In 1981 a staffer at Friends of the River called to ask if I would be a volunteer guide on a trip meant to sweeten a mail list exchange with California politician Tom Hayden. “He might bring a special guest with him.” The staffer dangled the enticing carrot, daring me to refuse.

On a two-day rafting trip on California’s Stanislaus River in 1981, Jane Fonda helped prepare vegetables for supper and asked the guides about life on the river. Photo courtesy of Brenda E. Smith

At that time Hayden was married to Jane Fonda, whose Academy Award-winning movie “On Golden Pond” had just wrapped up filming. “Is he going to bring his wife?” I asked. If so, we’d be hosting the Hollywood A-list actress on the two day Stanislaus River trip. Her advocacy might help us save the river from being destroyed by a proposed Army Corp of Engineers dam project.

“You can’t say a word about this to anyone or Hayden might cancel. We won’t know if she’ll come until they arrive.”

I enthusiastically agreed to be one of five guides to host the trip. On the morning of the trip we held our breath, hearts pounding, as Hayden and 25 of his campaign leaders piled out of their vans. With no mob of paparazzi to avoid, nor any red carpet to stroll, an ordinary woman climbed out of the van and extended her hand: “Hello, I’m Jane.”

Our first stop that day was at Rose Creek, a rapid with gentle roller coaster waves that rafters could safely float down through. Accompanied by a guide, Jane plunged into the river to give it a try, setting an example for the others. Not once, but three times, she frolicked in the playful waves that carried her a short distance downstream. Afterward, by herself, she swam to the opposite shore of the river, climbed up on a ledge and stretched out with her face toward the sun for a moment of meditation.

At lunch she recalled her experience of working with her father on his last film and how much she’d learned about acting and life in general from Katharine Hepburn. Jane had refused to use a stunt double for the scene requiring a difficult backflip into the lake, preferring to perfect it herself after hours of practice.

At camp that night Jane joined us in the kitchen to peel and chop vegetables. She questioned us about life as a river guide, what we enjoyed and what was tough. Friendly and down to earth, she wanted us to think of her as just one of the gang.

On the second day, as we walked together up a side stream to a small cascade, she confessed how rarely she was able to escape her hectic celebrity life to enjoy nature and just be herself. She craved more outings like our rafting trip. I explained that our trip might soon be lost forever by the half-constructed dam downstream.

By the end of the trip I no longer thought of her as Barbarella, Hanoi Jane or any of her other public personas. The bear hug and effusive thanks I got came from the heart of the real Jane.

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