Tag Archives: Whitewater Rafting

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.

Escape the Urban: Return to Zoar Valley

2 Oct

The rain and color have both arrived, hand in hand, sweet autumn sisters that somehow both soothe and tempt. The trees are flushing into the heart of their fall brilliance. The rain is re-swelling creeks and streams. Yesterday I river guided in Letchworth, back in rafts again as the dry summer passes and the Genny fills with runoff, rapids reforming in chutes and rock bars where only bare longing existed two weeks before.

The Catt is filling again in Zoar as well. Commercial rafting has long since ended for the year, but if you have your own whitewater kayak now is the time to grab some late season action while you can. If not, there are still trails enough to enjoy, as the chill-induced leaf change comes to some of the oldest and tallest trees in New York State. Julie Broyles, who runs zoarvalley.org, has told me many times that the Zoar is special because it is a place you keep wanting to go back to. Those who enjoy it at the peak fullness of summer have a way of finding themselves returning for autumn color and winter’s icy fastness.

May I recommend the following articles to help you plan your own Zoar visit. The first I wrote for WNYMedia this summer, and describes the many trails and sights at The Nature Conservancy’s Deer Lick Preserve.

The second is my article for the September issue of Buffalo Spree, recently available on their website. Besides covering the trails in the New York State Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, it details the serendipitous history of this odd pocket of WNY, and includes an interview with Mr. Herb Darling Jr, the most remarkable Western New Yorker you’ve never heard off.

Mr. Darling’s father donated the land that we know as Zoar Valley today. Following in his father’s philanthropic footsteps, the son is the past President of the Buffalo Science Museum and current President of the NY Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. Hidden in Zoar is a plantation of experimental chestnut trees where Mr. Darling is leading the effort to save the species. Learn more in my interview, and enjoy your fall retreat to Zoar.

Escape the Urban: Salmon River Runs

31 Jul

This is the latest in a series of articles on learning to be a whitewater raft guide for Adventure Calls Outfitters. Here are the previous two entries on Dreaming of the Salmon River and getting into The Flow.

My grandfather used to say “Anticipation is Greater than Realization.” He usually pulled out this uplifting gem in late December, as we grandchildren were eagerly looking forward to Christmas morning. “No matter how much fun your new toys may be,” he would remind, “your imagination of what you will receive is always more vivid than what you’ll actually get.” The life of the party, my grandfather. Always sowing seeds of hope and optimism.

Fortunately, when it came to rafting the Salmon River last weekend, his advice was absolute bollocks.

Image courtesy americanwhitewater.org.

Thank God for New York and our rock-bottomed creeks. Pour a little water over some exposed earth in this part of the world and you’re bound to eventually create a whitewater playland. The Salmon River runs west off the Tug Hill plateau, an unimpressive massif thrust up between the southern Adirondacks and Lake Ontario. A wild collection of proud redneck ville’s, untrammeled boondocks and prime hunting and fishing grounds, this section of upper New York would not, at first glance, seem to contain prime whitewater. In fact, driving in from the south on Interstate 81, I never even saw the Salmon. It has not yet cut away any great valley in the land, and instead blends in innocuously just behind the next grove of trees or down some small ravine. Exiting at Pulaski and heading east, the land simply rises gently, river out of sight, the road winding into backwoods hamlets and angler-friendly campgrounds. When one enters Letchworth, by contrast, there is no question where the water is. Here I was afraid I had made a wrong turn.

I should not have worried. Tucked into a narrow black slate-walled canyon crossed by crumbling railroad trestles, the Salmon makes up in quality water what it lacks in initial flash. Most of the year, the Salmon River sports some of the best fishing – steelhead, trout, and yes, salmon – in the country, and the local businesses reflect that. Here tackle shops and designated fish cleaning stations pop up every hundred yards and the motels have names like “Salmon Heaven” (thanks Brenda for the hospitality). But three weekends a year, the reservoir is opened and prime fly-fishing country becomes prime whitewater – a guaranteed 750 cubic feet per second of tannin-stained warm goodness that draws kayakers and rafters from across the northeast.

The ten mile, three and a half hour run starts east of the village of Atmar and bears west through Pulaski, where the largest rapids lie. The slow build of the river yields a progression I most enjoy – lazy and luxurious up front, while you teach your boat to paddle together. Then a steady increase in size and difficulty, to ease newcomers into the idea of rapid running. Lastly long challenging rapids through the final third, culminating in a grand finale of the best drops of the day: Lusitania, Titanic and Black Hole. Nothing like the prime water at the end as a reward for a day of paddling in the sun.

On Saturday afternoon, as I was picking my line through Town Rapids, ferrying upstream to hit the maximum number of holes for my happily screaming guests – including two girls, twelve and fourteen, who self-admittedly rarely saw the outside of a mall and their adventure minded uncle who was determined to change that fact – I realized I was in the middle of a unique experience. I was a guiding a river I had never run before.

On the Catt and the Genny I received training and orientation runs before stepping into the back cockpit. And if I move on to other rivers and other companies in other parts of the country in the future, I’ll most certainly need to do the same. But here, hopefully as a vote of confidence but probably due to the reality of the large number of guests, I was assigned as a middle guide on my first trip down the river. The middle guide is the low man on the totem pole, neither responsible for picking the lead line on the point, nor sweeping for straggler boats as the drag. But on the swiftly moving and twisting Salmon, the boats in my front and rear went out of sight on more than one occasion. I and my four paddlers could have been the only souls on the river. And what lie ahead – the size of the rapids, the depth of the holes, the scattered rock gardens, the washing machine churn along a sheer cliff wall – was as much of a surprise to me as the newbies in my raft.

Does it get any better than that? Anticipation and realization merged into the same frothy moment last weekend. Lucky is the kayaker, rafter or guide on their own personal first river descents.

Escape the Urban: The Flow

24 Jul

Stikine River in BC - dream trip. Photo credit: Erik Boomer, courtesy Canoe and Kayak magazine

This is the latest in a series of articles on learning to be a whitewater raft guide for Adventure Calls Outfitters. The previous installment can be found here.

If you are reading this on the morning of Sunday July 24th, soon after it is published, then I am probably at this very moment hurtling down the Salmon River on an NRS Otter raft, throwing swimmers in Class III playholes and cutting the perfect line through rocks and hydraulics. It’s good to be me.

Well, I hope so, anyway, if all goes according to plan. It is also very likely that at this moment, unlike you, I am not thinking about this article at all, this news site I write for, my Twitter feed, the latest revisions for my book, bills on the desk, or whether I need to change the oil in my car. If you (as I) are like most average human beings, those thoughts, or one’s very similar, occupy a large part of your daily available brain space. It is challenging to turn off the clutter, forget the iPhone, leave worries and cares behind. My To Do List and deadline schedule run an unfortunate portion of my day. Mental quiet – not even relaxation per se but just stillness – is hard to come by.

Right now, though, while the very reminder of such anxious minutia has got your brain case whirling again, mine is blissfully free. Mine is water and paddle and rapid alone. Mine is in the Flow. This is (one reason) why I river guide.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a semi-famous book on the subject – Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Of his many insights, the most useful to me was that peak mental clarity, and something akin to happiness, occurs in a narrow trough between anxiety and boredom. This chart is the most well known:

 

Balance mental/physical exertion and complexity of challenge, and find Flow. Ramp up the level of each, and find more Flow. Engage in unbalanced activity (ditch digging, navel gazing or accepting no challenge at all), and find yourself in some stage of misery.

Unfortunately, most of us spend most of our time unbalanced, and only find a rare moment of peace in some hobby or amateur pursuit. This is different than losing yourself in a movie or good book, as those are fundamentally passive activities, and Flow requires a mix of your own mental and physical creative exertion. For a small subset of the population, the achievement of Flow takes on quasi-religious and quest-like connotations. Surfers seeking the perfect wave, mountaineers and rock climbers on sheer walls, painters and musicians who become one with their piece, surgeons sorting through brain tissue in hour number ten of a marathon surgery, or actual marathoners themselves. Runner’s high. The Groove. Zen. The phenomenon has many names, but Csikszentmihalyi uses Flow.

My life used to contain an enviable proportion of Flow, but I didn’t realize or appreciate it. When disarming an IED under fire, I can guarantee that you think of nothing else. It wasn’t the adrenaline I was addicted to, it was the clarity of thought and purpose, how the mundane of the world falls away. I finally found it again in the much safer pursuit of skydiving. Guiding rafts is just a wetter version. The river, the raft, the mental challenge of picking a perfect line and the physical strain of actually moving the boat there, shoulders and abdomen heaving on the fulcrum of the guide paddle – that is my respite from a harried world.

Escape the Urban: Dreaming of the Salmon

10 Jul

This article is the latest in a series on learning to be a river guide with Adventure Calls Outfitters here in Western New York. The last entry, on the wonders of wetsuits and booties, can be found here.

The lazy days of summer have affected our rivers as well. The season on Cattaraugus Creek is six weeks gone now, shrunk as it is from its magnificent spring flows. I hiked down into its canyon this past week, right up to the confluence of the main and south branches under towering Point Peter, and I barely recognized the rushing waterway I knew from April and May. Blanched and crusted over are shale banks that were previously under two feet of teeming froth. Hikers and bathers frolicked in the midst of the combined swells, their flow more soothing than harrowing. Where in mid-April I was dumping swimmers now a middle aged man was sitting drinking a beer.

The Genesee in Letchworth is also slowing. Never the biggest water, the lure of a current trek on the Genny is plenty of sun, plenty of scenery, plenty of opportunity to swim in the refreshing waters. We’re converting from six person rafts to single and tandem inflatable kayaks, to navigate the lower water, or raised rocks, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty.

The record rain in the spring, a boon for us rafting, has given way to a near drought. Picnickers are happy. Kayakers and guides are not.

“Pray for rain,” my boss said as I left ‘work’ on Monday, a spectacularly beautiful day of sun, but also the lowest water I had ever run. I was bruised from head to foot, a jammed finger on my left hand swelling alarmingly and turning purple to boot, from freeing rafts stuck on rocks most of the day. I was beat up and worn out, as though I had been ground on the bony bottom of the river for the length of the five mile run from Lee’s Landing to St. Helena.

Where can a poor river guide find deliverance from the mid-summer/low-water blues?

The answer, dear pilgrim, is the Salmon River.

I had heard other guides talk of the Salmon from opening weekend in late March. As we shivered past floating chunks of ice and frozen waterfalls clinging to the gorge walls, bound from head to toe in neoprene and bulky dry suits, the veteran guides told stories of a magic place where Big Water and Good Weather met, a storybook land of swimsuits and rapids and sun-drenched swimming holes. Of clear tannin-filled waters, an iced tea flood as opposed to our chocolate milk runoff. Of cigarette trees and rock candy mountains. Of the Salmon River, in the low lands between Tug Hill and Lake Ontario, four hours to the east.

The Salmon River’s most attractive feature is not the river at all, but the reservoir that sits above it, collecting the winter’s runoff and holding it to heat in the summer sun. Every week I shivered on the Catt I thought of the water growing ever warmer in that man-made lake, waiting to be released in summer splendor to provide eager whitewater enthusiasts a torrent of wet Zen. There are three dam release weekends, long scheduled and anticipated, of which this weekend is the first. I will be at the next one: July 23rd and 24th, getting in as many runs as possible in the guaranteed Class III churn and probable summer sun.

Two more weeks til the highlight of the rafting season.

 

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.

Escape the Urban: What To Do Memorial Day Weekend

22 May

The rain and chill in the air may indicate otherwise, but summer is right around the corner. Next weekend is already Memorial Day, leaving you precious time to make plans for a long holiday outdoor adventure. Don’t have a clue what to do with your time off? Never fear – Escape the Urban will hook you up:

Go for a bike ride: For a close trip, do the classic trek from Delaware Park to the Erie Basin Marina via Scajaquada Creek, or ride along the Niagara River to get a new appreciation of Niagara Falls. If you want to venture further out, try the Chautauqua Rail Trail, from the shores of Lake Erie up the bluff to Mayville and beyond. Or, for more ideas, pick up a newsstand copy of Buffalo Spree (*cough* shameless plug *cough*) where I offer a couple more biking options, including one along the Niagara Wine Trail.

Take a hike: Drop down into the Niagara Gorge at Devil’s Hole, a great little hike for kids too. You can also drive out to Letchworth, and skip the well trodden western side of the park to enjoy the solitude and fresh perspective from the wilder eastern rim. Or, if you are in the mood to escape further, make a weekend of it by camping in Allegheny State Park, or brave the black flies at secluded Good Luck Lake in the Adirondacks.

Break out the kayak: The northern ‘Dacks are a bit flooded right now, so you may want to skip a flatwater weekend out there. In that case, go rent an open topped rig from BFLO Harbor Kayak and explore the Buffalo River and downtown’s canals and harbors. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of Jason Schwinger’s third season at the Commercial Slip.

Go whitewater rafting: The season on Cattaraugus Creek is almost done, but great rafting will remain for some time on the Genesee. Call up Adventure Calls Outfitters (*cough* second shameless plug *cough*) quick to make reservations while you still can.

Read a Book: If we get rained out, or you’re too tired to do much other than relax on the couch, try one of these outdoor reads. Aldo Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac provides witty insights for each season, including drizzly springs. It may look like light reading, but each phrase packs a wallop of thought. If you’d rather dream of adventures further afield, cross Europe via mountain range in Clear Waters Rising, or join Shackleton and Scott on their expeditions to the South Pole in one of these offerings. Beach reading need not always be the latest mass market paperback.

I will be doing several of these myself next weekend, and since I expect most readers of this column will be out and about, and not huddling next to their computers, I’m taking the time off from writing. Enjoy the start of summer, and see you on the other side.

Biking along the Niagara River on Squaw Island

Escape the Urban: Our Froth-Filled Rivers

15 May

The older guides tell me the rivers change every season. A year’s worth of carving ice and rain move silt, churn rocks, form bony gravel bars, strip gorge walls and deposit new strainers in ever novel ways. Therefore, a late winter pre-season scouting of the river each year is required, to learn the new hazards laid out for our boats.

It is my first season, so when the veteran guides talk about how Pinball or Lee’s Landing or Cruncher are different this year, I have no frame of comparison. I am still in the polite dating phase, buying dinner and getting to know each river from scratch. I don’t remember when the river had a wild streak that has since been tamed, or, conversely, note how they have grown grumpy and mean in their old age. The rivers are still as fresh and new to me as hand-picked flowers on a first date, and exciting in their unpredictability as I get to know them.

The personality of any river is in great part dependent on how much it had to drink the night before, meaning the amount of rain that has fallen in the last several days. While the record rainfall this spring soured many (and washed out the spinach in my garden), it did provide consistently excellent water conditions that we are still enjoying. Even as a new guide you learn to check the online US Geological Survey flood gauges for the Genesee and Cattaraugus Creek early and often. A good water reading on Friday can mean great whitewater on Saturday.

Map courtesy americanwhitewater.org

In Letchworth State Park, we raft a five mile section of the Genesee River, all downstream from the three iconic waterfalls and popular trestle railroad bridge that spans the gorge. The rapids start strong right from the put in, with Entrance, Red Ball and Lee’s Landing coming in quick succession. And while the consistent Class II (and Class III with the water up so far this year) whitewater is respectable, many enjoy the trip for the view as much as the thrill of the churning hydraulics. The overlooks at Archery Field and the Big Bend are some of the most photographed terrain in Western New York outside of Niagara Falls. But with no trails or roads leading down the steepest cliff sections, most tourists are left high and dry at the old stone block walls lining the parking lots above. 

When paddling the river run, on the other hand, one gets a new view of the park from below. In the section we raft the Genesee winds through the deepest part of the gorge, the 450 million year old sedimentary walls rising 550 feet above you in the highest bit, past geologic fault lines, lacy waterfalls and secluded dells one can’t see from the upper lip. If the water is good, the tour stops at Wolf Creek, a trickle on the chasm’s rim that transforms into a wide rushing waterfall suitable to splash in by the time it reaches the river below. Tucked as it is into the side of the canyon wall, the only way to access (or even see) most of Wolf Creek is from a boat. 

Just past the end of the gorge, the traditional raft take out is at the former town of St. Helena. Once a bustling little village, St. Helena was dismantled brick by brick to make way for the lake created behind the Mount Morris Dam. The last family left in 1948, though the town was approaching haunting status in the 1920’s after a series of floods. Today, when you disembark your raft at the end of your trip and hike up the dirt trail that used to be Water Street, you see no sign of the town; even the cemetery was moved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Map courtesy americanwhitewater.com

If the Genesee River is the widely popular and famously beautiful cheerleader, Cattaraugus Creek is the punk-rock free spirit; you know she is a little dangerous but she also really knows how to have a good time. Sure Zoar Valley is pretty too, with its own 400 foot high canyon walls, trickling cliff-side waterfalls and stands of old-growth forest. But I dare you notice them the first time you’re bouncing down a wave train and into the awaiting foamy Class III wall of Confluence, or tossed upside down while spinning backwards through Redline Slot. The Catt starts slow, eases you in, and makes you deceptively comfortable. It’s only once you are settled and complacent half way through your trip that Pinball hits. From there on out the bouncing barely slows, five miles of rapid after frothy rapid, with just enough flat water in between to let you catch your breath and brag to the boat next to you about how you got dumptrucked* back at Cruncher or started a new swimming team at Tannery.

And while the Catt is wild, it is also finicky and temperamental. Highly dependent on melting snow runoff and rain in the early spring, the rafting season on the Catt runs hot and short. Flash flooding is common in the Zoar Valley gorge, as the creek can transform too-low to too-high over night, leaving a small window afterwards for ideal rafting conditions. The regular April showers have water levels near perfect so far this year, giving hope that the season may stretch to June.

With only seven runs total under my belt – 3 on the Genny and 4 on the Catt – I’m still a newbie, almost as green as they come, and literally still wet behind the ears. But I’ve also passed an important milestone, passed my basic check-out ride, and am guiding my own boat among the veterans. In other words, I’m comfortable enough that I’m not buying dinner anymore, and the punk-rocker and I are spending both days together this weekend. But I have a long way to go in my training, lisencing and certification, and a lot to learn about being an outdoor guide. More on that coming up.

* Dumptrucked – when the raft stands up on one side, everyone falls out, and then the raft flops back down, right side up but empty. 

Escape the Urban: Guide in Training

8 May

Regular reader, I’ve been keeping something from you. Not an intentional secret so much as a hedge against failure. I didn’t want to prematurely spread good news, like training for a triathlon, only to have to retract said enthusiasm later, when schedules and injuries and life conspired against me to force my retraction (maybe next year).

Now, though, I feel like I’m settled a bit, semi-official, and far enough in to start writing a series on articles on my new love: being a whitewater rafting guide.

“You can whitewater raft around here?” is the typical follow-up question, when I tell people my new gig.

Yes, yes you can. And how.

Image courtesy adventure-calls.com

It is a dangerous thing, going on your first whitewater trip. The chief threat is not drowning or splitting your head open on a rock or being caught under a strainer, but rather catching the bug, a fever whose only prescription is more . . . rafting (no, not cowbell). In college I rafted the Peshtigo River in northern Wisconsin in November in the snow, and was so frigid and miserable – I could feel the cold through the alcohol, an amazing feat – that I put the pastime on the shelf for over ten years.

Fast forward to last summer and an impromptu trip through the Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River in central Colorado. The Class IV rapids turned our raft inside out, the sheer rock walls soared a thousand feet above, and our Nepalese guide filled my head with images of milk white rivers in his home country swollen with the runoff of Himalayan glaciers. For the adrenaline lover in me, the exhilaration of The Hit, slamming your boat into a wall of white water towering over your head and yet somehow exiting out the other side, was almost as good (I know now) as jumping out of a plane or getting shot at. For the nature lover and outdoor enthusiast, rafting added a generous dollop of excitement to my regular flatwater trips. I dreamed of week long treks, days piled on end with nothing but an inflatable boat and your gear strapped down to it. Another trip down the Hudson in the Adirondacks at the end of the summer only added to the drive. I had rediscovered the sport, and caught the bug.

But how to do it? My wife and budget would not accept the regular expense of not only traveling to the churning river, but then paying a company to raft in it. Likewise, purchasing my own several thousand dollar raft was out of the question – with no background, I wasn’t yet comfortable going the whitewater kayak route – and anyway, how would I transport it to the river? The river I would be transporting this hypothetical raft to was still in question – there is no whitewater around here, right?

On a whim I typed “whitewater western new york” into Google. I was looking for a river. I found my new employer.

Image courtesy paperboy2222 at youtube.com

In retrospect, it should seem obvious that Cattaraugus Creek in Zoar Valley and the Genesee River in Letchworth would be whitewater rafting eligible spots. But, like most Western New Yorkers I think, I had an idea that suitable whitewater was only found in mountain fed rivers (and the associated steep valleys), and so I never considered our two magnificent gorges. Fortunately, Adventure Calls Outfitters did, and has been leading trips down them for decades (full disclosure time from here on out – I am now a part time employee of ACO, and they know I’m writing about being a river guide, but aren’t paying me to do so or editing/approving any of the work). Their website appeared at the top line of my Google search results.

At this point I remembered my Nepalese guide from Colorado. It finally occurred to me that some people get PAID to raft, and more than that, had the extra fun of being the guide in the back. The special joys and rewards of being a wilderness guide, teaching novice guests who entrust you with their safety, were still unknown to me. No gets rich running the river, even (or perhaps especially) the business owners; of that I was sure. So while a new fulltime career was not in the offing, perhaps I had at least found a way to pursue my new passion. 

I called and inquired about employment in September, and was told to put in my application in January, which I did. I expected to hear nothing. I am certainly not the only thrill seeker who thought they could turn the tables and cheat the system by reversing the monetary spigot in the other direction (my father-in-law says that jobs are supposed to be miserable, and its why you get paid to do them – if you liked your job it would be a hobby and you would have to pay for it). Thus River Guide jobs are highly sought after despite the low pay and irregular seasons. I assumed I didn’t have a shot.

Imagine my joy when instead I found myself in Gowanda on the first Saturday in April, searching for the joint offices of ACO and Zoar Valley Rafting along Cattaraugus Creek, reporting for my first day.

Your first day of work, even at a whitewater rafting company, is still a first day of work. No matter how early you arrive, you still feel late. You don’t know where the bathroom is. You’re not sure how to help out, and feel mostly in the way. You don’t know anyone’s name, and are sure you must be making things harder on everyone. Eventually, I was directed to hang wetsuits and hand out river shoes, a task I was unlikely to get wrong (more on this enviable portion of the job in a future article). My main goal was to not screw things up enough in the office that they kept me out of a boat completely on my first day.

As I was lost in a sea of guests, bulky and waddling in lifevests and unfamiliar neoprene suits, one of the supervisors, obviously noticing that I was still vaguely directionless, came up and grabbed my arm.

“Brian, you need to go – you’re on the first trip. Grab your gear and head to the bus, or they’re going to leave without you,” she said.

My worst fear realized. I felt like they had pulled my winning ticket out of the raffle bin, but were about to give my prize away to someone else because I couldn’t get to the head table fast enough. 

“I’m sorry – I looked at the schedule but didn’t understand what it meant,” I said. “Next to my name was GIT. What does that mean?”

She smiled. “That means “Guide in Training,” she said. “So go train.”

Guide in Training. That sounded perfect. I grabbed my gear – my vest and strap and pump and rope bag – threw a paddle over my shoulder, and jogged out to catch the bus to take us to the put in. I was about to go on my first training run down the Catt.

Escape the Urban: My Non-Column Column

10 Apr

I meant to write a column this weekend. Really, I did. I even started one – a book review on the official guide of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. But I didn’t finish; couldn’t really. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that one eventually. I hope you aren’t upset, but how could I stay inside and write on a weekend like this?

I wait an entire year for this weekend, the payoff for living in a land of four seasons. Each has its own perks, but the transition to mid-spring, the first sweet taste of summer weather, is worth the practiced patience. On Monday it snowed; by the weekend, we spent every minute of daylight outside frolicking. Saturday was all day rafting on the Genesee in Letchworth, getting my training runs in for guide certification (a lot more on that soon as well). Sunday was spent in the yard, cleaning up deadfalls from the long cold, turning over the winter’s accumulated compost, rototilling the garden, planting lettuce and spinach, weeding the strawberries and rhubarb. And once the chores were done, pick up soccer games in the front yard with eight kids, some mine, some from the neighborhood. A beer, sitting on the porch, watching the sunset through the still bare trees, grasping the last few rays of the first warming sun on the year.

Faced with such prospects, how could I sit inside and write? I hope you understand. More over, I hope you were outside as well, and not even looking for this article. The best case scenario – you find it Monday morning.