several bunnies, a pink panther (Director Sarah!), and a whole school of fish enjoying a meal together. Hamburgers, sweet potato fries, salad and watermelon with chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert… yummy and fun!
After dinner, during our “Twilight” period of free time (before the start of “Evening Program”), several counselors held a “pet show” on the hill where different girls could show off their “pets.” There were dog tricks, and a super strong rabbit, but the funniest was the gorilla who could do cartwheels. It was all pretty silly stuff, and as that, really great as well.
As the sun began to set far off across the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, the lyric painted on the dining hall poster during dinner tonight seemed all the more apt: “But the sun rolling high… Through the sapphire sky… Keeps great and small on the endless round.”
One of the best epiphanies that happens at camp is when a young girl discovers her creative side, when she realizes that she can be artistic, imaginative and make wonderful things. Camp provides daily encouragement and opportunities to experiment with arts and crafts, to be bold and expressive using all kinds of physical media. At Rockbrook this means working with soft clay, yarns and fibers, threads, paint and ink, dyes, cloth, leather, wood and beads. Lately, the arts instructors have presented some pretty cool projects giving everyone something new to try. Girls are rolling out slabs of clay and pressing patterns made from scraps of lace. They’re sewing buttons and pieces of yarn to make sock puppets. With baskets of colorful thread, they’re learning about weft and warp, knit and pearl, back and half stitches. Blending melted crayons and thick black ink on paper, they’re creating bold multimedia designs. There’s incredible satisfaction here because your girls are seeing real results from their creative efforts. It’s showing them that amazing things can happen, far beyond what they might first expect, if they step out and trust their creative abilities. What a great lesson for later in life, no matter what their eventual calling!
Today has also been filled with outdoor adventure trips, with girls and their instructors hiking, kayaking and climbing nearby forests, rivers and rocks.
The Hi-Ups (16 year-olds) took a “Hunger Games Hike” into the Dupont State Forest to visit a couple of sites where scenes from the recent movie were filmed. We scrambled up and over rocks to get the best view of Triple Falls, snapping pictures all the way. Feeling the cool spray at the bottom of a 100-foot waterfall while standing in bright warm sunshine is quite a feeling!
A group of kayakers spent the morning, and another the afternoon, paddling the French Broad River with superstar instructors Andria and Leland. They chose a great introductory section to practice ferrying (crossing the current from one side of the river to the other) and catching eddies (pulling into calm sections of the river, downstream from obstacles), both important whitewater kayaking skills. Reports back at camp were all positive and brimming with excitement.
Two groups of Middlers, meanwhile, spent the morning or afternoon activity periods rock climbing up on Castle Rock. There are six routes available up there and today the girls hopped on the two named “Shazam” and “Wham,” two of the more challenging options, each requiring both face and crack climbing techniques, as well as some real strength in steep spots. But boy can these girls climb! They may have slowed down to figure out a complex series of moves, maybe tried a tricky section more than once, but for the most part the girls scampered right up the 75-foot climbs. At the top, a fantastic view of the French Broad River valley is the reward, as well as the satisfaction of surmounting the challenges of the climb. When climbing, it can take real grit and concentration to forget how high up you are, and real muscle and balance to reach each handhold. These girls have got it all, and it shows!
Tonight we had a Disney-themed dinner where posters and other decorations transformed the dining hall and the campers and counselors dressed up like Disney characters (loosely interpreted- camp versions). Here too, creativity fueled the enthusiasm for dressing up. Using face paint, borrowed items of clothing, goofy hairstyles, and a few accessories, like “Mickey Ears,” we ate with various super heroes, princesses, a mermaid, a chipmunk, a chef, and a few bears. These Rockbrook girls love to dress up- “just for the fun of it.” They love the feeling of being silly, laughing their heads off with each other, posing and singing as loud as they can. It’s just their wonderful exuberance coming out in creative colorful ways.
During one of the many tours of Rockbrook we’ve been giving lately, a parent asked an excellent question. “What do you look for when hiring counselors?” It’s really an important thing to ask, and it’s something we think about a lot, all year round, in fact. We know that our counselors are certainly role models for the campers, but also friends, teammates, sisters and moms to the girls as well. The first thing we look for in a counselor is simply an enthusiastic, energetic, friendly young (high school graduate or older) woman who loves children. The best counselors are naturally “kid people.” They have an innate ability to connect with children, to listen to them, and communicate with them authentically. This allows them to become really good friends and to forge great trusting relationships with the campers. Of course, this makes camp fun and rewarding for everyone, camper and counselor alike. Even more specifically, another trait we look for in counselors, among many others, is a confident sense of adventure. This describes someone who isn’t scared to branch out and try new things, who is generally up beat and positive even when faced with the unknown or when something isn’t going exactly right (Raining? “No big deal! Let’s sing some rain songs…!”) Having a confident sense of adventure means being resilient, flexible, creative and improvisational. See how those are great qualities, and something that makes a wonderful role model for girls? There really is a lot of that going around at RBC.
This year we are having the jewelry making activity meet on the porch of the hillside stone lodge. This porch, which is made of rough-sawed, oak planks, overlooks the lake and at the right spot, has a view of the mountains in the distance. There are a few rocking chairs out there and a big table with benches for the girls to use as they tie friendship bracelets, twist wire, string beads and weave necklaces. It’s a beautiful setting to spend time learning new friendship bracelet techniques (like that toe-tie!), and naturally just talking and laughing about nothing in particular. 🙂
If you’ve ever tried to throw a pot on the wheel, you know that it’s not easy. It takes great patience to learn because there are so many ways a spinning ball of clay can crumple, wobble or even fly off the wheel. Everything can be going great, perfectly centered, and then suddenly your nice bowl collapses and it’s back to square one. All of this makes it such a victory, a moment of pride, when a camper successfully throws something on the wheel, especially the first time.
The Hi-Ups took an exciting trip into the Pisgah Forest this afternoon, stopping first at Looking Glass Falls. This is one of the most well-known waterfalls in this area, partly because it’s about 60-feet tall, but also because it’s easily seen from the main road. We came ready to swim, so after walking down to base, all of us swam through the pool and the spray just past where the water was crashing down. A few of the girls ventured closer to let some of the water smack them on the back, but it looked a little intense, if not painful, so there weren’t many takers. The cold mountain water and the roar of the falls was enough for most of us. Back in the buses, it was then just a short trip further to reach the Pounding Mill overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of our favorite stopping spots up there. It’s 4700 feet up (Rockbrook’s elevation is about 2350 ft) and provides a grand view of Looking Glass Rock below, a popular rock climbing destination. By the time we arrived it was getting near dinner time and there was a stop at Dolly’s in the plan as well, so today we came just for the view and a quick group picture. It’s always nice to get a little altitude!
Camp is an adventure! It is because it gets girls outside for all kinds of exciting activities. Climb high up a real rock! Paddle a raft down through whitewater rapids. Sleep in the woods far from the “comforts of home.” These, and other outdoor activities, are just plain thrilling.
But why is that? What makes something a thrilling “adventure?”
The answer might be a little surprising, but it actually boils down to danger. It’s true; an adventure activity always carries a degree of risk. It’s an activity where we “take a risk in the hope of a favorable outcome” (as my dictionary puts it). So for example, rock climbing includes the risk of falling. Whitewater boating has the risk of capsizing, and when camping in the wilderness there’s always a chance of horrible weather (among other things!).
But of course adventure isn’t about getting hurt or experiencing some disaster (there’s safety training and equipment to help with that). It’s about avoiding danger despite the threat of it. Adventure is about overcoming the difficulty and conquering the fear associated with an activity.
Adventure activities are thrilling because we can actually do them despite the risk. Through our own efforts, applying specialized knowledge and skills, we succeed in the face of possible failure. Sure it might be a struggle, but it feels great. Yes, an adventure activity can be difficult, but also really exciting to face it and win!
Being at Rockbrook provides so many great ways to be adventurous, opportunities to try activities that may look a little scary, but then with the right instruction, encouragement and role models, to also manage the risks and cope beautifully with the challenges involved. Very cool stuff!
Part of the adventure program at Rockbrook is whitewater kayaking. It teaches girls the important safety and paddling skills to enjoy this great outdoor activity. Summer adventure camps in this area are a great places to learn about whitewater kayaking.
OK, but what is that thing she’s wearing? Well, it’s not a new fashion statement in bathing suits. It’s a kayaking spray skirt, and it’s one of the most important bits of equipment in this adventure (as is the boat, paddle, helmet and PFD). Most whitewater spray skirts are made of soft neoprene. They are designed to fit tightly about the paddler and around the rim (“coaming”) of the kayak’s opening (“cockpit”)… not too tight and not too loose. It’s purpose is to keep water out of the boat when paddling, but especially when rolling back up after a flipping. You can imagine that the skirt, which is like a little wetsuit for your middle, also helps keep you warm boating through a chilly mountain river. They feel a little funny when you first try one on, but also pretty cool since it’s such an adventure sort of thing to wear.
Learning to kayak at summer camp is great fun, even if you’ve never tried it before. We’ll help you each step of the way, provide all the equipment (yep, even the spray skirt!), and cheer for you as you get better and better. You’ll be smiling too!