Tieton Eddy Repose

Tieton Eddy Repose
"So, this is the river." said the Rat.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Lies Ahead, We Know Not

When John Wesley Powell launched his stolid but, ultimately, fragile boats down the unknown of the Colorado River system in the late 1800's. The title was a common refrain amongst his hardy adventurers. The same phrase could be muttered about the future of river rafting.

In the few decades I have been floating rivers, inflatable rafts have not changed substantially from the military-issue models that I rafted the Green and Colorado Rivers with Prescott College in 1974. The military gave you the option of black, black or black. Self-bailing models arrived in the late '80s and our Project RAFT Orion team was sponsored by Maravia to the use of a hot-pink Williwaw I during the competitive events at Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Inflatable manufacturers have experimented with boat designs --- diminishing bow and sterns rather than symmetrical or asymmetrical, building boats with internal bladders as AIRE does and making rafts out of polymers (the movie The Graduate warned us in the '60s --- "One word. Plastics.") instead of just rubber but, in general, rafts have evolved little. Of course, that one great leap forward, self-bailing floors, was a very significant step and led to the navigability of all sorts of rivers once deemed 'unraftable'.

One constant seems to be that river running craft are being designed shorter and shorter, whether it is rafts or kayaks. Kayaks, especially, have changed significantly, with the reduction of their keel length. Waves that were once impossible to surf are now within easy grasp of the most wet-behind-the-ears kayaker with the right size boat and with the will to give it a try.

About ten years ago, some were experimenting with an inflated transparent ball that you climbed inside, like a hamster with a wheel, and used it to travel down a river. I think it was called a 'Bronco' ball, or something of the sort, and, even though you could float outrageous whitewater, control of the ball was minimal and the possibility of winding up in a hydraulic in perpetuity was high. I never saw them on a Washington river, so I imagine they have lost their cachet as far as whitewater goes.

On the other hand, 'Creature Craft' are now all the rage. Interestingly, Creature Craft have many similarities to the homemade monstrosities that used to come out of the Soviet Union. Basically, they are modified and fortified rafts with roll bars, seats and seat belts. Seat belts would normally be anathema to river rafting but, since they are 'breakaway' and since you are navigating water that is relentlessly white and churning, being separated from the craft is not an option.

These hybrid river rafting crafts are showing up at put-ins throughout the western United States and they are being launched down rivers that a majority of river guides would not wish to have anything to do with except in their dreams or nightmares. I am certain 'Creature Craft', unlike the Bronco Ball (which I seem to recall was hawked on late night television for a while), will continue to capture bold boaters' imaginations. And so they will become a part of the long anthology of river running.

Where I have my doubts is whether or not they have a commercially viable future. There is no need for them in the usual whitewater tackled by most commercial boaters and how many outfitters want to send fleets of strapped down customers on incessant Class V-VI waters?

However, like Powell's fellow intrepid adventurers, when it comes to the future of river running, "what lies ahead, we know not."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Internets. . . and River Rafting

The internet has been a boon and, of course, a bane. Like all inventions, the internet cannot dodge the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The convenience of using the internet is unparalleled --- for banking, ticket reservations, research (Do Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen exist anymore?) and delivering entertainment content. Simultaneously, it has never been simpler to be bombarded by unwanted solicitation, it has never been easier for crooks to steal your identification and smut has become ubiquitous online. Who needs a pornography stash anymore?

Well, former President Bush's "internets" have certainly been a boon to the acquisition of river rafting permits. No longer do you have to submit paperwork by mail and jump through hoops that sometimes were not obvious. No longer do you have to deal with voice mail hell, or even, humans. No longer do you have to coordinate a snail mail response by a group of your friends or family which is only slightly easier than herding ferrets on an interstate.

For the premier Idaho river permits --- the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Selway, the Main Salmon and the Snake --- it is as foolproof as ordering train tickets through Amtrak. And the Forest Service promises they are not 'out-sourcing' everything through India. Here is your Idaho river permit link.

According to the site you can submit an application beginning Tuesday, December 1st, through January 31st.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Project RAFT

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, a group of American boaters ventured into the wilds of Siberia and discovered Soviet citizens, using home-made rafts, launching themselves down torrents of whitewater that would give the boldest river rafters pause. Late in the '80s, a reconstituted group of the same American rafting enthusiasts returned to the Soviet Union to compete in the whitewater competitions that Soviet clubs organized.

Out of these encounters emerged the idea for a non-profit dubbed Project RAFT which stood for Russians and Americans for Teamwork. The idea was to bring teams of Soviets together with teams of Americans for a semi-annual whitewater river rafting competition and environmental festival. It was fleshed out to include teams from any nation in the world capable of fielding a river rafting team of 6 to 7 individuals.

The first official Project RAFT gathering happened early in the spring of 1990 and was hosted by the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Hundreds of Project RAFT participants, their devoted followers, NOC staff and interested observers converged on Bryson City, NC, for a week long event intended to bring people together and inspire peace. Even though, by this time, the Soviet Union had splintered, there was still a need to show that there was no ill will between worldwide members of the boating community and that cooperation and face-to-face contact between our culture and theirs trumped all other means of diplomacy.

Project RAFT was also determined to set a standard for environmental stewardship and use the whitewater games as a platform to instill an awareness that free-flowing rivers were still an endangered 'species'. At Nantahala, teams were encouraged to bring samples of endangered free-flowing rivers from their country for a ceremony of the intermingling of waters. The ceremony was an excellent way to call attention to rivers many of us had never known.

Project RAFT continued into the mid-90s. The next event was in Costa Rica, the last one was held in Turkey. The beauty of the concept was that it fostered a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie between teams from all over the world even as we were competing in the various competitions --- slalom, grand slalom, river orienteering, river rescue, triathlons.

Evenings we shared common meals, bonfires and stories before retiring to our tents. At least once during every competition/festival the hundreds of participants would rendezvous at the put-in of a selected river and we would randomly clamber into rafts and spend the next couple of hours sharing the river, if unable to share meaningful communication due to language barriers.

In any event, 2009 marks --- approximately --- the twentieth anniversary of a concept that, sadly, is not still taking place. It was difficult and costly and a pain to put together, manage and facilitate, but, I suspect, the events continue to resonate with those who came to take part. I know I have dozens of fond memories and quite a few humorous tales about the three events put on by Project RAFT that I and several other Orion river guides attended. But those tales are for another blogging.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The State of Orion: Season Synopsis


The heavy sigh of relief no doubt heard around the region, if not the world, emerged from me now the commercial whitewater season of '09 has become fast-moving water under the bridge.

The winter snowpack was so-so, the economy was on everybody's minds, government entities were sniffing about every available means to shore up their coffers and Ally and I decided to throw caution to the wind and raft the Grand Canyon during the time we traditionally offered Guide Training, and then toss caution completely overboard by purchasing a second property and signing on for twice as much mortgage.

The last season of the last year of the Decade of Aughts has passed into our collective memories and somehow we made it through with the vehicles, the boats, the paddles, the lifejackets, the trailers we had on hand at the beginning. Businesses trumpet their efforts at sustainability, but as I told the Recreation Program this spring, Orion has practiced sustainability long before it came into vogue.

Even so, the season took its toll.

The Suburban's tranny died in Oregon and had to be replaced. The Box Truck became a casualty at one of the local espresso stands receiving damage to the upper left corner of the box when laws of physics were applied inappropriately. One of the trailers required a facelift (or perhaps a 'nosejob') when one of our new employees discovered the tongue of a trailer is not elastic or designed like a slinky. One of the oldest Maravias suffered an irreparable tear early in the spring on our extracurricular exploration of the West Fork of the Hood.

As for the river season itself, I survived the month of June by hiring predominantly new guides to handle trips on the Wenatchee and, dodged yet another bullet, when the river never exploded on us. Muddled through July with youth groups booking more two-day overnight trips in Oregon than ever before and then, managed to eek down the Wenatchee with hundreds of kids in mid-August on a bed of rocks moistened by the trickle inching past masquerading as a river.

The Tieton was a phenomenal success in regards to longevity, levels and lovely weather conditions (not including the precipitation over the Labor Day Weekend), however, an incident involving a call to 911 and an ambulance ride, dampened the amusement park atmosphere.

So, you can see at a glimpse why I suspect the heavy exhalation at the season's passing might have been audible from a distance. Our off-season plans? In the short term, I plan staining the backside of the house, participating in the horseshoe tourney at the World Senior Games, taking in a Mariner game with Willie Weigand. Ally plans on visiting her brother in St.Louis and, other than that, working her tush off in 12 hour stints at Wenatchee Valley ER. We both plan on completing a multitude of tasks when you own property --- which now includes a motorhome! --- that must be tended to preceding winter.

That sound you just heard was another heavy sigh. . .


It goes without saying, though it should never go unsaid, that no season can reach its logical conclusion without the help, input and blood, sweat and tears of scores of people. Ally, of course, should be mentioned from the get-go because without her attention to detail, mind for logistics, constructive criticism and second income, the company would falter, and I would go and lose my one and only brain cell.

Orion’s prodigal guide, Kook Longmire, displayed incredible timing by returning right when we needed him most --- a shell of a new warehouse that needed a ‘floor’ and to be organized, if only rudimentally, and no one around but a phalanx of wet-behind-the-ear newcomers. Kook also filled in admirably when I needed a surrogate for Lakeside trips.

Jonathan Ehlinger, student teaching these days at Garfield, also took charge of an overnight trip or two when there was no one else available to do so. . . Allen Cox found himself a casualty of the economy during the spring but Seattle’s loss was our gain and Allen’s contributions throughout the summer (a sweat lodge constructed out of saplings!) were inestimable. . . Katie Archer, after making it to the finish line for her engineering degree, also discovered herself without gainful employment during the spring and, once again, Orion was the benefactor, adding yet another strong, competent, experienced guide to our staffing list.

Greg Carter and Gillian Stoker, though they did not guide a great deal, always seemed to be available and ready to don their wetsuits when we needed them most. Both work hard on and off the river. Greg livens the parties, while Gilllian’s steady demeanor keeps the keel even. . . Jim Farris, a climber by nature, has taken to rafting like a kitten to a ball of yarn, and has made himself invaluble on more than one occasion and not necessarily related to guide work (a certain recalcitrant, cantankerous bus comes to mind). His guide work is also commendable because you can tell that his guests love boating with him. . . Same with Mace Burke, guests love him and even though Mace is a part-time guide, when he is on a crew, things run smoothly because he pays attention to details.

Sarah Jones has trained and certified herself into a class by herself when it comes to wilderness and backcountry first aid and, with every season, she methodically steps up her whitewater confidence and skills. . . Speaking of Jones’, Ariahna Jones guided sporadically this season because she was leading intense two-week backcountry courses with youth-at-risk, but whenever she came to work on the river (and it wasn’t often enough) you could tell she was one hundred per cent focused on the task (and the accompanying maintenance) at hand. Even if it was inner-tubing the Upper Wenatchee. . . Colin Sternagel, our 2009 WWU intern, contributed many hours to improvements out at the Chumstick Country Club assisting whichever veteran mentor who was there for the day. In addition, he took charge of many of the Oregon trips once the glamor of the early season had worn off.

And then, for the Class of 2009, without whom June’s hectic schedule would not have been possible, and much of July’s torrid back-and-forth between the Skagit, the Deschutes and the Wenatchee, would have been more nightmarish than it was.

Crystal Foss commercially guided every river except for the Skykomish and dabbled in equipment managing when push came to shove. . . More importantly, she, KC Kerr and Melissa Sher earned road trip rewards for ping-ponging about the state from river to river and making sure that the ‘show’ would go on. Melissa receives extra brownie points for being based out of Portland. Crystal, KC, Melissa, Nicole Haskey and Rachel Poole were the ‘backbone’ of our success during the heart of the summer --- and all of them were first-year guides. Melissa, Nicole, Rachel and Miriam Burke successfully navigated the Wenatchee at 800 cfs which is somewhat equivalent to getting a camel through the eye of a needle. (Okay! 97% of the 33% of the Wenatchee we boated, but who’s keeping track?) Incredibly, it was Miriam’s one and only commercial guding day!

Others who aided in the success of last season: Robert Kolden, Nancy Martella, Emily Johnston, Dane Doerflinger (Our incredible, legendary, Energizer Bunny guide trainers), Tom Scarborough (Can’t enough be said. . . ), Kayla Applebay (Apply for the Chelan County Health District job if it ever comes open!), Neil Comeau (Comic relief), Alyssa Pitingoro (Rock steady), Blair Denman (If rafting had a draft, she’d be #1), Charlotte West (Out of retirement), Nina Maus (Fireball!), Steve Laboff (Online tension reliever, erstwhile boater), Steph Turner (Skagit save-the-dayer), Andrew Knutzen (“KNUTZEN!”), Sonia Buchholz (Singlehandedly made the first Tieton weekend manageable), Mary Bridgid Burchard (whom we did not see enough of) and everyone else because I am bound to overlook someone.

And then there was Dallas Silva. Another guiding prodigy returned to the fold - if only temporarily. Dallas, an electrical lineman by trade these days, spent last winter in his motorhome in Southern California trying to work his trade in sunnier, warmer climes (as he is inclined to tell me regularly with winter encroaching). Due to the lack of work in the Golden State in his chosen profession, he took up residence at the Chumstick at the beginning of July, jockeying his motorhome into the backyard to create a kind of courtyard. He guided some, he kept Chumstick lively, he wired the pumphouse, he pruned practically every tree on the property and he added to the community. Which, in the end, is what it all boils down to.

By necessity, our community has had an ephemeral nature to it because there has not been a ‘place’. The ‘river’ has been our community and, of course, those of you drawn to it and one another, have been essential in affirming the community and keeping it alive. Now we have a physical location to go along with all the other aspects of this far-reaching, amorphous-at-times community. One more ingredient to our long-running engaging experiment. One more aspect toward making it just a little bit better. I hope all of you are looking forward to the next decade and all that it brings as much as I am.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 11

Over the years, we have joked about other potential slogans for our sloth-like business, besides the stirring phrase, The Good Guides in the White Rafts. When Julie Ann Porter, our very own Southern Belle, with an Oklahoman twang and an angelic singing voice, commandeered the subterranean office space on Latona Avenue in Wallingford, I distinctly remember one afternoon being doubled over with laughter as we considered whether the office phone should be answered with, "Going-Out-of-Business Expeditions, can you hold please?"

No doubt I had just paid some immense, unexpected bill that occurs every season like clockwork and JA, being Orion's erstwhile, indentured office manager, had received one of those unsolicited advice sessions about the joys of being a small business owner and all of the wonders of the universe that entails. It was in an effort to lighten the mood when she coined the going-out-of-business line. Her sweet Oklahoman lilt was perfect for that kind of dark-edged humor and my stomach hurt for hours.

In the early 90's during a fit of ambition and delusional expansionist dreams, Orion became embroiled in the river politics in Idaho by agreeing to place a down payment on a ridiculously priced Middle Fork outfitter called Sawtooth River Expeditions. Sawtooth was the ugly stepchild to almost all of the other 20 some odd Middle Fork river companies. SRE, for short, had no customer base, no pre-bookings for the season in which we took it over, a small storage shed of tawdry gear, no returning guides (except for a lead guide with a drinking problem) and one hell-of-a-gutsy fifteen passenger Ford wagon that had seen better days but, like the antagonist in the Friday the 13th franchise, refused to die.

For two seasons in the early 90's, Orion was a proud member of the fraternity of Middle Fork outfitters. I'd like to think we injected a little comity into an otherwise staid and sterile environment with our all-women topless float trips, predominantly female staff and laid back approach to river running. Of course this lackadaisical attitude earned us the nickname from other guides, outfitters and Forest Service personnel as "Slow River Expeditions". (I like to think of us as "unhurried"...)

More recently, Jonathan Ehlinger, Eeyore, for short, and our resident kayaking dervish, came up with the apt slogan, "Orion...Successfully Dodging Bullets for Over 30 Years". I walked into the office one morning last season, and there it was on the white eraser board. We had been discussing T-shirt designs and the dodging bullets metaphor was thrown into the idea hopper. The picture it brings to mind makes me smile. Sports announcers talk about how a team might have "dodged a bullet" --- singular --- but the idea of dodging multiple bullets, or really dodging a bullet at all, is hysterical.

The truth of that phrase is that you have to be nimble, you have to be lucky --- though the better euphemism is 'fortunate' --- and you have to have good peripheral vision. And you need to know when to use that peripheral vision because you never know where bullets are going to come from. Some of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time, and some of it has to do with doing the right thing when you find yourself in the wrong place.

You create a good deal of your good fortune by being vigilant, working hard and paying attention to the 'Big Picture' or the slightest details. But, in the final analysis, you need to be cognizant there are times you are at the mercy of the graces of the cosmos.

Which is why we tell our new guides when it comes to flipping a raft, "There are those who have, there are those who will, and there are those who will again."

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Origin of "The Tribe of the Tired & Stupid"

It was a trip down the 'Big Ditch' --- aka the Grand Canyon --- in 1985.

Ric Moore, Tom Townsend, Randy Stocker and Greg Chapman, among others, had just finished a day of hard rowing into stiff winds followed by a challenging hike up one of the numerous incredible side canyons. They were sitting about camp exhausted as Ric Moore recalls. The day's heat had yet to dissipate.

"We are tired." Tom, aka The Master of Disaster, muttered.

The four of them were enveloped in hard-earned lethargy. They were weak and enervated from some heavy-duty river running vacationing. But as Ric looked over the group, he thought, "We are more than just tired. Marathon runners get tired. Even philosophers and poets. I have witnessed tired children collapse into a puppy pile of exhaustion."

Ric was certain this group had something else affecting it.

Something less, Ric thought.

Ric rolled it over in his mind like a coin in his pocket until he finally latched upon that intangible something that truly described this particular group's being.

"And," he said, "we are stupid."

"We are," Tom paused, "the tribe of the tired AND stupid."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rescinding Licensing

In an era where every government agency is scouring their databases and tax rolls to try and find 'loose change' to feed the general revenue fund, the State of Washington, after about 15 years, has decided to scrap their licensing requirements for Whitewater River Outfitters. No doubt because of the expense to maintain the records and keep up with paperwork from an industry that has never grown much past the fledgling stage. Meaning, of course, there was no there, there. Licensing river runners was less than a zero sum game.

The letter from the Department of Licensing states the reason as being either "the industry has changed" (which is certainly not the case), "or business practices are so well established that licensure is no longer needed". I will vote for the latter because that was my argument to minimize the licensing requirements all those years ago. However, I suspect the real reason lies in the fact it was costlier to administer than it was worth.

It is interesting that while the State of Washington is --- essentially --- throwing in the towel, the State of Oregon is more than tripling its State Marine Board permit fees for whitewater outfitters from Washington operating on Oregon rivers. This is called "reciprocation". Washington charges Oregon outfitters, so Oregon reciprocates. With this February 20th decree from the Washington DOL eliminating licensing requirement AND fees. I may have to give the Oregon State Marine Board another phone call to see if reciprocation still applies.

Thus, while some expenses climb --- most expenses climb --- incredibly, some fall.


The pending legislation eliminating licensing requirements in Washington is SB 6037.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 10

It was ghastly hot, and the breeze was as dry as pottery-clay. Cicadas and common grasshoppers furiously rubbed their legs together in the tall, wheat-colored grasses. Cottonwood leaves pinwheeled on their stems. The sound of the rustling cottonwood leaves is now instantly familiar, but, at the time, was strange and novel.

We couldn't have been a stone's throw from the launch site at Green River, Utah, lazily adrift in three silver-painted, military-style rafts on the muddy and flat tributary of the Colorado River, the Green River. Our group was setting forth on a thirty-day journey through the red rock canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Nine students, three student-leaders and one crotchety, sociology professor.

Most of us were outdoor greenhorns. Most of us didn't know anyone on the trip. For most of us, this was our very first river trip.

Green River State Park was still in sight when Sarah Stockwell, one of three student instructors, a leggy, blonde Norse goddess from the northern middle of America, disrobed and stood entirely naked on the upturned bow of the largest raft, poised to dive. I don't remember any details about her statuesque body. But I have a vivid recollection of the students being shocked, followed closely by the realization that this was not going to be our 'father's river trip?.

If you know what I mean...(and as Robert would add, "...and I think you do...")

She paused just long enough for all of us to drink it in, the old hands and the greenhorns, a moment most teen age males in America don't really imagine themselves ever being privy to, before she dove into the murky water that everyone since John Wesley Powell had described as 'too thin to plow, too thick to drink'.

I recall this moment in my twenty-nine year rafting career because, I suspect, it formed the genesis of the prevailing notion that on private Orion river trips, clothing would forever be optional --- within reason and provided the circumstances do not dictate otherwise. The purpose of the anecdote is to illuminate a certain mindset among river runners with a willingness to push the cultural envelope. The other purpose is to pinpoint the philosophical stirring of the rallying cry to come --- 'Let's get Naked!'

LGN, for short. Coined by our very own Orion founder, Linda Hedlund (Zimmerman). However, that was several years into the future.

But, if I am to be truthful about this particular, brain-synapse-seering memory about Sarah Stockwell, I must also recount how the river turned out to be only a few feet deep. And how Ms. Stockwell was fortunate we weren?t forced to evacuate her in her birthday suit to the Green River Clinic. No first aid was required. She suffered no more than a scraped nose and a bruised ego.

Meanwhile, the males were just happy she didn't disfigure herself in any other way and would not need to be evacuated off the 30-day wilderness trip.


Many full moons later. . .

Deep in the canyon of the Klamath River in northern California, a 'Willie Trip' was underway. (Not that kind of 'Willie'.) At least two dozen of us were winding our way down the drought-stricken river that was so warm it was green from excessive algae and moving so slow you could swim faster than you could drift. It was overcast, but muggy warm. We were midway through the second day of a four-day trip.

Willie, who regularly organizes trips with as many of his old college friends and their wives and girlfriends as he could muster, was not shy about hewing to the 'Let's get naked!' cry, but, for some reason, this group was slow to warm up to the clothing optional option. There might have been too many new faces. It may have been the dirth of sunshine.

Bill Meltzer, Willie's friend who taught me 'Zoom, Schwartz' (and who I later honored by adding 'Meltzer' to the game's word repertoire), was on the trip having flown out from Philadelphia. Bill was a 'regular' on Willie's trips. I would describe Bill as a straight shooter with a quick wit. He wasn't afraid to put in his two cents worth and, when it came to playing 'Zoom, Schwartz', he was a merciless moderator known as the 'King' (I changed the moniker to 'Queen' in later renditions of the game).

Linda Hedlund (Zimmerman) was on the trip as well. She was also a 'Willie Trip' veteran. Toward the end of the second day, Linda was concerned that prudishness was going to trump the freedom of toplessness and, if you so desired, bottomlessness. She started devising games as we hung out beneath the tarp that had the same objectives as strip poker. Progress was slow, and participation was half-hearted, but everyone was getting a kick out of Linda's terrier-like tenacity and 'fun' was most definitely being had by all.

Suddenly, there was whooping and hollering and lots of sand being kicked up outside the shelter and when we emerged we all got an eye-full of Willie and Bill streaking around camp with nothing on but bandanas and ballcaps. The ice was broken and the inhibition floodgates flew open.

My next cogent memory of that trip is of all the rafts tied together --- stuck in an immense eddy, circling endlessly --- with every member of the trip stark naked, or nearly stark naked, lounging on the rafts or cavorting in the river like a family of otters buzzed on a six-pack of Schmidts.

To Be Continued. . .

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 9

It was the beginning of a new decade. Michael, Paul and I were in our mid-twenties, essentially penniless, living hand-to-mouth. Each of us lived with our girlfriends in their rented houses or apartments. Michael's wife-to-be, Rosie, was somehow cajoled into allowing her second story two-bedroom apartment near Green Lake to become Orion's original Seattle headquarters.

At the time, I paid no attention to the Business section of the paper, but I was aware that America was suffering an economic malaise, or a hangover, from the oil shocks of the '70s. There was a question whether Americans would fork out perfectly good money for unnecessary luxuries like raft trips. Traffic was so light, it was possible to circumnavigate greater metropolitan Seattle in less than a half hour.

I distinctly remember the owner of Zig Zag River Runners, Jim Fielder, a quotable character with a mop of hair and a brushy beard, a six foot four philosophizing lothario, state that he had read that during the Great Depression Americans spent more than ever on frivolous purchases and, in particular, for 'death-defying' rides on roller coasters. He had no doubt that raft trips would continue to be popular with the public and, indeed, he proceeded to book 10,000 corporate clients in the upcoming three-month season.

During the early years, Zig Zag was ubiquitous. Jet black cargo vans were everywhere with 'Zig Zag' magnified in white and sprayed across their sides like the mark of Zorro. Bus signs with colorful shots of rafters caught in a moment of whitewater ecstasy --- mouths agape, water splashing everywhere, huge grins and sunshine --- could be spotted all over town. And right beside the beautiful shot of beautiful people was 'Zig Zag' and their toll-free number. Zig Zag rented an office space downtown on the 13th floor of the Terminal Sales Building across from the Virginian Inn and installed a bank of phones for their small army of persistent phone solicitors.

When asked where the name Zig Zag came from, Jim Fielder used to explain that he had always been an admirer of Crazy Horse, who was known to paint a distinctive bolt of lightning across his cheeks prior to battle. Fielder claimed his distinctive scrawled Zig Zag logo was reminiscent of Crazy Horse's markings. Of course, having such a memorable name, usually associated with the 'wacky tobaccy's rolling papers, could also be seen as a promotional coup. I think Jim saw it as free advertising.

Since Zig Zag was noted for psilocybin mushroom float trips and skinny dipping on the Skagit, being associated with marijuana was not a negative necessarily. Rafting demographics was primarily baby-boomers with newly acquired disposable income who did much more than 'inhale' in the '60s and '70s. In other words, Zig Zag's public would not take umbrage to the association with marijuana or any other minor recreational drug.

Zig Zag's guides nicknamed themselves with monikers like "Bottomfish" and "Underwater John", or just "Crazy Ned", and they used to hit the beach comparing notes regarding how many guests they had put in the water that day. Seemingly the more swimmers, the better.

Almost all of the names of the rapids and obstacles on the Wenatchee are attributed to Jim Fielder and Zig Zag --- Rock N Roll, Satan's Eyeball, Gorilla Falls, Drunkard's Drop, Snowblind, Granny's. (Perhaps tellingly, 'Snowblind' was named for a book Jim enjoyed about the underworld of cocaine. It is rumored that in the mid to late '80s, cocaine led to the demise of the Zig Zag rafting 'empire'.)

While the Zig Zag juggernaut concentrated all of their efforts on generating business, and building a formidable, seemingly prosperous business, Orion made a conscious effort to be their antithesis.

We copied their sales tactics by targeting corporations' human resource departments and employee groups --- but we never hounded people with phone calls. We copied their classy swoosh-like corporate typeface --- but we weren't willing to pay thousands of dollars to a nationally known designer to create it. They didn't offer food --- we did. Their guides bragged about flipping --- we took pride in not having any swimmers, if possible, yet still offering a thrilling ride.

Jim Fielder was a master of self-promotion landing meaty newspaper articles on a regular basis and, to be fair, we rode his coattails. As Luke and the Jedi Knights were to Darth Vader, the rest of the rafting industry were to Jim Fielder in the early days. And just like Luke, if we hadn't fought the good fight against a worthy adversary, we wouldn't have been pushed to excel.

It wasn't the early '80s when I brainstormed the slogan "The Good Guides In The White Rafts" (at the suggestion of my father), but the imagery was directly connected to this ongoing adversarial relationship with Zig Zag. Good versus evil. White, as in opposition, to black. Safety first rather than entertainment first. The Rebels or the Federation.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 8

A thousand guests in 1979 seriously taxed our ability to provide our services. Not to mention Linda's ability to bake enough mint chocolate chip cookies.

Our equipment was excellent, though limited. Our insurance was valid, though, perhaps, that wasn't always the case (thank goodness we never had to test it). We even had a practically brand new Chevrolet cargo van (only slightly used --- less than 3,000 miles --- utilized for a single berry-picking season). But, the reality was, that the five partners acting as guides were insufficient to deal with the occasional overflow crowds we had booked.

In hindsight, thirty years later, we laugh. But, if you think about it, we were lucky. And, sometimes, downright frighteningly lucky.

Like the day on the Suiattle, a river choked with enough Douglas Firs to build a replica of Daniel Boone's home town, when we had more than a dozen rafts heading downriver at once. In 1979, we were all novices. Even I had no formal training guiding a raft, and my partners only knew as much as I could impart to them. Our total experience could have been imprinted on a matchbook cover. One side.

The other rafts were guided by folks with less experience than us. They were hand-selected, good friends. Competent and personable and, a few of them, extremely capable in the outdoors --- if you were talking orienteering or mountain-climbing. They had no business guiding an inflatable raft with customers on a river like the Suiattle. One of our 'guides', unbeknownst to us at the time, could only see out of one eye!

But there we were. A mob of well-meaning idiots guiding a mob of clueless innocents. Obviously and fortunately, it ended without incident. Through the mists of time, I have forgotten what we were thinking, but I imagine we were caught by surprise and acted out of desperation and hubris. I have always been an extremely cautious outdoorsman, but when you are young, sometimes you take leave of your senses and never realize it until much later. Unless, of course, your fortune collides with misfortune.

We never expected to generate so much business, so quickly. We were unprepared for groups larger than 40 and, since they were such a rarity, we didn't train additional guides to handle the overflow. But that day, and a couple of others like it, convinced us we needed employees if we were going to continue with this business charade.

It also informed us of two appositional lessons: moving water is inherently dangerous (notice the qualifying word is 'moving', not a particular 'class' of water) and river rafting was a forgiving activity. The thing is. . . you can not count on a river being forgiving --- in advance. You count on it being forgiving once a mistake is made.

In any case, during the winter between the second and third seasons, we started laying the ground work for a much larger loan. It was embarassing to rent cheap, Korean-made inflatables from U-Haul, and uncomfortable hiring folks who were liabilities (to put it mildly). We (Michael, Paul and I) figured we could use, at least, $20,000. It seemed like a fortune at the time but, in hindsight, we should have 'shot the moon' and solicited as much as $50,000.

Debbie and Linda were bought out, and Michael, Paul and I moved the operation into Rosie Standaert's (Michael's present wife) apartment near Green Lake in Seattle, and hired a lawyer in order to become incorporated. The equipment was shoved into a mini-storage near Woodinville.

That winter quarter I drove to Bellingham to interview prospective guides during one of the college's 'Career Days', or something like that. I wore a suit and tie, and may have even shined my shoes. Michael and I nixed Paul doing any of the interviewing. We were sure his Wookie-like features and his off-the-wall non sequitors would brand us as less than reputable.

The idea was to select a handful of people to attend our guide training course and to complement the three remaining partners and Greg Lunz and Therese Harrild who lived in Leavenworth and who were our contacts at a bed-and-breakfast called Haus Rohrbach. Greg and Therese's training in 1979 consisted of riding down the Wenatchee a couple of times in my raft. Greg looked like a biker who ate nails for breakfast, but who was actually a pussycat, and Therese could have been a linebacker for UW. They were guide 'naturals'.

In the spring of 1980, we trained a couple of dozen people, but the five we knew we wanted to hire were Kirk Flanders, Kelly Turner, Scott Teitelbaum, Gary Renspurger and Sharon MacAulay (Lunz).

It was the nascent beginning of a community-minded ethos we have never relinquished and have tried fervently to maintain ever since.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 7

We ended our first season with a fat paycheck of $50 a piece. In truth, I doubt, seriously, whether we truly could have afforded to pay ourselves that much. We may have served 100 guests during the summer of 1978.

The winter months found Michael, Paul and I living off of unemployment insurance. I also recall a time period when I tried to buy and resell sawed-off oak barrels I purchased out of Canada and tried to peddle to nurseries in bulk or to individuals on the street. There was also a brief time period when Michael and I attempted to earn a living delivering The Bellingham Herald.

We didn't need much to survive. After all, we resided in a group house that was meant for six people and we had somehow squeezed in ten. Our monthly rent was under $50, and the utilities were inconsequential. Talk about living on the margins. . . It was a good thing none of us obsessed over appearances because, otherwise, the bathroom scene would have destroyed us.

During our idle winter, besides falsifying documents stating that we were seeking employment (hopefully the statute of limitations are up on this sort of disclosure), we spent dozens of hours contemplating how we were going to improve Orion for the next season. And, more importantly, how could we scare up more business?

I remember phoning the owner of Zig Zag Expeditions and picking his brain about put-ins and take-outs and rivers and permits. We talked about everything river-related. Jim Fielder, the owner and a former school teacher out of Bellevue, conversed readily and easily. He was happy to divulge all kinds of useful tidbits. He might have seen us as a threat, if we hadn't have seemed. . . oh, I don't know. . . so 'small-time'. We were college students living off spare change and having no clue how to operate a business.

How could we have possibly seemed like a threat?

But, during our rambling conversations, one tiny bit of information surfaced that captured our tight-fisted, monetarily-challenged imagination. Jim Fielder divulged that the secret to his 'success' was cold-calling. 'Solicitation', as it is otherwise known. The idea of cold-calling, as you can imagine, was repulsive to all of us --- except, maybe Paul. Unfortunately, Paul was the last of us we wanted left alone with potential clients. Who knew what he might say, or offer?

However, being Recreation majors, we thought we could bring a twist to the concept. Not only would we be the least pushy solicitors anyone had ever encountered, we would target only companies and, more specifically, human resource people who were nominally in charge of organizing recreational activities for their firms anyway. Our schtick would be simple. We would phone a large company (usually in King County), ask to speak with the person in charge of employee recreation, ask if that person would be interested in a brochure about rafting and --- gasp! --- leave it at that. We planned on letting the idea of whitewater rafting do the selling.

Nine times out of ten, the person we spoke with was happy to receive a brochure. It was no sweat off their backs. And then a small percentage of those folks would call us back for further information. It was no more trouble than plucking blackberries in September. They didn't have to commit to anything. We didn't have to sell anything.

Paul would jokingly say in the midst of our phoning marathons, "Sell hard. Sell fast. Nobody hurt." A tiny twist to the New Games credo at the time of "Play hard. Play fast. Nobody hurt." But, in reality, we were the softest sellers in the history of capitalism. It worked because rafting was unique. Hardly anyone in the state of Washington had ever heard of such a thing. And especially not in paddle rafts.

The business mushroomed in the summer of 1979. And when all was said and done, we had taken approximately 1000 people rafting between the months of June and late July --- a ten-fold increase! The going rate at the time was $22 a person and it included lunch which INCLUDED Linda's homemade mint chocolate chip cookies. What a bargain! Of course, in determining our price, I doubt we gave a single moment's thought to what Zig Zag or Pacific Northwest Floats was charging. Flawed thinking if ever there had been flawed thinking. (That sort of thinking, employed by others, would come back to bite us in the ass in the future.)

But in the halcyon days of 1979, we weren't looking very far into the future. But even looking cross-eyed at the tip of our noses, we knew two things: we needed additional guides, and we needed more gear.

Make that three things. . . we needed more money.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


My business mantra for the past three plus decades has been --- "Well. . . it could have been worse. . ." You might say it is 'out of necessity', but I don't think so. It is just my natural inclination toward cynicism and pessimism. I prefer to think of myself as an 'ossimist'.

This 'ossimism' has helped me navigate dozens of trials and tribulations.

For instance:

Example #1 "What was that? You dragged 50 brand new top-of-the-line Extrasport lifejackets 5 miles down the highway? Destroying most of them?"

Example #2 "Our wetsuits were stolen from our van on the Methow River and tossed on a lady's lawn where? In the next county? One lawn or more?"

Example #3 "You put diesel in a gas engine, and the bus, which is full of the day's river gear, is stranded on which Pass?"

Example #4 "'Someone forgot to check the oil in the bus and the engine blew up where outside Gold Bar?"

Example #5 "You mean to tell me that the bus we are driving to Central America from the Pacific Northwest caught FIRE on the way home?"

Example #6 "The main lunch course is our famous tuna salad and we are missing which ingredient? Tuna? But we still have relish, sunflower seeds and apples?"

Example #7 "A raft is wrapped on a bridge pillar, the river is rising, we deflated a tube by shooting it with a .22 rifle, and it is STILL stuck on the pillar?"

Example #8 "You are telling me the bus is blocking what highway? The Mountain Loop Highway? What the hell?"

Example #9 "Can't you see I just sat down to eat dinner? The bus is stuck in a ditch, and blocking what highway? The White Pass (Highway 12) Highway?"

Some people like to look at the glass as half full. I admire that tendency. But my preference is seeing it as half empty. I think either philosophy is just a means of coping with the situation at hand. Neither necessarily better than the other.

I am thrilled with incremental improvements. I never expect miracles. I am never letdown because I anticipate the possibility of negatives. This does not prevent me from flipping my wig, either overtly or covertly, when I get those calls at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m. But it tends to even my keel quickly.

I am comforted with the notion that we have elected a man as president whom I believe sees the negatives, is tinged with cynicism but still has the audacity to hope. How could Barack Obama not be tainted with cynicism having grown up black in America?

No drama Obama. I am certain that during his presidency he will appear to casual observers like the proverbial duck gliding back and forth on the placid pond. On the surface --- cool, calm and collected. Beneath the surface? Duck-paddling like hell.

His temperament is upbeat and positive, yet pragmatic. He is going into this wide-eyed knowing that the possibilities of what might unfold will lie all across the continuum. But no matter what, he will be able to even his keel quickly and say, "Well, it could have been worse. . . "

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 6

Talking to our profs about our hare-brained idea to launch our own river company was the equivalent of talking to the Mother Superior about installing a hot tub at the convent. They held the power to dash our concept into tiny, irretrievable pieces. So, we approached our meeting with a great deal of trepidation.

To our complete surprise, they did not resist. Cris Miller was non-committal. Jim Moore said that we had to be nuts to attempt starting a business and, since obviously we were addled, we should 'go for it'.

And Ron Riggins --- the one who could easily pull the plug with a mere look of disdain --- practically embraced the idea as his own. A week or so later, he was co-signing a loan for $3,500 using his new Bellingham abode as collateral. The loan was needed for equipment such as boats, pumps, paddles and other necessary stuff. We'd already blown through our 'war chest' on advertising, insurance and day-to-day expenses.

The thirty-five hundred dollars procured two Campways Miwoks, a used Rubber Crafters Yampa from Prescott College (not 'Orion', but 'Merlin'), a dozen paddles and lifejackets and a pump of some kind. My Ford Maverick was outfitted with a trailer hitch and we rented a U-Haul when we needed it. Later in the summer, I traded my Maverick for a 'three-on-the-tree', V-6, white Chevy pick-up. At that point, we were on our way.

All that we needed was some business.

Our church mailing ended disastrously with the threat of a lawsuit from the outfit in West Virginia whose image we had 'borrowed'. We recalled all of our brochures as recompense, and our second brochure effort was hasty and ugly in comparison. As far as I remember, not a single church group booked a river trip.

July 4th, 1978 found the five of us in Glacier, Washington, at Graham's Restaurant. Somehow we arranged to sell trips from the lobby of the restaurant with an inflated raft as a prop. The Fourth of July Special was $150 for a boatload of folks to paddle the Nooksack which flowed right outside the restaurant's doors.

It was a slow Fourth. Traffic was light. Canadians headed up to Mount Baker for the annual ski jump that ended in a quasi-frozen lake. The Bandidos motorcycle club (think Hell's Angels Lite) roared into town. Making a pit stop on their way up the mountain.

About that time, one of the town characters stopped into Graham's. He called himself 'Dirty Dan Hamlin' and he wore an ankle-length sheepskin coat. He stood about as tall as a mantle on a fireplace and his beard was peppered with silver. Dirty Dan fished out of Alaska, but whiled away summers in Galcier. He'd never floated the Nooksack in all of the years he had lived there but it had always been a dream of his to do so.

He squeezed $150 of cash into my hand and said he would pay for the entire boat. Now, we just needed several other participants. Dirty Dan thought the Bandidos would get a kick out of rafting the Nooksack, so he ambled off to chat with the motorcycle enthusiasts hanging out in the parking lot, picking their teeth and polishing their chrome.

Gary Graham, never one to miss an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, saw an opening unfolding for the perfect photo op. Mickey Mouse ears were produced, a buxom, blonde waitress turned up in a bikini despite the fact it was sub-sixty degrees Fahrenheit and threatening rain and a gaggle of Bandidos were herded toward the riverbank and an inflated raft.

The Bandidos were clad neckline to ankle in black leather. The women wore stiletto heels. Chain jewelry clanked. Tobacco use was prevalent. Dirty Dan, possibly under the influence of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, wound up wearing the Mickey Mouse ears which gave him a look of perpetual questioning.

The Bandidos made it perfectly clear that they would never ride anything that didn't come equipped with a carburetor. A photo op was permissible, but rafting was out. Michael fretted over the sharpness of the ladies' heels. While Gary's comely employee's flesh looked like a freshly plucked turkey. Even so, this hodge-podge of humanity clambered onto one of our new Miwoks and someone caught the tableau for posterity's sake --- probably Linda, our erstwhile photographer. A photo reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang.

A half-hour later, Dirty Dan and I along with Gary Graham's son and a friend were careening down the Nooksack. We never could get Dirty Dan to remove his sheepskin coat. He was more suitably dressed for Shackleton's crossing of Antarctica's ice floes.

We secured a bulky Mae West flotation device on top of it knowing full well he would probably sink like an anvil if he went overboard. He kneeled in the non-self-bailing raft as if it was a canoe. I cringed every time I came close to a rock in anticipation of cracking his kneecap.

As is often said, the rest is history.

Dan Hamlin survived his bumpy ride on the Nooksack and became Orion's first paying customer on our first commercial river expedition.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 5

In order to achieve the terminal velocity necessary to escape Western Washington University’s Recreation program with diploma in hand, you needed to devise a suitable internship plan.

Late in the winter of 1978, several of us started seriously thinking about our Phase III Recreation internship. (A ‘phase’ is a college quarter dedicated solely to classes in the field of Recreation. A ‘phaser’ is one who participates in a Recreation phase. Most parents probably believed, and hoped, we were just going through a ‘phase’ when we declared Recreation to be our major.) Initially, our plan was to resurrect the once thriving, but now defunct Outdoor Program at Whatcom County Parks. We talked extensively with the head honcho at Whatcom County about the vision we had for a renewed outdoor program. As far as we could tell, all systems were ‘Go’ for our ambitious project which seemingly included everything from square dancing to mountain climbing to Anasazi basket weaving classes. In the meantime, the deadline for submitting our internship details to our remarkably patient Recreation professors loomed.

At the eleventh hour, Whatcom County Parks' administrator pulled the rug out from under our ambitions and hired a recreation professional out of the San Francisco Bay Area. In hindsight, I am certain he did us a favor. The Outdoor Program we envisioned would have taxed our organizational and logistical capabilities. In addition, working for the county government might have soured us on the idea of recreation as therapy forever.

With our plan shattered, we pieced together an alternative. Why not start our own business? Why not outfit horse trips (Deb Poulter’s strength), bicycle tours (Michael Bellert's passion) and river trips (my --- dubious --- forte)? Of course, we couldn’t divulge this harebrained scheme to our professors. They were likely to burst our balloon and send each of us individually out to seek an internship we didn’t have the heart to do. I imagined working for some sort of governmental bureaucracy doing menial chores, like smoothing the infield dirt at a city ballfield, and I just couldn’t get excited.

So, we planned a business covertly. One of the progenitors of the Whatcom County Park idea bailed out in fear of riding a project doomed to be rejected. Another was uncomfortable with the potential money and liability exposure. So, after those two partners bowed out and after the three remaining budding entrepreneurs ‘penciled’ out a few vague numbers, we decided we could use a couple of additional partners for financial reasons, if nothing else. Consequently, Deb, Michael and I were joined late one school night at the Samish Way Denny’s restaurant by Linda, Michael’s effervescent girlfriend, and Paul, who was a self-described ‘artiste’ and who looked like he and Chewbacca had been separated at birth. Paul was also Michael’s childhood friend from Chicago.

Deb Poulter’s parents owned a Summer Camp called BearPole Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She played the guitar and had a musical quiver full of John Denver songs. Deb’s time outdoors and working with kids outnumbered the rest of us combined.

Michael had a head on his shoulders for numbers and business terminology and ‘keeping books’. Linda already had several years of experience working as a corporate receptionist --- managing filing cabinets, fielding phone calls and customer service. That left Paul and I.

I was happy being the equipment and logistics guy and Paul was, essentially, a fifth wheel. In Paul’s case, he was a squeaky fifth wheel. He was meant to be a ‘silent partner’. Meaning, the money he borrowed from his grandmother was used to help launch the business, while we expected him to stand clear and not make our lives unnecessarily complicated.

Paul viewed the world abstractly. He could be funny and amusing in conversation, but exasperating when trying to explain shuttle arrangements or how to efficiently slice a cucumber. You could never be certain he fully grasped the gist of what you were saying, not to mention reality. More likely than not, he would look at you quizzically as if he were attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube or you were speaking an interplanetary language.

He wore his hair long, shaggy and unkempt, and the same could be said for his clothes. But he LOVED the idea of being an entrepreneur. It was a concept that grew on him as the process moved along. He would announce to anyone and everyone with a handmade business card and a doofy grin that he was the owner of a rafting company. It amused him and, even though he seemed lost in space, he took the business seriously.

At the Samish Way Denny’s, at the corner of Samish Way and I-5 in Bellingham, we hashed out business details, to-do lists and what would be the business’ name over coffee, tea and frozen hash browns. We kicked around names for hours before I finally suggested ‘Orion’ from one of the boats on my original Prescott journey. Almost every name we mused over before ‘Orion’ sounded like an herbal essence shampoo.

As for business details, we quickly learned that horse rental was impossibly expensive and that insurance companies were not interested in insuring bike tours. Rafting was our only option.

Rafting insurance was more straightforward than it sounds because I knew companies in Utah had to be insured. Byron L. Turner Agency out of Salt Lake City covered us for less than a thousand bucks. Hardly a question asked.

Next, we needed a brochure. A ‘How-To’ river running book by Verne Huser sported tons of action-oriented rafting photos and, since we were thousands of miles away from the East coast where most of the photos were taken, and thousands of miles away from where Huser, the native Texan, lived, we thought --- What were the odds? We were in Bellingham, at the farthest reaches of christendom, doing a direct mail to youth pastors in the state of Washington --- who would find out and what could be the harm?

We worked twenty-four consecutive hours pain-stakingly assembling the brochure using press-on type lettering. Paul created our logo which we joked about having a phallic semblance with the jagged peaks and globular waves positioned directly below the ‘forest of marching penises’. We folded, stamped and labeled one hundred over-sized brochures and sent them on their way.

We had the name. We had the business concept. We had insurance. And we had just completed our first marketing campaign.

Now it was time to talk to our professors.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 4


I am uncomfortable with change.

I wear the same clothes day after day, haunt the same haunts, perform the same routine over and over. Amongst the instructors, during guide training, the common refrain goes, ". . . but, we always do it that way!" And yet, between 1974 and 1976, I careened from one of the smallest colleges in the universe, to one of the largest universities ever built, to a state college in the farthest reaches of the continental United States.

In suburban north Dallas, my life was so free of change I attended elementary through high school without ever leaving one street! Arapaho was the name of the residential street where Arapaho Elementary, West Junior High and Richardson High School were located one after the other like some sort of meat processing facility or car manufacturing assembly line.

Arapahos were nomadic Plains Indians who never set foot in north Texas. I was a sedentary suburbanite who had hardly set foot outside of Texas. I love to observe the irony in these things.

In any case. . . change.

I landed in Bellingham and enrolled at Western for my third institution of higher learning in the same number of years. I expected my friend from Prescott, Bob Ratcliffe, to also be enrolled, but I learned belatedly from his (former, but unbeknownst to her) girlfriend, Marcy, that he had taken one of life’s little detours. She had no clear idea what his plans were but he hadn’t enrolled at Evergreen State either, which had been his first option. It must have caught her by surprise, as much as it had thrown me for a loop, because, within a quarter, she recollected her backpack and returned to Colorado.

I remained at Western on my own. I imagined Western, being a state college, would be filled to overflowing with local yokels. Hundreds of in-state students who hadn’t been accepted at the larger universities. Students whose grade points were not worth getting worked up over. Community college graduates climbing the academic ladder.

Imagine my surprise when the first dozen people I met were from out-of-state. And then the next two dozen people I met were from out-of-state. There were so many of us we formed our own little clique. I encountered Washingtonians who reinforced my stereotypical image and many who shattered it, but the cadre of folks I hung with were predominantly transplants.

I clearly remember the day I remarked to a table of new friends at a Fairhaven District teahouse that "I wouldn’t be surprised to look up one day and it will be six years later and I will still be in Washington." It seemed incredible to be imagining such a long span of time in such a strange land. My comment was spoken after my first quarter of homesickness because I also remember re-packing my Pinto for Christmas break fully intending to return forever to the Lone Star State.

However, a sudden relationship with an erudite, environmentally sensitive blond sprite from Ohio brought me back to Bellingham. I say ‘sudden’ because it unfolded and sprung to life only a week before I packed to head home. We had been ‘study hall’ friends throughout my first fall in the Northwest, but intimacy had not surfaced until the eleventh hour. Our relationship didn’t survive the summer of 1977, but it served as the bridge between Texas and Washington that helped me to leave behind the past and begin to concentrate on my very own future.

Talk about a simple twist of fate. I have no idea what path I would be traveling if I had returned to Texas. Odds are, however, I would not know anyone in the Northwest that I know today. Once I arrived back in Bellingham I committed myself to the half-baked idea of pursuing a degree combining recreation and counseling.

But first I had to figure out how to survive monetarily. I enrolled in the work-study program and landed a job with Bellingham Parks and Recreation. What I loved most about my job with park maintenance was the carte blanche to drive a city vehicle with impunity --- across park grounds, double parking in the roadway, driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In the fall of 1977, I scored a coveted position as a Resident Aide for the Fairhaven complex on the south end of the campus.

The Fairhaven R.A.s convened in early August and determined that the twelve ‘stacks’, or apartment buildings, at Fairhaven would each be given a theme and we would try and match the incoming students to the ‘theme’ of that dorm. I opted for the ‘Outdoor Recreation’ and ‘Environmental’ stacks.

Meanwhile, from the moment I drove back to WWU, I immersed myself in outdoor activities by proposing and leading river trips on the Skagit River through the college’s Outdoor Program. I was amazed at the ease with which I could check rafts out from the Outdoor Program on my flimsy credentials. It would not be inaccurate to say, after my brief apprenticeship on the Colorado River with Prescott, that I ‘cut my teeth’ refining my rafting skills on the mighty, ‘Magic Skagit’.

A spring trip in 1977 was an eye-opener for me. Michael Bellert and Linda Zimmerman, two new friends who recently moved from Chicago, and my high school sweetheart, Jill Jeanes, who had flown to the Northwest for a visit, suffered an icy dunking in the S-Turn when the hysterically historic raft we were paddling, known as a "World Famous", stood on its hindquarters (if rafts had hindquarters to stand on) and the four of us unceremoniously slid into the frigid, emerald waters. No neoprene in miles, of course. Lots of New Zealand wool, however.

The "World Famous", of unknown vintage and origin, was equipped with wooden slats for seats, instead of thwarts. To compound the hilarity of its design, the seats were varnished and the front end bulged like a snake in half-swallow. Additionally, the "World Famous" was as substantial as a gas station vending machine condom.

As we dropped into the entry of the S-Turn, and the bow bucked high toward the sky, Linda, Michael, Jill and I all slipped off of the seats like pats of butter on a hot roll. To be fair, the "World Famous" wasn’t meant to be a whitewater raft. But, also to be fair, we were, generally, clueless. When we returned our bedraggled selves to Goodell Creek Campground, we met an outfitter from Alaska who showed us what a real raft was supposed to look like and taught us our first drinking game. He and his wife also introduced us to a blended whiskey we were unfamiliar with. . . the drink of choice on hoary winter nights by gold-addled prospectors and wild-eyed river runners...Yukon Jack.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 3

Sometime during my first collegiate year, Prescott College, mired in financial hot water, lost its academic accreditation. Significantly, the staff of twenty-four professors, despite being booted off their remote, wilderness-like campus, and in spite of a loss of accreditation, chose to conduct their seminars and classes right out of their homes.

I returned to Prescott after Christmas break, and though I admired the professors’ temerity, I did not return to take classes. I couldn't see spending perfectly good money on an education that wouldn't transfer to any other university program. I spent the winter and spring of 1975 umpiring volleyball games, trying to commit suicide by instructing myself in skiing techniques like negotiating moguls (the knee-pounding humps, not the rich fat cats), and hiking in the Grand Canyon with my Prescott College friends.

I researched alternative colleges throughout the Midwest and West --- Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio(!), Colorado College, Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri(!!), Jordan College in Minnesota(!!?) and the University of Santa Cruz in California. But, in a sudden schizophrenic direction change, I opted to enroll at the University of Texas’ Honors College --- theoretically, a college within a college --- 200 undergraduate students selected out of an enrollment of 50,000. But the main attraction for me to attend the University of Texas was the reunion with my high school friends and the proximity of three siblings --- my two brothers and a sister.

Though I was enrolled in the Honors College for Liberal Arts, all that I remember from the entirety of those two semesters, was playing intramural sports. My brothers and I, along with my high school buddies, organized teams for everything --- football, coed football, basketball, coed basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, badminton and racquetball. Looking back, I have no idea how I found time to study. Perhaps I didn’t. I mean, we played sports and organized pickup games, even when we were not involved in our intramural games.

But the ‘outdoor bug’ had bit me. The trouble was that Texas didn’t feel like it had an ‘outdoors’.

There was, however, one notable exception.

It was during my University of Texas stint when my brother-in-law, Ed, hired a kayaking instructor who guided Ed, my brother, Mike, my father and I on a three-day whitewater kayaking trip on the Guadalupe River outside of Austin, Texas. He tried futilely to teach us to kayak from scratch. Teaching a mule to bake cornbread from scratch would have been easier. At least, the mule would have been less stubborn and would surely have bellyached less.

I think you can describe our experience as ‘fun’, but we spent most of our time swimming to shore with kayak in tow, or refusing to make any maneuver that might jeopardize our upright, above water, natural air-breathing position. I distinctly remember being exhausted from doing the one-armed crawl-stroke in my stone-washed denims.

None of us reminisce about our kayaking adventure, without recalling our physical exhaustion, Mike’s ability to avoid turning over (which either stemmed from his low center of gravity or a well-honed sense of survival) and our incredulity that Dad managed to clamber out of his sleeping bag on that first morning following a day of ingesting water and dragging his ass back to shore. But, clamber he did. And he kayaked with us two out of the three days. On the third morning he wised up and ran the shuttle.

Afterward, I invested a fair amount of time perfecting my roll in a swimming pool, but it was a few years before I ventured onto moving water in a kayak again. Of course, for a Texas boy, the ice baths of the rivers in the Northwest were never as enticing as the bath tub water of the Southwest.

The whole time in Texas I dreamed and schemed of returning to the West. I imagined a program and a university degree entitled ‘Wilderness Education and Counseling Psychology’. I had visions of a life of therapeutic outdoor recreation. In fact, Boston College offered a program along those lines, but Massachusetts was a long way from my ideal setting.

My Dad rode to the rescue again. An old friend of his was the Dean of Recreation at San Francisco State. Dad suggested I pick his brain in regards to wilderness recreation programs in the West. I phoned him and got his list of recommendations.

San Francisco State topped his list, of course, but he also plugged the University of Oregon and Western Washington State College. My best friend from Prescott, Bob Ratcliffe, tried steering me toward Evergreen State College in Olympia where we could create our own program and wouldn’t have to deal with grades and a traditional education.

I met Bob during my wilderness orientation and admired his outdoor savvy which was light-years beyond mine, but I was impatient to be finished with public schooling. The small taste of freedom that accompanied the unexpected turn-of-events at Prescott primed me to get on with joining the ‘workforce’. The thought of attending a school, which required critical thinking in order to emerge with a degree, seemed overwhelming and daunting. I wanted a ticket out of school.

In the end, I selected Western because the Recreation program included an emphasis on outdoor recreation, their classes were bunched together in what they called ‘phases’ --- similar to Prescott’s intensive one or two subjects at a time in month-long ‘blocks’ --- the campus was lovely with red brick paths and towering evergreens and, as a bonus, the wilderness reaches of western Canada were a mere hop, skip and a jump away.

I toiled through the scalding hot and blistering dry Dallas summer laboring as a nursery worker unloading semi-truck loads of fresh, chlorophyll-laden plants imported from British Columbia. Each time I climbed on board to start the unloading process, I would take a deep breath and the lure of the verdant Northwest grew more and more irresistible.

It was September of 1976. With just a week to go before classes were in session, I packed every possession possible into my 1972 pastel-blue Ford Pinto, the interior crammed full except for the driver’s seat, and set out on the interstate for one of the farthest corners of the lower 48 states --- a sleepy little burg at the end of the interstate called Bellingham.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Story of Orion - Part 2

Thirty days in the redrock country of Utah did not make me an outdoorsman. (Thirty five years hasn’t molded me into one either, for that matter.) In all honesty, I don’t recall learning very many ‘outdoor skills’. No survival skills, no map and compass skills, no river rescue skills. Since a majority of the river trip was a float trip, we barely learned how to steer the rafts.

It was a thirty day wilderness orientation trip with minimal structure. I remember a fair amount of hiking, as well as backpacking. We ate an enormous amount of peanut butter and jam on round crackers called ‘Bolton biscuits’ which was just one of the indestructible foods that we hauled down river in used military black bags referred to as ‘blags’. We also ate an enormous amount of tasteless granola and freeze dried dinners. We brought 5 pound bricks of cheese that we kept unrefrigerated for the entire time. The cheese blocks grew sweaty and greasy in the unremitting heat of the desert, but, remarkably, none of them grew moldy or had to be discarded.

We had three rafts and they were all paddled. The rafts were stuffed with thirteen people’s worth of gear. Two people shared one blag for their sleeping bags, ensolite foam pads, extra clothes and a second set of shoes which were, typically, boots for hiking. We carried no coolers. We had no tents. Our aluminum-framed backpacks were strapped to the rafts separately in one large awkward bundle.

As we paddled the silver-painted glorified military assault rafts, we sat amongst our gear which was spread throughout the raft from the bow to the stern. You may imagine that I learned knots from rigging gear every day, but until we reached the seventeen miles of whitewater below the confluence of the Green and the Colorado, we relied on gravity. The only knot I could tie in 1974, before the wilderness orientation and after the wilderness orientation, was the one I used to tie my shoelaces.

(And, everyone who watches me tie my shoes laughs because I do something back-asswards, but I can’t tell you today what it is. My mother taught me that bow-tie and I have no intention of relearning a more efficient method five decades hence.)

Two of the rafts we paddled were 15 feet long with large diameter tubes. The 15 foot model with the upturned snout was called a ‘Yampa’ after the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado. The smaller 13 footer was named for the Selway River in Idaho. Ironically, I have never paddled either of those rivers.

The rafts had been christened with names as well. The Selway was named ‘Guacamole’, perhaps because it was the craft most likely to be turned to mush in the whitewater of Cataract Canyon. The two Yampas were named ‘Merlin’ (I always presumed for the magician, but it might also have referred to the town near the Rogue River) and ‘Orion’, the company’s namesake raft and constellation.

Other than hiking and backpacking and eating ‘cardboard-flavored’ meals, the only other organized activity I remember --- not including the three-day solo at journey’s end --- was a rapell from a one hundred foot sandstone cliff somewhere in the bowels of The Maze. Somehow I was selected to go first. As I nervously hung over the cliff’s edge, my mind waging a battle between fear and humiliation, I remember Len Barron, the sociology professor who had accompanied our trip, leaning over the precipice and say in his East Coast accent through his brushy gray mustache, "You know, James, it’s perfectly permissible to smile."

Len would later say during the campfire evaluations that I should consider breaking the mold, dare to go out on a limb, commit to doing something out of the ordinary. I was not a risk-taker, and it was obvious. If I played my cards at all, I always played them close to the vest. Len challenged me to think outside of the box I created for myself.

(Of course, he also told one of the slightly uptight female students that she should get herself laid. Len’s candor and generalizing repelled most Prescott students. Indeed, only a couple of us selected him as an advisor.)

I ramble about the Prescott wilderness orientation because it was during that period I realized there was something about being outdoors with a group of people that energized and inspired me. I sat down in the mouth of Dark Canyon at the beginning of those seventy-two hours knowing I valued family and community, but I don’t think I understood or fully appreciated the extent I valued them because I had never been forced to confront my values and to mull them over endlessly.

My time in slickrock country during the fall of 1974 did not seal my career path. I did not receive an epiphany that said, "Go forth and found an adventure travel company and you will be forever satisfied with your existence". The whitewater of Cataract Canyon was sufficiently exhilarating but it did not convert me into a whitewater junkie. I did not pursue rafting or kayaking or hiking or rock-climbing immediately after my wilderness immersion.

What I learned in my wilderness sojourn with Prescott College was the value of community and a method by which communities can be formed, strengthened, reinvigorated and grown. Up until that time I had blithely wandered through my life cherishing my friendships, my family and viewing from afar my father and mother growing church communities throughout Texas, but not fully appreciating that I needed to maintain contact with the process of community-building or I would wither away.

This wasn’t fully clear at the end of my wilderness orientation either, but it was beginning to be a niggling irritant in the back of my mind. The sort of irritant that might just blossom into a pearl if given sufficient time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Story of Orion - River Rafting in Washington - Part 1

The Story of Orion

As told, and remembered by the Grand Poohbah Hisself

In Twelve Parts. . .


I am going to begin at the very beginning.

At a time when Orion was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye. At a time when I had no idea I would spend the majority of my life in ‘The Great North Woods’, as my high school girlfriend’s father liked to call it, or ‘The Great NorthWet’, as Emily Johnston prefers to call it. A time when outdoor recreation meant Starcraft pop-up trailers and the word campground was spelled with a ‘K’ as far as my family was concerned --- as in Kampgrounds of America, aka KOA.

It was the early ‘70’s. I was in love with iconoclasm, progressive country and environmentalism. I was out-of-step with everyone who lived in north Texas. A high school classmate reminded me the other day that I would recycle my paper lunch sack until it was as limp as toilet tissue. I had begun questioning the twin Texas sacred cows of competition and football. If old enough, I would have voted for a Hispanic (a relative of Fidel Castro) for governor. My father campaigned for him, a sacrilege in the Republican fortress of Dallas.

The Vietnam War was winding down. Watergate was heating up. And disco, thanks to the BeeGees and John Travolta, was catching on.

I did not have a single clue where I would go to college or what I would study when I got there. I wasn’t even certain college appealed to me. Even though I was a member of the National Honor Society and a successful public school student, I sensed an ‘emptiness’ to my education.

‘Garbage in, garbage out’ was a popular expression of the time. (Had something to do with technological hunks of junk known as 'computers'.)

For some unknown reason, since I deplored mathematics, I applied and was accepted to the University of Santa Clara’s engineering program. In fact, I was offered an academic scholarship to study environmental engineering. I have a vague memory of wanting to work on the reclamation of strip mined lands. I distinctly remember the program stretching through five years with practically every single class predetermined --- all the electives were clustered toward the fifth and final year.

Despite my antipathy toward math and science, I felt I needed the scholarship in order to attend a college, so I awaited my enrollment like a prisoner awaits his execution. I have no idea what I was thinking. It seemed the ‘thing to do’.

Out of the blue, my father, a Presbyterian minister with a nationwide audience through his weekly column in the Presbytery’s national magazine, came to me with an alternative proposal. Perhaps he had noticed my lack of excitement. Perhaps he saw something in me that I hadn’t plumbed. Perhaps he played a hunch. Maybe he hoped to live through me vicariously.

In any case, he told me about a small liberal arts college in northern Arizona called Prescott College. A reader of his from Arkansas had mailed a letter and a National Geographic article featuring Prescott and its unusual curriculum, educational style and freshman orientation. This reader told my dad that she thought his youngest son, whom she had read so much about in his weekly essays, might enjoy this sort of education. (I don’t know the name of this ‘angel’, but in hindsight, I send a much-belated and deeply heartfelt thank-you.)

When my father suggested I consider Prescott College, and that he would foot the bill, at least for the first year, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. If nothing else, I could postpone deciding my future for another couple of years while I explored alternatives at Prescott. Those of you who know me well, know I do not tend toward excitability. So it won’t surprise you that my father was more excited about Prescott than I was, and what excited him the most was the orientation program for all freshmen and transfer students.

Prescott’s wilderness orientation program, following a week’s worth of matriculation, was a thirty-day sojourn somewhere in the wilds of Southwest. The incoming students were divided into several groups of ten and then trucked to Baja to sea-kayak, the Manti La Sal mountain range to trudge about in the snow, the Grand Canyon to hike or to the Green River in Utah to raft. Each group was joined by several other students with outdoor recreation experience and one faculty member.

As it turns out, and quite by accident, I was shipped off to Moab, Utah, for my very first experience whitewater rafting.

I was eighteen. I had never camped without running water. I had certainly never camped without a physical structure over my head. I had never been on a river with whitewater and, the concept of controlling a boat in cataracts (for we were rafting down the Green River to and through the Colorado River’s Cataract Canyon), was incomprehensible to me.

I don’t remember physically shaking in my boots. But I do remember being infinitely relieved I wasn’t in a lecture hall with a couple of hundred other students listening to a professor drone on about trigonometry equations and the importance of slide rules.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Flood Stage

Every winter --- at some point during the winter --- Washington's Cascades get slammed by the Pineapple Express erasing weeks or months of accumulated snow and creating havoc in the lowlands. At present, we have floodwaters barricading I-5 south of Centralia, landslides blocking Blewett Pass and avalanches threatening every east-west route across the Cascades. Of course, all of the Cascade rivers are at flood stage though, by now, they have peaked and are receding.

These periodic winter floods sometimes wreak havoc with the rapids we guide commercially. I wrote earlier about the aftermath of the huge Sauk River blowout (~100,000cfs) which not only blew out the access bridge over the Whitechuck River which once led to the Sauk's put-in, it 'silted in' a every major rapid on the wild and scenic river.

Over the three decades I have been rafting Washington's whitewater, I have seen rapids get created by floodwaters, I have seen rapids get eliminated by high water and I have seen rapids reconfigured.

On the Wenatchee River near Leavenworth, a stand alone hydraulic known as Snapdragon was once a prime play spot for rafts and kayaks. It was at the head of an eddy an eighth of a mile downstream of Drunkard's Drop. It was an incredibly powerful souse hole located right beside this remarkably strong eddy fence. One summer it was there, the next summer it was gone and it has never returned. In fact, at this point it is hard to imagine there was ever a water feature there it is so damn tame and flat.

Granny's Rapids has migrated south over the years, but dramatically after a couple of 100 year floods. For one thing, the rapid used to be 'straighter'. Suffocator wasn't always a 'keeper' of unmanned boats (Maravias anyway. . . ). And the monstrous maw on river left in Granny's, which I think is referred to as the 'Granny's Wave', did not exist a decade ago. And, in my mind, the K2 and Annapurna waves were once bigger and more peaked.

On the Skykomish River, Boulder Drop, which consists of boulders of all sizes, but a few as big as barns, has not changed much over my whitewater lifespan, but one place in that run has been altered for sure --- The Ledge Wave. It seems to have become deeper and more fearsome and, at certain water levels, your odds of breaking through that trough of hard whitewater are slim to none. In the past, it was simpler to punch through it, and simpler to avoid it.

After the floods of the past few days, I suspect we are going to see some new features in some of our rivers. My hope is that the recent flush has scoured the Sauk of all that deposited silt. And perhaps, the rapid Popeye will have been returned to it glory days.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Eddying Out

Sauk River Update
The word from the Darrington District is good in terms of the bridge over the Whitechuck River leading to the Sauk River's old put-in. No longer will have to risk life and limb parking along the Mountain Loop highway to stage river trips on the Sauk.

I have no idea if the put-in has been restored as well, but, at the least, we will be able to hump the boats over the streamside boulders just downstream of the Whitechuck to access the Sauk. Hopefully, the Darrington Ranger District has plans to replace the porta-pottis as well.

Now we need for the Sauk River to regain its old disposition and nature of technical, boulder-strewn rapids with fun sets of challenging waves and hydraulics --- AND --- be navigable below 3,000 cfs at the Sauk, near Sauk, river gauge. Then, and only then, will the Sauk be back to 'normal'.

Creature Craft
I am not going to link to these latest and greatest water craft because I don't think they need any additional promotion. I am concerned however that, eventually, they are going to lead to some difficult situations, especially in reference to their commercial use.

If you are unfamiliar with these new "rafts", they are self-righting rafts with rollbars where you strap yourself into the passenger seats. I have only seen videos with two people paddling, but I understand there are models capable of handling 6 paddlers. Apparently, in order to be sure they 'right' themselves, the paddlers need to do some kind hip snap, not unlike what you do in a kayak, though I am certain it is not nearly as problematical, or complicated or as difficult to learn. In the videos I have seen, these craft are running incredible stretches of whitewater safely, though, again, not without some drama. For instance, several times I have seen the craft on their sides for harrowing moments. Which would mean, of course, someone is below surface strapped to the boat.

The other concern is that it would presumably be possible to have your 'seatbelt' fail in the midst of Class V+ whitewater not meant to be navigated by paddlers sans boats. Tumwater Canyon, for example. I understand outfitters are salivating over the notion that --- finally --- the whitewater of Tumwater could now be viable with guests in Creature Craft. I would suggest these outfitters consider long and hard the consequences of opening this non-profit, Pandora's Box of a whitewater safety nightmare. It is not worth it. The money is not there in abundance and there is really no need for the liability exposure.

The lure of fame, if not fortune, will be irresistible. The lunacy of running Tumwater with neophytes at higher water levels will, sooner or later, be tried. You can count on me to stay on the sidelines.

Orion Guide Training and River Rescue Course Pushed Back

Due to a fantastic opportunity to raft the Grand Canyon for the 12th time with an amazing party of long-time friends, Orion's guide training and river rescue course has been rescheduled from late March to late April. The course will run one weekend shorter but, otherwise, will be the usual high quality and excellent times as always.

It is also likely that a second guide training will run in the latter half of May.

So, for those of you who have put off doing Guide Training with the excuse that the weather was too daunting, 2009 is your year. Better weather is almost guaranteed with a start that is a month later.