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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.

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