2nd Place 2014

I forced myself to look at the rushing water below my feet. White and unforgiving, the water had no way to see past the swirling surface. In the back of my mind, I recalled the line of people waiting behind me, but the thought was drowned out by the roar of the small waterfall before me. Of course this had to be the one obstacle where I had somehow ended up in the front of the line and would be forced to be the first student to test this route. I knew I could trust my guide, but that did not erase the fact that I was perched on a slippery rock, shivering and scared.

How did I get here? In my freshman year of high school, I found myself on a school retreat a few hours away from home. The Rock-N-Water campsite was located on the American River, a place where my peers and I would get to experience white water rafting one day and team bonding within our grade the next. On this particular day, we had traveled in our musty school vans to get dropped off on the side of the road, soon leading to a hike down the side of a canyon. After learning we were about to embark on the adventure of canyoneering, some of us were nervous, but all were excited. We started off on our adventure, and after many grueling hours of jumping off cliffs into murky water, swimming through spider-filled caves, and squeezing through narrow spaces between the rocks, we arrived at a stopping point.

Our guide explained the next obstacle to my group as we stood in waist-deep water with some rocks overhead. We looked ahead and could spot the rock which he was describing, realizing we would have to swim under it. This rock was partly submerged in the water, coming to a point one foot beneath the swirling surface. There was no one around but our small group of 15 students. I felt as if everything had led up to this one moment, although in reality we were not even halfway through our eight-hour journey.

As I focused in on the directions, I could hear my guide encouraging me as I prepared to go under into the waterfall. As soon as I managed to push myself far enough down to pass under the point created by the rock, panic started to set in when I thought my helmet got stuck. For a few frightening seconds, I felt trapped underwater with no escape route and that was terrifying as it seemed like a possible life-death scenario. Although, in the back of my head I knew I would be safe. I gathered my bearings and somehow managed to guide my helmet past the submerged rock and out to the other side. Luckily, a staff member who had gone a few minutes before me was there to help me out of the water and onto the treacherously mossy rocks.

A Rock-N-Water guide leads the way under a boulder in Billy Goat Canyon.

After I watched a few of my other classmates travel under the rock the same way I had, I remembered a certain statement my guide had said during our safety talk: “If you are only here because your school is making you, that is all you are going to get out of this experience.” It struck me that if I was not in the moment and willing to try seemingly scary things, I was not going to learn anything from this crazy, once-in-a-lifetime trip. Although going into the waterfall and under a rock was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life, through this I found a new sense of accomplishment and pride to replace the fear. For the rest of the way through the canyon, I was a fixture as one of the few brave people in the front, curious and ready to explore.

Throughout this whole process, I learned that whether I have fun or not in an activity is all based on the attitude that I have. If I am always one of the people thinking about the negative or worrisome aspects, I am not going to find joy in the little things and be an optimistic person. Life is always going to be challenging, but I have learned to appreciate the process and take on life with a positive attitude, ready for whatever is thrown at me.

By Katie Mehuys about her high school retreat – 3rd place winner for the 2018 Writing Contest