Tieton Eddy Repose

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

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.