Tieton Eddy Repose

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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dressing for River Rafting Success

Of all the questions we are asked in the office by those new to river rafting, the one most asked is "What should I wear?"

It is a fair question and the answer is difficult to pare down to just a few short sentences.  Rafting in the state of Washington is decidedly different than rafting in many other regions because our rivers are fresh from the alpine lake elevations of the Cascade mountain range.  This means Washington rivers do not flow lazily for miles and miles warming up in the sun before spilling white over rocks and drops on your favorite white water rafting stretch.

This means Washington rivers like the incredibly beautiful, yet challenging, Wild & Scenic Sauk River tumbles out of the Glacier Peak Wilderness area borne from one of several glaciers.  It means the white water we play in was Cascade snow pack only a half-dozen hours earlier.

Washington rivers are notably cold.  Washingtonians can be relatively impervious to the biting chill of their local waters, but even natives should take heed of a few hints and tips for dressing for success on a 4-hour river trip like the Wenatchee River out of Leavenworth.

Before talking about the clothing options, let’s talk neoprene.

WETSUITS

Washington river outfitters provide wetsuits and wetsuit boots.  Some will charge you extra for the service, but they all own neoprene.

The wetsuits provided do not cover your arms.  They will be sleeveless.  They are referred to as ‘farmer johns’.  The reason for this is so that your arms will be unencumbered for paddling.

These neoprene farmer john wetsuits will also be comparatively thin in thickness as compared to diving suits and, again, the reason for this is comfort in paddling.

You should think of the wetsuit as ‘insurance’.  If you fall overboard, the neoprene provides additional buoyancy, protects your flailing body parts from rocks and, once the water has seeped inside and your body has warmed it up, insulation.

However, to be comfortable on a raft on top of the water while getting splashed periodically (either by the river or by your friends), you are going to need several other clothing items.

SYNTHETICS

Remember ‘leisure suits’?  Ever heard of polyester?  Does your athletic son or daughter insist on Under Armour to play sports?

When you are on the water, and especially when you are on a river in the spring or on the west side of the Cascades where a ‘sun break’ is cause for celebration, you need to be wearing a synthetic ensemble along with your neoprene - and NOT cotton.  Synthetic fabrics work well in the outdoors because they dry readily.

Synthetics designed to be worn outdoors (outdoor clothing stores are loaded with these products) not only dry fast, they ‘wick’ the wetness away from your body which helps to keep you warm.  Cotton shirts - like plush cotton sweatshirts - just become a soggy wet mass on the river and never get a chance to dry out.

Have you ever noticed how long it takes cotton to dry in a clothes dryer as compared to non-cotton fabrics?  That is what we are talking about.  Your body will spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to dry the cotton sweatshirt when it should be using that energy to keep yourself comfortable.

LAYERING

Beneath your wetsuit - other than a bathing suit - you should don a thin synthetic long or short sleeved top.  Silk is acceptable.  If you have a thin wool long underwear top, that is acceptable as well.  Those Under Armour sports tops are perfect.  Just stay away from cotton.

Your stylish wetsuit goes on next and then, on top of it, depending on the weather conditions and the difficulty of the river (how much are you going to get wet), you pull on the thicker synthetic or non-cotton top.  The thickness of this layer should be similar to the thickness of a sweatshirt but the appropriate fabric.  Thickness allows for that ‘wicking’ effect to work.

The final upper body layer would be the rain jacket, wind breaker or river outfitter provided splash jacket.  The idea behind this layer is that it will trap some of your body heat, deflect some of the incoming water and insulate you from wind.

ADD-ONS

A couple of other clothing options to consider depending on weather factors, the nature of the river, the time of the season, the height of the river are:  ski caps, synthetic fabric gloves and neck gaiters.  Caps and neck gaiters trap a good portion of your body heat and can be life savers if your metabolism is unaccustomed to Pacific Northwest ambient temperatures.  Warm, fuzzy ski caps are essential to aid in post-swim recovery.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS

Finally, to be on the safe side, it is wise to bring all of these items regardless of the conditions.  Because, frankly, conditions can change and you do not want to be caught short.  Even on the hottest eastern Washington day on the Wenatchee, you want to make sure you have a rain jacket tucked away in a safe, dry place.  Just in case you go for what we call that 'unscheduled swim'.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Selecting a River Rafting Outfitter

Spring, white water rafting and absent-minded teens in love are all just around the corner and, even though in Washington, our lust to ski has barely been whetted, it is not too soon to give some thought to hiring a river guide for your next corporate retreat, family vacation or youth group outing.

Websites, brochures, splashy advertisements and affiliations are - obviously - where you want to start looking, but, when it comes to river raft trips, do not overlook recommendations from friends, as well as the initial phone call gleaning valuable insight to the 'culture' of the outfit you are considering.  Be aware of a few glaring no-nos you should never hear from the person on the other end of the line.

1.)  Safety guarantees.
2.)  Crowing about an immaculate safety record.
3.)  Claiming they are 'the best' of anything.

First of all, moving water is inherently dangerous.  It does not matter if it is the mildest float or the wildest ride - rivers come equipped with hazards.  Consequently, there are no guarantees of safety.  We like to say we minimize the hazards by maximizing our attention to safety, but, as has been pointed out for decades now, an inflatable raft is not on tracks or rails.  Stuff can happen regardless of how good, attentive or well-trained of a guide you have hired.

The second precaution is closely related to the first, except, while it may very well be true, it indicates the river company's representative is blind to the fact that the past is the past.  As well as being unfamiliar with the old adage, "There, but for the grace of a higher power, go I."  An immaculate safety record speaks well of the company you are talking to for they are surely doing many things right, but they ought to recognize their good fortune.

As for the last precaution, laying claim to being the "best" indicates a lack of creativity or a braggart or someone akin to an unsavory used car salesman.  They are hiding behind a word that does nothing to truly describe them, or whatever river trip it is they are selling.  (My company was named Best River Rafting Outfitter in Washington 3 years running through King 5 Northwest Escapes, but this is essentially a beauty contest.  Consumer Reports - or anything similar - has yet to do an issue on Washington state river outfitters.)

So, by all means, begin your quest in all the usual places, but, if you are unfamiliar with rafting and this is your first outing, place a phone call and conduct a bit of an interview with the company representative.  Get a feel for how they will deal with you in person by how they deal with you over the phone.  Quiz them about safety concerns.  Ask them about their safety record.

In all fairness, Washington river outfitters are universally safety conscious.  In general, Washington state river guides are conservative white water enthusiasts.  There are, however, varying degrees of safety consciousness and different 'cultural' attitudes that may tip the scales one way or the other for you.  So, now that Christmas is behind us, it's time to start planning your 2012 river trip - especially if you want to do a multi-day trip on the Deschutes or a combination trip on the Cascade Loop of stellar white water runs on the Wenatchee, Methow, Sauk or Skykomish.

The sooner you make your reservation - the more likely you can get the date or dates of your choice - and the more likelier you are to receive a better rate.  In the meantime, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jim Fielder - Washington River Rafting Pioneer

Jim Fielder was, as they say, larger than life.

The former middle school teacher, beloved by many, and former white water rafting outfitter, envied by even more, lost his life recently due to poor electrical wiring and a flash fire.  He lived on Queen Anne hill in a house handed down to him by his mother.



The Queen Anne News reported that he was also a former screenwriter and novelist of true crime stories.  I know he had published a book or two, and I know he wrote an insightful article about Mary Kay Letourneau for a women's magazine, but I don't know if I would characterize anyone who has been published as being 'former'.  Once a writer, always a writer.

Jim Fielder owned Zig Zag River Runners from the late 70s through the early 90s, and that is how I know him.  But the last time I saw him, he was haunting a Queen Anne coffeehouse, absorbing information and scheming about subject matter you could sink your teeth into.  He was long past his white water outfitting days, and he appeared to be more frail than I remembered him when he was my rival, yet, at the same time, he seemed in command of his life.

He was writing.  Writing enthused him.  The passion for it was written all over his face.  He was good-natured when he engaged me about rafting but, you could tell, he had moved on.

I did not know Jim well, but I can describe him and I have an anecdote or two that I believe tells you a great deal about the man.

He was tall.  He had to have been six foot four.  As long as I knew him, he sported a Grizzly Adams beard with a bushy head of hair.  His smile was disarming and the beard did not contain it in the least.

His voice was dusky as if he had perpetually just taken a shot of whiskey.  He was quick with his humor.  He had an impish sense of humor, despite his over-sized proportions, and, I could swear, every once in a while when we were caught up in conversation, I would see a glint in his eyes.

He liked to teach and he liked to talk.  And he loved hearing out others opinions.

As for anecdotes. . . 

One dreary Skagit morning, when rain was plopping down around Marblemount, as if it was being spooned upon us by flying monkeys, Jim gathered his guests at the cafe where they rendezvoused with their clients, and - for lack of a better description - began working the crowd.  It was a pretty good sized group.  That was why rental guides like myself were in attendance.  That and the cold, hard cash we were promised.

The sun was never going to appear and the rain beat upon the cafe windows and I listened while Jim not only persuaded his group of clients not to go out on the river, but he convinced them they needed to pay a little extra to cover the cost of guide's wages for the day.

It was masterful.  The clients succumbed to his suggestions as readily as a Thanksgiving turkey hanging upside down from a branch hog-tied at the ankles.  At the end of his off-the-cuff oratory, they were grateful he let them off so easily.  The guides were ecstatic to be paid and not have to endure the miserable conditions with, no doubt, ill-equipped guests.

Like me, he became enamored with rivers and river running in Utah.  With his ornithology interest, he gained employment with the only outfitter in Washington in the mid 70s.  Bald eagle float trips on the Skagit River in the dead of winter was where Jim learned the ropes of the rafting business.  Or I presume so.

He launched Zig Zag in 1977 and the Seattle metropolitan area was overwhelmed.  Rafting, particularly paddle rafting, was as foreign as the far side of the moon.  Instead of static float trips with the guide doing all of the work, which is what his lone competitor and former employer was offering, Jim opted for rafts where everyone participated.

He chose Zig Zag, not for the popular rolling papers a quasi-hippie like Jim most likely was familiar with, but for the lightning streaks Crazy Horse used to paint on his face before battles.  Throughout the 80s Jim ran his business as if he were Crazy Horse prepping for battle.  Everything was important - the big picture and the details, the nuts and bolts, as well as the folklore.

One last thing, even though we were rivals for business (we rode his coat tails for much of 80s), he was always forthcoming when we would talk.  He was always looking at the horizon, so I doubt he could be bothered by those just trying to follow his footsteps.  He was on to the next thing, even if he wasn't sure what that next thing was going to be.  It kept him ahead of the rest of the pack.

Jim Fielder cut a wide swath through the Washington rafting community.  And, from what I can tell from comments posted post mortem, he cut just as wide a swath when he was an educator.  He was a man of character - in all positive meanings of the term - and, I know for a fact, his presence for those 68 years on balance brought a lot of good to everyone who met him.

Vaya con dios de rio, Jim Fielder. 

 










Monday, November 28, 2011

The Past Season in Review

The 2011 rafting season began - as it typically does - with a memorable April training trip peopled with old faces, new faces; aging faces, faces with peach fuzz; the same old routines, sprinkled with the occasional unexpected wrinkle; a steamy hot sauna, a mind-numbing swim and a blow-out party (or two) to wrap it in a bow.

2011 was the 'official' 33rd river season and, because I have a reverent, irrational affection for the number, we decided to honor it by kicking off the season in May with a gathering of the many generations of the Tribe at the Chumstick property. Jeff Bullock and his brother barbecued a pig on a spit on site, Jeff Archer and his musical band of cohorts rocked the warehouse, Nina Maus gussied up the place, kegs were tapped, shelters were erected - and moved, and moved again - as the rains commenced and never relented. Multiple generations of Orionites emerged - including a few of the original founders - and, despite the high moisture content in the air, fun was had by all.

2011 Wenatchee Clean Up

Every white water season seems to have, for lack of a better description, a "theme". Or a pattern. One year will be remembered for the number of tires that needed replacing. The next season will be notable due to the destruction of an unusual number of life jackets. The next - trailer axles, vehicle engines, leaky floors, busted foot straps - you get the idea. It is not for nothing that, at times, I feel like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

Of course, river seasons are also notable for water levels like the year Olivia Cussen's guide training graduation day landed on a day when the Wenatchee River was flowing around 18,000 cfs. Or Mace Burke's first season when the Wenatchee River was running under 2,000 cfs by the middle of June. Sometimes a season is remarkable due to the extraordinary number or quality of our new guide class like the year we had two trainings and more than thirty trainees, or the extraordinary number of WSU students enrolled in training, or the year we did the Lower Salmon for our guide class and froze our asses off in the wind at the bottom of Hell's Canyon. Tom Townsend might recall 'splitting the pig' from that trip, and something in regards to auto-claving a river knife.

Our 33rd river season will be remembered - by me - for two reasons: an incredibly slow organizational start, and Ally's stellar river trips.

First the negative side of the coin.

Recently, I have begun using in marketing and promotional materials the description "daily, unhurried river trips". It was not meant to be a euphemism or code for sloth-like and disorganized, but as an antithetical approach to those offering trips as if they were loading cars at a carny ride. Unfortunately, the season got off on the wrong foot organizationally and did not get righted until July. Fortunately, it was more frustrating than debilitative. What was abundantly clear in the early going of season number thirty three was that we were sorely missing veteran leadership in the field on a regular basis.

The absence of Kook Longmire and Dallas Silva, who were schooled in decades of functioning within Orion dysfunction and making it work, and who were ubiquitous the season before, were missed. This revelation falls under the "you-never-know-what-you-have-until-it's-gone" category.

It should have been obvious. Experience is difficult to replace. As much as new guides get trained up faster than ever due to our ever-expanding breadth of river experience, they still lack their own breadth of experience.

And this is where the positive side of this year's coin comes in. Ally took it upon herself to organize two terrific river trips during the season - the crush of Groupon holders be damned. The first was an epic high water run on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. We launched on the snowy banks of Marsh Creek and sluiced our way the hundred plus miles through demanding white water with continually improving weather mediated by a warming variety of alcoholic night caps and more than our fair share of hot springs camps. The exceptional party of boaters was complemented by the challenging rapids, the heroic consumption of alcohol and the daring feats of derring-do, and their - mostly - prompt responses to mishaps and miscalculations.

Super Heroes of the Middle Fork 2011

In other words, no river guides were harmed in the making of this river trip. The Super Heroes of the Middle Fork, we called ourselves. You will have to see Ally's slideshow to appreciate the cheekiness of that statement.

The other trip involved a layover at Greg and Sarah Chapman's Sumas homestead, a border crossing, a ferry crossing and, not one, not two, not three, but four noteworthy, resume-building white water river trips. Five, if you include an eerie 3 kilometre float on the massive Fraser River down to the take-out at the Stein River ferry crossing. Of course, there was also the requisite time for partying.

"Michael, row your boat ashore. . . "  Hallelujah!  We made it across the Fraser!

First, we rafted the Chilliwack River, which is immediately across the Canadian border and where we had our one and only swimmer of the trip - Ally, who had exhausted herself rolling her kayak earlier in the upper part of the lone Class IV rapid. The next morning, under time constraints, we boated a running higher than usual Thompson River from Frog Rapid to the confluence with the Fraser with the only casualty being a dislocated shoulder caused by an over-exuberant raft slide participant.

The morning therafter, against my better judgement, we launched down a boulder-choked Stein River with water the color of clear blue gems and a drop of 147 feet per mile. Lucky for us, we were only going 2 kilometres, so we would only have to drop a little over a couple of hundred feet. A ripped raft, four scouts and enough rock encounters for a lifetime, we drifted out onto the muddy Fraser which felt a little like riding the back of a dragon - humongous and unpredictable. Later, another run down the Thompson, and then, on the way back to the States, we detoured off the highway to experience a busy, continuous section of the Nahatlatch River.

All of these trips, like every white water season, generates stories. The stories may be humorous, they may be cautionary, they may only reinforce the ties that bind. Stories are the lifeblood of a community and as such, if a season goes past, and there are no stories to tell, something has gone horribly wrong. It would epitomize mundane. Thanks to my wife, and a persevering staff, the past season will not soon be forgotten.

~~~ Addendum: Neither Jim Farris or Rachel Elkon received public recognition of their awards from this past season. The former was named Orion's Most Valuable Employee (MVE), and the latter was named Orion's Employee of the Year (EOY).

Jim, besides being saddled with bus-driving duties every time he shows his smiling countenance, besides delivering firewood for the campfire every time he crosses the pass, would weld the trailers on his days off (from his real job). He created paddle hanging hooks for the warehouse in his spare time. He figured out the outdoor shower installation and mounted it. He tackled other tasks I am sure I am not even aware of. Basically, he was Orion's most valuable employee.

As for Rachel, who 'cut her guiding teeth' on the Nolichucky River on the East Coast, after observing our inability to get our poop grouped in the early season, decided to offer her penchant for getting sh*t done at some point in June. Thereafter, the Orion ship listed less and less. Thus, she deserved being named 2011's Most Valuable Employee.

Both of them would say, however, that "there is no I in Team", and, of course, there are many of you that made the 33rd season, in spite of its rocky beginning and few harrowing moments, a successful season. Ally and I - and Chuck-Chuck - are very grateful to all of you.

Chuck-Chuck says, "Let's go big this time!  You wienie!"

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

2011 Through a White Water Lens

The snow pack in February of last winter did not portend the season that was to come. In fact, for Washington, the quantity of snow in the Cascades and the water it contained, at that point of the winter, looked grim for a sustained runoff and an exciting white water season. I would not have placed any bets we were to have rafting out of Leavenworth extending much beyond the end of June. And then the snow started falling. And falling. And falling. Snow fell right on through March and part of April. The water content within the snow increased. Spring broke chillier than normal. The runoff happened slower than normal. And what had started out as grim began to look incredibly promising.



As it turned out, the snow melt happened in moderation and, though we never rafted on exceptionally high water, we had a sustained, strong water level on rivers around the Cascades all the way through August. I receive e-mail alerts via Google which keep me apprised of everything going on rafting related around the planet. These alerts arrive in my inbox three or four times a day. Because of these alerts I was made keenly aware of the extraordinary high water levels that were happening around the country, not just in Washington. Cold, fast mountain rivers ran colder and faster for longer in just about every part of the nation, so far as I could tell. And many of the e-mail alerts painted a grim picture of the higher-than-average number of river-related accidents that were occurring.

It seemed no state was unaffected by misfortune. The unusually prolonged runoffs - and in some areas of the country, they WERE experiencing higher water and even flood status - collided with less ambitious and casual boaters, and families, using all or parts of their vacations to go white water rafting. The three fatalities that occurred on the Wenatchee River did not happen during particularly high water levels. In fact, the last two were in August when the river had slowed down considerably. It should also be noted that the last two fatalities were not rafting related.

The first was an employee of a tubing company chasing down an errant tubing guest using an inflatable kayak without a lifejacket being worn and the second was a young man attempting to ford the river also without a lifejacket. The first incident involved a commercial raft broadsiding a tree part way through Boulder Bend.  The victim was the only passenger to be swept under the tree.  The other crew members climbed onto the high side of the raft and onto to the downed log.

This incident was unusual due to the fact that the log hazard was a recent addition to the anatomy of that particular rapid and it was far enough out of the normal route taken that - initially - it did not seem as much of a safety threat as it turned out to be.  For me, it underlines, once again, how much situations change when you are out of the boat.  Swimmers tossed overboard upstream of this obstruction had a good chance of winding up entangled by the branches or hung up on the log which was lodged on rocks on the outside of the bend.

The 2011 White Water Rafting season was special in the state of Washington because prime water conditions endured throughout the summer.  However,  what novice boaters, outfitters, guides and the river running public need to remember is adjustments need to be made to take into account the exceptional water conditions (colder, higher, faster) when the runoff from snowpacks linger into July.  Family white water vacations may need to be rerouted to easier stretches of particular rivers or later into the season.  Those typical exceptions for smaller kids on Class III sections may need to be reassessed.  Parents need to be forthcoming about the size and maturity of their kids when booking a river trip.

Common sense runs both ways.  The pros need to be more aware and the general public needs to do their due diligence.  The internet is a wonderful tool, but it has to be utilized.  The USGS maintains a website that tracks all of the major white water rivers in every state.  American Whitewater is an exceptional resource for novices and veteran river rats alike.

The 2011 white water rafting season was a bit of an anomaly.  But - gauging from what I read throughout the season in regards to river related incidents - many of them could have been avoided by adding a little common sense to the exuberance to get out on the water no matter what, or when.  As always, the proper use of life jackets (and - yes - we are referring to them a 'life' jackets once more) saves lives.

And, as always, refraining from alcohol while on the river goes a long, long way to limiting river related incidents.  Studies have shown that a vast majority (greater than 95%) of water-based fatalities are associated with these two factors.

The coming season in Washington may very well be just as exciting as 2011.  Especially if the prognosticators are correct about the impending snow fall for the remainder of the winter and the strength of this year's La NiƱa.  River rafting guests need to remember to check the weather and water levels, call ahead if you have any concerns or doubts about whether any member of your party should participate (due to age, physical condition, weight) and bring appropriate clothing for the conditions.  Even with wetsuits and splash jackets, additional, non-cotton clothing is required to have an enjoyable day on the river.

Here's looking forward to an exciting and safe 2012.  In the meantime, think positive about winter weather patterns.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

River Rafting Rescue 101

Rivers are cold in the state of Washington. Gushing down the slopes of the North Cascade mountain range, westbound toward the Salish Sea and eastbound toward the Columbia, Washington rivers are the result of melting snowfields, diminishing glaciers, brisk Pacific Northwest rainfall and subterranean cold water springs. Meanwhile the Skagit River has all of those factors plus it is water spilled through turbines released from the depths of a very deep and very cold Ross Lake.

For those specific reasons, it is not unusual to be wearing neoprene throughout the white water season in the grey and mossy Pacific Northwest. Even on the Skagit in August.

And when the river is running high in the spring from snow melt, not only is the temperature of the water frigid (prolonged exposure to 70 degree water induces hypothermia - as I can attest to on a pleasant afternoon without a splash jacket on the Pucon River in Chile) it is moving rather fast. 'Swimmers', as we call persons overboard in rafting, are reliant on their neoprene, their lifejacket, their will to survive and the dedication and skill of their rescuers.

On a commercial rafting trip in Washington state, you are going to get fitted for a lifejacket and, on most river trips, you will be required to suit up in neoprene. I am going to presume the vast majority of 'swimmers' come equipped with a staunch will to survive. But it is the rescue effort of everyone else in the party and the person directly responsible for those 'swimmers' that I aim my comments.

Due to the aforementioned water and weather conditions, no 'swimmer' should be taken lightly. To compound the issue, you can never be certain how someone will react when they are dumped into churning white water. They might find it as amusing as the water slides at an amusement park, or they might have set up, in the brief amount of time they were in the water, a direct pipeline to their 'Maker'.

The trouble is, you can never know beforehand.

This is why you should treat each and every 'swimmer' as if it were your mother.

If your mother was in the river, you would work desperately to do everything within the realm of possibility to reach her as soon as possible. You would not blithely pass by any safe harbor that would place you that much higher upstream in order to collect those overboard sooner. You would row white knuckled until you could no longer hold the oar. You would paddle relentlessly upstream scanning the water for those who may be at the mercy of the river. You would not, under any circumstances, allow your mother to get downstream of you.

I happen to know what it feels like to dump my mother unceremoniously into a rapid. Fortunately it was the Rogue River in the middle of summer when the water and air temperatures were agreeable. And, fortunately, it was not major white water. Even so, putting her into the river was mentally traumatizing and I vowed to never do that again. (It wasn't purposeful, by any means, it was just a mix of inattentiveness and complacency.)

I know there are places in the world where people raft that the idea of throwing guests to the mercy of the 'river gods' is not considered unprofessional, or even gauche. Warmer water temperatures do tend to lessen the threat of fast moving water, but I would argue that, even so, you will still be rolling the dice.

In Washington, where our rivers are always the temperature of a ice cream sundae, you had best think of each and every 'swimmer' as your mom. It might be just enough to elevate your dedication and determination during a rescue attempt to make that effort a successful one.

In the immortal words of David Byrne in an early sex education video, "Do do a do, don't do a don't."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"It Has Never Been About White Water"

The other night, before a host of old friends, employees and curious onlookers at Orion River Rafting's 33rd Anniversary bash, in the midst of a speech, which was really just a 'word from our sponsor', I confessed that, for me, it has never been about the white water.

And, if you note that my wife works her fingers to the bone as an emergency room nurse, aiding, abetting and enabling our business, you would also realize it has never been about the money either. (You might also take note of the decrepit equipment we nurse from season to season to arrive at the same conclusion.)

I became a river rafting enthusiast by accident.

I enrolled in a liberal arts college in the early '70s that believed outdoor experiences were integral to the health and well-being of a Socratic student. Freshman orientation was one month in the wilds of the American Southwest. It just so happened my month was spent rafting the Green and Colorado Rivers.

What I took away from my experience floating Labyrinth, Stillwater and Cataract Canyons was that white water river rafting was a blast but more importantly, spending a month in the wilderness with a group of people was an excellent medium for creating lifelong bonds. It was not hard to imagine making some kind of career out of introducing the general public to the joys of river running. But, after I left that small liberal arts school, what I specifically sought was a degree in Wilderness Education and Counseling Psychology.

I didn't know if it existed. I just knew that was what I was interested in.

A few years and a couple of higher institutions of learning later, I became a reluctant river rafting outfitting entrepreneur.

I started into business to escape college with my degree. I remained because it fulfilled what I perceived to be my sole purpose in life (if I had any purpose whatsoever) --- bringing people together.

Rivers, river trips, white water and flat water are the medium through which this happens. With a few contrivances, sleight of hand and silly games, our annual guide training accelerates the team/community building process which I have witnessed happening naturally on trip after trip. And, of course, the aftermath of each of those trips which continue to ripple through our community season after season.

River trips spawn stories. The oral history binds the tribe together from one generation to the next. The community itself takes on a life of its own and, before you know it, rivers, river trips, white water and flat water are the kernel at the center. The periphery tribal activities may be marginally related to river running, but directly related to the community.

This is why I like white water stories that are about people, not people telling their white water adventures. There are places and a time for those kinds of tales, but the stories that bind us together are the ones about us.

As I said at the outset, it has never been about the white water, it has always been about people.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Digital Detox and River Rafting

Today's Seattle Times included an article in the Northwest Travel section from an author voluntarily seeking refuge from the digitally connected world many of us have created for ourselves. Our addiction to video display terminals is real, and like alcohol, nicotine and high fructose syrup, it needs to be moderated. Or, as mom liked to say, we "are cruising for a bruising."

I am as guilty as anyone in our brave new electronic world of being enthralled by all of my digital devices. I have a desktop computer, a laptop and an iPhone. I am not going to count the desktops languishing in my basement. Recently, I came up with a rationalization to purchase an iPad, but, so far, I have refrained from opening my wallet. I utilize all of these devices every day.

The newspaper continues to be delivered by a 'paperboy' (actually a middle-aged guy in a Mazda) but, I have to admit, with each passing day, newspaper delivery and newspaper reading is feeling more and more like the Pony Express or telegraph lines. I will also admit to being frustrated when the paper arrives late, or not at all, due to inclement weather or avalanches on the mountain passes. Sometimes when it does arrive, I find it quaint that 'late-breaking' news, such as the Washington Huskies' victory over Oregon in the Pac 10 tourney late on a Thursday evening, is omitted because the result was too late for the paper's printed edition.

It is no longer just the Age of Information. It is the Age of Instant Information.

However, I am not going to vilify our digitized umbilical cord to our world, and The World's, events. Instant communication and the constant flow of information is both boon and bane to our existence, and like all of the other addictive behaviors and substances in our daily lives, we need to find a balance. So, that's it. That is my revelation. It is no more earth-shattering than the acknowledgement that the only way you are going to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

I feel I am lucky in regards to dealing with the influence video display terminals have over my life. I imagine I am a super user in relation to the rest of humanity. While at home, I am never far from my connection to the online universe. Part of it is business-related but, admittedly, I find limitless means of entertainment and educational moments online. I read papers, magazines and books, yet I usually feel 'engaged' online. And that energizes me.

But I am lucky because, due to my occupation --- outfitting and guiding river trips --- a good percentage of my life is spent outdoors and on the water which, so far, is not a particularly optimum environment for microprocessors and WiFi is not yet prevalent in the wilderness. River trips, therefore, are ideal vacations for digital detoxification. The author in the Seattle Times article was reporting on a Chicago hotel which advertised the fact that they would 'confiscate' your digital devices on arrival and guide you through your time severed from the never-ending stream of useful, as well as banal, information.




In my mind, a river trip is a far better means, and more pure method, of removing yourself from the incessant barrage of news, whimsy, sales pitches and entertainment. Bill McKibben wrote a book titled "The Age of Missing Information" comparing 24 hours of watching every cable channel available at the time with 24 hours on a mountaintop in the Adirondacks. This was in 1992, well before broadband and satellites brought the internet torrent into our every waking moment.

I don't remember his specific conclusion, though I am confident the gist was that intrinsic value you derive from a day of observing nature is just as valuable as all of the data you might gather from watching untold hours of television. A river rafting trip, by its very nature --- outdoors, under the stars, untethered from the internet --- provides a clean, clear, complete digital break. The only mental stimulation is the white water challenge, the face-to-face social interaction, contemplating your navel and absorbing the wonders of the natural world.

Checking into a swanky, downtown hotel stripped of your electronic gadgets might be an urbanite's idea of getting away from it all, but it pales in comparison to launching onto a river for three days (Good), five days (Better) or a month (Best).

Friday, March 11, 2011

White Water Rafting Guide Training

In less than a month, Orion River Rafting's one-of-a-kind guide training will commence along the banks of the Deschutes River in north central Oregon. This season marks Orion's 33rd season of teaching complete novices the wonders of being on the river. Kenneth Grahame said it best in a much-loved quote from Wind in the Willows, "There is nothing--absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."



Our seven day spring river trip serves multiple purposes. Newcomers to river rafting are immersed in the trappings of what it means to be 'messing about in boats.' Instead of merely getting repetitions on one stretch of river, they are getting exposed to a new stretch of water every day. They are introduced to the whole wide realm of river rafting: rigging, camp craft, a diverse set of knots, rowing an oar boat, environmental stewardship, expedition travel, gear management, cooking for groups and cooking with Dutch Ovens and wilderness ethics.

At the same time, since the nature of our company's culture is so intrinsic to our ultimate success, and the creation of a fostering community is paramount, a week long river rafting trip provides the student with a chance to evaluate who we are and gives our instructors ample opportunity to assess the students strengths and weaknesses. On Orion's River Rafting Guide Training course, besides the students and the instructors, there are a dozen or so returning guides who are there to lend support, add encouragement and reinforce the training of the veteran staff. In fact, most of Orion's guide training students are referrals from veteran staff --- family, friends, guests, significant others.



Our instructors bring, not only dozens and dozens of years of white water experience to the program, but a depth and breadth of river running experience from having plied their trade the world over --- New Zealand, Peru, Bali, Costa Rica, Turkey, Chile and Belize to name a few --- guiding rafts and even managing and building foreign rafting companies. Orion River Rafting's trainers not only contribute their vast white water knowledge to the thorough instruction of new guides, they bring decades of experience to this week of skill- and team-building.

In short, Orion's students get to take part in a program dripping with tradition while being spontaneous and fun. They get to learn the 'big picture' of river rafting and decide for themselves if their romantic notions of guiding coincide with the reality.

Or, are maybe even better than they imagined.