Tieton Eddy Repose

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Spring is the Best Time to Raft the Deschutes

The season on the Deschutes River in north central Oregon is year-round due to dams that lie upstream from the prime overnight stretch that Orion River Rafting utilizes for its multi-day river trips.  Unlike free-flowing and more notorious rivers around the West, the dam-managed Deschutes rarely fluctuates more than a foot or so in height throughout the year.  Consequently, while many rivers in the western United States may be overflowing their banks in May, the Deschutes River is, more likely than not, flowing higher from the spring melt, but in no danger of flooding.

May and June are prime months for river rafting the Deschutes because the weather in eastern Oregon (east of the mountain ranges) is drier and warmer than the maritime coast to the west.  Even so, the river is running higher than it will at any other time of the year, providing the maximum amount of excitement and adventure out of the numerous Class II+ to Class III+ white water rapids sprinkled throughout the course of the trip.  July and August may have the heat of summertime in a high desert environment, but the months of May and June should be plenty warm without the crowds.

The scenic beauty of the basalt canyons are enhanced by the vibrant green lichen in the early spring and the lush green grasses on the hillsides.  By July, the grasses will be a distant memory.  The solitude of spring is also a primary reason to choose a river trip prior to the end of June, or before school is out across the Northwest.



Another reason to select a May overnight river trip date on the Deschutes is the ability to build campfires (contained by a firepan) and meals cooked by your guides out of Dutch Ovens.  Dutch oven meals can make or break a river trip, and our guides excel in the art of cast iron cooking.  On June 1st, a river wide fire ban goes into effect.

A family river rafting trip on the Deschutes River is an excellent choice any time of the year; however, if you have the luxury of opting for a spring time date, you will be pleasantly surprised at all of the pluses - enhanced white water, fine weather, fewer people, verdant landscape accompanying the basalt cliffs, a warming campfire each night and delectable baked meals from Dutch Ovens.