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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."

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