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Janelle Brandon, Published September 28 2012

Making the big leap: Three women choose high-sensation adventures

FARGO - Skydiving. Mountain climbing. Paragliding.

For some, just the thought of high adventures creates anxiety. For others, however, the chemical release of dopamine in the brain keeps them coming back for more.

In January of this year, Sarah Schaan, an LPN at Prairie St. Johns in Fargo, traveled to India. An avid cyclist, she’d read about paragliding and decided that if it was available while she was there, she’d go.

“I asked at a coffee shop if paragliding was offered, and the worker made a call,” says Schaan.

An hour later she was taking a taxi to the jump site.

“I didn’t have time to think too much about it before it was happening. I made peace with the fact that I was going to do it and figured if I wasn’t truly living, I was dying anyway.”

Schaan spent 45 minutes in flight over the Himalayas gliding over a Tibetan community below her.

Schaan says she doesn’t have an addictive personality. Even through paragliding was exhilarating for her, she doesn’t feel the need to constantly replicate the feeling.

“I found a greater understanding in myself and a sense of empowerment through this experience,” Schaan says. “As a child, I was terrified of everything so I’ve come a long way.”

Post-glide Schaan says she noticed an increased confidence in herself. She’s learned to respect her fears and limitations. Next, she’d like to bike across America from North Dakota to California.

“I like taking risks, but I am not a belligerent thrill-seeker,” says Schaan. “I get claustrophobic so I know spelunking wouldn’t be for me. I like to face my fears mindfully. I’d also like to have a child someday, so I have to be careful because I’m sure having a child will be the biggest thrill-seeking adventure of my life.”

After her divorce was finalized in 2000, Renee Latterell, a rural mental health psychologist living in Detroit Lakes, Minn., felt she needed a challenge and adventure.

She decided on a 23-day backpacking adventure in the Colorado Rockies with the Outward Bound organization. Outward Bound wilderness adventures are designed to challenge and strengthen the participant mentally, physically and emotionally.

Latterell had hiked the Dolomites in Italy and had frequented the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, so she felt the trek through the Rockies would be challenging but doable.

She was wrong.

“I was much older than everyone there,” says Latterell. “I was 34, and most of the others on the trip were in their early 20s. The first day out I had terrible blisters and started to lose confidence that I could keep up. Even though I’d prepared with cardio and weight workouts before the trip, I wasn’t entirely ready.”

On the first day, the group of seven led by two Outward Bound leaders hiked to 10,000 feet. Later, Latterell completed a two-day solo camp, leaving the security of her group with only a map as her guide.

“It was interesting to see what challenged different people on the trip,” says Latterell. “I had no problem camping by myself. For others, that was torture to be separated from the group.”

Latterell describes the trip as a roller coaster of emotions. She’s stubborn and independent. There wasn’t an option to turn back or quit even when her legs were collapsing beneath her from exhaustion. The reward was the beautiful view and the sense of accomplishment.

“I remember one night, we were too tired to set up our tents because we reached our destination after dark,” says Latterell. “We ended up sleeping under the clear, starry sky totally exhausted. I was the one that was cheerleading the others and encouraging them that we could do it.”

The most frightening experience was when Latterell and her group took a trail that was too dangerous for the gear they had with them. Rocks were falling from above them, and the group had to go through the rough terrain without safety cables and use their strength to pull themselves up and over ridges.

“I didn’t think I could do it,” recalls Latterell. “Then I realized not doing it wasn’t an option. I was very relieved when that was over.”

Latterell felt most alive and like herself after completing the Outward Bound trip. She wasn’t holding on to any anxiety.

“I was able to let go of tension and anxiety that drives me to be a certain way,” says Latterell. “To be on time, to pass my classes in graduate school. I was able to let go and meet up with something bigger.”

Latterell recently gave birth to a little girl. She dreams of hiking Machu Picchu someday and hopes her little girl will join her.

Skydiving in Fargo

McCal Johnson, a student teacher at Davies High School and a Minnesota State University Moorhead student, went skydiving for the first time last month.

She’s always considered herself open to opportunities, and when an offer from a friend came to go skydiving, she didn’t hesitate in saying yes.

“My friend called me and asked if I wanted to go skydiving,” says Johnson. “I asked her ‘When?’ and she said, ‘Tomorrow morning.’ That was probably for the best so I didn’t have too long to think about it.”

Johnson was extremely excited for the jump until she boarded the plane. The 20 minutes it took to get to the right altitude for the jump were agonizing.

“It was cramped in the plane, and I was looking at the faces of the other jumpers,” says Johnson. “That’s when the butterflies and nervousness started. Then I just kept reminding myself of all the things I needed to do to make it a good dive to distract myself.”

When she finally leaped from the plane and was doing a few tumble rolls before the parachute opened, she had the fleeting thought that this would be a good way to die if the parachute failed to open because it would happen quickly.

“When the chute opened, and I was looking out over the horizon line with the cold wind in my face, it was like time was suspended,” says Johnson. “It was somehow the longest and shortest four to six minutes of my life.”

Johnson enjoys taking calculated risks in her life and likes to go cliff-diving as well. She has a greater sense of gratitude in her life when she can fit in a good adventure.

“I think about those who live in fear all the time either in their home or someone working on active duty in the military,” says Johnson. “I’m grateful that I get to choose when I purposefully put myself in death-defying situations.”

Janelle Brandon is a freelance writer who lives in Moorhead. Readers can reach her at shesays@forumcomm.com.