the insider : Dispatches from behind the scenes of travel

Rafting's Flip Side

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2003

I wrangle a propane tank onto the raft just as the sun is snuffed by one red cliff and a cuticle moon rises above another. We river guides go to bed early, and all I have to do before I throw my sleeping bag on the sand is, let's see, scrape the burnt rice pot, lug the last bag to camp, unstick a tent zipper, drag a bucketful of the Colorado to the latrine, fix the balky hand-washing pump, rinse the sand from the coffeepot, secure the loose trash, stow the cast-iron ovens, fish the hot sauce from the garbage, crush the beer cans and wash the wine glasses.

That's it. Oh, and rig rain tarps on all the guest tents.

I climb up the bank with a bucket of water and Matt Driskell stops me. A veteran guide, Matt, 28, is a buff, piratical redhead in a beard and pony tail.

"So how do you feel after your first day?" he asks.

I think for a second. "Like someone has been whacking me on the back with an oar for the last 16 hours."

Matt nods. "Yeah," he says. "That's pretty much what it feels like."

He works a hand free of his load and extends it. "Welcome to the crew!"

The next morning, with just a breath of dawn in the indigo sky, I awaken to a peregrine screech echoing down the canyon. I rub my eyes and scratch the night's sand from my hair. Then I peel the flattened tattoo of a spider from my cheek -- poor little fella got between my face and the rolled-up T-shirt I used as a pillow.

Sigh. I could be with them, that group of 13 tourists over there. They're still asleep on comfy cots, inside tents pitched (by me) on the cushy side of the line that divides the servers from the served. But no, I signed onto this five-day trip down Utah's Cataract Canyon not as a guest but a guide. Or rather a "swamper," a sort of deputy assistant river flunky that is the mailroom intern of the rafting world. If you're any lower than a swamper, you're riding under the raft.

Don't confuse me with a bona fide river guide, those superheroes who calmly steer terrified civilians through murderous white water. Real river guides have experience and skills -- not to mention muscles, nerves of ice and great tans. Me, I'm the guy who dumps out the pee buckets in the morning. (My contribution to getting through the rapids is demonstrating the proper death grip on my neighbor's elbow and the correct way of whimpering through clenched teeth.)

I did this from the purest anthropological motives, to explore the endless-summer culture of folks who combine Gen-X thrill-seeking with top-drawer customer service. (That, and my editor couldn't stop laughing when I proposed taking a $1,500 Abercrombie and Kent river trip, until I told her I could work for my passage.) I knew it would be fascinating -- I love the gypsy logistics and the cool gear of wilderness travel, and I swoon over Western river landscapes. But I didn't know it would hurt.

Between the huge, massively laden cargo raft and the four passenger rafts, we're hauling something like 9,000 pounds of gear and food, much of which has to be schlepped up to camp each night and back down in the morning. Getting downriver is like helping your buddy move his three-room apartment twice a day for five days . . . in 90-degree sun . . . on steep and slippery stairs . . . on open trucks that could flip upside down at any time, sending your provisions bobbing toward the Gulf of California.

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