Skip to main content

the backeddy / 11.8.13

the backeddy 11/8/13
“Where the World is Always Coming to a Beginning”

Wrap Up of 2013

Trust me, the title pun was unintended.  

If you have been following posts and threads on Orion Guides Facebook page over the last month and a half, you will know exactly what I mean.  It has to do with West Virginia, a rock called Dildo and an unfortunate mishap.  Apparently, the saga ends with the NPS lowering the river to 400 cubic feet per second in order to retrieve the erstwhile rock-condom before it became part of the geology.  In any case, the journey to the Gauley River was a fitting denouement to a very successful river season.  

We had fun and it gave us some perspective.  What more could you ask?

Guide Training

The previous season's guide training found us in the uncomfortable role of outlaws caught red-handed on the Deschutes with too few toilets set up, too few kitchens for too many people, improper disposal of driftwood and - unbeknownst to any of us - training our newbies to 'trench'.  Consequently, this past season, we scheduled training to coincide with the Spring Breaks of both WWU and UW and braced for a low turn out and miserable weather conditions.

Lo and behold, the turn out was exemplary and the dreaded polar-like storms never struck.  In 2013, there would be no snowfall during the River Olympics.  And, as it turns out, rangers are nowhere to be seen on the Deschutes at the end of March.  I guess they have better places to generate an income. . . 

Outdoor Adventures

For the first time ever, Orion and Outdoor Adventures teamed up to offer a joint Guide Training program.  We combined staffs and students and - as far as could be determined - the end result was beneficial to both companies.  Ever since Bill Corson and his family took over Wave Trek’s rafting enterprise on the Skykomish, he and I threatened to link our guide trainings together.  in 2013, we finally followed through on that threat.  

For those of you too new to appreciate the connection, Bill and Blair Corson were the first father and son to attend our spring training simultaneously - don’t ask me to remember what year it was, but I would guess in the early oughts or late nineties.  Beginning there, they proceeded to thoroughly invest their time and energy and future in building their own thriving and reputable outdoor adventure company.

Snowpack and Runoff

The 2012 white water season was remarkable for its consistent water levels throughout the summer.  Remarkably, many new guides who worked consistently through the 2012 season never saw the Wenatchee below 5000 cubic feet per second.  This was because, due to the perfect storm of meteorological factors, rivers maintained a high water flow into early August.

I mention this now because we hoped - beyond all hope, as it turns out - that with the lofty 2013 snow pack we might get a similar ride.  Unfortunately, some of the factors present in 2012, were absent in 2013.  For instance, summer did not arrive in 2012 until early July.  Not only was its arrival earlier this year, but we had a heat wave for about a week in May.  The heat wave brought the Wenatchee River up to burly levels for a week or two before settling down.

In fact, 5000 cubic feet per second showed up around Independence Day and, for the remainder of the season, Wenatchee guides got a taste of what it is like to outmaneuver rocks and -really - entertain our guests.  To our staff’s credit, they managed the low water well and continued to deliver an entertaining and safe service to our guests.


Year Four of the Great Groupon Experiment and, once again, the reviews are mixed.  The positives continue to outweigh the negatives however - guides are getting constant work during the season, equipment is being more fully utilized than in the past, the pre-payments are a plus for the company bank account, not all Groupons sold get used (about 2/3rds follow through) and our name recognition receives a significant boost.

On the negative side, the profit margin is reduced, discounters tend to remain discounters and people looking for a deal are slightly more of a headache than typical customers.  

In 2013, due to some kind of software glitch with our online third party reservation system, I was unable to program it so that Grouponers could book online with their Groupon codes.  The upshot was that all of those Groupon purchasers needed to contact the office in order to book their river trip.  All 3100 of them!

Consequently, I spent WAY more time in the office than I ever have - including weekends.  As it turns out, fielding hundreds of calls from novice river users and answering dozens of unique questions was a ‘positive’.  Most buyers of Groupon deals are completely unfamiliar with our service.  Being available to answer their questions, not to mention being available to put out all the fires that happen normally during a season with both guides and guests, was an enormously positive outcome.

In any event, all indicators point to a fifth year of Groupon guests.  My plan is to keep tinkering with this thing until we get it right.  Or until Groupon goes the way of the brontosaurus, whichever comes first.

Real Guests

Not that we have any ‘virtual’ guests but, other than our discount shoppers, we do service nearly 3000 guests who pay something much closer to our ideal rate.  Some of these guests are long-time clients (we even have a couple of regular Season’s Pass holders - aka our ‘professional’ paddlers), some are reliable annual youth groups, like Wilderness Ventures or the Pacific Science Center. 

In 2013, we attracted more wedding parties, bachelor and bachelorette parties and family reunions.  People seem to be finding us through our web site, the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce (and their web site) and rack cards distributed regionally.  Of course, word-of-mouth, due to having a stellar staff doing a stellar job is still the number one means of maintaining our customer base.

This coming season, we are starting, once again, with a bang since Overlake School, Lakeside School and Chelan County have contracted with us for multiple Deschutes trips in early April.  We even have an adult multi-day Deschutes trip pre-booked for May.  A bachelor party as far as I know.

Near Death Experience

On June 11th, at the conclusion of Western Washington University’s annual Recreation Program Methow River trip, while wrangling a stack of inflatable rafts on one of our flatbed trailers, I fell from the top of the stack backwards after a bow line snapped and met the box truck’s bed on my way to the ground.  Somehow, I managed to impact the bed with the only portion of my anatomy that could absorb the blow without significant damage.  Of course, this is assuming you do not consider separated, or cracked ribs, as significant damage.

Incredibly, I did not break my back, cave in my head or damage fragile internal organs on my way to slamming the gravel parking lot.  Fortunately, I was immediately surrounded by a gaggle of first aid trained raft guides.  All of whom were ready to put their skills to use.  From their perspective, my mechanism of injury did not bode well.  

However, despite having the wind knocked out of me and my ribs rocked, I knew I had miraculously missed the most important parts of my body - head, spine and kidneys.  Following the lead of Scott Teitelbaum, temporarily out of rafting retirement for some fun and sun, the guides kept me ‘down for the count’ until they fully assessed my ‘level of consciousness’, etc.  A half hour later I was being driven to Wenatchee for an emergency room visit.

X-rays showed nothing obviously broken, though I understand cracked ribs do not always show up on x-rays.  What was most remarkable, considering the fact that the pain of sneezing for the next month was damn near unbearable, was that there was no visible bruising on my back.  And, only a a day later did I realize the first three knuckles of my right hand were severely aggravated and swollen.  But, enough of my woes.

So, Who Is This Stellar Staff You
Speak Of?  

I know if you are a guide from yesteryear the names and faces seem to change prolifically each season - if you are paying attention at all - and guides seem to be getting younger and younger.  

A few of the guides you might wonder if they are old enough to be baby sitters, let alone responsible enough to captain an inflatable raft through white water with complete and utter newbies.  You would be correct in both regards.  The names and faces change every year and youth IS being served.

However, what you will be pleased to know, as one of the many keepers of the Orion flame, is that the quality of our guide recruits (which still predominantly comes from a vast network of former guides) continues to be as remarkable as ever.  Recall those passages from the Old Testament in the Bible that go on and on with who ‘begat’ whom?  Well, the same begatting has been going on now for the past 35 seasons.

Here is our Honor Roll from our 35th season:

Bekah Killeffer - Loyal Stevens Pass employee by winter, equally loyal and hard working Orion guide, Chumstick tenant and Jill-of-all-trades by summer.  Customers snap to attention when Bekah speaks whether it be by phone or in-person.

Kris Stemmler - Denizen and employee of the Mt. Baker Ski Area who appears at first blush to be a cross between Rowdy Yates and Kurt Cobain.  He knows as much about meteorology and weather as Cliff Mass and is a rock solid guide and customer service rep.  A ‘bouldering’ savant, I understand.

Alexander Martinez - Aka Xander, sartorially splendorous in the finest outdoor threads that guide pay can buy, excellent entertaining youth groups and a workhorse over the past few seasons guiding, managing and purchasing overnight meals on the Deschutes.

Elijah Countrywood - Eli, an electrician by trade,  stepped up this summer to take on River Managing on both the Sauk and the Tieton, bringing to the job description his inimitable and laconic style.  His contribution on the Tieton was especially appreciated due to the fact that hanging in Rimrock Retreat for three weeks straight can be stupefying.

Matt Simmons - Fortunately our in-house plumber has become adept at kayaking because it means he has more than one reason to make Leavenworth and the Chumstick Country Club home during the river season.  Matt was part of the glue that kept the Wenatchee staff together and his ever-growing white water skills and calm under fire were needed occasionally.

Nancy Martella - Whoa!  Didn’t she go through training in the 80s?  True enough, but, besides her enormous contributions every spring during guide training, where she serves as our moral compass and touchstone to the oral history and purpose of Orion, this past season, after I went on injured reserve, she dropped everything she was doing and spent several weeks mentoring the guides at the CCC and shuttling guests.  Chaos gets held in abeyance when Nancy comes around.

Rivers Moore - Stepped up his game this past summer by accepting greater responsibilities and shared river managing duties with Eli on the Sauk.  If the name sounds familiar to old timers, it is because Rivers is one of our ‘legacy’ guides, the son of Ric.  He’s a kayaker first and foremost, a rock star in the making, and an excellent lead guide.

Janelle Deane - President of the Washington Kayak Club, cheerful and energetic, she jumped right in to the fray, subbing in June on the Lakeside trips and quickly became indispensable.  I was particularly appreciative of her willingness to take the reins on river managing the Skagit trips in August.

Sebastian Sherman - Forever to be known to us as “Sea Bass”, he seemed to have become lost on his way toward becoming a river guide for Outdoor Adventures and we were very happy to have him.  Handy with tools and not befuddled by cars, he was a serious student and tireless worker.

Lucian Burns - Our claustrophobic sailor who volunteered to drive back and forth across the country in a school bus with thirteen humans and a dog.  He actually trained with us in 2012, but having had enough of his stint in Houston, Texas, between the humidity and the imbeciles, he returned to the Northwest to try guiding for the summer.  (I just made the imbecile part up.)  Even though he dressed as though he was still in Texas, he logged numerous trips on the Wenatchee at all kinds of water levels.

Robin Thomas - One of our youngest staff members, but with a work ethic that would please a Latter Day Saint, she became an integral cog in the Orion wheel always ready to “fill-the-gap”.  Records show she guided more than 20 days consecutively during the height of the season.  Her stalwartness is already legendary.

Danielle Bartolomucci & Nicholas Sund - I had to lump these two together because, besides the fact that they are both Neil Comeau protégées, and besides the fact they became an “item” following (or during) Danielle’s guide training, they both trekked from Portland to Leavenworth throughout the season to help make sure we were always fully staffed.  Their dedication and reliability was astounding and sorely needed.  In other words, it was nice to have a “twofer” you could count on.

Jacob Rodan - Like Robin, fresh out of high school and one of the most unlikely of guides, but turned out to be an Iron Man in terms of white water stamina and displayed a remarkable rapport with guests.  You underestimate Jacob at your own peril.

Of course, there were many more contributors, and I am deeply appreciative of each and every contribution that keeps a shoestring business like Orion alive, but these were the stalwarts.  The ones who carried the torch week in and week out.  

The Future?

Groupon.5 - of course, with a few modifications.  A continued emphasis on rebuilding the Sauk program.  Running the Wenatchee from Exit Drop down later in the summer to take advantage of the last of the waves.  Less Skagit, more low water Wenatchee.  Maybe try inflatable kayaks - again - for later in the summer.

Continue looking to be more ‘visible’ in Leavenworth.  Make better use of our unlimited potential on the Deschutes.  Improve the amenities at the CCC and figure out how to run a tighter ship out there.  More fun river trips like the Gauley and the Lochsa.

As Jasper, our All-State, grain fed, good good-old-boy used to intone, “Never stop training.”

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.  …