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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!"

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