Tieton Eddy Repose

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Washington's Best Kept White Water Rafting Secret

In the early days of modern-day river running in the state of Washington, when white water rafting was still relegated to the easier stretches of accessible Class I-III rapids found on the Skagit, Suiattle and lower portions of the Stillaguamish, only intrepid kayakers chose to trek to Darrington, Washington, to dip their paddles in the milky green waters of the Sauk River.

A Sauk River Raft Trip will keep you busy paddling.

At the start of the 1970s, the only commercial rafting company operating in the state rowed their guests down the river in rafts that needed bailing after every set of waves to keep them from getting too unwieldy from thousands of pounds of river water as ballast.  The brightly colored orange Rogue inflatables this company used were manufactured from incredibly durable material but this also added to their unwieldiness.  In addition, they were lengthy and not well-suited to the boulder-clogged channels that were common on the glacial-fed Sauk River.  To top it all off, the Sauk River access points were primitive with no paved road access.  The shuttle road on either side of the river was ten miles of potholes and ruts.

As a result, kayakers alone enjoyed the scenic splendors, white water challenges and remote beauty of the Sauk without being intruded upon by packs of commercial guests.

By the time Orion came into existence in 1978, there was a movement afoot to include the Skagit and its tributaries, the Suiattle, Cascade and Sauk, in the federally designated Wild and Scenic River system.  River runners familiar with the Sauk - kayakers specifically - lobbied hard to restrict the number of people a commercial outfitter could introduce to this 'backcountry' river.  They also lobbied the Forest Service to limit the total number of outfitter permits issued.

Initially, the four outfitters the United States Forest Service issued permits to could only take 18 guests per day rafting on the Sauk River.  For the entirety of the boating season, none of the four outfitters could take more than a few hundred people down the river.  The Wild and Scenic designation and the intense interest in this little gem of a river a mere 70 miles from downtown Seattle was both boon and bane.

Fans of the Sauk River were trying to protect it from over use and commercialization, but, it is doubtful the Sauk was ever going to receive that sort of notoriety.  The western Washington weather was too unpredictable.  Darrington lacked an adequate number of tourist attractions, amenities and facilities.  And much of the prime Sauk season coincides with eastern Washington rivers where the ambient temperatures are warmer.

More than three decades later, the Wild and Scenic Sauk River flows as pristine and freely as ever.  Despite the paving of the access roads and the construction (and reconstruction) of the White Chuck River launch site, the rivers remains largely unrecognized by the general public as an attractive white water option.  Which is exactly what makes it appealing.

If you are looking for an alternative river trip that packages solitude, scenery, proximity to Seattle and challenging (but not too challenging) white water, the Sauk River is the best option out there.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

White Water Rafting - How Safe is It?

Without consulting Adventure Travel industry incident records for the past decade, I will go out on a limb and state that white water rafting - per capita - is probably the safest adventure travel you can undertake.  Especially if you are wearing a life jacket - properly - and refrained from indulging in alcohol prior to your launch, or while on the water.  During river guide training we like to note how 'forgiving' of mistakes a white water river can be.

But you do not want to count on it.

If Blanche Dubois wanted to depend upon the kindness of strangers, that was up to her, but we make sure our neophyte guides do not depend upon the forgiveness of rivers.

This morning I was asked about whether a back that 'flares up' now and then on an otherwise healthy person would preclude participation in a river rafting trip.  Not ever having launched down a white water river with a balky back, I was uncertain how to answer.  I noted to the inquirer that there is paddling involved, though on beginning white water rivers like the Wenatchee River, the paddling is not strenuous or constant.  An inadvertent 'swim' is always a possibility and I let the person know that they would need to be capable of treading water, dog-paddling or the backstroke.  Ideally, they are able to use a crawl stroke to assist in their rescue.  I informed the potential customer that sitting on an inflatable raft for four hours might not be all that comfortable for an ailing back.

But the reason I mention the 'balky back' is because this is just one of dozens of factors which will influence how safe your river trip may be.

Outfitters and guides rely on guests to honestly assess their physical abilities and limitations before undertaking a river trip.  Factors like weight, age, health, metabolism and your relationship with water.  As a guest, when you contact a commercial outfitter, you need to be clear about these factors as they relate to yourself or your party.

If you are substantially overweight, the odds are you will be unable to clamber back into a raft should you find yourself in the river, and it will be difficult for the guide or other guests to haul you back on board as well.  Large people should consider the easiest river trip - low water, Class I, II or very easy III - in order to get a feel for white water rafting.  And never choose a river in the midst of spring run-off when they are moving faster than normal.

Kids, who are not old enough to comprehend exactly what they are signing on for, should only partake in mild white water river trips.  Particularly groups of kids.  Adult chaperones should always accompany kid's groups and enough of them to have - at minimum - one per raft.

Older folks need to clearly assess their abilities as well when selecting a suitable stretch of water.  A river swollen with snow melt, even if it is an easier Class III run, might not be the best place for seniors who are more susceptible to extreme conditions.

The good news is that there is a wide variety of white water challenges available.  Different stretches of the same river can offer widely varying river experiences.  Different times of the year present rivers in drastically different 'moods'.  The key for outfitters and guests alike is to honestly assess all of these factors before committing to the trip.  It is a two-way street.  The outfitter being forthright about the nature of a river, and the customer being equally candid about themselves and their group.

Of course there is an element of risk and danger with white water rafting, therein lies part of the appeal.  Fortunately - under most circumstances - if safety standards are followed, life jackets are donned and alcohol eschewed, the odds are well in our favor for a positive outcome.  But rather than relying on the 'forgiveness' factor to kick in, it would be best if we all took heed of the previously mentioned factors and chose our adventures accordingly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Prized Trait of a River Rafting Guide

The other day I was asked by a client what I look for when I am assessing a potential river rafting guide.  They wanted to know the key characteristics I thought was most important to guide customers for hire.

The coming white water rafting season will be my 38th year leading trips, training new guides and guiding customers on river trips.  Even though I am 'long in the tooth' and nursing a couple of balky joints, I continue to get out on the water as much as I possibly can.  I continue to head up our guide training program each spring because introducing beginners to river running is always one of the highlights of every season.

Let me start by saying everyone who has the penchant to learn can be taught to steer a raft through white water.  Some folks need lots of instruction - verbal and hand's on.  Some folks need lots of repetition in the captain's seat.  But, in four decades, I have seen very few who don't seem capable of picking up the concept of river running once they are exposed to the rudimentary techniques of dealing with moving water.

Now, I have seen plenty of guide candidates who decide the responsibility of the well-being of someone else was not for them.  In my mind, these folks, if they could just clear that mental hurdle, might make the best guides because they already have the key characteristic I am looking for in a guide --- empathy.

Just about every guest that arrives at the bank of the river anxious to get on the water has one thing in common --- they are novices who are completely unfamiliar with rivers, white water and river hydraulics.  From the person who claims they want you to take them to the edge of death and pull them back, to the person who is too terrified to speak, they are all rank beginners.  It is essential for a guide to remember this fact.

It is essential for guides to 'walk a mile in their customer's shoes'.  These novices have no idea what it is like to be may-tagged in a reversal like a load of soggy laundry.  No idea what it feels like when currents are pulling your limbs in every direction as if your feet are tethered to the pedals of a runaway bicycle and your arms are at the mercy of a puppeteer.  No idea of the power of a river.  Probably no idea of how cold they might get if they remain in the water too long.

Guides need to be empathetic.  Remember their training.  Remember their first time adrift in the river like driftwood.  The cold stealing their breath and the river pulling them as if they were taffy.
Learning to be a river guide.
The Dos and Don'ts of river guiding.
Granted the strengths and weaknesses of various novice boaters will vary.  Guides may be more bold with one crew due to their youthfulness, their preparedness, their overall good health.  But, even with these crews, a stellar guide will always have in the back of their mind that 'governor' to reel them back to reality if necessary.  Even the best of crews - at best - will be novices.  They are dependent on the guide's good judgement.

So , as far as I am concerned, the ability to empathize with your guests, no matter how skilled you become, is the single most important trait to look for in a guide.  It can't be taught, but it can be learned.

"Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement."  --- Mulla Nasrudin

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The "Best" River Rafting Trip

Leavenworth, Washington:

As a professional river rafting guide, once I have established an easy rapport with my paddle crew, dedicated their names to my memory (at least, for the next few hours or days) and learned a bit about their backgrounds without delving too deep into their real-life endeavors (unless they are ready to go there), eventually, someone asks, "What is the best river rafting trip?"

My stock Ed Abbey-inspired answer is, "Whatever river I am floating at the time. . . "

Which is true.  But it is also meant to be telling.  I love being outdoors.  I love leading beginners into the wilderness.  I love being on a river.  I love the camaraderie, the teamwork, the real-time social networking.  

The other old canard I may opt to cast out is, "A bad day on the river is better than a good day at the office."  But that one is true only so far as it goes.  To be honest, selecting a best river trip is mighty, darn subjective.

My stock non-cutesey answer is, "The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon if you have more than a week's worth of vacation, the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho if you only have a week and the Lochsa River in Idaho if you want lots of big water packed into four hours."  But many people don't want to be on a river with intimidating white water in a wilderness setting far from emergency medical services.  Some people would be wholly satisfied with slightly less intimidating white water, or a stretch of river slightly less remote.

The Deschutes River in north central Oregon, a little over two hours from metropolitan Portland, is a very appealing river trip suitable for a wide range of participants.  Because the Deschutes flows south to north in the 'rain shadow' of the eastern border of the Cascade range, it can be much drier early in the season than other rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

As far as I am concerned, the spring months are the prime time period to be on the Deschutes.  Red-winged blackbirds trill from every cattail and bulrush.  Pairs of osprey patrol the skies while busily fortifying their nests.  Grasses blanket the campsites and hillsides.  Campfires, contained in fire pans, are allowed, which means, in addition to an evening spent gathered around a warm flame, meals can be baked in well-seasoned Dutch Ovens.

The river is likely to be swollen from snow melt which means the always entertaining white water at White Horse, Boxcar and Oak Springs will be just that much more entertaining.  All of which are good, beginning Class III white water challenges.  And though the river might be higher than normal, because it is highly regulated upstream by a couple of dams, it will not be too high to raft.

Of course, the best reason to be on the Deschutes River in the spring months, is that the likelihood of anyone else being on the river is low.  So, even though you are not floating through desolate wilderness, you will feel isolated surrounded by the austere mountains and dramatic basalt canyons.

If you cannot make the time until the summer months - and the beauty of the Deschutes in July and August are the long, hot, lazy days and the inviting swimming holes - it is best to try and work around the weekends and schedule your trip midweek.  Unlike most of the rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes maintains a sufficient water flow due to those upstream regulatory dams.

The western half of the United States lays claim to more than a dozen classic overnight white water rafting trips.  They all have their highlights and attractions, some more than others.  If you are looking for an overnight river rafting trip within close proximity to Seattle or Portland, suitable for families, excellent for adventurous wedding parties, where you do not have to commit to a week bedding down outdoors, the Deschutes River, in the high desert country in eastern Oregon, is the best river trip for you.