Tieton Eddy Repose

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

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.