Paddling the Rio Grande was wonderful and nothing like I expected. We were on the river for 15 days, starting in Big Bend National Park in Texas and taking out 120 miles downstream. I was surprised at how small the river is- I had imagined a roaring, majestic Rio muy Grande, but in reality (at least with the current water level, and in the area that we traveled) it's a pretty shallow and tame river. There was a lot of small, easy, and very fun whitewater, and a few more technical rapids. The Rio itself is gorgeous, unlike any place I've ever been before, and every day I was in awe of the stunning canyons, azure skies and reasonable 90-degree weather.
Canoeing with NOLS is not like the canoeing I've done in the past at Widji. (For one, “portaging,” which is commonplace at Widji, becomes “portahhhhging” at NOLS, and on our expedition did not occur even once. It just seems wrong to go on a canoe trip and NOT portage. All the fun and none of the hard work—it feels like cheating. This is just one example of how NOLS and Widji are like different species of the same genus.) This discrepancy shouldn't have surprised me, because NOLS has its own systems and methods and jargon for everything (as does Widji) and even though the two places are both the same general type of organization/activity, my experiences from them overlap in surprisingly few ways. It was more difficult to adjust to this section than any other; because I had little in the way of experience in backpacking or climbing, I had no expectations or anything to compare to. But canoeing is my thing, and it was a challenge to change from the ways I'd learned or done things before. This actually made the section more satisfying in a way. It was awesome to learn from our climbing instructors, having never climbed before, but it was really interesting to re-learn things I've known for years from veteran instructors who have more experience that I can probably ever hope to have. It could have been just an easy and maybe disappointing trip if I didn't make an effort to absorb as much knowledge from the instructors as possible. They were an outstanding group of teachers (and people) and more than any instructors we've had in the past, they really took it into their hands to teach us, to help us improve and get as much out of the section as we could. It was not only enjoyable just to have their company, but they were a huge source of knowledge. Most of the other students had no prior experience and it was pretty impressive how much the group learned and improved in the course of 15 days. I didn't necessarily learn many new things, but I learned new ways (I don't necessarily like good/bad comparisons, but I might even say better ways) of doing strokes and maneuvers and things I already knew. I basically realized right away that these instructors were way more competent and skilled at the craft than I am, and proceeded to ask as many questions and hear as many answers as possible. Canoeing is always fun, but this trip was especially rewarding—to develop and refine my knowledge and ability under their tutelage and become a better canoist. This is the ultimate way in which NOLS differs from other trip-leading organizations: it is fundamentally a school, and so your time in the field is an expedition, but it is also a class (and not just on hard skills, but on interpersonal skills and communication and development as an individual). For that reason, and not just because I am hopelessly in love with canoeing, this was my favorite section so far.