Tieton Eddy Repose

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

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.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Leavenworth River Rafting in May

Leavenworth, Washington

As a year-round resident of Leavenworth and as a river rafting guide on the Wenatchee River since the Carter Administration, I have a pretty good notion about both of those topics.  (Rafting and Leavenworth - not the Carter presidency.)

It is still the middle of winter in the Bavarian-themed village and all of the businesses are still strung with their Christmas lights, but it is not too soon to be thinking about river rafting on the Wenatchee River, or river rafting in general.

If you have a party large enough to fill a raft - six to eight people not including the guide (and that does include children big enough to wield a paddle) - you will want to make your reservations in advance.  Especially if you want to catch a prime weekend date in May or June, or your preferred date falls during one of the festival weekends.

Package lodging and rafting deals are available through Sleeping Lady Lodge and Conference Center.  Sleeping Lady is located two miles from Leavenworth in the mouth of Icicle Canyon.  It is named for the dramatic mountain peak named Sleeping Lady that graces its western skyline.  Sleeping Lady is rustic, yet elegant with individual cabins from small to large.  Meals are included, a small, cozy bar called The Grotto is on the premises and their hot tub is built into the granite outcroppings off the Icicle River.
After a day on the water, it is nice to have something to warm the soul.

The month of May, though known for whimsical weather, is an excellent time to raft the Wenatchee River.  Being east of the Cascades, the sun tends to show its face far more often than it does on the drearier side of the mountain range.  The river is likely to be full from snowmelt and the rapids can be at their most challenging.

The merry month of May includes Apple Blossom Festival, Maifest, Mother's Day, Memorial Weekend and Cinco de Mayo and Leavenworth's promoters and businesses do an excellent job of selling them all to a portion of the two million visitors that traipse over the mountain passes every year.  Because of all of these activities, you would be well-advised to make reservations in advance for camping and lodging.

If you are curious as to what you should wear rafting during one of the spring months, check out my Dress for River Rafting Success post.

May is considered a 'shoulder' season for rafting in the Pacific Northwest and, though we already offer Group Discounts through our reservation system ($10 off groups of 10 or more, $15 off groups of 20 or more), additional specials are sometimes offered, especially for those hard to fill dates like Mother's Day Sunday.

Following your gratifying and memorable Wenatchee River trip, assuming you took our advice and booked lodging with Sleeping Lady, Orion highly recommends the gourmet Tex-Mex/So-Cal cuisine of one of our favorite haunts - South.  Do not forget to try their Sweet Basil Daisy magarita.  ¡Es muy delicioso!

After your filling dinner, saunter half a block down the street to mingle with the locals at the Icicle Brewing Company and order their 6 beer-shot sampler, or the beer of our choice - Bootjack IPA.
Then back to Sleeping Lady for a hot tub and you will have completed the perfect May mini-vacation getaway - white water, spicy, delectable food, home grown suds and a warm soak under the stars in an ecological setting.

I am certain it gets no better than that.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Meet Your River Rafting Guide

River rafting guides are like a box of chocolates.

Well, they are like a box of chocolates in that you never know what you are going to get in terms of specific personalities, but they are also like our almost famous and favorite cast iron Dutch Oven recipe - chillaquiles.  Sometimes referred to as Mexican lasagna.

Steady as rain, as far as their concern for their clients and their safety-first attitudes, but, depending on the guide chef, full of a variation on a theme.

Are these guides really at work?

River rafting guides can be young or old - I'm sorry - green or weathered, trim and fit or slightly doughy and sloth-like, neatly trimmed or scruffy and unkempt, concerned about their appearance or completely unconcerned about their appearance.  In other words, they come in a wide range of physical packages.  Long gone are the days of guides reminiscent of fur trapping mountain men like Jeremiah Johnson.

The guides who work for Orion River Rafting come to the river from all walks of life.  Drawn by their enthusiasm to introduce people to what it is like to 'mess about in boats'.  Lured by their sense of adventure and their natural inclination to be leaders.  Enticed by their love of the outdoors and their desire to be a part of a community.

Some have grand kids, a few only recently received their high school diplomas.  Some own businesses of their own, some administrate large groups of employees at well-known corporations.  Some invest their whole summer river rafting rivers around the Northwest, some are weekend warriors.  Some just show up for the spring high water, some prefer the lesser classes of rivers.

Caution:  Guide at Work

There are engineers, software programmers, plumbers, nurses, lawyers, contractors, electricians, teachers and professors.  Entrepreneurs, small engine mechanics, salespeople, emergency medical technicians, pharmacologists, ski patrollers and baristas.  In brief, river rafting guides come from as many differing occupations as our guests themselves.

Few of them fall under the complimentary pejorative of being called "dirt bags" anymore.  Few of them earn their livings year-round river rafting.  Although it is possible with the development of the global river running industry.

When you raft with Orion, odds are just as good you will have a female guide because it seems with each passing generation the idea of guides needing to be hulking and hirsute diminishes.  We also tend to find women more understanding of the 'empathy' factor in guiding which I wrote about in a previous post.

Regrettably, we do not have wide range of ethnic groups represented within our guide staff or the industry as a whole.  Each year we hope that tide might change through our guide training sign ups.

River rafting guides are individuals capable of making autonomous decisions but required to work together as a team.  Leaders and followers all at once.  Their forte might be telling entertaining jokes or medical know-how.  A prowess in the kitchen or a mind for logistics.  An ability to get the 'big picture' or a photographic memory for rocks and bends and waves.

So, on your next river trip, if you are wondering what your guide will be like, the only thing I can tell you for sure is - they have your best interest at heart, they are safety-conscious and they believe that a bad day on the river is better than a good day at the office.