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.