Rafting's Flip Side
All he needed to be a river guide was strength, courage and a good sleeping bag. Well, he had the bag, anyway.

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.

"It definitely beats the [bejesus] out of you," says Matt. "I've still got an oar-lock-shaped bruise on my [rearmost body part] from when I was washed out of my boat a couple of weeks ago."

"It's a very harsh environment, it's incredibly rough on the body and it's not a well-paying job" is how Matt sums up guiding.

And he loves it. So do I. When I told people around Moab, Utah -- our departure town -- that I'd bagged a berth as a swamper, they looked at me with envy, not pity. Trust me, on a river that glides through geology like this, a bad day of bejesus-beating is better than a good day of, well, just about anything I can think of.

Load, Launch and Lunch

But before you hit the river, you've got to load the boats. That happens on the day before we launch, in a hangar-like warehouse on the outskirts of Moab. The pros call this an "epic rig," and there is an Imax scale to the undertaking. The huge blue cargo raft -- a converted military inflatable bridge pontoon called a J-Rig -- is already loaded on a flatbed trailer. Our trip leader, Sarah Clinger, scrambles about on top of it like an elephant mahout, strapping down bits of gear as they are passed up to her. At 32, she's a nine-year veteran of the river, small, blond and bronzed, with a surfer girl mien and a drill sergeant's authority.

"Luke, you'll be the lunch boat," she calls down to Luke Kalstad, rigging one of the yellow passenger rafts. "Grab a few more cases of beer and soda. Neely, can you take some more water?"

There are seven of us on the crew: the leader on the J-Rig, four guides on four oar rafts and two swampers. Each guide brings a personal set of nylon straps (straps are to guides what knives are to chefs), and each rigs the various coolers, dry bags and metal boxes according to some personal and persnickety tie-down philosophy.

The other swamper is Ariel Atkins, a Moab 17-year-old who spends as much time on the river as I do on the subway. She and I shuttle armloads of food from the bank of refrigerators, hundreds of pounds of frozen steaks, chicken, fruit, pasta. We pack them in giant coolers lined with solid blocks of ice, enough to keep it Maytag-cool for five days in the desert.

The next morning, a few miles south of Moab, we launch on a concrete ramp into the Colorado. I hold onto the line as the trailer backs into the water. But instead of easing the rafts off one-by-one, the river grabs all three, with me still clinging to 4,500 Mexico-bound pounds. I'm up to my armpits in river before the guides manage to get the whole package tamed and tied.

We rush through the final rigging and form a bucket brigade to pitch the last bags aboard. Ariel is thigh-deep in mud by the time we finish. I try not to grunt pathetically every time I catch a bag.

Sarah arrives with the guests. Our 13 wards pile out of a white van, a few thirtysomethings among a group that is mostly early-retiree types, fit, affluent and anonymous. "You actually get to know people pretty well by the end," Ariel assures me in a whisper. I've been through many a group tour's first day as a guest. There is a difference, I will learn, in being an employee.

We'll follow the Colorado for 96 serpentine river miles, from Moab to the upper tip of Lake Powell. The early stretch is a float trip. We tie all the rafts together in a "five-pack," with Sarah driving the whole kit forward with the J-Rig outboard. Only after a riverside lunch and a short hike up to some Anasazi ruins in a side canyon do we untie the rafts. The four guides unship their oars and begin a long pull downriver. Ariel and I jump onto the J-Rig, and Sarah gives it gas. We leave the passenger rafts behind. This is our chance to get a head start on setting up camp.

There aren't many campsites for 20 along this stretch of river. Sarah has been in shouted consultation with other trip leaders and knows which of the best spots are spoken for. If she pushes on we'll eat up too many of tomorrow's river miles and throw the whole schedule off. So she's heading without enthusiasm for a shade-free beach without any hiking trails.

"There's not a damn thing to do there," she laments. "I know a guide who calls it 'Shake and Bake' because it's brutally hot and there are fire ants. But we have no choice."

Loo With a View

We tie up to the high bluff and go immediately into longshoreman mode. First to come off are five heavy bales of folding canvas chairs -- one for each guest. We lug them across the molten white sand and set them up in a scrap of shade at the cliff base. We want them ready so the guests -- no doubt weary from the exertion of sitting right next to someone who is rowing a 1,500-pound raft for hours at a time -- can step ashore and head right to a seat in the shade and a good view of us unloading and setting up camp. These guests have paid a premium to do none of their own camp work. So by the time the passengers arrive, we have the eight family-size tents erected, all the insanely complicated cots assembled, the long dining table set for 13 and the portable kitchen ready to go.

Most importantly, the groover is standing by.

Nothing is more crucial to camp karma than the placement of the two portable toilets known as groovers. Much reflection is put into "groover feng shui," finding the spot that offers the perfect combination of seclusion and view. Ariel and I haul two military ammo boxes to a breezy grove of tamarisk bushes downriver of camp. One contains the groover itself, a steel box with an extremely secure lid. The other contains toilet paper, cleaning supplies and a detachable toilet seat. (The name groover comes from the days before they included the seat; you sat directly on the hard rims of the shot box, which left two deep grooves in your -- well, you get the idea).

The groover may be more comfortable these days, but it's no less terrifying to newbies. Sarah leads a tour of the facilities, which most of the guests approach with all the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner getting his first look at the electric chair. Sarah explains the hand-washing pump, the privacy sign and the proper disposition of Nos. One (in a bucket, which we will dump in the river) and Two (in the groover, which we will pack up and load onto the rafts). At least a couple of ladies from the South Carolina detachment (our largest group) look as though they have made a grave misjudgment in coming on this trip.

"They'll get over it," says Sarah. "They always do."

Sure enough, nature moves them inevitably toward, if not actually embracing the technology, at least making regular use of it. I know, because the thing gets a lot heavier as the trip goes on.

The guests retreat to their tents to regroup before wine and hors d'oeuvres. The crew, meanwhile, seizes a few minutes down on the rafts for a "boatmen's meeting," which is river-speak for a nightly chance to chug a beer and talk about the guests before the dinner rush. I expect a lot of catty gossip. Instead, the guides trade insights about the emerging dynamic and brainstorm on how hard to push this group, how much to coddle. But within a few minutes, we can see guests peering down at us expectantly from the bluff above. Break over.

I help rustle up chicken fajitas with Matt and Neely South, an Oregon-based guide down here on temporary duty. The others hand out guacamole, lead a few rounds of bocce ball and keep people distracted. Sarah works on a loose duty log for the next few days, giving each of us a mix of cooking, leading hikes, making camp and -- the most exhausting for these action figures -- socializing with the guests. Two of us, by turns, will eat at the big table. Otherwise, we scarf down our grub standing around the kitchen. When something good comes back uneaten from the table -- a heel of pound cake or some dregs of wine -- it's dubbed "guide kill" and we devour it. These 16-hour shifts burn a lot of calories.

Riding the Rapids

The next day is a pleasant repeat of the first. Another hike up another exquisite canyon is followed by another lunch in the riverside shade. But by late afternoon, nature exerts itself a bit. When Ariel, Sarah and I reach camp, we're fighting a relentless up-canyon gale. It flattens the chairs, flips tables and sandblasts our eyes.

Pitching a tent is impossible, and when the guests arrive, there's some disappointed grumbling that the only shelter is a clearing in the brush where we've set the chairs. To compensate, Sarah has us set up a beer and wine bar, lay out some munchies and rig a shower by hanging a plastic bag filled with warm water from a teepee frame of oars that guide Ben Bodily builds.

By the time we get the tents up, dinner is behind schedule and the boatmen's meeting is filled with warnings.

"I think they're a little bit edgy," Matt reports, having picked up snatches of tension from around the tents. "A lot of times, by the end of the day, people are tired. They want to get comfortable in their own space. Women particularly. They don't want to drink much water out here because it's a hassle to pee, so they get dehydrated. And southern women, especially, are used to not being dirty. They get irritable. Their husbands get irritable."

We make a point of being solicitous for the rest of the night.

"They'll feel better with dinner and wine," Sarah says.

Sure enough, the group's mood soars the next day as we get nearer the rapids, some of North America's biggest. We enter Cataract Canyon just below the confluence of the Green River inside Canyonlands National Park. The boats get livelier in the frisky water and we run our first genuine white water, a set of starter waves called Brown Betty. We pull over at a spectacular campsite below a vermilion wall, where it's Ben and Luke's turn to cook. I comment to the guests on my raft: "We trust these guides with our lives on the river, then they get out and make lunch for us. It's as if your airline pilot came out of the cockpit to serve you your sandwich."

The next morning, I act as sweep hiker for a few die-hards who opt to climb several hundred feet up to the canyon rim. We get back down just before lunch, sweaty and exalting, ready for some serious white water. I'm pumped.

"Steve," says Sarah in a serious voice. "One of the guests is complaining about you."

Apparently, one of the women traveling solo finds me overly "sarcastic and irreverent." She couldn't give Sarah many examples, but she definitely didn't like my pilot-serving-sandwiches remark. Her husband (who is not on the trip) is a pilot and she took my comment as a general dig against airline food.

Suddenly I'm not so pumped. Complaining? About me? It's not that I'm blessed with gigolo charm or anything, but it's been at least since high school that I annoyed anyone so much they felt the need to report me to the authorities. The woman in question struck me as pleasant and good-humored. Our exchanges -- to my mind -- have been brief, polite and superficial. I'm utterly baffled, and totally bummed.

"You're a guide now, dude," says Matt when I tell him about it. "You're right in it. It's all about how things are perceived out here. I've had people get attitude at something they overhear me say to someone else!"

At any rate, there's no time to stew. We're just above Mile Long, Big Drop, Ben Hurt, Capsize and the other star rapids of the Colorado. The guests are much quieter as they saddle up. Neely is certified in Oregon but not Utah, so she can't carry paying passengers. "You and Ariel can go with Neely," Sarah says. "She can't take people." We're not people, we're swampers.

Beating the rapids makes all the difference. All the guides, Neely included, nail their runs through the thundering sluices, pulling hard to skirt the whirlpools, boldly threading the blink-and-you're-fish-food gaps between the rocks and falls. This is what guests pay for, and guides live for. We climb out at the base of the last major rapid, Powell's Pocket Watch, soaked and electrified. The South Carolinians are whooping and high-fiving; all the tension has been replaced by drenched pride.

I find myself face to face with the woman who doesn't like me. I take off my dripping hat and apologize for anything I'd said that offended her. She gives me a big smile and hugs my neck. Nothing like facing nature's fury together to make everything right, I guess.

Fly-By Guide

The rest is epilogue. The last night is marked by crazy costumes and a bawdy version of "Proud Mary" performed by the South Carolinians. On the last morning, we rope all the rafts together, set up the stoves and have breakfast on the river. That gives us time for a hike up to a canyon swimming hole and still lets us make our rendezvous at the Lake Powell ramp.

It's midafternoon as we putt-putt into the still black waters of the lake. Houseboats and super-bridges rule over this tamed stretch of the river. We see trucks on the highway and watch a plane land at the air strip. We're back in the bubble.

The paying guests will fly to Moab on two small planes, a dazzling dragonfly scoot back through our canyon route. The guides will ride four hours in the truck, followed by the chores of de-rigging back at the warehouse. Sarah tells me there are often spare seats in the plane if I'm interested in taking a short route home. She does it herself sometimes.

But after all this, how could I abandon my fellows in favor of a little high-end comfort? Surely, for a real guide, there's only one response to this insulting offer.

It was a spectacular flight.

If you'd like to be a paying customer on Abercrombie and Kent's five-day Cataract Canyon trip, there are departures into September at $1,550, plus $120 for the scenic flight back. Next year's trips begin in May (800-323-7308, www.abercrombiekent.com). Several companies offer less luxurious and less expensive runs on western rivers. O.A.R.S, for example, offers six days on the San Juan River for $912 (800-346- 6277, www.oars.com).

Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat on www .washingtonpost.com.

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