Seniors tackle whitewater, zip-lines

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 1, 2011

CHARLOTTE — The fearless crew of Rita Espel, Patricia Fuchs and Loretta McKinney dubbed themselves the Golden Girls, and it suited them, as the sun glistening off the rapids around them.
Over 90 minutes, they would raft with guide “Capt. Dan” and Oak Park Activities Director Karen Leonard through the swift waters of the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
If that weren’t enough, the trio (and Leonard) followed up lunch by flying a half-mile down the “Mega Zip” line over the world-class whitewater.
Give me liberty, for this one story, to dismiss a journalistic principle and keep the ages of these three Golden Girls to myself. Too often, I think, we see or hear a number and make assumptions as to the physical capabilities of a person.
That’s a mistake, especially for these women.
Let’s just say they are seniors and residents of the Oak Park retirement community in Salisbury who won’t let their ages keep them from trying new things.
“It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years that count,” said Leonard, who encouraged the field trip to the Whitewater Center as part of Active Aging Week, Sept. 25 to Oct. 1.
“We still think we’re young,” Fuchs said.
Eight Oak Park residents actually took the bus trip from Salisbury to Charlotte. Going in support of Espel, Fuchs and McKinney were Margie Crowell, Ella Freeman, Frances Haney, Marvin Johnson and Neil McKinney (Loretta’s husband).
Bus driver Tiffany Goodman also was in the Oak Park cheering section.
The U.S National Whitewater Center, not far from the Catawba River, includes rafting, kayaking, climbing, biking, the Mega Zip, Mega Jump and canyon cross.
Espel, Fuchs and Loretta McKinney wanted to try the rafting and zip-line.
“It’s whitewater rafting — things can happen,” Capt. Dan told his crew as they went over some safety tips before heading out.
The women shed their eyeglasses and jewelry and were fitted with helmets, life vests and paddles.
Capt. Dan reviewed the “out-of-boat scenarios” with the group, telling them how to stay calm, look for the raft and assume the whitewater swimmers’ position of being on your back with your feet pointed downstream.
At some of the faster whitewater, river guards were posted, ready to toss a throw bag (with a 50-foot rope attached) to anyone falling out of the raft.
Espel, Fuchs, McKinney and Leonard — with Capt. Dan steering in the back — took two trips through the “family” whitewater channels before they decided quickly, and unanimously, that they should take on the Class 3 and 4 rapids of the adventure course.
Interestingly, throughout the morning, they were sharing the whitewater channels with rafting crews from the U.S. Marines, who were visiting the center on R&R.
The Golden Girls, Leonard and Capt. Dan successfully navigated the racing, churning waters without anyone going overboard. The same could not be said for several of the Marines going through.
At some of the toughest rapids, the women had the presence of mind to fall toward the middle of the boat, instead of going the other way. Capt. Dan would just help them back to their perch, and they were on their way again.
“They did great,” Capt. Dan reported back in the harbor. “No one fell out.”
The women gathered with Capt. Dan for a group hug and raised their paddles for a victory salute.
Were they ever in trouble during their trips through the toughest rapids?
“If we were, we weren’t aware of it,” Espel laughed.
They would be wet the rest of the day, but took it in stride.
“It was great, it was a lot of fun,” McKinney reported.
After lunch at River’s Edge Bar & Grill, the three ladies climbed up stairs of the Mega Zip tower, where they were harnessed to zip lines that would take them 1,123 feet from one end of the center to the other, going over some of the rapids.
To a woman, the trio said the scariest part was stepping off the tower platform and taking flight. They also said the trip was finished a lot faster than they anticipated.
“I was glad I did it,” McKinney said, “because I thought I would never do that. After the initial shock, it was great. Now I can say I did this, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.”
McKinney figured she had probably tackled any fear-of-heights factor some time ago when she went to the top of Germany’s highest mountain in a four-person cable car.
A three-time cancer survivor, McKinney has become a strong proponent of cyclist Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong philosophy, which includes “exercise, exercise, exercise,” she said.
Some of the physical activities at Oak Park include, for example, walking, aerobics, yoga, balloon volleyball and chair exercises. The fitness room also has exercise machines.
“I feel like I came to Oak Park to get well,” said McKinney, who has lived at the retirement community off Enon Church Road since May.
Fuchs reported that, from her experience, the zip-line was easier than a bungee jump. On a high-adventure satisfaction scale of 1 to 10, Fuchs gave the Mega Zip a 7.
“I was always active,” said Fuchs, a former operation room nurse who volunteered for the U.S. Army from 1990-92 and served in Desert Storm.
Earlier this year, on March 17, Fuchs had heart surgery. But she liked her chances: She’s Irish. She had the surgery on St. Patrick’s Day, and her surgeon’s name was Dr. Lucky.
Fuchs predicted she would “hurt a little bit” after the rafting and zip-lining at the Whitewater Center.
“I just wonder what muscles I will feel tomorrow,” Espel added.
It’s important for seniors to see others in their age groups taking on new physical challenges. Espel said, for example, the first President Bush’s decision to go parachuting in his 80s was an inspiration.
Leonard sees Espel, Fuchs and McKinney as the trailblazers for other Oak Park residents who might want to take on the Whitewater Center’s rapids next year.
There are all kinds of side benefits, too, in getting the most out of life as possible.
“Now you can say,” Leonard told the girls, “you went rafting with the Marines.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or