A Most Unlikely Raft Guide

The call came in the dead of winter. It was a Seattle winter; therefore, instead of layers of snow blanketing the ground, or biting Arctic air knifing through your thickest down jacket, there was a dismal grey light coming through the window and the streets glistened with rain. Any phone call was a welcome distraction.

His voice sounded young, his questions were many and he spoke in the laconic parlance of surfers. Or, in his case, a snowboarder.

He wanted to know about rafting and, specifically, guide training. He hailed from Baltimore and was working his way westward. That winter, he was a “liftie” at Schweitzer in the panhandle of Idaho. A Democratic governor with a penchant for Krispy Kreme donuts and blue dresses had just been elected president and - frankly - anything seemed likely.

Even so, I was dubious.

A snowboard punk thousands of miles from home, unfamiliar with the Northwest, expecting to land in Seattle and earn a living guiding! What were his odds, I wondered? I fielded his questions, promised to send the information about guide training, and promptly filed it away in that sliver of your brain reserved for useless detritus destined for the trash bin.

Except to relate the story later to a few friends and my partner about this teenager from inner city Baltimore, who said ‘dude’ more often than not, and planned on driving to Oregon in March to freeze his ass off learning to guide a raft.

A week or two later a check arrived covering the cost of his training. The itinerant snowboarder called once again to see if it would be all right if he crashed at the warehouse the night before the seven-day river trip that kicks off guide training.

I didn’t see why not.

The warehouse was an outbuilding behind a farmhouse on acreage in a rural part of King County. His presence would alarm absolutely no one. In any event, I remained skeptical of his attendance. Potential trainees backed out at the last moment numerous times in the past. The likelihood of this character showing up seemed as far-fetched and remote as the dark side of Jupiter.

However, on the morning of our departure, I pulled into the drive at the warehouse and noted a road-weary Ford Bronco tucked against the side of the building. I opened the warehouse and started rummaging about in the gear. The instructors and some students arrived and the quiet morning began to give way to bustling activity. The inhabitant of the truck had not yet stirred and with every passing minute my curiosity grew exponentially.

When he finally emerged from the back end of the dust-caked, previously blue truck with the Maryland license plates, he was just as goofy and young as I had imagined. A ponytail reached to the middle region of his back but, for having spent the night curled in a ball in his vehicle, he was tidy in every way. In fact, his jeans looked freshly pressed. He pulled a weathered Baltimore Orioles cap partway down his forehead and sauntered up to introduce himself.

“Hi. I’m Kook.” he croaked. His smile was charming, off-putting and mischievous all at the same time.

But, with that hello, the legend commenced.

Only a teenager, but unlike most teenagers I’ve encountered, Kook was on a mission. A fellow ski bum spoke to him of guide training and, even though he had never been rafting with no idea how to swim, he was undaunted.

Now, I would be lying if I told you he excelled. I would be lying if I told you he displayed any sort of promise.

He persevered. He entertained us with his notorious, ass-wiggling, ass-slapping, ass- exposing ‘Kook dance’. He gave effort. At the end of the four weeks, he volunteered to do whatever to secure employment.

One of Orion’s veteran guides offered him a mother-in-law apartment in his basement in exchange for yard work. Meanwhile, Kook made himself indispensable by offering to work odd jobs around the warehouse, repair gear and serve river trip lunches. All the while he continued to gain experience on the river awaiting his debut as a guide.

It was during this time when, as the lunch person on the Wenatchee River, he responded to Governor Gardner’s query as to how he had come to be here with this memorable, guileless, innocent remark, “I drove my truck, dude.”

Kook was one of a kind. It took him a long time to hone his river running skills, but, in the meantime, his sense of humor as well as his rafting foibles kept us entertained.

Like the time he was caught in a hydraulic feature in a raft on the Skykomish and he was beseeching the river gods - out loud for all to hear, “Please let us go, please let us go, please let us go.”

Or the time he was tossed into the turmoil near the bottom of Boulder Drop. As he floated toward rescuers in the eddies below, he raised his paddle straight overhead - the universal distress signal for Swimmer - as if the dozen boaters with rescue lines might have not seen him.

Or the time he cheated Lava Falls so far left he beached his boat on a small boulder near shore. When we went to discuss his predicament, yelling and gesticulating from the left bank, we realized, Kook was seated to row in the opposite direction of what would - normally - be customary. Though clearly rattled by the powerful forces arrayed before him, once freed from the obstacle, he rowed safely to the bottom of the rapid.

Kook guided intermittently for nineteen seasons. Somewhere during that time, he graduated from a culinary arts program having learned to be both cook and pastry chef. He even earned his commercial bus drivers license. He continually redefined what it means to be ‘indispensable’.

Our inveterate dog paddler, who came to be here by driving his truck, even, eventually, took the time to learn the crawl stroke.