I did not set out to be a river guide.
When the movie The River Wild starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon premiered in 1994 approximately thirty of us Pacific Northwest river guides were in attendance at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. Much to the chagrin of the other patrons in attendance. We were unapologetically boisterous and we could not contain our incredulity at what we were watching.
But we were not incredulous about much of the whitewater scenes. I was acquainted with the making of the film and I knew one of the best female guides in the world had consulted with the director, trained Meryl Streep and participated with other real-life guides in the filming of the very authentic flip scenes.
But other aspects of the movie were hilarious as well as implausibly ludicrous.
Like the ‘ancient’ raft which was actually a thinly camouflaged brand spanking new American manufactured Maravia inflatable.
Like the empty raft on a multi-day journey carrying several people and then disgorging a complete camp set up. Dutch ovens and all!
Like a guy trying to escape the bad guys after a swim clinging to a cliff wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt and tennis shoes.
This came to mind recently because I decided to watch Bird Box with Sandra Bullock.
I am not going to go deep into the synopsis of this story except to say it is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the only way to survive outside of enclosed spaces - houses, buildings, caves, sheets over your head! - is to be blindfolded. As you can imagine, if you find yourself having to navigate a river, this can prove to be problematic.
Of course in the climactic scenes of this stinker of a story that is exactly what happens.
Our heroine finds herself having to navigate a river that looks to be in the Pacific Northwest. She is blindfolded. There are two five-year old kids with her who are also blindfolded. She is rowing an aluminum boat designed for a lake. She has to travel downriver more than 24 hours. They have no life jackets.
Who wrote this story!?
The odds of them surviving this adventure are longer than the Seattle Mariners ever reaching the World Series. (Which, I guess, in 2019 the Orioles are the least likely team to reach the World Series.)
And guess what? They capsize near the end in what looks to be solid Class III or IV white water.
They have to remain blindfolded even so. Two five-year olds have to survive without personal flotation devices while being sightless. The three parakeets in the cardboard box held by one of the children also manage to survive this disaster. (Thus Bird Box. You’ll have to spend two hours of your life figuring out the connection. I am not going to divulge it here.)
I understand that you need to check your disbelief at the door when you watch or read these sorts of tales. I do it all the time with a slew of shows I like.
But I have a much harder time when it comes to survival in the outdoors. Maybe it’s because I know what it is like to swim difficult rapids in freezing water. Maybe it’s because I worry that the gullible souls who take this Hollywood fare in will attempt to try it themselves.
Go ahead and enjoy the movie. If you are on Netflix, you own it already!
Just remember, when they launch out onto that river, their odds of survival are almost nil without sight, skills, but, most importantly, life jackets.
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 because...you 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.
Everything is fresh and possible and an entire season of running rivers with people steeped in the culture and those just being introduced lies before us. Our guide training trip is the perfect introduction to the world of river running.
You'll have seven days and seven nights learning the ropes both figuratively and literally.
Seven days and nights being immersed in the culture and all that entails from fireside tales to what-if scenarios.
Seven days and nights commiserating with your fellow students about the cold, the wind, the food, the insects, while soaking up the knowledge of instructors who have been there and back, and then gone back again.
Seven days and nights we wager you won't soon forget.
The waters might run high. They might not. The weather might be miserable, or it might be delightful, or it might be both. Just what one would expect from an early spring outing.
We guarantee you adventures will be had. Much learning will be accomplished. And friendships will be forged.
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.
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.
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.