Caption for Cody Bryson Family: Cody Bryson took five members of his family on a 1-Day Family Rafting Adventure, courtesy of River Discovery. Rafters included his 6-year-old daughter, Lilah, who previously spent 800 days in cancer treatment. (Photo by Bear Valley Rafting)
By Gaye Bunderson
The last word you’d ever expect to hear associated with cancer is joy. But then, you clearly haven’t met Betsy Carver, executive director of River Discovery. River Discovery offers outdoor adventures to cancer survivors and their families, and Carver has served as its executive director for five years.
“It is our philosophy that there are healing powers in nature,” she said. That’s why River Discovery holds, among other programs, a 1-Day Family Rafting Adventure for people ages 4 on up. Family members from the youngest to the oldest may join the trip on the Cabarton Run of the Payette River in Banks, Idaho.
“What’s most important is keeping people connected in a joyful way,” Carver said.
The river run is not a dangerous ride requiring years of rafting experience. Katella Saffrey of Eagle went on the Adventure with five others, including her daughter Bailey, age 13. Bailey was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 2, and since there is no time limit on when the trips must be taken, her family and friends went down the river during summer of 2021. “It was a great trip, and we did not to have to worry and plan it,” Saffrey said. “It was very relaxing.”
River Discovery started in Lemhi, Idaho in 2006, originally focusing on 6-day trips for teens on the Salmon River. It later turned into adult trips and eventually broadened to include families.
The Healing Waters 1-Day trips, as they are also known, have been taken by entire families of up to five people, but other adventurers have included a mother and her son and a young woman and her ‘significant other’.
The trips include scenic views, lunch on a sandy beach, quiet rafting, an exciting Class 3 rapid called Howard’s Plunge, and then a calm half-mile stretch of warm water that can be walked through or floated upon.
Guides from Bear Valley Rafting travel with the adventurers, pointing out wildlife and ensuring the safety of everyone on the trip. “The guides are great,” said Carver.
People who’ve gone on the 1-Day Family Rafting Adventure agree. “The guides were fun and amazing and talked us through everything, and were just being a part of the whole thing. They get a feel for you and for your comfort level,” Saffrey said.
“The guides were excellent. They know about the area and the river, the history; they know about conservation and are keyed in on keeping the river clean and recreational,” said Becky Leach, a cancer survivor who took her three daughters on a family river adventure last year, and who also tried other River Discovery trips, including a 6-day, white-water trip.
The program is free but does require a $40 registration fee per family. The average trip is $2,000, but Carver’s $85,000 budget for 2022 is covered through sponsorships, grants, and small individual donations. River Discovery also includes: a 6-Day Salmon River Adventure; a 3-Day Lower Salmon River Adventure; a Survivor & Co-Survivor Retreat; and a Paddle Out Cancer SUP (Stand-Up Paddle Board) Session.
Some people who take the family trip also try out some of the other adventures, and some loved the family trip so much they want to do it again. “I would pay our way for another trip and refer another family with a cancer survivor to take [the free] trip,” Saffrey said.
Cody Bryson took five family members on the Adventure, including his now 6-year-old daughter, Lilah, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and spent roughly 800 days in treatment. “We have a family of six, including me, Lindsay (mom), Cole (12), Beck (8), Lilah (6), and Miles (3). We all went on the River Discovery 1-Day Family Adventure except for Miles,” Bryson said. “The adventure was very special for our family. Lilah’s immune system was still recovering, having just finished treatment. At the time we were very selective about our activities because of the pandemic, and nature really became a safe sanctuary for our family. This was literally a breath of fresh air, a way for our kids to enjoy the beauty of Idaho and a fun way to challenge ourselves and overcome new obstacles as a family. We have treasured the memories we made during our trip.”
When the upbeat Carver first applied for the executive director job, she was asked if she had any experience with cancer and whether anyone in her family had ever had it. At the time, she had had no such experience and had not known anyone personally who had gone through cancer. Now, five years into the job, she has lost her father to cancer within the past two years and just recently lost a close friend. As sad as those experiences have been, she said they’ve also been constructive in helping her identify with people who take the River Discovery trips. Carver goes on the river runs with the cancer survivors and their families; and if she is not able to make it, a River Discovery board member goes.
The programs are becoming more and more popular, according to Carver. “In 2017, I couldn’t fill two days of trips,” she said. “But in 2021, I had nine trips. I love this organization – it’s about joy and connection. It’s an adventure resource. It’s a pleasure to do this work.”
Carver, who is nearing 50 years of age, earned a degree in general studies in 1995 at the University of Idaho. She’s originally from Laramie, Wyo., and her husband is from Burley. The couple has two teenagers. Carver lived in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2014 and worked as a residential property manager. She moved here with her family eight years ago. Not surprisingly, her aim for her life and for River Discovery in 2022 is encouraging and positive. “My goal this year is to spread the love and joy,” she said.
For anyone who might be unsure about potential risks or who might be feeling uncomfortable getting together with strangers, those who’ve made the journey offer assurances. “It’s a safe place to talk,” Leach said. “You can show your scars, and you don’t have to be concerned about any limitations.”
Bryson’s take on the Adventure sums it up best: “Our favorite thing about the experience were the connections we made, both with people and with nature. Both are truly healing after surviving cancer. River Discovery and Bear Valley guides were really entertaining on the bus and on the raft and really took time to get to know our family and each of our kids. They made the experience easy and fun. It gave us a chance to really focus on our relationships as a family and get to know those on the experience with us. We left feeling uplifted, healed, and having made new friends.”
To learn more about River Adventures, go to www.riverdiscovery.org or contact Carver at firstname.lastname@example.org.