Although Spring is not officially here yet, the white water rafting season starts soon. For diehard fans, spring is often the best time of year as snowmelt can make for some wild rides that the lower river volumes of summer never match.
Most people I know, however, are summer rafters. The warmth of the sun and air temperature makes the cold water of a mountain stream part of the invigorating experience. Rafting is thrilling, exciting, wet, wild and unbelievably fun. However, as with all adventure sports, there is inherent risk involved. That risk contributes to the excitement, and is one of the reasons people enjoy rafting so much. The guides working for good outfitters are trained to minimize and manage risks, and, statistically you’re safer in a raft than in your car. The most common injury on most rafting trips is sunburn, and most other injuries occur on land, especially getting into and out of the boats.
When Sam was five we went on a trip in the Northwest and a white water raft trip was requested to be part of the itinerary. Sam’s age was a limiting factor, however, as rivers are rated for difficulty and the more difficult the river, the higher the minimum age requirement. So that time, we were restricted to a Class I and II experience. This means mostly gentle flows with a few ripples or a few easy rapids that do not require a guide. This is a good level not only for families with children between the ages of 4 and 8 but possibly also can be considered by those who have concerns about possible injury because of neck or back issues. So we headed to the McKenzie River which flows into Eugene. We stayed in Bend and drove into the National Forest where we met our guides. Waking to a cool rainy morning I actually said to myself…gosh, we’re going to get wet in the rain…before I laughed. Yes, you will get wet whenever you go rafting….get used to the concept. So we went. As it turned out, we were the only guests and the law requires at least 2 guides, so we had one in the raft with us and the other in a kayak nearby. They prepared our lunch as well and we all enjoyed Sam’s 5-year-old excitement for approaching white ripples in anticipation of the slightly increased speed and bumpiness.
Years ago I worked at the Vanderbilt Medical Center Eye Clinic and a group of us decided we would go white water rafting. The Olympics recently had been held in Atlanta and the Upper Ocoee River was used for the kayaking competitions. We rafted the Lower Ocoee which as a Class III and IV river was more than enough excitement. Class III offers moderate waves with good control needed to avoid rocks. Class IV is described as powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling. As you can see from this “after” photo, we all survived and enjoyed.
One of the most interesting trips was in Nova Scotia where the rafting is not DOWN a river but UP the river as the tidal bore races in. The raft was different and we did not paddle at all. We started when the tide was out and part of the fun was to play in the mud, sliding down the embankments. The guide told us to come on, the bore was coming, and we headed back out. Using his motor he went up and over the bore many many times.
To me, my best experience was on the Upper Klamath in southern Oregon, out of Ashland. This river currently has some dams used for flood control which are slated for removal in the near future. The premise is to return the river to its natural and wild state and to permit the salmon free access to upstream spawning areas with the need for fish ladders. The trip was an amazing Class IV+, a virtual roller coaster for long stretches of time. We used Momentum Rafting which is a group of people who highly value the wilderness they help visitors enjoy and I highly recommend them if you are going to Oregon or northern California.
Pete, from Momentum Rafting asked me to share his philosophy with you so you can understand when rivers, like the Klamath, are in need of changing. We people have often tried to mold nature to our needs, and only now are wise enough to try to un-do the damage we have caused. But many people fight change, so for people who value nature, this is important.
The idea of keeping places you find a complete secret can be short sighted and be a little elitist. Eventually the fate of those places will depend how many people know and love them.
The more people who experience our rivers, who fall in love with them, who were shown them by a passionate guide – the more people will think about them when they go to vote. There of course is a limit to the number of people can experience a place at one time without damaging both the place and the wilderness feel.
If you are a passionate guide, a good host, it will help these places. This happens without even talking about the environment (in fact, sometimes that even hurts – people are here to escape, have fun, not to get depressed). Just the experience is an invaluable learning tool for most.
Guides who treat guests like “peeps”, who are bitter and distant, and who are elitist in the end will threaten the rivers they guide – even if they do love them. A bad trip can turn people off to the person and the place. They are doing a disservice to the profession and the river they love.
So, if you have a raft trip and the guide plays with you, perhaps dumps you in (as happened to me on several different trips), then he is not providing the best experience for you or for the river.