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Upper Cherry Creek has been a bucket list river for me since I first started kayaking nearly ten years ago. With long granite slides, committing canyons, and remote, awe-inspiring beauty, who wouldn’t dream of hiking themselves miles and miles into the high-sierra wilderness with a fully loaded boat on their back? In early August of this year, I was given the chance to realize this dream with an all time crew. I knew this trip, being my first Sierra overnight, would present me with plenty of opportunities for growth, and holy… was I right. As I’ve said plenty of times before: there’s always a learning opportunity to be had out there, some more obvious than others. What follows are five things I learned from some of the more obvious opportunities on Upper Cherry. I hope in sharing them I can help some of you keep your eyes peeled for opportunities of your own, maybe saving you some of the trouble of figuring it out yourself along the way.

Lesson One: Invest.

In everything. No matter how big or small. Whether it’s a new paddle or a high quality pair of hiking socks, the money is almost always well spent. In the setting of remote expeditions like high sierra whitewater trips, I would argue the money is absolutely always well spent. On our trek into Upper Cherry, I felt, viscerally, every piece of cheap gear that I’d brought. My thin socks were an obvious oversight, as was the inexpensive (but large and heavy) cook set I chose. If my feet weren’t so busy carrying all the extra weight up and over a mountain, I would have literally kicked myself for not dropping a few extra bucks on more lightweight supplies and comfortable layers.

Lesson Two: Air isn’t weightless.

Nor is it shapeless, at least not when it’s trapped inside a dry bag with 15 pounds of other gear and clothing. It wasn’t until I was loading my dry bags back into the stern of my Gnarvana the morning after the hike that I had the bright idea to suck some air out of them before continuing downstream. Not only did this make the bags slide more easily into the back of the boat, it also made the entire setup ever so slightly (but noticeably) lighter. A liter of air weighs almost 1.3 grams, and if both of your 20 liter dry bags hold 15 liters of gear, you could eliminate 13 whole grams from your pack by removing excess air! Okay… Okay, I admit that this is hilariously negligible in the grand scheme of things. But if nothing else, I felt better knowing that my boat was *technically* a little lighter than it was before.

Lesson Three: Get back to the basics.

Paddling a loaded boat is an entirely different game. I was blown away by the Gnarvana’s performance with gear behind the seat, but that’s not to say there wasn’t a learning curve to get over initially. I found that the Gnarvana’s edges were just as responsive as ever, but that the added weight (and subsequent added momentum) made it much more difficult to change the boat’s trajectory with paddle strokes alone. I usually find myself relying heavily on bow draws for minor angle adjustments, but they were of little use to me with the extra mass. Instead, I used the ol’ tried-and-true sweep stroke with much greater success. I noticed the same with boofing: I used more flat boofs, letting the rocker of the boat do the work rather than trying to throw the boat on edge to get the bow up.

Lesson Four: Eat. Constantly.

Obviously, drinking water is important too. But one thing I noticed early on was that I simply could not put enough calories in my body. On the recommendation of my dear friend Kiira (who had just completed the women’s FKT on Mt. Rainier’s Infinity Loop), I jammed the pockets of my hiking pants and PFD with as many snacks as possible. Kiira told me the snacks I brought should consist of things I’d want to eat even if I didn’t feel hungry, as the nature of pushing yourself to physical extremes tends to pull focus from normal bodily functions like food and fluid intake. She was right, I didn’t want to eat, but as the adventure churned on I could feel my muscles desperately reaching into my bloodstream for nutrients, sometimes in vain. The only way to keep my energy up was to constantly have a snack in my hand, even if it was only to chew a few times and swallow, like a pill, with a gulp of water.

Lesson Five: Not all battles are mental.

That’s not to say that bullish, wild determination isn’t important for an 8+ mile suffer fest. There were plenty of moments, trudging straight up a sweltering granite ridge or cutting my legs as I slid downhill through manzanita, that I felt my motivation dwindling, escaping my body with every heavy exhale. That’s the beauty, however, of determination. You can have absolutely zero motivation to keep going, and still pull from this animalistic drive to finish what you started. That being said, determination will get you only so far. In the face of physical illness, of injury, of malnourishment, there comes a point where your determination to push through only puts yourself – and the rest of your group – more in harm’s way. You MUST listen to your body. It will tell you when you’ve gone too far or when embarking on a potentially savage mission isn’t a good idea in the first place. Making the call to remove yourself from a dream adventure is never easy, but having the forethought to determine whether or not a certain battle is truly one of mental fortitude can save the trip for everyone involved. We encountered illness on our trip. Early on, during the hike, one of our team became suddenly and violently sick, but insisted on continuing on with the rest of the group. We were all aware that the sudden nature of their ailment, coupled with our steady progress deeper and deeper into the wilderness, was a terrible combination. I can understand the desperation to try pushing through, especially for a world-class river like Upper Cherry. But logic dictated that continuing on for this person was overly optimistic at best, naively stubborn at worst. Eventually, the remaining five crew members made the call, leaving me with an unpleasant conversation to be had. I sat with this person and laid it out: we were less than a quarter of the way through the hike, staring down the barrel of the steepest and most challenging part, with daylight fading and a hell of a lot of class V to paddle the next day. Finally, they agreed, but having already overexerted themselves in such a vulnerable state, they were too weak to get themselves back up the trail to the truck alone. Another team member agreed to sacrifice his trip for the sake of the rest of ours, tragically abandoning the opportunity to check the box he’d sought to for so long. All this to say, being able to recognize the potential peril of a situation before it develops is a class V skill, one that’s absolutely necessary in order to safely operate on these types of adventures. Take a second to check in with yourself, and to be honest with everybody involved. Call yourself out if things are feeling off. Recognize the impact that your own limitations could have on the rest of the group. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but it could make all the difference in the success and safety of the trip overall.