A handful of days after losing a friend to the river, I witnessed this jaw-dropping sunset at the West Branch of the Penobscot. It's a reminder that tragedy and beauty dance together. Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Sindo

Since you found your way to the Bangor Daily News Outdoors section, I’m assuming you enjoy the outdoors and maybe even view wilderness as an essential space for yourself. But have you ever thought about the risk you are taking when you head out the door for your adventure?

I have worked and lived on the West Branch of the Penobscot River since 2014, and even though I sometimes daydream about other places, the river feels like home to me. It’s where I met my soon-to-be husband, gained many meaningful friendships and shared new activities with people.

The river has also offered intrinsic value. It’s where I go and sit when I need to clear my head and take a moment for myself. When life feels like it’s speeding by, I can go sit on the bank of the river and feel things slow down, even if just for a few minutes.

I never thought that this special place that has given me so much could also take something from me.

In the past six years, I’ve lost two people I know to the river and both accidents have hit very close to home. The initial anger is potent and the frustration with trying to answer all the whys feels insurmountable.

A 21-day rafting expedition offers plenty of risk. It’s imperative to be prepared, but also make sure to have fun.  Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Sindo

Those feelings eventually start to subside and they’re replaced with the realization that what happened to those two friends could happen to any one of us who recreates on the river.

Sure, you hear about it in documentaries — the big mountain skier falls into a crevasse or the free solo rock climber falls to their death. But you tell yourself that those people are athletes on a completely different level than you and took on too big of a risk.

Recently, I was part of a rescue on the river. It was a tragic day, but in retrospect I felt prepared for it.

Earlier this summer, I went through a two-day wilderness first aid training and having a solid understanding of certain skills set me up to handle the immediate action that was needed that day.

When I look out onto the river now, I don’t always see the view that used to make me feel so content and calm. With time, I know this will change and fade and that’s the delicateness of the situation. To know that something that handed you tragedy can also heal you is powerful.

It makes me reflect. Are we all essentially taking that same risk when we go out to participate in our favorite adventure or sport? And, maybe the bigger question, is it worth the risk?

It’s a big question, I know!

For those of us who deeply love the great outdoors, I believe part of why we love it so much has to do with the fact that the time spent there teaches us valuable lessons. We learn about our strengths, weaknesses and fears. We learn about leadership, teamwork, trust and decision-making. We learn about who we are and about who we are with.

We grow. And that’s powerful and leaves us feeling good about ourselves. That’s how we learn and why — whether it’s hiking, paddling, biking,or skiing — we continue to do what we love.

That feeling of growth is how we continue on the path to achieving our goals. And, as we all know, when it comes to going after your goals, it involves some risk taking. While it can never be eliminated, you can learn how to assess your risk and be prepared for certain situations.

Back to the question, is it worth it? I’m not here to answer that for you, but instead, I offer it with the possibility that we all think about it on our next adventure.

Bangor Daily News Outdoors contributor Sarah Sindo’s second solo backpacking trip was in 2020 to Russell Pond in Baxter State Park. She learned from mistakes and felt fulfilled after completing the 14-mile round trip trek.  Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Sindo

I love hiking solo and I know that it comes with added risk. If something happens to me, I am responsible for myself. That’s intimidating. I can be prepared and carry a satellite communication device, have a well-stocked medical kit, and carry enough supplies but there is a risk that one day those things may not be enough. I have to be OK with that.

Every time my partner goes out kayaking or rafting, I know there is a small chance he may not come home. That is scary, but even though I want to keep him safe in my little cocoon, I know that’s not where he thrives.

We engage in activities that are associated with risk because we find clarity, substance and elation in them, but these hobbies can also bring us great loss. That’s a hard pill to swallow.

Deciphering risk isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. But I do believe there is a middle ground that everyone can locate for themselves, where they find fulfillment, excitement and growth, yet understand and accept the risk they are taking.

And just like the river, your perception of risk is fluid and ever-changing. Your experience with it won’t be the same as your last, and will be different from your next. Keep it in your mind always, but don’t let it weigh you down.

Sarah Sindo was locally grown in Millinocket. Her love and appreciation for the outdoors took off after college when she hiked numerous mountains with her brother, Nick, including her first ascent of Katahdin....