Veterans find camaraderie, healing, in Cataract Canyon
by Laura Haley
Contributing Writer
Jun 05, 2014 | 910 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A group of female military veterans relax at camp during the first-ever women-only Warriors on Cataract trip. The event’s organizer, Fred Solheim, said the all-women gathering completely exceeded his expectations. Courtesy photo
A group of female military veterans relax at camp during the first-ever women-only Warriors on Cataract trip. The event’s organizer, Fred Solheim, said the all-women gathering completely exceeded his expectations. Courtesy photo
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The military veterans who met at the Best Western Canyonlands Inn Thursday night, May 29, were subdued. As they listened to a debriefing on the upcoming Cataract Canyon raft trip, which would launch the next day, conversation was hushed.

The gathering of men and women was one of four groups to travel through Cataract Canyon this year under the guidance of Fred Solheim of Denver, and a number of local businesses.

Four years ago, Solheim took his first group of disabled veterans on a four-day rafting trip after being inspired by the story of a quadruple amputee who had learned to ski within months of his accident.

“I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’d like to take him down the river,’” Solheim said.

He partnered with Tag-A-Long expeditions, and they took 17 veterans down the river that inaugural year. Each year, Solheim has looked for ways to expand and reach out to more veterans. Last year, two groups made the trip.

“During [this] winter I was thinking that taking 50 guys down the river is great,” he said. “But it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the 8,000 that die each year by their own hand.”

This year, Solheim expanded the “Warriors on Cataract” program to include four separate launches. Two were open to all disabled veterans, one trip, outfitted by OARS, was specifically for members of the military Special Forces, and one was a women-only trip.

Solheim said he came up with the idea for a all-women trip after he realized that very few women had signed up for the other Warriors on Cataract events.

“A lot of women have been raped or assaulted by males soldiers,” he said. “A lot of them don’t want to be around male soldiers.”

On May 12, Solheim and 21 female veterans launched from the Potash boat ramp near Moab, accompanied by an almost entirely female support crew from Western River Expeditions. Solheim said the trip far exceeded his expectations.

“The gains and bonding and mutual support and healing [among] the all woman raft trip was very significant,” he said.

The group included several women from the Denver area, who plan to get together for monthly hikes and a gardening club, he said.

This year, Randall Steiger of Cheyenne, Wyo., was on board for the Warriors on Cataract May 30 launch, once again outfitted by Tag-A-Long. It was his second time down the river with the group.

“I went on this trip last year, and it changed my life for the better,” he said. “I made some really lifelong connections.”

Steiger said that he still meets with several of the people he met on last year’s trip. “It’s something special,” he said. “I really can’t say enough good about it.”

Kimberly Aquino of Colorado Springs, Colo., was participating in her first trip with the group. Although she’d been boating before, she’d never rafted water as big as Cataract.

“The rapids were good,” she said after the group returned to Moab on June 2. “We had great food and great guides.”

As the group met for a final dinner at Zax on June 2, gone were the hushed whispers from the pre-launch gathering. Everyone laughed as they shared tales of the paddleboat that flipped over going into Big Drop Two.

“It was something that was always on the bucket list,” Tina Cravener of Cheyenne, Wyo., said. She and her husband Randy were on the trip as support crew from the Cheyenne Veterans Administration Hospital.

“It was top notch,” Randy Cravener said. “You can go out camping and have chicken cordon bleu.”

Ray Surprenant laughed as he said that he deserved an award for falling in the water the most.

“The trip was phenomenal,” Steiger said.

He pointed out how much more open everyone seemed since the first night.

“I was kind of looking for it this year after being on the trip last year,” he said. “It’s really something.”

Steiger said he hopes to be invited to go on the trip again next year.

Karl Hubberstey was one of three veterans who traveled internationally to take part in the trip. Traveling from Scotland, Hubbersey said the rapids in Cataract Canyon scared him at first.

“The first day we hit the rapids, I was frightened to death,” he said. “By the second day we hit them, it didn’t bother me.”

Though Hubberstey hadn’t met the other two British veterans until they ran into each other at the airport, they quickly became friends.

“Now we’re thick as thieves,” he said. “It’s just amazing ... I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.”

Solheim said the rafting trips are made easier by the willingness of local businesses to take part. River outfitters OARS and Western River Expeditions each guided one trip, while Tag-A-Long will guide two. The Best Western Canyonlands Inn provided rooms, giving the group a chance to explore downtown Moab.

The group has also received food and accommodations from Red Cliffs Lodge and the Moab VFW and Elks Club, Solheim said.

“The guys from NAVTEC even took one of the British soldiers on a four-wheel-drive trip,” he said.

“When you have these outfitters and hotels that will jump in and help, you want to maximize the good you can do,” he said. “It fell together so nicely. The outfitters and hotels around here don’t hesitate.”

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