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.

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 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.

Building a River Rafting Culture

Building a River Rafting Culture

When I first 'cut my teeth' river rafting, my instructors talked about a collection of 'river gods'.  They were not referring to the bold whitewater enthusiasts who were starting to push the boundaries of river rafting all over the planet while claiming first descents, though many thought of those daring adventurers as 'river gods'.  It was their way of introducing the green river runners in our party to their version of the mythological pantheon of 'river gods' that they claimed were part and parcel of a free-flowing river.

The Phenomena of People

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. 

Pain and Suffering in Patagonia - Part 2

Pain and Suffering in Patagonia - Part 2

(A little over halfway around the circuit trail of Torres del Paine, running short on food, running short on patience, our intrepid adventurers, having moved on to a camp safe from falling timber, discover ‘el sendero’ - the trail - might just get worse. . . )

The night following the lunch communication fiasco we camped away from the forest of quaking, due-to-topple-at-any-moment behemoths, enjoyed a final cookie and began dreaming of being anywhere but on that godforsaken trail.  The winds off the glacier were sporadic, but always prevalent.  As we tromped the western portion of the trail most exposed to the glacial torrents, we started encountering ravines with lively, splashy streams.