River Rats

It had been a while since I had done something completely foreign to me. As we stood on the banks of the Wenatchee Saturday morning, getting our rafts ready to launch, I made a mental check list of things that I knew. The list was very short. I was very excited.

Our river raft guide training weekend in Wenatchee started out with a long late drive over the mountains on Friday night. The weather was abysmal. At the top of Stevens Pass snow was coming down hard, cars were creeping a long, and we passed a truck and trailer fish tailing out of control. We kept throwing each other incredulous looks. We were going to go river rafting in these conditions? I looked back at our dry suits, stuffed into a mesh sack, and prayed that they really would keep us dry.

We finally arrived at the lodge in Peshastin where we would be staying for the weekend. A lot of names were exchanged as we began to meet a whole new group of adventurers. We sat and sipped a beer while watching youtube videos of rafts flipping on giant rapids. Still, I wasn’t too nervous.

One of the weirdest things about taking on this new outdoor activity is the lack of nerves I am experiencing. You all know me, I am like a bundle of nerves about everything. But for some reason river rafting doesn’t fill me with fear. I know this stems from my own stupidity and naiveté. Rivers are wild and dangerous, they change constantly, and they have taken many lives. On top of that I am not even a very good swimmer. Regardless of the things I know, I still don’t know enough to be super afraid. A healthy dose of fear, yes, but nearly paralyzing fear like I felt during my first season climbing mountains, no where near that. So we watched boats flipping for an hour or so and I remained unconcerned.

The next morning we were up early for a classroom session, which mostly involved talking through the different features you find in a river and how to identify them. Waves, holes, current, the class system, there was a whole new set of vocabulary to learn. After our in class session it was time to suit up and head out to run the river.

When we got to the parking lot we learned that we would be rigging our boats on the snow.  The sun was partly out but the air was still icy. Even for the more seasoned rafters this was a novel experience. You might be wondering what we were wearing to keep warm in such frigid conditions. At that point many of us were wearing half of our dry suits, with the upper body portion tied off around our waists. Under the dry suit was a bevy of fleeces, multiple layers of long underwear, two or three socks, and downs. I still wasn’t sure if I would be too cold or way too hot, since wearing the dry suit was akin to wearing an extremely heavy plastic bag.

We rigged our boats, shuttled all the cars to the lower end of the river where we would take out, and talked through safety. I was a bit nervous for the first part of the river because right after Rock and Roll, the first rapid set, was a weir which, they had warned us was very dangerous and we would have to portage around. If you fell in the river during Rock and Roll you were supposed to swim toward river right hard. If you went over the weir you were toast. I made a mental note to stay in the boat no matter what.

When it was time to finally go we suited up the rest of the way and here I discovered the first real challenge of rafting: getting your dry suit on. Dry suits have these extremely tight rubber gaskets at your ankles, wrists, and neck. The ankle and wrist gaskets hadn’t posed a problem for me, but getting the neck one on over my head was like trying to squeeze through a sticky shirt made out of rubber bands. There was a moment where it was over my nose and mouth and I couldn’t breath. Then suddenly it was on and I was panting heavily.

With everyone ready and all the dry suits burped we slipped our boat into the river and climbed in. My boat was filled with four trainees and one head trainer. He immediately put a student on the guide stick (the longer paddle used to guide) and talked him through the first rapid set. I felt a little confused because he kept presenting holes and waves as options if we wanted to hit them. Didn’t we just want to stay in the smoothest water and avoid all the danger? Before I could ask any questions the white water was coming towards us and we were being told to take strokes.

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In an instant we were sucked in to the swift current and shot through the waves. We splashed a couple of things and I struggled to keep my feet in the floor pockets. I took strokes when I was told and in the end we came out the other side. I let out a sign of relief. I wouldn’t be dying in the weir today.

Our head trainer provided feedback as we headed towards the portage and pointed out the different ways we could have hit different holes and waves. I puzzled over this again for a second before I had a total and complete brain wave. It changed everything for me. We wanted to hit the biggest rapids. Just like a mountain biker might want to get air or a skier takes the black diamond route or a mountaineer picks a harder line up a mountain, we wanted to smash through giant waves and get covered in water. That is what it is all about.

In that moment everything changed for me. Instead of being a sport all about avoiding risk it became a sport all about finding fun. Sure, the fun involved taking risks and choosing a more dangerous course, but that was why you learned to read the river, learned to assess your crew and what they were capable of. Never before have I experienced such a sudden and automatic shift in the way I understood something. Just like that everything changed for me.

I got to guide through the next couple of rapids and while it was tricky and challenging I could see how fun it would be in the future when I knew more. To study a rapid set ahead of time and then get out on a river and try to recognize it, try to hit all the right waves, to run it perfectly, those were all skills I couldn’t wait to hone.

After my time on the guide stick was up I went back to paddling and to screaming and laughing gleefully. Rafting is an immensely different kind of fun that backpacking and mountaineering. It is a rush. You float peacefully along this gorgeous river, letting the current do the work for you and slowly setting yourself up for the next spike in activity. Then you enter the rapid, you paddle hard for a couple of seconds, you get splashed in the face and white water is all around you as you slide down and careen up over a wave and then just as suddenly as it came you are spinning out the other side, laughing breathlessly and looking back at the rocks and the cold clear water.

I came out of the weekend very excited for the rafting trips that are scattered throughout our summer. I am excited to learn more, to see rivers when they are really coursing with water and the waves are gigantic. I know that I am going to fall out of a boat eventually and I am anxious to learn how that feels. I enjoyed learning something completely new. But most of all I was surprised to discover the kind of fun you can have on a river. Perhaps this is why people like roller coasters? I had always assumed that all outdoor fun was the same, that it was all type two fun, that it was all a sufferfest. But rafting was a far cry from a slog up a mountain. And I love both of them. Perhaps we are finally finding some balance in our outdoor activities. I know Kyle loved it too, when we were reunited at the end of that first day all we could do was grin at each other like fools without anything to say.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."