Jen Carman: My KEEN Story

I go to the water to put my mind at rest, find adventure, or merely to listen to the waves lapping at the shore. This is the place where I find peace, adrenaline and see amazing places. The frequency of these encounters waxes and wanes with the changes in my life, but I am always thinking about the water. It’s because I miss it so much when I cannot go that I know my love is real.

It all started when I was seven years old. My mom was out on a “ladies only” raft trip and my dad and I were camping along the river waiting for them at the take out. On the last day of the trip, we caught up with the ladies on the river and it was decided that I could join for the last two hours. The lifejacket was carefully buckled up my chest and I was given a brief safety talk. “Hold on tight, have fun, and if you fall out, stay on your back until someone can grab you.” I got in the boat and as soon as we pushed off the bank, I knew that this was FUN! The water moved under the boat and I could feel it ripple under the rubber floor. Then came the first rapid: a sweet little roller with lots of splashing! With my face dripping with water and a smile beaming across my face, I couldn’t stop giggling. Then we came to the next rapid, a corner turn with a drop and a huge boulder. We blindly rounded the corner and dropped in. A huge wave crested the bow over my head, I was tossed around a bit, and even more giggling ensued. I was hooked. Every summer from then on out, I was on the boat for at least three weekends — sometimes even weeks at a time.

As the years passed, my dad taught me how to row. At first I would just sit next to him on the cooler with one oar and he would talk about the way the water moved and how to read it — why that wave crested that way, why the bubble line went this way, or how the little ripples showed what was going on under the surface. At 14, I was rowing the whole river. What a rush! Right before a drop, the river usually pools and slows. It is in this moment that I get butterflies in my stomach. The adrenaline kicks in and my mind is sharply focused on what to do next. I crave this moment. Then the water speeds up and the boat dives down into the trough. The waves kick up and my whole body is filled with joy.

During my freshman year of college, I decided to go through guide school. For three months from February through April, my weekdays were about studying and my weekends were entirely about the water. We learned about cold weather boating, guiding, following directions, rescues, knots, safety, z-drags and toured Oregon’s best white water. After that spring, my dad and I decided to raft at least once every month for a year. We even rowed in the snow with accumulation on our vests during the winter. We would talk, float in silence, and watch the banks drift by. These are some of my favorite memories of my dad — our bonding space. We still go out, but that year was my favorite.

A few years later my whole family went on the pinnacle trip for any boater: the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. This is some of the biggest and best whitewater in the United States. It is also the hardest to get a permit for with most waiting 20+ years to pull one! My dad went the entire 21 days and my mom, sister and I hiked down 10 miles halfway through. For 14 days, we floated raft, took day hikes up amazing trails few get to walk on, and slept under the stars. Those hve been two of the best weeks of my life.

The last several years I have continued to row whitewater, but have since found additional ways to experience the water. I’ve paddled the San Juan Islands, hopping from one to the next and camping in places few people even know exist. I retreat to the family summer houses on the east end of Long Island and just listen to the waves roll up the beach and I paddleboard around the harbor. I take my kayak out on the Willamette on a sunny Friday afternoon and finish up emails on the beaches of Ross Island. I have learned that it is the water I dream about when I want to have an adventure, play, reflect and rest.

When I think about the years I have spent rafting, I cherish the memories and talks that my dad and I had, just us out on the water talking about life, hydrology, and growing up, the good times and the bad, the swims, the rescues, the flips, and the damaged gear. I think about all the days my sister and I took out a raft when it was just the waves and us, the amazing dinners my mom would cook out in the desert, and all the times we would connect and talk. I think about all the trails I have hiked and the special moments that were created by just being out there when no one else was. It is the creation of these memories that lasts and why I continue to venture out on the water. Always the water.

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First raft trip! Deschutes River, 1985

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Kayaking the Willamette River

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Paddleboard, Napegue Harbor

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Rafting the Rogue River