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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.