Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Spring River Guide Training

Time to sign up if you want to be a guide, or if you just want to feel comfortable on the river on your own.
Only a few weeks away from our annual seven day guide training odyssey on the Deschutes River in north central Oregon and - as the senior instructor - I am beginning to feel the undertow of another river season.

Orion's guide training course kicks off every whitewater season and is comprised of seasoned and salty veterans, women and men, wide-eyed whitewater neophytes, those who revel in the adversity and those who are challenging their ordinary state of being, whatever that may be.

It is a time for ditching cellphones and the comfort of our creature habits.  Sharing and laughing and looking one another in the eye.  Being physically present have to be to deal with the circumstances of being out amidst the elements.  Setting up tarps in windstorms and cooking over fires.

It will be a memorable trip.  Even for those of us participating in it for the 40th time.

River Rafting is Good for You

I have been rafting for a long time.

My first rafting experience was in the fall of my first year in college.  As a matter of fact, after matriculation, it was the very next thing I did.  The river rafting trip, regarded as my wilderness orientation to Prescott College, was a month long affair.

One month in the wilderness after having spent the majority of my life in well-ordered suburbs where my primary contact with the outdoors involved sports.

You can imagine it was an eye-opener in a number of ways.

My wilderness orientation, which took place over four decades ago, brought me serendipitously to this place.

Overnight raft trips are the single easiest method to 'leave it all behind.'  The 'behind' we referred to leaving used to just mean the traffic and the stressors of modern day life, ringing phones, the hustle and bustle of humanity and bills coming due, responsibilities to uphold.

Now, we are saddled with the ubiquity of always being connected to what is going o…

The Phenomena of People

I do not have a river story for you this week, but I had a visit from a good friend from Bellingham and our reunion reminded me of one of the other reasons I have persevered with this little cottage industry.

I wrote a story a few years back titled "Why I (Continue to) Raft" and the gist of that column was that I realized how much I enjoyed getting people out on the water and watching the transformation.  It ended with the brief tale of my very young nephew from Dallas who floated the Skagit and - at first - was terrified of the moving, darn-cold-if-you're-from-Texas water.  And, despite being on a trip surrounded by a large Y group of boisterous Northwesterners who could not get enough of swimming, it appeared he would endure the trip and be ecstatic to see the takeout and a warm, dry car.

When we were halfway down the river, his entire attitude did an about face.  And by the time we hit the takeout he WAS ecstatic, but not about being finished and back to dry land.  …