Lessons From Alcohol's Crippling Effect on Rafting
Alcohol is something I never felt I actually struggled with in my younger years as a commercial guide, company owner and ski resort worker. The river community and the resort industry is largely filled with young folks. Both seasons were filled with young people under 30 who wanted to party and “experience life”. I never thought I had a problem, but in reality it was so bad at one point I almost got fired from my job at the ski resort. I also was having problems in my rafting company and rather than face them I started drinking and partying. The worst part, it was so normal that no one really said anything. It just seemed like suddenly I was making all sorts of shitty choices and burning bridges left and right. Most people couldn’t figure out why it was happening, or they didn’t care because they would depart my life in 5 months never to return. The effects started to show in my boating ability, confidence, and my ability to effectively manage my affairs. At my worst I would drink a few nights a week, and I only got blackout drunk a hand full of times in my life ever. Does all this mean that I have a problem with alcohol? The reality is yes I had a problem and that answer was a bit more surprising than I thought. So what is it that makes alcohol such a difficult thing to deal with in the river world? How can anyone even say or define that alcohol is a problem in the boating community?
Effects on your body
Alcohol's effects on the river community as a whole are deeply rooted in how alcohol affects your body. Rafting is an athletic endeavor and a sport, weather you raft commercially, are a private boater, or race rafts this is true. Long hours in adverse conditions, paddling, carrying boats, hiking, and swimming actually require a multi-sport approach. There is a large body of evidence that shows how loading on junk food after exercise is counterproductive to muscle repair recovery from activity. Alcohol is certainly in the category of junk food, with average user rarely paying attention to what is in the drink, but regardless of your alcohol of choice your body will experience a severely delayed repair response.
One of the debilitating effects of alcohol consumption comes in the form of people who boat day in and day out. When you exercise your body from micro-tears in your muscle fibers that, with sufficient protein, fat and fluids, heal during your rest periods thus increasing your muscle mass. This process is a metabolic process which your body prioritizes below purging toxins from your system. High levels of alcohol are metabolized first and your body cannot repair itself until it purges the toxin from your system. Thus a night of heavy drinking will usually require a full nights rest or more before your body can even start repairing your muscles.
With the ample opportunities to consume alcohol in the river community your physical well-being can become severely impacted in a chain reaction of events that can send you into a downward spiral. After you get off the water your body will likely be dehydrated from long hours paddling and loosing fluids. Although there is some compelling research showing that having a beer after exercise has shown to have little additional diuretic effects on your body, you can experience higher blood alcohol content (BAC) due to a lower concentration of water in your body. Aside from the obvious effects this will have on your sobriety, this higher concentration of alcohol will require more of your body’s resources to purge it, further delay re-hydration, and slow muscle repair. It is interesting to note that given the higher percentage of female rafters vs. kayakers, rafters on average will struggle with this issue more than our hard-shell counterparts because of the different way that alcohol typically effects women.
A recent National Institute for Health bulletin states: “Alcohol passes through the digestive tract and is dispersed in the water in the body. The more water available, the more diluted the alcohol. As a rule, men weigh more than women, and, pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. Therefore, a woman’s brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic byproducts that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol.”
One of the other issues in purging alcohol from your system is the amount of time that a person has to rest while enjoying the river. When you factor in actual river time, putting away gear, shuttles, and socializing with guests or friends the average boater can easily spend 12-16 hours engaged in rafting from the time they get up to when they sleep. When you are barely getting 8 hours of sleep before your commitments the next day a smaller person or a night of heavy drinking will make it impossible to recover before you are back at it tearing up your muscles the next day.
Another topic that is rarely covered in discussions of athletics and alcohol is the amount of sugar added to the drinks. Many commercially available beers contain large amounts of high fructose corn syrup making them more like a soda rather than a truly brewed beer. Wine can likewise contain a large amount of sugar. Cheaper wines can have added sugar to mask bitterness, while even good wines are derived from sugary grape juice. So unless you are shooting straight liquor, even mixed drinks contain a lot of corn syrup or sugar. With your body in a starvation mode coming off the river your body will immediately try to convert this dump of sugar to fat leading to issues with blood sugar and excess weight gain.
Aside from extra empty calories and slow muscle repair alcohol is a depressant. Given the sometimes high stress nature of boating, newer or younger boaters are even more at risk to experience symptoms of depression. Younger boaters are less likely to have the same depth to their reference groups (the people who you built up as the closest people in your life) in the river community. This has serious implications for a seasonal sport where depression is already a common issue, especially seasonal depression. What’s worse, a UNC study found that after alcohol consumption for 28 days straight depression-like behavior was present for 14 days afterwards.
The University of Buffalo describes the alcohol's effect on your brain as follows: “Although drinking alcohol initially can feel stimulating, alcohol is a depressant, which means it lowers the function of neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. The immediate effects include slower movement, lack of coordination and slurred speech. In the long term, alcohol causes lasting effects in the brain. The misfiring of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, is directly related to clinical depression (not to be confused with temporarily “feeling bad” after a bout of heavy drinking, which goes away after a few days).”
When every 5 months your reference group suddenly leaves, coupled with the loss of a job (if you are a guide), and the lack of physical activity that comes with the shoulder season; depression in the river community becomes even worse. The complete collapse of the social scene in any river community during the shoulder scene also has a profoundly negative compounding effect on people living in the river community. Losing such strong social connections so quickly means that when the physiological effects start catching up with you there is no one there to help you through that time. Isolation creates coupled with shorter days, less exercise, and seasonal depression can breed an extremely unhealthy environment. Each of these factors is a spectrum of emotion and everyone feels the effects at different intensity levels.
Addressing the Issues
Our sport and community is filled with opportunities to "let loose" and enjoy a drink. From relaxing after a trip with friends, to entertaining guests on a commercial trip, to beer fines, and even those who choose to drink on the water, there is no end to the prevalence of alcohol in the community. All of that coupled with the fact that the bulk of our river community consists of young folks for whom alcohol consumption has been normalized and glorified sets a dangerous precedent for the future of our sport.
One great example is the fake Instagram account of @louise.delage that racked up 65,000 followers in two months. The point of the account was that in every photo alcohol was present and the agency responsible sought to prove that addiction is easy to overlook.
According to a JAMA study 25% of adult under age 30 qualify as being alcohol dependent or qualify as abusing alcohol with women being one of the greatest groups affected. Our sport also consists of a much higher percentage of women than kayaking for example and rafting consists mostly of people under 30 (the two most at risk groups over the general population). To make matters worse beer is almost a currency in and of itself in river towns. So what can you do address alcoholism in your life?
Taking rafting seriously is a commitment to an athletic endeavor and it is important to realize that is exactly what rafting is at its core…a sport. Luckily there were people in my life that had a lot of compassion and really cared about me despite the train wreck that I so masterfully orchestrating and concealing for a short time. My true passion has always been the athletic pursuit of rafting and I can definitely say that for a time I got lost along the way. So if you are getting lost or someone in your life is getting lost, here are some ways you can help:
- Support each other by taking sober days
- Approach the topic openly with empathy
- Recognize times that you feel guilty about drinking (it is probably a sign), and try to understand why you feel guilty.
- Address it immediately when you see alcohol affecting someone’s job, relationships, or overall decision making.
- Help your friends be strong if they commit to not drinking and defend them when they are questioned about why they don’t drink.
- Recognize that if someone decides to stop drinking it may take them weeks or months to kick their desire to drink.
I know that I have a difficult relationship with alcohol. As a result I no longer drink alcohol, because, to be honest, I have no self control if I start to drink. I have found that people are generally supportive of my decision and commitment, but I still get people pushing booze on me. In the end what really matters is that we be supportive of the well being of our fellow athletes as well as treating each other with empathy and respect. Problems with alcohol are a spectrum and although different people feel these problems at different intensity levels, the biggest takeaway is to try to have compassion and empathy for what your fellow boaters are going through.