Escape the Urban: A Last Season’s Run

30 Oct

Last Sunday I guided two rafting trips down the Genesee River in Letchworth, from the Lower Falls to St. Helena, hitting Lee’s Landing, New Wave Beach, and Wolf Creek in transit. In the morning in my raft I had a father/son pair, the dad a firefighter from Rochester. In the afternoon I had two brothers and their young wives/girlfriends, mid-twenty something’s helping their greying father celebrate a birthday. I took my own father and brother-in-law on the morning run as well. Such an abundance of family is not coincidental; the river tends to draw people in such clumps, and even among the river guides ourselves are several husband/wife, father/son, and father/daughter combinations.

Wolf Creek (photo by Chuck Evingham)

The sun was a brilliant on a mid-autumn day, warming our black wetsuits by its mid-day crest. The foliage colors were at a peak, and blanketed the ridge tops, gorge rim, and isolated gullies in a ruddy gild. Even the water was high, a product of recent rain and a scheduled release of the Rushford Lake dam upstream. Score and combine each factor, and it may have been the best day on the Genesee all year, the best way possible to end an incredible season.

I remember the start of my rafting season distinctly, a mid-February evening trip to Batavia to meet with my future employer for the first time, my application having already been accepted and approved via email. The 2011 rookie class met for hot chocolate and soup at Coffee Culture, listened to the training manager discuss the driest boater safety and gear management study material imaginable, and then split up for another six weeks, waiting for the ice to break. I left Coffee Culture in a whiteout, and mentally lost in my own thoughts, wondering if rafting wasn’t going to be quite as exciting as I thought, I got physically lost trying to get on the thruway. In the blinding snowstorm I went east and not west, and after nearly twenty minutes of slowly plodding through the slush, made an illegal u-turn through the median to get back home. An inauspicious start to my year.

The days got much better from there. Early season runs on the high-water Cattaraugus, tiny icebergs floating by our rafts and frozen waterfalls tightly clinched along the Zoar Valley gorge walls. Fast runs down the swollen Genesee in mid spring, a chocolate milk runoff mix that roller-coastered us down the 5.5 mile course in less than an hour. And then, as the Catt season wrapped up in early June, and water ebbed on the Genny in July, big water returned on the Salmon River, draining the reservoirs of the Tug Hill Plateau, rapids with names like Titanic, Lusitania and Black Hole, the size of which we hadn’t seen since April. Only now the trees were lush and green, the water was warm tannin-stained tea, and bikinis and swim trunks replaced neoprene and dry-suits. Still, the season was only half over, and we ran the Genny through til October, the water rising as the drought broke, the season climaxing in last weekend’s top run.

Eight months on, four months off. Time to clean and repair the gear, carefully store it for next year. As I stood over my stationary tub in my basement, rinsing out my NRS Titanium gloves for the final time, I noted how far I had come. When I started eight months ago, I didn’t even know the name of most of the equipment now stowed in my rafting bag. I wore a borrowed lifevest, flimsy shooting gloves, horrid cotton socks. Laughable now, how ill prepared I was for working on a river. Now I have a new Astral Greenjacket rescue vest, multiple sets of neoprene layers of all descriptions, my own rope and throw bag, water shoes and wool EMS mountaineering socks. I bet every dollar I made on the river I spent on gas and gear. But then again, the money had little to do with it.

Genesee Gorge (photo by Chuck Evingham)

Beyond the thrill, beyond the undeniable fun of throwing a raft through the whirlpool eye of swirling froth, the point was to undertake and meet a new challenge. In March I couldn’t you the difference between a guide stick and a yard stick. I didn’t know how to teach a boat full of rookies how to paddle while already in their first rapid, only seconds from launching. I didn’t know how to fill and toss and repair and hump and stack and spin and ride 150 pound rubber rafts. I didn’t know how to hand a woman a size extra-large wetsuit without insulting her (still tricky). I didn’t know how to kick the nose around at Mystery Rock, to let the buffering pillow wave lull you to the hole, spinning your raft and surprising your passengers in a last second flip, standing the raft on its side. I didn’t know how to guide. I just knew I liked the thrill – the deeper pleasures came later.

I still have plenty to learn. I have a guide certification test to take this winter, and an in-depth water rescue course to complete next spring. But that doesn’t detract from the solemn satisfaction in having met a major goal. A year ago, when I put in my application, I was just hoping for a call back. Now I can say I’ve been guiding rivers all season, teaching first timers how to paddle and kids about geology, helping the timid face a challenge they didn’t think they had the guts for, introducing the wonders of the natural world to the city-bound and outdoor-adverse. Next March can’t come soon enough.

4 Responses to “Escape the Urban: A Last Season’s Run”

  1. RaChaCha October 30, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    So on the Genny runs, where do you put in below the lower falls–? Sounds like a nawesome trip.

  2. Brian Castner October 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    The rafting company is right across the street from the Lower Falls Restaurant. We walk out the front door, across the street, down a path on the gorge wall, and put in right there.

  3. RaChaCha October 31, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    I had forgotten about the Lower Falls Restaurant. I love the Lower Falls and connecting trails, except for my close brush with death-by-falling-boulder at the footbridge. You’ve prolly heard that after Agnes, when the water rose to the top of the dam, the gorge became a lake back to the falls. And that in some places in the gorge, you can still see a line of dead trees and debris forming a “bathtub ring” at the high water mark. And that on a dark night during a full moon you can hear…oh, wait, that’s my Halloween ghost story.

    Speaking of connecting trails, an unforgettable loop hike (or trail run) involves the trails on both sides of the gorge, completing the loop via the rail bridge (or 436 bridge in Portageville) on the south end, and the Lower Falls footbridge on the north end. Such loop includes the most scenic and rugged portions of the Genesee Valley Greenway, on the east side of the river.

  4. Ethan Cox November 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I still don’t understand why you hate preservation.  

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