-by Paul McHugh
High in the Sierra Nevadas, mountain passes like Donner (7,135'), Carson (8,573') and Ebbetts (8,730') have trees scarred with rope burns. Here, trunks were used as winching points by pioneers working battered wagons up over the crest.
Nowadays, folks whisk vehicles over these paved passes at a brisk 60 mph. Meanwhile, down in the Sierran river canyons, that mostly vanished tradition of licking physical hazards with hard work, gumption, bumptious energy and honed technique still endures...in whitewater guide schools.
Whenever someone states that a pioneer era molded America's psyche, a footnote should swiftly follow, acknowledging that whitewater schools are one of the last places where that spirit is nurtured in anything like its original form. It certainly seems so to me on the North Fork Stanislaus River, where eight self-bailing rafts and 40 people are gathered at the brink of a Class V rapid. Thundering foam churns past steep, rocky banks still clotted with drifts of winter snow.
The people here are attending an Advanced Guide School for All-Outdoors, one of California's largest outfitters. This early spring seminar - a tradition in this 30-year-old, family-owned company - helps senior guides transmit "river dharma" to beginner guides who feel they're ready to evolve, and rise to a new level after their qualifying period of Class III service. These journeyman guides initially seem struck mute as they stare at a 15-foot waterfall. The rapid, dubbed Shrapnel, has a tight, complex, boulder-clogged entry. Then, after icy water collects to roar over the falls, it bashes straight into a car-sized rock. Next, it ricochets down chutes that split and re-braid for another 100 yards.
The guides do not stay silent long. They clamber slowly down the banks, pointing out possible trajectories for their rafts. They scheme with each other on the best way to assemble moves that will allow them to avoid carnage while navigating the run. A lithe figure with a weather-carved face wanders among them. He doesn't say much, but his dark eyes absorb everything. This is Scott Armstrong, 36, youngest son of the All-Outdoors founder. Scott began rafting at age 6, and now helms the company's river operations. "At most rapids, we like to hang back, and let students figure things out,'' Armstrong told me. "That's the kind of learning that sticks. But if the timing seems right, we try to drop in a clue.''
Laurie Schlavin crests five feet in height by two inches. When soaking wet, her weight might total 118 pounds. Today, several tons of rafts and people are her burden. She must see them all safely down the run. Her only lever on this project: judgment. Laurie, 28, is an ER nurse from Sacramento who plunged into the river realm by taking a beginner guide school class at age 18. She's worked summers and part-time as a guide since then, mostly at All-Outdoors.
Now she's taking her third advanced clinic, and Scott has upped the ante. She's on point, commanding the initial, four-raft group. Everyone here will observe her run. If she makes it, they'll all seek to follow her line. Laurie's blue eyes grow rather wide as she walks up and down the banks, trying to imagine moves that will solve the four-dimensional Rubik's Cube of the drop. Finally, Scott whispers to her. The key to this whole rapid, he says, lies right at its entry. An S-shaped, right-left move atop a dome-shaped pourover boulder forms the crux. Just nail that S-turn at the lip, and the rest of the route should unfold in a natural progression.
Laurie assumes her seat in the stern. Now, each moment glows with that timeless, crystalline clarity which high doses of adrenaline bestow. Her paddlers, who include Scott, take up position. The crew, at her orders, deftly maneuver the Avon self-bailer. There's one heart-stopping moment as we slide off the dome rock above the falls. Is this angle right? Abruptly, we catch the left edge of the falls' main chute, slam into fast-forward on the drop, surf a pillow off the barrier boulder, squirt left, then careen through the boulder garden below. No one gets bounced out. So far, so good.
But control of the ricocheting raft is not regained quickly enough. Our target eddy near the bottom is entered too low and we can't avoid smacking into a spiky log. Suddenly, we are stopped, hung up. A sharp branch jams into a deflating main tube. A short, Class IV stretch, the last leg of the boulder garden, still seethes just below us. Everyone glances furtively at Scott. But this time, the boss keeps his lips buttoned. Not one bit of advice is forthcoming. Laurie dithers between trying to haul us out here, right against the cliff, or trying to scoot through the rest of this drop with a floppy boat. The most desirable haul-out, a flat, pebbly beach, does await at the bottom of the rapid ... but it's all the way across the stream. "The longer we sit here bubbling air, the worse it'll be, no matter what you decide on,'' a passenger prompts. Scott still says nothing.
Laurie makes her call. "Push off! Let's go! Right turn!'' she snaps. Seconds later, her raft successfully exits on the secure beach. Soon it's awaiting a patch, drying out and getting warm in the sun...as are all of us. Her call proved correct.
Rafting guide schools are a successful adjunct to the business of herding clients down whitewater streams. They serve students who yearn to qualify for life as a raft guide, as well as members of the public wishing to gain skill in order to operate their own rafts more safely.
On the East Coast, guide school classes exist, but opportunities are relatively sparse. In the West, especially Colorado and California, guide classes of various types are far more abundant. Contacting raft outfitting companies in your area is the easiest way to begin research on what's available. Generally, companies are most willing to train people who plan to come to work for them. Some firms, however, do schedule beginner classes for the public with no strings attached. The American Canoe Association (ACA) currently has no sanctions or requirements for classes, but these are in the works. Swiftwater Rescue and Wilderness First Aid courses, which do have guidelines and certifications, are currently offered separately. These make fine additions to the overall education of a competent river guide.
In beginner schools, one learns how to: rig a raft; outfit and direct passengers; read and navigate rapids; and cope with mishaps. Advanced schools are more rare. These are usually offered by companies to enhance skills of people already on their staff, and get them ready to face Class IV-V, emergency, high water or exploratory situations. The most important skill to acquire at any level of training is judgment. California's 1998 whitewater season seemed to sadly lack it. Thirteen deaths occurred, 10 during a month-long, high water surge from a melting El Nio snowpack. Most were due to private boaters trying to run rapids in absurd ways (on an air mattress, a log, by swimming) or by embarking on single-boat outings without any backup. Had these parties acquired even a small part of the wisdom that's stock-in-trade for experienced guides, the toll could have been greatly reduced.
But hazard lurks in moving water for everyone. One of California's 1998 river deaths was Greg Mally, 33, a veteran guide with Calif.-based O.A.R.S. who logged more than 80 trips down the Tuolumne. But on his last run, at a rapid called Gray's Grindstone, his raft flipped. Passengers made it to safety but Mally did not - although he was properly equipped for a swim. It was the company's first fatality in 27 years.
Whitewater's thrills sometimes stand revealed as holding genuine danger. That's why a river guide must be something more than a fairway carnie, barking rubes onto God's aquatic Tilt-a-Whirl. A guide has to be ready, willing and able to take responsibility for human lives. This does not mean the guide life lacks for carnival-like aspects. Especially when seen from the outside (where imagination of an onlooker enhances the view), it does appear to be quite the show.
This scene seems to be chiefly peopled by a slew of lithe young ladies and studly, flat-tummied males, garnished alike with deep tans, rippling muscles, sun-bleached hair and tattoos. At the end of a working weekend, they frequently enjoy evenings filled with brews, rock n' roll and wild dancing. What's not to enjoy about such a life? Well, how would you like to be marooned all day on the rowing seat of a four-ton gear raft, handle stinky, crap-crammed rocket boxes, soothe whiney clients, and do it all for a paycheck that won't stretch far enough to replace the bald tires on your beat-up heap of a car?
"Wish I could give a saucier answer,'' sighs Smokey Pittman, a senior All-Outdoors instructor, responding to a query about the guides' party life. "Truth is, it's just about what you should expect when any group of college-age people wind up together. No better, and no worse. Sure, sometimes clients get hot for their guides. And vice-versa. But people hunting for romance and one-night stands also find each other by strolling into singles bars. You can't say the river world sees more of that.''
If the time I spent with the All-Outdoors school offers any indication, the famed social warmth of the river guide realm has a very simple explanation. People drawn to this job are spontaneous, energetic and gregarious. Either that, or they tend to grow that way the longer they stick to it. In the lodges where we began and ended each whitewater day, as guides champed their chow and absorbed their indoor lessons, their convivial buzz of chitchat and laughter was boisterous, encompassing and enduring. But when it came time to address logistics and river lore, that hubbub faded right down into sober attention, just as though a rheostat had been twisted. Here's some of the "river dharma'' transmitted to student guides in both on- and off-river training.
Read the whole book. Scout all the way down to the bottom of a major rapid. Sometimes, looking back upstream is the only way to spot strainers and submerged boulders or logs that may have an impact on your route. Put together a run from the bottom up: first figure out your desired exit, then how you're going to get there. Lastly, look downstream from the top of the drop to retain fresh memory of your entrance landmarks.
Find rivers within the river. Any stream is a braid of jets, chutes, eddy fences, recirculating hydraulics and rebounding forces. Some currents dive under sheets of foam, then reappear. A key trick is to learn to "split'' these forces, to blend them by straddling the boat over them. Think of the array of forces as the elements of a cocktail. The raft is the blender; add together the currents you want to produce a cumulative effect. The raft captain is the bartender. Everybody aboard has to drink the result.
Don't push it. Most often, float your boat at the speed of current, or even slower. This helps you conserve the maximum amount of time to figure out, then execute maneuvers. Save hard charging to punch through big holes or reversing waves.
Crabwalk to choice. The quickest way to shift your position on a river and select a new route or chute is to put your raft sideways, or perpendicular to the main current. Then, a simple forward or reverse move will create the greatest amount of lateral shift. When you reach the position you want, a simple quarter-spin readies you to take the drop.
Concentric awareness. The first circle of awareness is your paddle crew. Are they balanced, focused, engaged, responsive? If not, then why not? The next circle is the water visible in a short radius around your boat. Are there any awash boulders nearby that can ground you or smack you off your line? The next circle out is the entire rapid. Do you have your landmarks located for Plan A, as well as Option B? Remember, this is a circle, so do you know for sure if any craft are gaining on you from behind, positioned to jam you in that hole? The next circle is the surrounding terrain. What do those landforms say about the river ahead? Will it be a sharp or gradual bend? Is the canyon there made of bedrock, gravel or landslide boulders? What sort of rapid should result? A very large circle deals with the weather and time of day. What should your current plan be? Would it be smart to adjust to a new situation and hatch a fresh schedule?
Your body as watercraft. Anyone, even the guide, can be flipped out mid-rapid. In fact, the stern perch for a paddle raft captain is a real rodeo seat, since it's leveraged by the whole length of the boat. Are you ready to swim? Wet or dry suit, PFD, helmet, good river shoes? Practiced in-stream maneuvering technique?
Preparation for immersion is an area which senior guide Smokey Pittman has knocked. Pittman, 33, wears a river outfit consisting of a Body Glove surfer's wetsuit and a tiny Lotus squirt vest. He also sports an arrowhead necklace, two silver earrings, wrap-around shades, a G-shock watch, and - not infrequently - a wad of lip snuff. However, those latter things are just icons of personal style. The key here is that his overall appearance is sleek, with no bulky, projecting elements. "After a few swims through log jams, boulder gardens and flooded riparian forests, I learned to dress like a seal, not a soldier, with all kinds of crap hanging off of me,'' Smokey says. "Of course, the outfit also helps keep me nimble and quick, so I can avoid stuff before it happens.''
In a nutshell, that's the major theme of guide school: Yes, prepare for the worst, but learn to see problems coming and figure out ways to dance around them. For a paddle raft captain (the most common form of guiding), that means becoming a choreographer of your team.
"How the load responds has everything to do with the way you can drive that boat,'' Smokey says. "So, teach your team to stay balanced as they apply force and perform maneuvers. Get them skilled at doing things before they have to. If they haven't practiced high-sides (swiftly moving weight to one part of the raft), they won't be able to do it in a crunch.'' Of all river skills, the ability to read moving water is one of the most difficult for instructors to transmit. The basics are understandable enough. But in high-water Class IV and V, the topic grows extremely complex. Those with years of experience may have the knowledge in their bones, but offering it verbally isn't easy.
That's when teaching is most effective as a form of show-and-tell. On the second day, at a long, zig-zagging Class IV+ rapid dubbed Maychecks, Smokey briefly took over command of a paddle boat from student Sasha Hall. She had been doing a decent job, yet was a bit jittery about shifting her raft left to right and back again, constantly hunting for a proper line-up.
Under Smokey's command, the paddle crew mostly held their blades in the air. He balanced the raft right on the spine of the main current, and simply twisted the boat down the rapid. He could star in a deodorant commercial - he's that calm, cool and collected. Because he was relaxed, the crew was relaxed. There was no useless expenditure of physical or emotional energy. With that resonant example displayed, the simple words which followed seem much more profound. "You have to let a raft float,'' Smokey says. "That's what a raft does best. Then you can feel the pivot points, and see how those points change. And then you discover how much you can accomplish just by making turns.''
The first two days of the school were on the Class IV+ stretch of the North Fork Stan'. The last day and grand finale came on the Class V+ lower run, which included Shrapnel. After her raft was patched, Laurie Schlavin continued to lead the raft parade downstream. The patch delay was followed by another tedious 90 minutes spent lining the boats down to an enormous stream-wide sweeper (fallen tree), then portaging them around this dangerous obstacle. Since the run had been planned for three hours, and was now taking more than six, people were cold and hungry, and shadows were getting long.
Still, Laurie remained unruffled and methodical as she directed the action. Scott Armstrong was quiet, but approving, as he observed. "We have about 150 guides who will work for us this year,'' Armstrong says. "Of those, about 40 are selected to work full time. And there's less than a dozen I consider qualified to run all our rivers at any flow.
"What those with the potential to be top guides have in common is that when things get tough, or something goes wrong - and in rafting it's not if, it's when things go wrong, because they will - these people don't get frantic. They slow down, they stay calm, they get more focused. They might even start joking more about the situation. Great guides stay in their comfort zone at all times, and because of that, they lower the level of anxiety of everyone around them.''
That must, I think, have been the very quality most desired in the master of a pioneer wagon train. For information on the All-Outdoors classes, call (800) 247-2387 or visit www.aorafting.com.
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