Awestruck: The Healing Power of the River


A velvety breeze tickled my face and ruffled my hair as I walked to the edge of the boat ramp and slowly waded calf-deep into the Snake River. The normally teeming ramp was silent under the star-strewn sky. I had a rare moment to myself to feel the gentle currents of the water on my feet, take in the unseasonably warm evening and unwind.

The Snake was the river of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories involve scampering along her banks, squelching handfuls of sand and squealing with delight when the stoneflies skittered out from overturned rocks. The Snake was where I learned to fly fish, where I learned to row, and the first stretch of whitewater I ran. Now I was lapping this stretch of river five times a day as a commercial raft guide. Some of the wonder I had always felt for it had been swallowed by the flow of the revolving door of clients, hasty boat loading, and speed shuttle runs to do it all again. But tonight, as the laughter of my friends and fellow guides wafted down the ramp toward me, I felt that old flutter.

As we pushed off from the ramp, the full moon crested the rocky spines of the canyon, bathing the river in an ethereal glow. We navigated the familiar bends and boulders with ease in the iridescent light. The only sounds were the gentle gurgling of the river and the quiet echo of our voices. The cool night air and the splash of waves on my skin felt rejuvenating after a long day of entertaining strangers. I let my thoughts and worries melt away and felt myself sink into the rhythm of the river. The towering cliffs overhead shone brilliantly in the moonlight. As I basked in the grandeur in front of me, I felt that swooping feeling in my chest from being truly present in a beautiful natural setting: a sense of awe.

Awe is a unique combination of wonder and gratitude that leaves the beholder with a sense of deep peace and contentment. It’s the reverence we feel when we gaze out over a vast mountain horizon or witness the sunlight glinting on the water at golden hour. It produces an acknowledgment of something greater than ourselves beyond complete comprehension.

This curious emotion and its relationship with the natural world has recently caught the eye of scientists trying to understand how spending time in nature leads to a happier, healthier life. Researchers at Cal Berkeley wanted to measure the impact of experiences in nature on symptoms of PTSD and stress in military veterans and youth from underserved communities. How did they manage this? They took them whitewater rafting.

Following the trip, the study participants were asked to keep a rafting diary in which they recorded varying levels of six different position emotions experienced throughout the trip: amusement, contentment, gratitude, pride, joy, and awe. They also completed pre-trip and post-trip surveys quantifying satisfaction with life, mental health, perceived stress, and PTSD symptoms.

The positive impact of the trip on these measures of well-being was significant even a week after the whitewater experiences. Of the six emotions studied, the one that statistically correlated to changes in well-being was awe. What I felt underneath the moonlit cliffs, my amazement and gratitude for the river, has a real and lasting effect on our ability to find peace, contentment, and resilience.

As a raft guide and a medical student, the research findings of this study got me thinking about the unique position we hold as outdoor guides. Inadvertently, we act as “nature therapists” to our clients by providing these experiences that allow them to feel awe in all its splendor.

I’m not suggesting that dirtbag, greasy-haired, BO-infused river guides have know-how equal to licensed therapists and health professionals. But if the healing power of nature described in this study, and verified by personal experience in our own lives is true, we have the ability to provide an experience that impacts client’s well-being long after they leave our rafts.

I’ve had many a client give a grateful smile after landing at the take-out and say the trip was the highlight of their summer. Others say the river made them feel incredibly relaxed and at peace, or that a smile never left their face while on the water. I never know who will walk off the bus and onto my boat. It could be a mother of three going through an upending divorce, a retired combat veteran suffering from PTSD, a young child that survived cancer treatment. Or, just a regular guy experiencing the ups and downs of life.

If I remind myself at the start of every trip what nature can do, I can facilitate a potentially healing and awe-inspiring experience for my guests. While it might be my fifth lap of the day, the hundredth of the month, it is their first. A senior guide and mentor of mine would always pause before jumping out of the van to meet our new clients and say, “Let’s make this the best trip of these people’s lives.” He certainly knew the power we deal with.

The spring days are warming, and the rafting season is almost upon us. The cottonwoods on the banks of the Snake River are filling out with bright green buds, and the water level is slowly creeping higher up the dusty rocks. The excitement to be back on the water is building in my chest. Soon I will be in the thick of it with a steady stream of fresh clients pouring off the bus. I can’t wait to draw their attention to the towering canyon walls, the dramatic granite peaks and the way the sunlight glimmers on the riffles of the magnificent Snake River.

And in the dog days of “Angry August,” when my shoulders ache and my head spins from hours of conversation and terrible raft guide jokes, I can’t wait to take a moonlit float with my friends. To see the cliffs shining in the darkness, ribbons of liquid silver dancing on the surface of the river. To feel that swelling sense of gratitude in my chest and re-find a moment of awe.


Guest Contributor Emmie Gocke is a raft guide and ski instructor from Jackson, Wyoming. Although she’s trading the mountains and rivers of her childhood to pursue her MD at Columbia medical school, Emmie hopes to squeeze in a multi-day river trip or two. When not rafting, she spends her free time trail running, backcountry skiing, and elk hunting with friends and family.

Photography by Mark Gocke unless otherwise noted.