White-water Kayaking with a Cautious Guide

Safety First. And Second. And Third.

We walked downriver along the shore to scout the upcoming rapid. Our guide was briefing us on what we should prepare for, what to do if we needed to perform an emergency wet-exit, and letting us know that it would be perfectly acceptable to opt out if we didn’t feel comfortable. At the very least, she said ominously, we would have to run it one at a time, because she wouldn’t be able to rescue both of us at once.

We arrived at an outcropping overlooking the rapid. We watched an eight-year-old paddle his boogie board into the wave so he could surf it. He wiggled back and forth, riding the wave until his friend swam up and knocked him over into the water. They both popped back up, laughing, and did it again.

As we walked back to our kayaks our guide asked if we had any questions. I had several: Why is it called a rapid if it is just a single small wave? Why did we stop to scout it? Do you realize you have ruined an entire day of my vacation?

Then I said, this time out loud, I think we can all go through it together and we’ll be fine. She reluctantly acquiesced. We ran the rapid, but I blinked at the wrong moment, so I have no recollection of doing it.

May I Lead?

My wife and I had hired a guide from a rafting company in Buena Vista, Colorado to take us kayaking down the Arkansas River. The rapid in question was in a white-water park in the town of Salida. We were staying in the area during our annual vacation with my wife’s family. Each year my sister-in-law generously offers to watch our three children for one day so we can kayak. We love to kayak, but there are no rapids anywhere near Chicago, so the one white-water adventure we get to do each year is a big deal.

Every year when I call to hire a guide, we go through the same dance. I say, we’d like to take a lesson on the river. They ask about our experience. I tell them that although we have kayaked in white-water only a few times, we have a lot more sea-kayaking experience. They immediately discount the sea kayaking.

While it’s true that the two disciplines are not the same, they are really, really, really similar. An analogy for non-kayakers might be the right-fielder who tells the coach he wants to play shortstop. A good coach says “OK, we need to practice how to handle a double-play situation”. A bad coach says, “Whoa, slow down. First off, you need to understand that a baseball game has 9 innings.” That’s what white-water guides sound like. They treat white-water kayaking with rules worthy of a 15th century blacksmith guild – don’t even think you can do this until you’ve spent many years paying me to apprentice you. And even then, well, no, you’ll never be worthy.

I tell them that we’d like to do a class II or III run. Well, they say, you’re really just a beginner. Yes, I know, still, we’ve paddled a class III river before and lived to tell the tale; we’d like to do it again. It goes back and forth like this for awhile.

At some point the good, experienced guides say “OK, let’s start on an easy part of the river and take it from there”. This guide held her ground and insisted that we go to the pond first, followed by an easy stretch of river. As a sop to me, she offered that we could go through the white-water park at the end of the run. Eventually I caved, because I had no cards to play; until the previous day our schedule had been up in the air, so I had waited until last minute to start calling around for guides. Having procrastinated myself out of options, I had to take what was offered.

Our guide drove us to a pond in the middle of Buena Vista. It was a dammed-up creek whose coldness was verified by both my hand turning red after 5 seconds, and by the splashes of rainbow trout jumping at bugs.

As I will readily admit (to anyone but a kayak guide, as I don’t want to weaken my negotiating position), we are no experts. I can always use help on my strokes so I had decided to play along and make the most of this.

My enthusiasm quickly faded as the ridiculousness of the situation became obvious. The big thing to learn and be good at in a kayak is the brace – that is, slapping the water with the paddle to stop from tipping over. But it’s not possible to practice a brace effectively without being prepared to tip the boat and go swimming. And in water that cold, it’s just not worth it; spending the rest of the day shivering in a clammy wetsuit is too high a price.

After 30 minutes of half-hearted braces, we left the pond and returned to the outfitter’s headquarters for lunch. The food was delicious – a by-product of using an outfitter whose clientele consists almost exclusively of the white-water rafters who expect that kind of thing.

We chatted with our guide. I’ve spoken with enough seasonal guides to recognize the type pretty easily. My wife always asks, “how did you wind up here?”, and the answer always ends with “so I just decided to up and…”, and is punctuated several times along the way with “I was just, like, why not?”. We listened politely to her tales of casting caution to the wind.

I am not dismissive of the lifestyle – in fact, jealous of might be the better adjective. But there can be a pedastalness to the footloose and fancy-free attitude. These guides usually show little interest in our backgrounds or work-a-day lives other than where we’re from and how little white-water experience we have.

Perhaps this is the problem. She lives here and has the job and lack of commitments that allows her to be on the river every day. She has no point of reference for our situation. When I say, “I have only one day a year to white-water kayak”, what she hears is “I only kayak one day a year”, and doesn’t care to understand the difference.

Crying Wolf

We finally arrived at the river. Like all western rivers, it was gorgeous. As we geared up on the river bank, our guide asked every minute or two, “Are you comfortable with this?” She said it so often, I began to get worried. Nuts, what I have I gotten myself into?

I looked at the eddy and studied the mild current we were about to paddle into. I frowned. What I am I missing? As it turned out, nothing. I was missing nothing. We just got in and started paddling.

This happened several times. She made a big deal out of something trivial so often I couldn’t tell whether or not it was real. “Careful!” she’d warn, “There’s a hole river left”. Well, I see some ripples.

As we approached an old dam on river right, she warned us to stay away from it because dams are dangerous. And, yes, dams are dangerous – all levels of kayakers stay away from them. But she also spoke portentously of the dangerous hydraulics in the boat passage on river left. So now I can’t tell: is the passage dangerous like a dam, or is it just regular white-water that you are blowing up way out of proportion like everything else?

It was just regular white-water. It took less than 5 seconds to run the whole thing. Those dangerous hydraulics, which we probably could have run in a canoe without getting wet, made up half of the white-water we would see that day.

The absurdity of the white-water park capped off the day. As it turns out, the biggest wave wasn’t in the water. It was the wave of depression that washed over me immediately after we passed through the park; the realization that that was it. There will be no excitement today, no elation, no thrill at being alive, just. And another year of my life must now fade and then vanish forever before I can try again.

Adding Insult to a Complete Absence of Risk of Injury

Our guide didn’t understand the imperatives of a family vacation. Yes, there’s safety – death is a thing to avoid, particularly on holiday. But we didn’t go to all the trouble and expense to show up on her doorstep just to remain alive for another day; I can do that at home, on the couch. We came to have fun, and given the constraints in our lives, we don’t get many opportunities to do so on a river. I have decided that our next guide must have kids, so that I know that she knows what it means to have a single free day to do what you want – and more importantly, what it means to waste it.

On the drive from the river back to the outfitter’s office, our guide told us that she will add an asterisk next to our names, with a note stating that we’re ready for the next step up. Six hours earlier I had been telling her exactly that over and over again, and only now, after she has ripped the heart out of our vacation, does she magnanimously agree with me. So if I can convince the family to come back to the same place next year, beg my sister-in-law to burn another day of her vacation watching our children, and spend another $350, our guide has assured me that there will be, next to my name, an asterisk – a great big Pyrrhic asterisk.

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