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Waves and Water Levels

The edge of Noah's Ark property is an excellent Arkansas River entry point.
The edge of Noah's Ark property is an excellent Arkansas River entry point. © 2011 Audra L. Gibson

The rush of rapids next to my trailer lulls me to sleep after long days. The water level rises and falls, but in less of a rhythm than the ocean’s tides. I can watch the ebb and flow marked with water lines on rocks, but it is less predictable than the daily highs and lows the sea brings. The salt is missing from the water’s scent. The blue hue isn’t there. But the white capping bubbles roll over themselves the same. I can sit and watch the rushing of wave upon wave and forget if i’m near the Atlantic Ocean or the Arkansas River.


I’ve been pummeled and swallowed up trying to ride waves on Folly Beach, forgetting to respect the water’s power. The Arkansas River has also had its fair share of time spent tumbling me. I’ve flown out of rafts and lost my breath in the 40 degree rush ushering me downstream. It's a different body of water, but the mystery and the lure of the liquid is the same.

Water is significant in so many ways. We are made up of water. We thirst for it. We clean with it. We pay more just to sleep near it or build by it. Why water? Why do I journey miles from home just to take part in its rhythm? Why is its power so terrifying and simultaneously fascinating? Charleston’s culture is one of water. And this mountain valley I’ve come to call home mirrors it-save for the salt.

When the Highway 17 Crosstown floods and hurricane winds blow up the beach in the Carolinas, it might be hard to imagine what a drought experience is like. When you’ve spent most of your life enjoying the excess of water, suddenly conserving water comes as a shock. When College of Charleston kids can kayak through the Market, it's hard to wrap your mind around a bunch of kayakers with no water to paddle in. It's been a bizarre transition to go from sea level with plenty of waves to spare, to living at 8,000 feet of elevation, worrying if there will be enough water for my livelihood as a whitewater guide.


Noah's Ark Whitewater Rafting, Browns Canyon, Colorado

2012 brought a drought to the Arkansas River Valley, rocking the stability of the rafting companies that litter the river bank. It was humbling and exciting, because as much as I think I am in control (especially as a guide who needs to be in control), I am not. The snow that falls, or doesn’t fall, all winter long determines what the river will do. The rate at which it melts determines how long I live in the valley and am employed. Coming into the 2013 season, there was anxiety and fear of a repeat year. But snowy nights in May paid off, and the river flow has been steadier than predicted by the winter snowpack.


Rafting on the Arkansas River with Audra and Phillip Gibson, guided by Leah Andersen.

Bouncing back from a drought and once again rolling in the river’s rapids has brought a new appreciation for such a simple, natural thing. I always took for granted the river and the ocean that tear through wind or over rocks, teaching me to navigate my boat or board. As I fall asleep, with enough water to keep me afloat this season, I am thankful for the returned rhythm. The ripple effect of a drought brought fear, yes, but also a depth of thankfulness for something so simple. 

Leah Andersen

Leah Andersen is a chaser of words and adventure. She recently moved from Charleston to Buena Vista, CO where she spends her time climbing mountains, rafting rivers, and selling gear to outdoor types who do the same. She loves the Lord and being on the water (whether she is steering a raft on the Arkansas River or paddling a surfboard in the Atlantic Ocean). She smells like frankincense and can be commonly found singing off key. She makes a mean Guacamole, and is ready to share some of her adventures and thoughts on life with you. 

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