Escape the Urban: Concerning Wetsuits and Booties

5 Jun

This is the third article in a series on learning to be a whitewater rafting guide. Here are the preceding two installments, on being a Guide in Training, and our Froth Filled Rivers.

When I was a brand new 22 year old Air Force lieutenant at my first assignment in South Dakota, I participated in a brief orientation program meant to inspire awe in, or at least appreciation of, the many other units and missions on a typical military base. Of most of the stops I remember little, no more than most remember of the first tour of their place of work. The highlight, though, has stuck with me: three days at the base fire department.

My grandfather was a City of Buffalo firefighter for 37 years, and so I felt an immediate (though I am sure one-way) kinship with the firefighters to which I was assigned as tag-along. In three days I imagined there was plenty of time to get a wide range of calls: structure fires, medical catastrophes, vehicle accidents requiring the Jaws of Life and in-flight emergencies of the too-cool B-1’s parked out on the ramp. Three days of living at the fire hall, taking meals, sleeping with one eye open just in case we were needed to respond to some world-altering event. I couldn’t wait; a kid at Christmas.

As it turns out, we didn’t receive a single call. Not one. Nothing happened for three days. Well, almost nothing. A fender-bender required the base police to respond to write a report, but no extrication or even Medevac was required. We pulled stand-by while the aircraft flew, but no hazards required mitigation. Staring at the flightline hoping for a problem was as close as I got.

That is not to say that our days were not full. We unfolded, refolded, and stacked hose every morning. We washed the trucks every afternoon. We sat in quality and safety training sessions mandated by OSHA on the proper use of personal protective equipment. We topped off the trucks with diesel every night, and checked and rechecked the placement of every wrench and nozzle.

In short, I unintentionally learned an invaluable life lesson, one I have since carried with me, though I doubt it is the lesson the organizers of the orientation intended me to have. 

Firefighters don’t fight fires. Firefighters stack hose and wash trucks.

This lessons applies to many facets of life, though I had to relearn this lesson several years later, after I completed school to be a bomb technician, and led my own bomb squads. Bomb technicians, it turns out, don’t disarm bombs. Bomb technicians move heavy black boxes from shelf to shelf, unpack and repack equipment bins, and inventory explosives. Endlessly inventory explosives. 

And whitewater rafting guides don’t run rapids. They lug boats and hang wetsuits.

Plus a thousand other tasks not nearly as thrilling as dousing your raft in Redline Slot. The dressing, outfitting, teaching, guiding, recovering, rescuing, feeding and transporting of guests takes up most of a day, time in which many guides would rather be playing in the water. But rafting trips don’t happen without guests, and so, as in many fields, ensuring the customer has a good time, and tells all of their friends about it, is of upmost importance. If you are running the Zoar Valley Gorge, that experience starts in a dimly lit basement of a brick storefront along Cattaraugus Creek in Gowanda.

The biggest water in WNY comes in the still-chilly spring, and thus the biggest threat to fun on the river is cold. To combat that, each guest needs a wetsuit, a neoprene jacket or splash-top, and booties. Such gear does not magically appear in each guest’s hand, so river guides begin their day by pretending they work at the corner bowling alley, handing out shoes. While this is often slightly unpleasant, as neoprene booties (no matter how much you clean them) always seem to be full of river funk, at least there is little embarrassment involved in asking someone their shoe size. A far more delicate matter is handing out a skin tight wetsuit. I have found it best, as a man, to never hand out a wetsuit larger than size “medium” to a woman, ever, under any circumstances. If a female guest requires a larger wetsuit, it is far better to politely pretend she doesn’t exist, and let a female river guide be the one that gives the wetsuit to her. I, on the other hand, am best suited (pun intended) to outfitting every barrel-chested man in the place, praising their massive physique while going to the special section in the back where we keep the suits that are as wide as they are tall. 

Even more important than keeping guests warm is keeping them alive. Once a customer is covered in neoprene from head to foot, they get a lifejacket, cinched down by a river guide to the point of bare toleration. It is a running joke that if the guest can breathe, we must not have tightened the vest enough. Of no joke is the feeling of grabbing a swimmer* by the shoulders, and having their vest slip up over their head because they loosened it while you weren’t looking.

If you see a line of wetsuit clad adults, looking like court jesters in their mismatched garish outfits and getting on a school bus on a weekend morning, it means a rafting trip is in their near future. The bus will take them to the Put In, where another group of guides has been blowing up boats. The carrying of rafts is known as “huffing rubber,” though that makes it sound like a spray can and the alley behind your high school are involved. The typical uninflated, two thwart river raft weighs 125 pounds, and hangs with a limp dead weight like so much newly dead flounder. Using a generator and two blowers, a pile of dissolved rafts come to life at a rate of one every three or four minutes. Still, with five passengers to a raft, and multiple trips of fifty or more, the unloading, filling, distributing, checking, repairing, deflating and refilling of enough rafts for a full day can take half a morning.

That half morning, though, whether handing out booties or filling rafts, allows a blessed three hours of bliss on the river, helping newbies face fears they never thought they’d master, or satisfying thrill seekers getting their wet fix. The work is soon forgotten when the first wave train comes into view.

And then after nine miles of paddles, tumbles, rescues, screams, and laughs, we pull the boats into the Take Out, and do the whole process in reverse. Only this time, with muddy boats, sopping wet neoprene suits and booties, and a special smell of that entire mix on the bus on the way back to the shop.  

The secret to enjoying any line of work is discovering the most mundane, mind-numbing, ceaselessly repeated grunt work required to do the fun part, and then once uncovered, accepting it. If the worst whitewater rafting has to offer is scummy booties and heavy rafts, this is going to be a great gig.

* Swimmer – anyone thrown from a raft and in need of rescuing. As it is very difficult for someone to climb back in the raft on their own once in the water, nearly every swimmer needs to be hauled in by someone still in the boat.

5 Responses to “Escape the Urban: Concerning Wetsuits and Booties”

  1. Chris Charvella June 6, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    I loved this piece, Brian. It brought back a lot of painful memories of being a crash recovery troop though. Much like firefighters and bomb techs, AR/CR guys like myself spent a lot of time stacking hose (ours were for air) and moving crap from one end of the recovery truck to the other while labeling and counting.

    Our main outlet for boredom and pent up aggression at work was to ceaselessly lobby the bosses for outrageous items to add to our recovery trailer. Our favorite request was for shop-use ATV’s for when a jet went down in the wilderness (it happened more than once in my six years. The reasoning was that we needed a way to drag the recovery equipment through the forest. Despite all the governments efforts to waste money on the DoD, our dream was never realized.

    We did some rafting as well when I was in Germany, but that was just for fun. A few times a summer, we’d load up on beer and ride down the Moselle River in inflatable kayaks. Probably a bit more of a leisurely trip than what you do, but it was a hell of a time. These days I’d have to get my wetsuit at the tent store though.

  2. Brian Castner June 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Thanks, Chris. To be fair, the war drove us from ten calls a year stateside to 10 calls a day in the box. But that’s another story for another day. I’m sure firefighters could say the same thing if Iraqi’s decided to become seriel arsonists instead of bombers. The trick, by the way, not that it will help you now, is to tie everything to the GWOT. I had trouble buying ATVs for years myself, but after 9/11, I had a fleet dry-rotting in my yard.

    There is not much better than tubing and drinking on a lazy river in the summer. I think its safe to say any trip where alcohol is front and center is more leisurely than my trips, but don’t be scared. I have a wetsuit for your massive pythons waiting for ya.

  3. pirate's code June 6, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    Having some experience with both, I can say one of the few things on the planet that can compare with a car trunk-aged hockey equipment bag is a funky wet suit.

    Great posts, and I will introduce myself when I make this trek in a few weeks.

  4. Chris Charvella June 7, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    I never had an opportunity to lobby for ATVs in the desert crash trailer. We had one go down out there, but it was in friendly territory very close to the base. I actually rotated in right in the middle of that one…strange situation. I saw the news story about the crash while I was sitting in my living room in California and two days later I was blowing up the bags.

  5. Brian Castner June 7, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    @ PC – the smell is similar, I must agree. I am unfortunately working minimally in June (and we’re only running in Letchworth – the Catt season has dried up for the year after a great run), so I look forward to meeting you someday, but we may miss eachother this time.

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