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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. 


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