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Cale Siler Reaching Out With Healing Waters

(This story was published in 2006).

In 1996, Cale Siler (right) was convinced he had contracted HIV. He was a senior at UC-Berkeley, and was training to be a sea-kayaking guide. One night, in a moment of indiscretion, Cale had unsafe sex with another man. Days later, he learned that that man had a reputation of having unsafe sex with many partners.

Within 10 days, the early signs of HIV started showing up, as Cale’s body exhibited flu-like symptoms–the same ones that his doctor had told him to watch for earlier that week.

“I felt a tremendous amount of shame,” Cale says.

That wasn’t the worst of it to him, though. Months later, he was kayaking on the Bay. Growing up near Lake Tahoe, he had always been an outdoorsman: dirt biking and hiking dominated his activities for years. It was that day, kayaking on the Bay, that he told himself he would have to give up his outdoor activities, because HIV patients couldn’t exert themselves. That realization was a devastating emotional blow to someone who loved the outdoors.

Six months later, Cale got tested for HIV. To his surprise, the test came back negative. And it changed his life.

HIV can be a debilitating disease. Not only does it present serious medical complications, but the emotional reaction to contracting HIV can be overwhelming. It is normal for patients to experience strong reactions such as fear, sadness, guilt, and anger. Some patients even experience suicidal tendencies.

It is these emotional reactions that Cale helps other people overcome today, five years after his own experience.

“That day,” says Cale, “I dedicated myself to taking [HIV patients] out and showing them that the high, euphoria, and serenity of exercise in the wilderness is still completely accessible.”

Cale, now 28 and living in San Francisco, developed a program (that he eventually called Healing Waters) that would take people with HIV on wilderness trips. The first trip was later that year, to the South Fork of the American River, north of Sacramento. The trip actually comprised of back-to-back one-day trips. The first was a fundraiser. Cale figured that he could raise money to sponsor patients’ trips by holding trips for non-HIV patients. The fundraiser that year drew three people. The second trip was with HIV patients–that trip attracted four participants.

From those modest beginnings, Healing Waters now hosts more than 50 trips per year (virtually every week) and, over the last two years, has raised more than $330,000. Cale has developed the non-profit organization into a full-time job - which it certainly warrants. Now, they have also expanded to helping people with cancer, another medical complication with serious emotional consequences.

The trips are mostly held in Northern California and feature four different programs: rafting, sea-kayaking, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. Cale has designed the trips for patients to provide them with camaraderie and a unique opportunity to get into the wilderness. The trips were initially free to patients. However, to curb the then-staggering drop-out rate, Cale decided to charge patients $30 to go on a trip–$15 of which they get back if they actually go on the trip.

Showing up for a trip can be easier said than done for many HIV patients. They can wake up any morning and simply be too sick to go. Cale has also found that many patients have fears about going into the wilderness with virtual strangers.

“There are major trust issues,” Cale says, “if they haven’t been out with us before–will their limits be respected, will the food be OK, will the people be friendly?” For people who are often homeless or abandoned by their families, these are huge obstacles for Cale and Healing Waters to overcome.

The trips for non-patient participants is a bit different: they are designed to raise money to defer the cost of patient trips. The cost per participant is $285, which includes transportation, food, lodging, and two days of rafting or canoeing or hiking. For every paying participant, their fee subsidizes the trip for three patients.

The level of participation among gays is also different. About 90% of the participants in the non-patient trips are gay–mostly gay men. However, only about 50% of the patient participants are gay-many of the rest are intravenous drug users.

The non-patient trips are also more relaxed. Whereas a lot of time and energy needs to be spent caring for the patients, the non-patient trips tend to focus more on the social aspects of the trips–and some good wine always seems to flow. Romance has also been known to blossom on more than one weekend getaway. How could it not, with tents sleeping two after a hot, sweaty day of hiking or kayaking?

Cale is now taking Healing Waters international, with annual fundraising trips. Last year featured a trip to the jungles of Costa Rica. This year, it’s Nepal. Cale has designed these overseas ventures specifically with gay clientele in mind: nice hotels, interesting locations, having porters for wine (because the wine in Nepal is undrinkable). Cale even managed to track down the one gay bar in Nepal. A participant on an international trip subsidizes weekend trips for 20 patients.

“The trips kick ass,” Cale says. “Who else can provide you with a great outdoor experience and six incredibly good-looking guides?”

While Cale designs the trips, he couldn’t possibly go on all of them. The patient trips can be emotionally draining, and he doesn’t allow any guides to go on more than two per month.

“There are always a few people per trip who live in the Tenderloin [district of San Francisco] on disability, maybe homeless, abandoned by their friends and family, and really hungry for human contact. They demand incredible amounts of attention and emotional energy, which we’re happy to do, and is a big reason why we’re here–to give them love and friendship.”

It's working. As one participant wrote to Cale in a letter after reluctantly taking one of Healing Waters' trips:

"Cale, I do not know if I will ever be able to express to you, the rediscovery of my self due to this trip. What I do know is this: if you had not put your self out in the world to assist people with HIV and AIDS, sharing your talents and knowledge of this journey down the river I would not have this discovery. What ever it is for each one of us and it is an individual discovery, and accomplishment. I would not be feeling as happy and full of life as I am today!"

Despite the fact that he never has contracted HIV, it is Cale’s now five-year-old mission to help people with HIV defeat those terrible feelings of loneliness and helplessness that he, himself, once felt.