Photo courtesy of Dane Doerflinger Photography
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.
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.