By Amber Marra
For the last two months, the Wet Planet base has been swarming with groups upon groups of some amazing American heroes who are ready to get their feet wet in the Pacific Northwest-literally.
Wet Planet started working with the Ft Lewis McChord military base by getting soldiers out on the White Salmon River in 2006 through the base’s outdoor recreation center, but in 2009 along came an amazing program called Warrior Adventure Quest.
Wet Planet helped pilot the US Army’s Warrior Adventure Quest that year and since then the program has helped reintroduce soldiers who recently returned from deployment back to civilian life through recreational activities like skiing, snowboarding, paintball and, of course, whitewater rafting.
That made for an exciting start to the season in April and May here at Wet Planet.
At a recent pre-trip orientation briefing, nervous laughter filled the front of the Wet Planet base as trip leader John Abercrombie briefed a group of Ft. Lewis soldiers on what to expect out on the river, including the glacier-fed water.
“The water in the White Salmon is about as cold as water in rivers gets,” Abercrombie explained to the group, most of which gave the soldier to the left or right a mischievous shove at the thought of plunging into the clear water.
Later on as everyone strutted around the base in their blue, yellow and black wetsuits, helmets, PFDs and booties, one soldier could be heard saying “We look like members of the Blue Man Group!”
Jokes aside, as the five boats of soldiers slid into the White Salmon everyone was all business when it came to working with each other to get down the river. Tobias Johansson, a Wet Planet guide who regularly takes Ft. Lewis groups down the White Salmon, says getting out on the water is beneficial to the soldiers in more ways than one.
“They always seem very excited to be here. ‘Crazy things’ like jumping off the bridge is huge for them, but besides the fun factor, the whole rafting experience is a good way to get back to normal life and channel their adrenaline in a positive way,” Johansson said.
Johansson, who has leadership experience with the Swedish military, was on the same May 13th trip as Abercrombie. His boat of soldiers could be seen running Rattlesnake rapid as all five yelled “Stroke! Stroke!” in unison while they barreled through the whitewater.
Michael Enriquez, 23, was one of the soldiers in that boat. Like the rest of the group, Enriquez just got back from a nine-month tour in Afghanistan three months ago.
After getting outfitted with all of his gear, Enriquez was ready for that 42-degree water his trip leader told him about.
“I get excited about everything and I’m ready to jump off that bridge,”
Enriquez said, referring to the bridge spanning the White Salmon that so many rafters hurdle off of regularly. “I guess I’m an adrenaline addict.”
Our base staff can always tell when the time comes for the soldiers to plummet off the bridge followed by “riding the bull” through Rattle Snake Rapid, by the hoots and hollers that carry across the road in Husum. We’re into it. After all, where’s the fun in using your inside voice while watching your buddies leap 30 feet into a wild river?
After running Rattlesnake and finishing out their eight-mile adventure down the White Salmon, the Ft. Lewis groups meet back at the base for a delicious BBQ before heading home.
Zach Lee, a 23-year-old who kayaked Alabama’s Class III and IV Terrapin Creek growing up, said he wishes he had more time to get out on the river now that he’s back stateside.
“It was awesome getting back to normal and doing something I haven’t done in a really, really long time,” Lee said.
Amber Marra is a reservation specialist living the dream at Wet Planet.