Tieton Eddy Repose

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Going to Extremes

Leavenworth, Washington

I first set foot on an inflatable raft in the '70s.  It was a product of military surplus, but designed specifically for white water rafting.  The bow was upturned to deflect and plow through waves, the fabric was neoprene reinforced by fabric and there were multiple chambers.  Built by Rubber Crafters in West Virginia, it was one of the best river running crafts being manufactured.

Forty years later, we have inflatable rafts that are lighter and even more durable, self-bailing floors, urethane coating embedded with abrasive substances for better grip, foot cups, rafts that have uplifted kicks in the bow and the stern - basically - all sorts of technological and design advances.  Catarafts, 'Creature' crafts and smaller, more maneuverable rafts are exploring and challenging white water rapids, and stretches of river, unimaginable twenty years ago.  What's "possible" is getting extended every season.

Life jackets are better made as well as being more comfortable.  Some are designed specifically for white water rescue purposes.  Customer life jackets are light years ahead of the old Mae West, kapok jackets of the early days of river running and a few iterations better than the jackets with metallic clips that were prone to getting clipped onto a raft's safety line.  Extra flotation, crotch straps and shoulder straps in addition to waist and chest straps.
Rafting in the olden days.
Top of the line rafts and gear in 1974.
Dry suits designed for water sports in general (wind surfing, surfing, diving, kayaking, as well as rafting) have become more affordable and more durable and more useable (drysuits of yesteryear would have been a nuisance to wear in a kayak or on a raft).  Helmets, paddles, safety gear - everything river related has been upgraded, redesigned and improved.  Like all outdoor activities reaching 'maturity' on an industry-wide level, the advances and various options can be mind-boggling.

In short, the sport has matured and with it the gear and the enthusiasts who dedicate their lives to it.  White water adventurers are venturing into the outer reaches of what is possible and, with the advent of miniaturized video cameras and the broadband capabilities of the internet, all of us sitting in the comfort of our homes can vicariously experience these exploits.  Film festivals, dedicated to envelope-pushing adventures, go on tour promoting death-defying adventure-seeking.

It is enthralling to watch these adventurers sallying forth well beyond my comfort zone.  I like North Face's slogan, "Never Stop Exploring".  Always admired the mountaineer George Mallory's explanation for climbing Everest, "Because it's there. . ."

But my concern as a commercial river rafting operator is that novice white water enthusiasts (our customer base) will fail to read the disclaimer that ought to be apparent ("Don't try this at home!").  Novices watch or read about these extraordinary endeavors and some are enthralled with the notion that is what they should aspire to.  However, what's possible, in terms of white water, for those with training, dedication, passion and innumerable hours of expertise, is not suitable for the majority of our guests.  What's possible for kayaks, catarafts and specially-designed white water crafts is - more likely - beyond the realm of possibility, if safety is your top priority, for commercial paddle rafts.

Our customer's safety, which has to be our foremost consideration, includes, as commercial river outfitters who take beginners for hire through Class III, IV and, occasionally, Class V, making the tough decisions about whether, on any given day, certain guests should tackle certain stretches of river.  If guests come to us with a preconceived notion of what is 'possible', it strains our ability to make that always difficult choice.

And it is not just guests, commercial guides need to appreciate the difference between what it means to have commercial paying guests in your raft as compared to having hand-selected friends or other guides.  The fine line we walk every time we launch out onto white water is the line between providing the safest trip possible for everyone in the raft while providing the most exciting trip possible for everyone in the raft.

Erring on the side of caution should be a no-brainer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

History of Orion River Rafting - Part 9

Leavenworth, Washington

It was the beginning of a new decade. Michael, Paul and I were in our mid-twenties, essentially penniless, living hand-to-mouth. Each of us lived with our girlfriends in their rented houses or apartments. Michael's wife-to-be, Rosie, was somehow cajoled into allowing her second story two-bedroom apartment near Green Lake to become Orion's original Seattle headquarters.

At the time, I paid no attention to the Business section of the paper, but I was aware that America was suffering an economic malaise, or a hangover, from the oil shocks of the '70s. There was a question whether Americans would fork out perfectly good money for unnecessary luxuries like raft trips. Traffic was so light, it was possible to circumnavigate greater metropolitan Seattle in less than a half hour.

I distinctly remember the owner of Zig Zag River Runners, Jim Fielder, a quotable character with a mop of hair and a brushy beard, a six foot four philosopher lothario, state that he had read that during the Great Depression Americans spent more than ever on frivolous purchases and, in particular, for 'death-defying' rides on roller coasters. He had no doubt that raft trips would continue to be popular with the public and, indeed, he proceeded to book 10,000 corporate clients in the upcoming three-month season.

During the early years, Zig Zag was ubiquitous. Jet black cargo vans were everywhere with 'Zig Zag' magnified in white and sprayed across their sides like the mark of Zorro. Bus signs with colorful shots of rafters caught in a moment of whitewater ecstasy --- mouths agape, water splashing everywhere, huge grins and sunshine --- could be spotted all over town. And right beside the beautiful shot of beautiful people was 'Zig Zag' and their toll-free number. Zig Zag rented downtown office space on one of the top floors of the Terminal Sales Building across from the Virginian Inn and installed a bank of phones for their small army of persistent phone solicitors.

When asked where the name Zig Zag came from, Jim Fielder used to explain that he had always been an admirer of Crazy Horse, who was known to paint a distinctive bolt of lightning across his cheeks prior to battle. Fielder claimed his distinctive scrawled Zig Zag logo was reminiscent of Crazy Horse's markings. Of course, having such a memorable name, usually associated with the tobacco rolling papers, could also be seen as a promotional coup. I think Jim saw it as free advertising.  A promotional bonus.

Since Zig Zag was noted for psilocybin mushroom float trips and skinny dipping on the Skagit, being associated with marijuana was not necessarily a negative. Rafting demographics was primarily baby-boomers with newly acquired disposable income who did much more than 'inhale' in the '60s and '70s. In other words, Zig Zag's public would not take umbrage to the association with marijuana or any other minor recreational drug.

Zig Zag's guides nicknamed themselves with monikers like "Bottomfish" and "Underwater John", or just "Crazy Ned", and they would hit the beach comparing notes regarding how many guests they had put in the water that day. The more swimmers, the better.  'Carnage' was not to be shied from and - in fairness to them - there are many places around the globe where river rafting is viewed as a glorified amusement park ride where customers are meant to provide entertainment for the guides.

Almost all of the names of the rapids and obstacles on the Wenatchee are attributed to Jim Fielder and Zig Zag --- Rock N Roll, Satan's Eyeball, Gorilla Falls, Drunkard's Drop, Snowblind, Granny's  (Perhaps tellingly, 'Snowblind' was named for a book Jim enjoyed about the underworld of cocaine.)

While the Zig Zag juggernaut concentrated all of their efforts on generating business, and building a formidable, seemingly prosperous business, Orion made a conscious effort to be their antithesis.

We copied their sales tactics by targeting corporations' human resource departments and employee groups --- but we never hounded people with phone calls. We copied their classy swoosh-like corporate typeface --- but we weren't willing to pay thousands of dollars to a nationally known designer to create it. They didn't offer food --- we did. Their guides bragged about flipping --- we took pride in not having any swimmers, if possible, yet still offering a thrilling ride.

Jim Fielder was a master of self-promotion landing meaty newspaper articles on a regular basis and, to be fair, we rode his coattails. As Luke and the Jedi Knights were to Darth Vader, the rest of the rafting industry were to Jim Fielder in the early days. And just like Luke, if we hadn't fought the good fight against a worthy adversary, we wouldn't have been pushed to excel.

It wasn't the early '80s that I brainstormed the slogan "The Good Guides In The White Rafts" (at the suggestion of my father), but the imagery was directly connected to this ongoing adversarial relationship with Zig Zag.

'Good' versus 'evil'.

White, as in opposition, to black.

Safety first rather than entertainment first.

Or, for you Seattleite readers, Dick's Drive-In burgers versus MacDonald's.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Spring is the Best Time to Raft the Deschutes

The season on the Deschutes River in north central Oregon is year-round due to dams that lie upstream from the prime overnight stretch that Orion River Rafting utilizes for its multi-day river trips.  Unlike free-flowing and more notorious rivers around the West, the dam-managed Deschutes rarely fluctuates more than a foot or so in height throughout the year.  Consequently, while many rivers in the western United States may be overflowing their banks in May, the Deschutes River is, more likely than not, flowing higher from the spring melt, but in no danger of flooding.

May and June are prime months for river rafting the Deschutes because the weather in eastern Oregon (east of the mountain ranges) is drier and warmer than the maritime coast to the west.  Even so, the river is running higher than it will at any other time of the year, providing the maximum amount of excitement and adventure out of the numerous Class II+ to Class III+ white water rapids sprinkled throughout the course of the trip.  July and August may have the heat of summertime in a high desert environment, but the months of May and June should be plenty warm without the crowds.

The scenic beauty of the basalt canyons are enhanced by the vibrant green lichen in the early spring and the lush green grasses on the hillsides.  By July, the grasses will be a distant memory.  The solitude of spring is also a primary reason to choose a river trip prior to the end of June, or before school is out across the Northwest.



Another reason to select a May overnight river trip date on the Deschutes is the ability to build campfires (contained by a firepan) and meals cooked by your guides out of Dutch Ovens.  Dutch oven meals can make or break a river trip, and our guides excel in the art of cast iron cooking.  On June 1st, a river wide fire ban goes into effect.

A family river rafting trip on the Deschutes River is an excellent choice any time of the year; however, if you have the luxury of opting for a spring time date, you will be pleasantly surprised at all of the pluses - enhanced white water, fine weather, fewer people, verdant landscape accompanying the basalt cliffs, a warming campfire each night and delectable baked meals from Dutch Ovens.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Showcasing the Tieton River

Tieton, Washington


Labor Day has come and gone, the Seahawks are starting the football season, Seattle is in the midst of breaking a record for days without rain and - as I type these words - the Tieton River, a mere 30 minutes from Yakima, begins its annual white water rebirth.  Why, you may ask, is there water sluicing down the red rock canyon on the east side of White Pass, while every other commercial rafting river in the state flows at a trickle?



The Tieton River owes its September existence to two factors: irrigation and fish.  Irrigation needs place a demand on the river late in the summer and that is why, toward the end of August and the beginning of our 'Indian summer', the outflow from Rimrock Lake starts to escalate.  But fish are the true driving force behind the September resurrection of one of the busiest Class III white water rivers in the Northwest.

Thanks to our government accommodating the needs of fish every year immediately after Labor Day weekend, white water enthusiasts have - at least - three weeks to get out and play on the busy, fun waters of the appropriately named Tieton River, which is said to be an Indian word for "roaring waters".  The Tieton River includes a dozen or more boat-drenching rapids and innumerable sets of delightful waves.  The best white water can be found between the dam and mile or so below Rimrock Retreat, Washington, with rapid names like Double Barrel, Dodge City, Grimy Gulch, High Noon and Waffle Wall.

Camping is rarely an issue on the Tieton River because 90% of the land appears to be Forest Service.  Besides the half-dozen established campgrounds along the river, there are another half-dozen on Rimrock Lake and more primitive, undeveloped camp sites than can be counted.  Call the Naches Ranger District (1-877-444-6777 ) in Naches, Washington if you are concerned about reserving a site or reserve online.

So, if your summer just flew by and you were unable to get out rafting, the Tieton River is your last chance for 2012 before the fall rains begin to inundate the region.  Combine your 14 mile river trip with a leisurely drive through Mount Rainier National Park or a spontaneous visit to the wineries around Yakima.  You can also drive up to the artist colony/town of 'Mighty' Tieton on the plateau above the river for a dose of creativity with jaw-dropping views of the Cascades.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

River Rafting Testimonial II

Leavenworth, Washington

Thanks to Jermaine for posting this thorough, descriptive review on Yelp.  Jermaine is another one of our enthusiastic, authentic customers that Yelp filtered.  I think the trouble with Yelp's algorithm is that it does not take into account the potential for an effusive review that a white water rafting trip is likely to produce.  Jermaine was STOKED after his experience.  Like Apple computer's early evangelizers, those who take their first journey down a river often emerge at the take-out with an "AHA!" look on their face.

Here is Jermaine's experience:

"I booked a trip with Orion River Rafting for the 28th of May, with no fear at all, not even thinking about our trip until about one week before the actual trip, then the fear started to set in on all that could go wrong on the water with me not being a strong swimmer. My wife was not afraid at all, that is until we got to the first white waters, then she got nervous. All my fear subsided once I got to meet all the cool people at Orion.   

Our Whitewater Rafting trip begins!!!
 
My wife and I met up with Orion River Rafting at a Park in Cashmere WA at 1045 for the 1100 trip. (I suggest trying to be at the park 30-45 min before the show time. I tried to do this but it did not happen.)  The directions they gave us made it easy to find them in the park, which was the meeting place for a lot of other outfitters in the area.

When we found Orion at the park, we got all of our instructions on getting ready, and on the things we needed to do, we also got our wetsuits, a very simple experience. Everyone at Orion was very organized and very friendly to everyone attending.  From there we loaded a bus, and chauffeured 14 miles to Leavenworth WA, to another park, where we got to use the restroom, and finish getting suited-up for the trip,  and took a short walk to the river where our rafts were waiting for us.

At the river's edge there we were giving our safety instructions from our guides Allen and Cher which were very clear and easy to understand.  Matt another guide (which was not working that day)  went with us and was really helpful in helping us out with our life jackets and getting us some practice with our rowing commands, and entering and exiting the water with the rafts.  So all was well and we were off.
Afloat on the Wenatchee River.
It's all smiles and grins on the Wenatchee River near Leavenworth.
Everyone on my raft were first-timers except for one person (Matt). Our group included two couples and Matt, the off duty guide. From the starting point the view behind the guide is awesome, I think the best on the trip. 

Our experience on the water.
 
The river was moving at 12,000 cfs so it was kinda fast. We would be drifting along in the calm beautiful peaceful waters, having good conversations, joking, taking in the sights, then we would hear  the roar of the white waters in the distance getting louder and louder as we get closer, then before we knew it we hear the command from Allen our guide "Paddles Ready!" 

Now it gets fun!
 
We look up and the first things we would see were two or more towering walls of water looking down on us surrounded by white water for 100-500 or so yards depending on the area of the river, with a dip just before each of the towering waves, some of them breaking at the peak.  The breaking waves are the ones that usually get you splashed hard, and the smooth waves we usually just sail over them, sometime catching air, only to be splashed afterwards  by the white water all around us. 

Splash, splash, splash. up, down, up, down, big wave, turned around, wet, cold, wet, cold shocked by the cold water the entire time, then surprised we all made it through it.  If you want to best seat on the raft, and you want to set the pace for the rowing of the raft, sit where I sat, on the front left side, or on the front right side of the raft.  In these two places you will "as Allen put it," have a more intimate experience with the water.  

In other words, you will be hit harder by the waves than any other person on the raft. (So much Fun!!!)  Allen was awesome, he kept us from the major hazards he knew of on the river, I was not worried about any of the hazards on our trip.  The guides knew what they were doing.  Also everyone has to do their part, and keep the raft from the problems areas. With teamwork and the awesome guides you will without a doubt have a WONDERFUL Adventurous  experience!!!

The price of the trip was worth every penny we paid for it. I am working on another trip with Orion with more friends for later this year. 

Why I like Orion:
1st Their rafts has pockets for your foot, to help keep you in the raft.
2nd The lunch we had was very nice, enough for everyone,  and a good variety of food.
3rd The guides are really experienced, and caring, Allen gave my freezing wife and another person on our raft his extra personal jacket to use to keep warm with.
4th They are very organized.
5th They really do keep everyone safe on the river.
This was  class III+ waters, but the entire  experience was nothing less than a Class V (inside joke)
Give Orion River Rafting a try you will really enjoy this company and their guides."

WE like to say that the Wenatchee River is a Class III river with a Class IV heart.  Wenatchee's white water is EXACTLY what 95% of rafting guests are looking for when they sign up to go river rafting.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Raft the Wild, Scenic and Undisturbed Sauk River

Less than an hour from downtown Seattle, undammed waters coursing off Glacier Peak and the surrounding wilderness, merge to form a river federally protected under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act --- the Sauk River.  In the morning, you could have an Americano at the original Starbucks and stroll Pike Place Market dodging flying fish and you could still make your launch time for this ten-mile dash through Washington's verdant back country.
Rafts at Rest
White rafts waiting for their good guides. . .
Between Whitechuck River and the struggling logging community of Darrington, the Sauk cascades between boulders worn smooth and round, and a forest draped with delicate, light-green club moss and carpeted with mosses in dozens of shapes and shades of green.  The white water rafting is superb with active and challenging rapids that demand a guide's attention.  Even the name's grab the guide's attention:  Guide Trap, Alligator Hole, Jaws and Waterslide, and more than a half-dozen others.

The Sauk River is wild, scenic and --- for the most part --- undisturbed.  The odds are you will be the only party rafting the river.  The Forest Service limits the number of visitors who can raft the river and tourists overlook the natural beauty of this part of Washington in favor of drier climates.  However, if you live in the northern half of Puget Sound, west of the Cascades, and you are looking for the best white water adventure possible for novice paddlers - the Wild and Scenic Sauk River is the finest option available.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

So You Want to be a River Rafting Guide? - Part 2


Above: Grace Peven rowing on the Grande Ronde River (circa 2002) with brother, Ben, behind.


Story By: Grace Peven


I recently underwent training to become a certified river rat. Not a rodent with a long snout and a sparsely haired tail that lives near the water, but a rafting guide.  In mid-April, twenty students, and twenty well-experienced guides and instructors embarked on a week of intensive training on Oregon’s Deschutes River

 
My romantic aspirations of conquering mighty currents and rapids are rooted in a childhood full of river adventures. My mom and my dad met through rafting, became guides, and eventually passed on the rafting gene to me.  I’m eternally grateful to my parents for raising me on the sandy beaches and serene waters of the Salmon River.  Many years of rafting with close friends and family inspired an ambition to carry on the family legacy of guiding. 

This led me to start work at Orion Rafting when I turned 16. I was warmly welcomed into the rich culture of Orion. For my first two summers, I perfected my pepper and watermelon slicing, preparing the tasty lunches for the company’s day trips on the Wenatchee River. I also greeted and helped guests before trips. The long-awaited 18th birthday finally came around, which qualified me for guide training and to, hopefully, find a spot on the guiding end of the rafting spectrum.

My days of guide training started with dew on my sleeping bag and a river mocha in my mug (hot cocoa mix and coffee).  After cinnamon rolls for breakfast, we practiced crucial knots, adding up to about twelve different knots by the end of the week. Now I can tie a mean double fisherman’s knot.  After a full morning of lessons on hydrology, rescue techniques, and maybe a few unexpected skits, we would find ourselves applying our freshly learned skills on the river.

 
Photo by Dane Doerflinger: Students gather to scout Boulder Bend Rapid on the Wenatchee River, just below Leavenworth.

Each day I absorbed bountiful amounts of vitamin D as well as a surplus of wilderness, safety, and river knowledge that was useful information.  It was refreshing to be taught practical lessons and actually apply them to the real world.  For a high school student, this abstract idea of practical learning and application was astounding!  I wasn’t cramming for a test; I was learning to apply skills towards a three-dimensional situation. 

At the end of the day, after digesting mounds of a Dutch oven dinner and a luxurious desert dish, we would huddle around a campfire to listen to stories and songs. With thirty-plus years of rafting experience under Orion’s belt, the stories and scenarios retold in the light of the campfire inspired my young guide- self and affirmed my excitement to join this spirited group of exceptional rafters.  

My training also emphasized how much of a team sport guiding is, the importance of thinking as a group, and the need to work cohesively with the people surrounding you.  Not only did we paddle together, we participated in team-building activities.  For example, we were assigned a task of fitting all twenty of us students on a rock with a three-foot diameter, while successfully completing an entire song.

Photo by Dane Doerflinger:  Instructors lead another scout before Rock n' Roll Rapid on the Wenatchee River, near Peshastin.

On the river itself during my first turn at the helm, I successfully made it through the rapid with all persons remaining in the boat.  My heartbeat quickened as I took the guide stick into my hand for my first class 3 guiding episode.  In the middle of the rapid, Buckskin Mary’s, a monster-wave awaits to devour its visitors.  I faced the wave head on, prepared for turmoil.  “All forward!” I commanded.  Seated at the stern of the boat, I watched in awe as a white curtain engulfed my crew, momentarily halting our raft with its sheer force.  My crew aggressively paddled through the powerful wave with grins stretched across their faces.  We emerged from the bowels of Buckskin Mary’s with yells of victory and thrill.    


This summer I hope to enjoy similar experiences, guiding the Wenatchee River.  We’re incredibly lucky to have one of the most sought after rivers in the state, running through our backyard. The Wenatchee is filled with rollercoaster waves that will leave no one dry by the end of the day.  Granny’s Rapid, my personal favorite, contains a thrilling set of monstrous waves.  Residing a quarter mile from the Cashmere take-out, Granny’s is the perfect end to an 18-mile day trip with equal measures of turbulent whitewater and peaceful green water. 


Photo by Dane Doerflinger: Post-guide training on the Deschutes River.      

A particularly important lesson I learned during guide training was humility. One of our days on the Deschutes we swam a class 3 rapid. The students experienced an up-close-and-personal demonstration of the relentless force of the river. Drinking in river water and being swept about like a log made me forever grateful for our safe rubber rafts. It motivated all of us to perfect our guiding abilities to avoid swimming future rapids.

To further emphasize humility and to show our recognition of the greater power of the river, we partook in an Orion tradition of dropping a small rock in the river as an offering to the River Gods.  The rock symbolized respect for the mighty power of the current.  We are subject to the pull of the water, the powerful surge of the rapids, and the relentless, unbounded current.  We simply must accept and appreciate the river’s natural power over our human weakness. Pay attention the Golden River Rule, we were told: Respect the River Gods and they will tolerate you.  


Above: An early morning hike above the Deschutes River.  Part of the appeal of rafting is also enjoying  the surrounding landscape.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

River Rafting Testimonial

Leavenworth, Washington

Over Memorial Weekend, a group of ladies celebrating an imminent wedding date booked a river rafting trip on the Wenatchee River at pretty high water.  The organizer of the trip - but not the bride-to-be - was a mite skittish about the whole white water thing.  I assured her we would do everything within our means of showing her a safe and fun time.

As the River Manager, I made certain this group paired up with a guide who I knew would succeed in showing them a rollicking good time, skirt what needed to be skirted and challenge the waves they could successfully challenge.  They had a fantastic time!  So much so, the organizer wrote an eloquent and pithy review on Yelp.  She gave us five stars.

Well, Yelp decided to filter it out.  Which is a shame because it is one of the best written reviews I have seen.  I hope she won't mind me sharing it with the Orion public.
Rafting Joie de Vivre
Good times river running.
This is from Lera M.  of western Washington.

"If you want a personalized experience for river rafting, with the security of going with an established company--use Orion. (Ignore the cheesy BBQ marketing from the "other" guys).

This company has class. The guides are excellently trained. The owner of the company even let us pick one of the most experienced guides because we were a little nervous taking a Bachelorette Party down the Wenatchee in May just two weeks before the wedding.

We only got wet if we wanted to (except for the splashing harassment from the other boats--which was awesome) and for those who got wet--our guide, Ally--offered up her own personal gear to make sure the girls who jumped in wouldn't be too cold as the weather turned chilly and dark the second half of the trek.

It was a great workout--we had planned on having a crazy night in downtown Leavenworth afterwards--but we were so exhausted, we kept it low-key.

Ally was an exceptional guide. We didn't need to use any of the safety tips she provided before we got in the boat (thankfully!) but as the most scared one in the group, I felt confident that she had prepared me. She was fun and personal, and it was evident from the 16-mile trek with HUGE waves that she knew exactly what she was doing, when we needed to preserve our energy, when we needed to focus and work hard, and when it was time to have fun. She kept us safe, warm, and excited!

And! ... They offered clean equipment--warm wetsuits and booties (LOVE the booties!), fancy well-maintained boats, and you can wear your own rain jacket (Do NOT skip this in colder months!) which just feels better after 4 hours of wear.

Thank you Orion! This was the Bachelorette Party Weekend Getaway HIGHLIGHT!"

Monday, May 28, 2012

History of Orion River Rafting - Part 6

Leavenworth, Washington

Talking to our profs about our hare-brained idea to launch our own river company was anything but a walk in the park. They held the power to dash our concept into tiny, irretrievable pieces. So, we approached our meeting with a great deal of trepidation.

To our complete surprise, they did not resist. Cris Miller was non-committal. Jim Moore said that we had to be nuts to attempt something as risky as starting a business and, since we were clearly addled, we should 'go for it'.

And Ron Riggins --- the one who could easily pull the plug with a mere look of disdain --- practically embraced the idea as his own. A week or so later, he was co-signing a loan for $3,500 using his new Bellingham abode as collateral. The loan was needed for equipment such as boats, pumps, paddles and other necessary river-related stuff. We'd already blown through our modest 'war chest' on advertising, insurance and day-to-day expenses.

The minor bank loan procured two new rafts, a used Rubber Crafters Yampa from Prescott College (not 'Orion', but 'Merlin'), a dozen paddles and life jackets and a pump of some kind. My Ford Maverick was outfitted with a trailer hitch and we rented a U-Haul when we needed it. Later in the summer, I traded my Maverick for a 'three-on-the-tree', V-6, white Chevy pick-up. At that point, we were on our way.

All that we needed was some business.

Our church mailing ended disastrously with the threat of a lawsuit from the outfit in West Virginia whose picture we had borrowed. We recalled all of our brochures as recompense, and our second brochure effort was hasty and ugly in comparison. As far as I remember, not a single church group booked a river trip.

July 4th, 1978 found the five of us in Glacier, Washington, at Graham's Restaurant. Somehow we arranged to sell trips from the lobby of the restaurant with an inflated raft as a prop. The Fourth of July Special was $150 for a boatload of folks to paddle the Nooksack which flowed right outside the restaurant's doors.

It was a slow holiday. Traffic was light. Canadians were headed up to Mount Baker for the annual ski jump that ended in a quasi-frozen lake but they were in too big of a hurry to stop and raft. The Bandidos motorcycle club (consider them Hell's Angels Lite) roared into town. Making a pit stop on their way up the mountain.

About that time, one of the town characters stopped into Graham's. He called himself 'Dirty Dan Hamlin' and he wore an ankle-length sheepskin coat. He stood about as tall as a mantle on a fireplace and his beard was peppered with silver. Dirty Dan fished out of Alaska, but had the summer off. He'd never floated the Nooksack in all of the years he had lived there but it had always been a dream of his to do so.

He pressed a wad of cash cash into my hand and said he would pay for the entire boat. Now, we just needed several other participants. Dirty Dan thought the Bandidos would get a kick out of rafting the Nooksack, so he ambled off to chat with the motorcycle enthusiasts hanging out in the parking lot, picking their teeth and polishing their chrome.

Gary Graham, never one to miss an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, saw an opening unfolding for the perfect photo op. Mickey Mouse ears were produced, a buxom, blonde waitress turned up in a bikini despite the fact it was sub-sixty degrees Fahrenheit and threatening rain and a gaggle of Bandidos were herded toward the riverbank and an inflated raft.

The Bandidos were clad neckline to ankle in black leather. The women wore stiletto heels. Chain jewelry clanked. Tobacco use was prevalent. Dirty Dan, possibly under the influence of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, wound up wearing the Mickey Mouse ears which gave him a look of perpetual questioning.
The Bandidos made it perfectly clear that they would never ride anything that didn't have a carburetor. A picture was okay, but rafting was out. Michael fretted over the sharpness of the ladies' heels. While Gary's comely employee's flesh looked like a freshly plucked turkey.

In spite of all that, this hodge-podge of humanity clambered onto one of our new rafts and someone caught the tableau for posterity's sake --- probably Linda, our erstwhile photographer. A photo reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang.

A half-hour later, Dirty Dan and I along with Gary Graham's son and a friend were careening down the Nooksack. We never could get Dirty Dan to remove his sheepskin coat. He was more suitably dressed for Shackleton's crossing of Antarctica's ice floes than paddling the glacial waters of the Nooksack. We secured a bulky Mae West flotation device on top of it knowing full well he would probably sink like an anvil if he went overboard. He kneeled in the non-self-bailing raft as if it was a canoe. I cringed every time I came close to a rock in anticipation of cracking his kneecap.

But Dirty Dan was our first paying customer on Orion's first expedition and we all lived to recall the tale.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cocky River Rafting Guides Need Not Apply

River rafting is - for lack of a better term - fun.

White water rafting is an exciting means of getting out into the great outdoors.  And it brings the great outdoors to a wide variety of people.
Tough guys finish first.
Reynolds' character in Deliverance was both empathetic AND cocky.
If you have read any of my previous posts related to this one, you know where I am going here.  The river rafting public comes in all shapes and sizes, many different ages and physical abilities.  But what they all have in common is they are  A) counting on our professional expertise, and B) have absolutely no idea how important it is that we exercise prudence when we are guiding them through white water.

It doesn't matter how many times a guest has gone rafting.  Unless they spend their spare time out from behind their desks floating white water in a life jacket or getting intimate with white water in a hard shell or inflatable kayak, when we meet them at the river side for their day of rafting, they are 'babes in the woods', as far as white water knowledge goes.  Regardless of whether they know it or not, our guests are counting us to demonstrate prudence and good judgment on the river.

In other words, professional river rafting guides need to know the 'That's Stupid' rule and stick to it.

Let me be alliterative.

Cockiness, complacency and carelessness create consternation, chaos and - possibly - catastrophe.  The deadly C's.

No guide is immune to falling under one or all of those spells.  It can happen to the thirty year veteran as easily as it can happen to the 20-year old.  Of course, the trouble is, you need only let down your guard once.

It happened to me on the Skykomish River.  Feeling positively elated by a clean descent of Boulder Drop Rapids, I nonchalantly captained my raft of novice paddlers toward the infamous Lunch Hole.  It wasn't as if I didn't know the hazard existed.  In fact, I had been assiduously skirting it for more than a decade fully cognizant of its potential to humble raft guides.

I watched as the boat in front of me seemed to hit the hydraulic and emerge unscathed.  I made a mental note that the guide that toyed with the Lunch Hole was a younger, less experienced guide and perhaps that realization played into my nonchalance.  Regardless, it was then I let my guard drop.

I tried to catch the edge of the hole, but by venturing close, my raft wound up taking on the 'whole enchilada'.  The violence of the flipped raft was remarkable.  And for me, and a few of my guests, the violence of the swim was equally remarkable.  In fact, that twenty yard unexpected swim was my worst ever.  And, in my career prior to this, I had found myself out of a raft at the bottom of Boulder Drop, through ALL of Lava Falls and most of Hell's Half Mile in Dinosaur National Monument.
All it required was one moment of cockiness, carelessness and complacency.

People wonder why Orion has so many female river guides.  When I was thinking about writing this post, I thought back over the past several decades of boating and I tried to recall how many cocky female river guides I had encountered.  I couldn't think of any.  I know BOLD female rafters.  I know female guides who are assertive and unafraid to voice their opinions.  There is no shortage of women who choose to run rivers and are abundantly confident in their abilities.

On the other hand, I have met plenty of males with a white water attitude.  Males who can't (or choose not to) empathize with their customers.  Maybe it's a testosterone-thing.  Who knows?

So, what Orion favors are non-cocky, careful guides who do their best to stave off complacency.  And guides who demonstrate their professionalism by showing prudence and restraint - saving their 'stupid guide tricks' for the private 'busman's holidays' trips.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Today's New River Rafting Guides

Leavenworth, Washington
Orion River Rafting just completed 2012's annual river guide training.  Twenty intrepid individuals signed on to take this year's course.  We had nurses, EMTs, firefighters, IT types, parks and recreation administrators, small business owners, and college and high school students.  The usual gamut of personalities, occupations and attitudes.

Some were fast learners blessed with a natural proclivity to wield a guide paddle and a laser sharp attentiveness to details.  Some needed more time to absorb the lessons.  For them, repetition was the key to learning.  But the longer I do this (this was my 34th season of training new guides), the more I realize how much better prepared these new river rafting guides are as compared to the founding days of river rafting in Washington state.

River rafting guides in the twenty-first century are benefiting from several decades of accumulative experience and passed on knowledge.  Guides of today know more about river rescue scenarios, are armed with better personal gear and outfitted gear, spend more time practicing getting in and out of rafts and righting capsized rafts.
Learning to paddle in the bow.
One of Orion's new river guides in training on the Wenatchee.
For safety gear, they are expected to carry a knife, a whistle, a flip line, locking carabiners and a prussik loop.  They are trained and expected to know how to tie useful safety and rescue knots like bowlines, water knots and follow-through figure eights.  A few burnish their guiding resumes by attending swift water rescue courses.

Trainers have become better at teaching how to read white water and what to expect depending on an extensive continuum of possibilities.  This does not mean we aren't surprised every now and then but the vast array of white water potentialities grows smaller with each season.  New guides still have a learning curve to overcome, but they start their careers so much better prepared and informed than the guides of the 70s and 80s.

To be honest, I feel as if this millenia's river rafting guides emerge at the end of their training as good a guide as I was in 1990 after almost 16 years of boating.  They don't have the base of experience, but they certainly know or have heard as much about how to raft and how to raft safely as I did by the time I had been out on the water a decade and a half.

About the only advantage I think the boaters of yesteryear have over guide training graduates over the last decade or so is our experience rafting in non-self-bailing inflatables.  Particularly guiding 'bucket' boats through white water like Boulder Drop Rapids on the Skykomish or, for that matter, most of the rapids on the Skykomish from the town of Index on down about a mile past Boulder Drop.  Nothing is quite like being at the mercy of how much water the river might pour into your raft.

Fortunately for our new river rafting guides, they won't ever have to experience navigating Class V white water with a raft that is just getting heavier by the second and a crew that is just getting more fatigued from paddling hundreds, or thousands of pounds, of water downriver.  Those days are long over.  Bail buckets are for water fighting and hand washing these days.

So here is a toast to our new guide training graduates, "To all who have just graduated.  May you now go on to become educated!"

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Questions? Call Your Local River Rafting Outfitter

Leavenworth, Washington
Convenience is over-rated.  For instance, do people really need the convenience of drive-through liquor stores, and what subliminal message does that send?

I understand the attraction of doing everything online.  I know I don't always want to have a long, drawn-out conversation with a stranger.  For instance, when I am shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, I want to be left to my own devices until I determine I have a question to ask.  In my opinion, most salespeople tend to 'badger' their customers.  I'd rather wander around aimlessly until I am ready to be assisted (which may not ever happen).

But some purchases, like a river rafting journey, more often than not, require further information.  Users of our service need details and particulars.  They need to know what the river classifications mean or indicate.  They need to know what they are getting for the price they are paying.  They need to know if granny can participate.
River Rafting at 80
Granny Goes for Big White Water
They need to know what they should bring to make their day on the water as pleasant as possible.

Of course, the information is 'out there'.  But, when you are engaging in an activity like white water rafting, where there are many variables, it is easy to overlook or gloss over details that can be incredibly useful or important.  And, I have found, no matter how thorough an explanatory e-mail might be, or a brochure, or a web site - sometimes a crucial detail gets missed.

Not to mention that when you are buying a service where your safety is at stake, you should be very interested in the attitude and demeanor of the person doing the selling.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, customers ought to query the outfitter and their sales staff as much as possible to get an accurate reading of how they run their trips, not just when and where.

Online Reservations are a boon to those of us looking for quieter days with less jangling phone lines to deal with, but, if you are even the least bit unfamiliar with a river or going on river trips, don't hesitate to get your outfitter on the line and getting your questions addressed.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Outlook for Washington River Rafting Season

Leavenworth, Washington
What should we expect for Washington rivers and river rafting?

Sunny on the east side of the Cascades, soggy on the west.  That is what is always expected out of rivers located within an easy drive of Seattle.
White Water Bliss
Wenatchee River - Drunkard's Drop
Sunshine on the eastern slopes, and moist marine air backed up from the passes to the sound on the west side.  Spring is in full bloom on both sides of the mountain divide and our healthy snow pack continues to settle amidst the vales and forests deep in the heart of the North Cascades.
In other words, the spring melt off is still to come.

Temperatures will be rising over the next few days, touching the 80s in Leavenworth and, it is possible, the white water game will be on.  Last season, turbulent and cold spring conditions persisted right into and throughout June, and the snow melt never built to a crescendo.  River water levels - on both sides of the mountains - were sustained well into August.

There is no way of knowing just how this season is going to unfold.  But it is typical for summer to come on strong east of the Pacific Crest Trail and rivers to rise on a bell curve with the peak falling in late May or early June.  On the Puget Sound side of the mountains, warm spring rains usually accomplish the same or a similar pattern with rivers like the Sauk River and the Skykomish.

High water levels on Washington's western rivers certainly should be avoided by novice, inexperienced and first-time river runners.  On the other hand, less technical rivers like the Wenatchee River and the Methow Rivers are more manageable at high water, but even they can reach levels that are not suitable for beginners.

So, if weather patterns and snow melt unfold true to form, you can expect lots of white water, and cold water conditions, in all of Washington's rivers from mid- to late-May through mid- to late-June.  The levels should taper off throughout the remainder of the season - with the exception of the Sauk River which is sustained by glacial melt - with July being mild white water but much better air temperatures.

Speaking of the Sauk River, July is actually the ideal time period to raft the Sauk.  The Puget Sound environs are beginning to show signs of summer and this Wild and Scenic river gains water as the glaciers on surrounding mountains begin to melt.

Remember the One Hundred Degree rule:  If air temperature plus water temperature is 100 degrees or less, wetsuits or drysuits are required.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Esoteric White Water Rafting Terms

Leavenworth, Washington
Like most activities, occupations and hobbies, white water river rafting has a language all its own.  What looks to the untrained eye like a wave, but a wave that has the propensity to recirculate boats, people and logs, are called "holes".  River guides look for the "tongue" as they approach a rapid because the tongue signifies the deepest and - typically - clearest channel.

But there are more esoteric terms guides bandy about that I'd like to introduce to the interested boating public.  (Let me preface this list by stating that in the event of injury or tragedy some of these terms may be considered insensitive and are not bandied about.)
On the tongue at Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon
Lava Falls 1982 - On the 'hateful' left side of the tongue
"Yard sale" or "carnage", for instance.  Each of these reference the same sort of incident.  A raft has had a mishap and now the boat, gear, people and, depending on the sort of trip, miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam, like coolers and their contents, are strewn upriver and downriver.  In other words, in the aftermath of a white water 'uh-oh' moment the river is littered with colorful floating items.

If a rafts "tacos", this means the bow and stern of the inflatable have been introduced to one another, due to encountering a steep drop, perhaps a 'hole', and it is very likely you have a yard sale on your hands.  A rapid on the Umpqua River in Oregon is named Taco, and I have seen its namesake up close and personal, but my most memorable and humbling 'taco' experience happened in the Grand Canyon's grandaddy of all rapids, Lava Falls.  As you might imagine, the aftermath of that encounter was definitely referred to as 'carnage'.
They are NOT going to make it through this white water
Taco-ing on the right side of the infamous Ledge Hole
On the Methow River, on an innocuous left hand bend miles above the storied white water of Black Canyon and Another Roadside Attraction and all the others, there is, at times when the river is cold and high and full of snow melt, a powerful breaking wave called "Dumptruck".  It received that moniker the day I watched one of our paddle rafts, full to the gills with hardy paddlers, challenge the wave only to have the boat stand on its tail as every member of the crew was perfunctorily dumped into the silt-tinged current.  That is known as a "dumptruck", because the raft ended right side up and free of its cumbersome weight.

If you have ever been on a white water river and separated from your raft and found your downstream progress put on hold due to nothing but turbulent water, you will instantly know what I mean when I say you were being "maytagged".  Maytag is a brand of washing machine.  If you have NOT experienced being at the mercy of recirculating currents, try envisioning yourself as a scrap of cloth stuck in a modern day washing machine.  (And - no - the term "whirlpool" did not come from THAT other appliance brand.)

The last one for this posting is a personal descriptive reference I like to use to colorfully describe to my crew the kind of paddlers I do not want to see.  After explaining how I would like for them to hold their paddles and move their bodies and perform their roles, I like to make it clear that the best crews not only paddle together, they are dynamic.  And what I don't want them to be are "sacks of potatoes".  Because, if a sack of potatoes is anything, it is not dynamic.  It is static and at the mercy of every crashing wave.

In the photos accompanying this post of my fateful comeuppance at Lava Falls Rapids in 1982, that crew was more a bag of tigers than a sack of potatoes.  But when we taco-ed in that hellacious hole, we damn near punched on through.  Even so, the boat reared up, dumptrucked us into the maelstrom and landed upright.   A few got maytagged, the rest of us jetted on downstream.

The good news is - we can look back now and laugh about the 'yard sale'.

Monday, March 12, 2012

River Rafting as Team Building

Leavenworth, Washington
Henry Ford was quoted as saying, "Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."  Managers, work-group supervisors and corporate leaders may want to consider looking outside of the box for tools and ideas that motivate and bring groups together.  Orion River Rafting believes they need look no further than their closest Washington river outfitter.  Our guides become guides beneath the banner of teamwork and know how to provide a quality river trip that will bring out the best in your group and get them working as a team.
River Rafting Brings People Together
River rafting is not all flailing paddles and great big splashes.
White water rafting trips, once again, are becoming a popular way for corporate groups to bond and grow together. Co-workers unite in powerful ways on a whitewater trip because - by necessity - they are working together to challenge the forces of nature. There are few things more exhilarating than spending a day, or several days, together confronting white water rapids and working as a unit. The outdoors inspires esprit de corps and a well-earned, shared sense of accomplishment.

On longer river trips, such as the Deschutes River, river rafters communication skills are sure to improve.  Effective communication is often challenging in the office, with the constant distractions of email, meetings and ringing phones.  In the great outdoors, like the solitude of the high desert country of the Deschutes River, there is time for co-workers to truly connect around campfires and while scouting rapids.

Co-workers rarely have the chance to simply share in new experiences by day, and then hear each person’s input on the day’s adventures as everyone comes together. On the river, this is a part of the experience that participants anticipate.  Gathering together in camp each evening over a great meal after a fantastic day of outdoor activities in itself is a powerful relationship building experience.

James L. Moore, founder of Orion River Rafting says, “There is no doubt about the formative aspects of a shared out-of-your element experience like a river raft trip to bring a group of people together.  Over my 35 years of rafting, I have watched many a group go through the "forming, storming, norming" phases of team-building and come out the other side with a much tighter, cohesive bond.  Few group activities are as effective at bringing people together as a day or a week of river rafting."

Orion River Rafting offers a range of Pacific Northwest rafting adventures that bring corporate teams together.  The Leavenworth River outfitter’s experienced guides and crew work with team building facilitators to create an excursion uniquely tailored to specific goals and objectives.  They can choose from day trips with tough white water challenges like the Skykomish River, or mild white water, like the Skagit River where participants can even get a shot at steering the raft and learning to guide.

On our overnight river trips down the Deschutes, there is plenty of time in camp for additional planned activities or down time, whichever is preferred.  Itineraries are flexible and can include easy to challenging hikes, lazy river swims, and facilitated team building exercises, spirited camp games or just time for people to connect while relaxing in a majestic natural setting.

If your company group or organization is looking for a meaningful means of enhancing the team building experience, white water rafting in Washington or Oregon could be the answer to better communications, increased productivity and a lot more joie de vivre around the office all year long. No rafting or camping experience is required.  All people need to do is show up ready for adventure and fun, and the river outfitters will do the rest.  The company provides the facilitator and exercises; Orion River Rafting provides all of the equipment, gear, food and river expertise so that participants can get the most out of their team building adventure.

Friday, March 9, 2012

More Leavenworth River Rafting

Leavenworth's Chamber of Commerce would have you believe we see blue skies over the Bavarian-themed village all year long with nary a break.  After re-locating Orion River Rafting to Leavenworth in 2005 and living here twelve months of the year, I can report that - if you believe the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce's version of the weather - I have some property in south Florida you might be interested in that I guarantee has no pythons living on it.

Of course, Leavenworth is a good deal warmer and drier than the Cascade's wet side, but, before you head over here on vacation, be sure to check the forecast.  Most of the time, as you are driving over one or the other pass en route to what we affectionately refer to as Der Town, you will break out of the choking grey of the Sound's maritime climate, and glide down into a valley of ponderosa pine forests illuminated by clear blue skies.  Occasionally, the maritime precipitation crawls over the passes and rains on our recreational nirvana.

When this happens, one of our MOST frequently asked questions is - Does the river trip get canceled?

Maybe if unrelenting lightning strikes are bolting across the skies, non-stop, then we will more than likely call the trip off.  But, if it is just raining?  Not very likely.

We tried to cancel a trip once during a gully-washing rainstorm.  We even went so far as to not bother inflating the rafts before we met with our guests, so sure were we that they would be grateful to be let off the hook.  But, when we went to greet them in the morning (this was before wetsuits and wetsuit boots were an industry standard, which means it was well before self-bailing rafts and high tech synthetic gear), we found the entire group - an employee group of engineers - decked out head to toe in the kind of foul weather gear you might find on fishing rigs in the Bering Sea.

Needless to say, we could tell by their attire that they were ready to go boating.  We haven't thought about canceling a raft trip due to foul weather since.

The good news about white water rafting is - you are going to get wet anyway!  If not by the waves and the weather, then it might be at the hands of your fellow rafters who are loath to see a dry boater.  Water fighting during a river trip is not uncommon and it is especially not uncommon when your river adventure includes your supervisor, boss, best man or father-in-law.
You ARE going to get wet white water rafting.
Wet is s state of mind while rafting.
The moral to the short post is this - even if you are rafting the Wenatchee River out of Leavenworth, come prepared to get wet.  One way, or the other.  Consult our how to dress for success article.
And - if your weather ap indicates inclement weather, don't call the office thinking the trip has been canceled.  These days, we will equip you with neoprene for your upper body and your feet, and a splash jacket to shed MOST of the water.  And, we promise you won't melt.
~~~
Following a cool weather trip, check out Snow Creek Yoga and see if they have a class in hot yoga, or call Solstice Spa for a treatment that will work out the kinks and ward off all chills.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Building a River Rafting Culture


When I first 'cut my teeth' river rafting, my instructors talked about a collection of 'river gods'.  They were not referring to the bold whitewater enthusiasts who were starting to push the boundaries of river rafting all over the planet while claiming first descents, though many thought of those daring adventurers as 'river gods'.  It was their way of introducing the green river runners in our party to their version of the mythological pantheon of 'river gods' that they claimed were part and parcel of a free-flowing river.

With white water rafting - when in doubt, scout!
I will not bother you with the names of these gods, but I will divulge that they were 'tongue-in-cheek' monikers.  Sort of inside jokes, in the Southwestern river community where I was taught to guide.  But they stood for something else altogether - Respect.

Respect for the immense, unknowable, ultimately untameable power of moving water.

Respect like Aretha Franklin's R-E-S-P-E-C- T.

Nowadays we introduce these same entities to our new guides in guide training and perform a ritual where we all sign a medium-sized river stone and cast it into the Deschutes River at the head of the first major rapid we encounter.  It's an offering and a ritual but, again, the underlying notion is that we recognize the awe-inspiring power of rivers and take a vow to never underestimate it.

This respect coupled with a safety-first mentality defines who we are as river guides at Orion River Rafting.  Armed with decades of experiential learning and an oral history passed down from one generation to the next, combined with respect, further solidifies who we are as river guides.  A healthy respect for the river matters because it permeates all other aspects of our culture.

Respect for our clients.  Respect for each other.  Respect for the value of the experience.
It's easy to lose sight of the significance of revering powerful forces outside of our control.  Behaving as if we have dominion over natural forces.  That, like the bullheaded youth in The Ballad of Belle Zabor, "he'd made himself such a name, at oar of boat, he had no peer, to him all rivers were tame."  Hubris, I believe the word is - in Greek mythos it meant "excessive defiance of the gods".

Spoiler alert:  It did not end well for our young hero.

Guides need a bit of boldness, self-confidence, assertiveness and bravado, but it all needs to be tempered with respect.  Otherwise, we do ourselves and our clients a disservice.  And we weaken the tensile strength of a solid boating community.


Monday, February 20, 2012

River Rafting: The More Things Change. . .

Rivers are not static entities.  They change their courses.  Occasionally, their courses are changed for them.  These changes may be subtle, dramatic or incremental.  River rafters need to take heed of this.  Rivers that are young geologically, like the Sauk and Suiattle Rivers near Darrington, Washington, can be altered significantly from one season to the next.  Rivers such as the Wenatchee and the Methow tend to change at a slower pace.

Landowners on the Suiattle,  may have riverfront one year, an island the next and a riverbed the year thereafter.  Three years later, their riverfront property may be the opposite bank from which they started.  A while back a magnificent and powerful winter storm sluiced a hundred thousand cubic feet of roiling water down the Sauk River valley and wiped away log jams and recreated channels that had been there for decades.  The negative effects of that flood, which silted in many of the rapids, have only recently begun to recede.  Now, the positive effects are beginning to come to the fore, like the thrilling white water chute at the site of the re-engineered Whirlpool Rapids.

There was a time in the middle of the last century when it was considered reasonable to try to 'straighten' a river's course as much as possible to aid in flood control.  With this idea in mind, bulldozers would be unloosed on the Wenatchee River during low water to alter the channel.  Commercial river rafting was still a couple of decades into the future so there is no telling how this activity influenced the rapids on the Wenatchee, but it is likely that if you were boating the river regularly at the time, you would encounter ever-changing routes and midstream obstacles courtesy of the Corps of Engineers.

Since I began rafting the Wenatchee River in 1977, I have seen rapids disappear (Snapdragon below Drunkard's), the riverbed move south (Granny's Rapids), hydraulics come (Devil's ***hole), and some go and come again (Suffocator).  The devilish surging reversal, Aguirre the Wrath of God, at the top of Boulder Bend Rapids was not always there, nor was the intense wall of white known as Granny's Wave.
The white water at Drunkard's.
What's wrong with this picture of Drunkard's Drop on the Wenatchee River?
The white water configuration at Drunkard's Rapids has changed periodically.  In the late 80s, a sticky hydraulic just off the cliff side, lured it's share of victims into its maelstrom.  (Victims only in the sense of getting unceremoniously dunked into the river.)  You only have to watch the repetitive video titled Wipeout taken during that time period to see the white water 'carnage' wrought upon unwary boaters in Drunkard's.  Sometime in the 90s, the rock creating that 'hole' must have lurched downstream and smoothed the run out.  it has not been a reversal in nearly two decades.

Well, Drunkard's Rapids has been modified once more.  A boulder spilled off the rotten cliff on the left bank and lodged itself in what was once the location of the main tongue of river.  At the current low flows there is no telling how it will ultimately alter the rapid, though it is obvious it will be a major obstacle with substantial influences.  In fact, until high water arrives, there is no certainty it will remain in place.  As for now, it squats in the middle of the run, like a sentinel on guard.  High water and all of its concussive power may very well rearrange it.

It is a lesson for all of us - once more - not to become complacent while white water rafting or river running (or driving your car, for that matter).

Friday, February 17, 2012

River Rafting Brings People Together

I grew up in Dallas, Texas, about as far from a river rafting adventure as you can get in the continental United States.  My first river journey was by accident.  I blithely selected a college in Arizona that put great value in outdoor recreation, and as freshman orientation my first month in school, they randomly sent me on a 30-day Colorado river trip.

I do not recall reading the school's mission, but, after spending a month in the back country of the Southwest on a muddy river with a dozen people I didn't know, sleeping under a field of stars every night, living off freeze-dried rations, hard-tack crackers and peanut butter, hiking the red rock canyons when we weren't floating the river, I am guessing they figured wilderness travel was an overall net-gain for society.  You learned things about one another and your fellow traveler that would take decades to learn in the 'real world'.
Letting your hair down on the river.
River rafting recreation and leisure time activities.
My father was a minister and founding and maintaining churches and their congregations was his forte.  My mother allowed me to treat our home as if it were a community recreation center.  With this sort of background, it was natural that once I discovered the intrinsic, communal value of outdoor recreation and, particularly, extended outdoor trips, I would somehow act on it.

The sharing of a thirty-day river adventure forged strong bonds between it participants.  I have seen this bond happen in much shorter adventures as well.  It has something to do with sharing the challenge or the experience or the stories that will be told.  Or all of those things combined.  Or sharing in the hardships like foul weather, dilapidated vehicles or moldy summer sausages.

The beauty of a river trip is that it is an outdoor adventure that can be shared by a fairly large number of people all at once.  It is also an outdoor adventure that is accessible to a wide range of abilities and ages.  An additional plus is river rafting is more comparable to car camping than a climbing assault on the North Face.  You can venture forth into the 'wilderness' with friends and family carrying everything as well as the kitchen sink.

A river trip is an ideal adventure for youth at risk, employee work groups or bachelor or bacholerette parties.  Since most people will be fully out of their element on a river trip the shared challenge before them will be crystal clear.  It will be something they anticipate and something they will talk about for months or years to come.

As the purveyor of river trips, I try to make them as 'uneventful' as possible.  I remember a YMCA group telling me of their disappointment with a trip because nothing happened.  The waves had been fun, swimming the rapids had been fun, their time on the river had been a great respite, but there had not been any mishaps, so their storyline was weak.

I was incredulous.  Surely they would not want us to manufacture 'disaster', because it is wholly unnecessary.  'Disaster' lurks in every river hydraulic, so there is no need to go looking for it.
But I did understand their disappointment and where it was coming from.  They wanted more of a story to tell. 

I told them they will just have to keep coming back.

Monday, February 13, 2012

River Rafting Classifications: A Primer

Leavenworth, Washington

So, you want to take the family on a river rafting vacation but you are slightly nonplussed by how rivers are rated.  What does the rating of a stretch of river where they conduct white water raft trips indicate?

Like hurricanes and earthquakes, the higher the classification the rougher the ride is going to be.  But there are some nuances.  Sit tight and allow me to explain.
Embarking on a trip down the Class III Sauk River

The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale goes to Category 5 and, for all intents and purposes, so does the International Scale of White Water Difficulty.  There is a Class VI, but it is considered unnavigable.  Or, at least, not navigable by a normal passenger-carrying craft without a very high likelihood of a fatality resulting.

Ninety-eight per cent of all river trips happen on Class I to Class IV stretches of river.  I don't have any evidence to back that up.  I'm just reasonably certain that is the case.  As hurricanes get more powerful and destructive as they move from Category 1 to Category 5, rivers become more difficult to navigate and your odds of courting disaster increase.


In other words, if you do not know how to swim, or are terrified of the idea of being unloosed on a free-flowing river, or get vertigo from sudden, jarring movements (we had a guest once that fit that description and demonstrate that malady on the cusp of a Class V drop), you would be most comfortable on a river trip of Class III or lower.  A Class V drop, or stretch of river, or river (I will come back to this), is no place for the faint of heart or the leery of water.


Class V, the top rating, suggests congested routes, a wilderness setting perhaps, continuous white water, a lot of turbulence and water hydraulics, and a very tough time performing rescues if necessary.  Not only should the faint of heart and poor swimmers avoid Class V white water, people in less than ideal physical condition, people taking medications, people under a certain age and over a certain age and people with their judgment clouded due to recreational drugs or alcohol should steer clear of Class V rapids.
Boulder Drop - Skykomish.  Dane Doerflinger Photo. 


Class IV is nothing to sneeze at.  The navigation of Class IV rapids is tricky and there are ample opportunities for misadventures and, even though a river rescue is not as difficult as it is with Class V, it is not a simple exercise and, those who find themselves separated from the raft, will find the hydraulics extremely tiring.  There are numerous obstacles to maneuver around in Class IV, the water features can be powerful but, in general, the stress level of your guide has been lowered several notches.  A good paddle raft of hardy paddlers should have no difficulty threading their way through Class IV white water.


Class III is where the majority of commercially-led white water river trips is conducted.  Obstacles are fewer, rescue is much simpler, navigation is straight forward and the river tends to be pool-and-drop, or even long, lazy pools and then - punctuated - with a drop.  This middling rating can have very large and powerful waves, however.  In my experience, most guests seek (and most guides) the exhilaration they experience climbing the mountainous waves on a stress-free Class III river.


Class III is good beginning white water for up and coming guides, but it is also what the vast majority of rafting clients are looking for each and every time they go rafting.  And especially, if they are bringing their families, hosting a wedding party or leading employees in a work group.  Class III is excellent for those who want to be adventurous and have a few stories to tell, but perhaps they are not in the best of paddling shape.  (Guides still want you to be animated, however.  You can't be what we fear the most - a sack of potatoes.)


Class I and II I am going to lump together because, if you are on a Class II river, there is going to be a whole lot of plain old moving water with a little bit of relief on the water's surface, which is, basically, what you would call Class I.  Easy to navigate.  Almost zero obstructions.  Rescue is easy.  (But you are still on moving water, so it is not 100 per cent safe!)  The rapids or waves are mild.  These are the river trips ideal for young kids and their grandparents, and for those who are uncertain if a river rafting trip suits them to begin with.


Earlier I indicated that you can designate a river, or a stretch of river, or a rapid a certain classification.  So, it is useful to know that every river is not likely to be constantly one classification or another.  A Class III river will have numerous stretches of quiet water.  For instance, the Skykomish River, which we consider to be the most physically demanding river we raft commercially and presents the most difficult white water challenges, is not 100 per cent Class IV or V.  Quite a bit of it is Class I through III.


In other words, bear in mind, a river may be classified one class or the other, but every part of the river will not - necessarily - reflect that rating.  You will have a chance to catch your breath and take notice of the scenery flashing by.