by Kim Karpeles

The night before the week-long whitewater rafting trip began, all the participants gathered for a mandatory orientation meeting. More training and discussion of emergency procedures would be given at the launch site tomorrow; this evening was an opportunity to meet the guides, fellow travelers, and get an update on the conditions on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Snowfall had been meager in the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return (Idaho) the previous winter, and water levels were far below average – especially for one of the first trips of the season. Early trips usually see the best rapids and don’t worry about the possibility of low water changing or cancelling the trip. But this year the water flow was so low, the rafting company couldn’t put in at the usual spot and would fly us to another launch site further down the river in the morning.

Another reason for the orientation meeting was to hand out the dry bags and teach us how to roll the tops tight and cinch them down to ensure the contents stayed dry. Each person received one bag for all their clothing, footwear, and toiletries for the week. We would also have a waterproof metal ammo can accessible during the day for sunscreen, sunglasses, and other small items; everything else had to fit in a 40” x 17” x 12” rubberized bag. But it couldn’t be filled because the top 3” of the bag needed to be folded down and rolled three times to ensure a tight seal. Oh, and because we would be flown in on six-seater prop planes, there was a weight limit.   

I’m not a fashionista, but I like to be prepared. For the five nights on the water, it could rain every day, the sun could beat down, or there could be frost again like this morning. What if I spilled on my “good” pants, ripped my shorts, lost a sandal or tore my swimsuit? I wanted backups and options; I wanted to be warm at night; I didn’t want to eat and sleep in wet clothes; if I wasn’t going to shower for a week, at least I could look halfway decent. I knew I couldn’t control the weather, but I didn’t want to give up the security my fourth shirt and third pair of pants unknowingly provided.   

Water sandals, swimsuit, fleece, quick dry shorts and pants, undies, rain coat, sun hat, long-sleeves and a couple T’s, socks and low hiking boots went in the essential pile – a pile half as tall as the dry bag. Slightly reassured, I selected a few back-ups and left space for toiletries on the top. All seemed well until the worst-case scenarios started playing and the “what if’s” piled up. Better throw in a second fleece, more socks, another pair of pants … but there wasn’t room.

My suitcase with the stuff I had to leave behind was locked in hotel storage, and I hopped in the transport van with only my dry bag and items for the ammo can. I’d wanted to get away from civilization and experience nature, but this barebones arrangement rattled me. Lewis and Clark wouldn’t have traveled this light.

Spending the days rafting through the rapids was a blast. Each had a name like Cove Creek, Porcupine, Haystack, and Tappan and different characteristics. In the evening we unloaded the rafts like a fire brigade passing water buckets and stacked the dry bags, tents, and sleeping bags on the sandy shore of the river. We grabbed our bags and spread out to pick a camping spot away from the campfire smoke while the rafting guides lit the fire and cooked platters of pork chops or spaghetti.

While rummaging through the dry bag for dry, not clean, clothes on day three, a thought wave struck. Not like a Class IV rapid that bangs and tosses and slams, but like the slower sections on the river where we barely paddled and sang show tunes that echoed in the canyons. There is a unique freedom in traveling light with the essentials and little else. The wardrobe back-ups I ordinarily packed gave me a false sense of security I didn’t notice until obligated to set them aside. Having enough space on previous trips camouflaged the reality that I found it hard to trust the sufficiency of simplicity.

While I wasn’t prepared for every eventuality and tired of wearing of the same pants every night, it didn’t matter and nobody cared. Five cubic feet of space was adequate; I could survive within those limitations. What’s more, I could thrive and not wish for a single item sitting in hotel storage.

The dry bag experience revolutionized my travel packing and challenged me to seek release from a bondage to “stuff” I didn’t know I had. I’m still the go-to person for cuticle scissors, duct tape, and extra earplugs – all “essentials” now. But those are tucked in because they’ve repeatedly proven useful, not from a desire to be in control whatever the circumstances. For two weeks in Europe, a carry-on still isn’t enough space; I’m not that free. Maybe someday.   

Kim Karpeles is the Director of Communication for a mid-sized church in Northbrook, Illinois. She holds two masters degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; one in Systematic Theology, the other in Christian Studies. Kim enjoys reading, sudoku puzzles, travel, and learning Spanish.