Tieton Eddy Repose

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

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.