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Showing posts from 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 &…

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…

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 Nant…

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 befo…

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 …

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 intangi…

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 wo…

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 go…

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 d…

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 guidi…

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, besi…


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 "…

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 …

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 mean…

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…

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 …

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,…

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 vot…

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 …

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 a…