Department of English

Fall 2008 Edition

Paddle Faster! I Hear Banjos!

Walter Gould
Expressive 1010 1st Place
Professor: Dr. Bryce Christensen

“Welcome to the Snake River! My name is Walter, and I’ll be your guide for the day. We’ll be traveling eight miles today, but before we get too much further down the river, there are a few things that we need to talk about.”

I pause in my introduction for a moment in order to be sure that I have my crew’s attention. They turn to face me, wearing their matching life jackets and faithfully holding their paddles in hand. They are a typical group of summer guests: a few families with a couple of kids each, a handful of college-aged girls, and some slightly inebriated businessmen from a conference that’s being held at a hotel in town. All together, they fill the boat to capacity.

There is an almost palpable mix of excitement and anxious anticipation on board. Once the parents have ushered their children’s' attention toward where I’m standing in the back of the raft, I continue my safety briefing:

“If you fall into the water, you should grab your paddle, and then float on your back with your feet pointed downstream. This way, you can see any obstacles down river, and if you can’t swim around one, you can use your legs to push off of it. I hope everyone is already aware that their feet make much better shock absorbers than their heads.”

There is a nervous titter of laughter, and a few hands shoot up. I nod toward the nearest hand, already knowing what’s coming. A younger mother of two asks, “Um, I’m sorry. Could you remind me of your name again?”

“My name is Walter,” I say. “And I am your fearless leader.”

She smiles and asks, “Well, Walter, how often do people fall out of the raft?”

I return her smile and assure her that while it’s fairly frequent for guests to fall overboard in the bigger rapids toward the end of this section of river. We will all arrive at the boat ramp safely as long as everyone listens carefully to my instructions. I hurry through the rest of my safety introduction, covering self rescue, throw bags, and how to haul people back into the raft. After a brief lesson on river commands and paddling technique, I make sure to get everyone’s attention one last time.

“I need for y’all to listen up for me again, please.” I say, raising my voice above the sound of the river. My crew senses the seriousness in my tone and most of them turn and face me attentively. The group of businessmen riding up front continues to joke with each other and ignores me. My tone is more forceful as I address them again. After all, what I have to say could save their lives.

“Hey guys! I’m being serious. This is really important. I need your attention back here.”

They turn my way, and shoot me a look of annoyance before putting their conversation on hold.

“I know that some of you may feel safe about swimming in the river, but I need for you to understand that there are certain hazards out here that are dangerous and make rescue nearly impossible. Unless it can’t be avoided, I’m going ask that you remain in the boat until you have let me know that you’re planning on taking a swim. There are a few places on this section of river that are not safe for swimmers, so I may ask for you to wait a few minutes before jumping in. Plus, I’d rather not get in trouble for not coming back with all of the life jackets and paddles.”

My last remark seems to lighten the mood, but I notice an all-too-familiar attitude of dismissal and superiority from one of the passengers up toward the bow. He makes a few comments under his breath to the rest of the men in his group, and they laugh in my direction. I deduce that he must be their boss, and make a mental note to keep an eye on them.

I stress the point about swimming one last time, and then spend the next few minutes joking around with the crew and answering questions. A young woman wearing blue shorts with UCLA written in gold across one leg asks an unfortunately common question:

“Will we end up in the same place we started?”

Raucous laughter erupts from the group of men in the front of the raft, and I decide to pretend that I didn’t hear her question in order to spare her further embarrassment in the explanation that rivers do not flow in circles.

I answer a few more questions about the mountains and local wildlife and then begin giving commands to the crew as we prepare to enter the first set of rapids. Once we enter the waves though, most of the people on board are too distracted by the roiling water to even hear my commands, so I am forced to guide the raft through the current with the oars alone- not that I’m caught off guard by this, though, as I am often compelled to steer the raft through these waves by myself. Novices have a way of becoming petrified in their first set of rapids.

As we near the end of the rapid, one of the men from the group in the bow is shoved out of the raft by one of his peers and vanishes beneath the waves momentarily before popping up alongside us, gasping for breath. I scramble to ship the oars and grab the man’s life jacket in time to haul him back into the boat. In turn, the guest who knocked him overboard is then thrown into the water by his boss, whose laughter can be heard easily over the sound of the whitewater. Another passenger springs into action and helps me haul the first of the ejected businessmen back over the thwart, and the three of us fall in a heap on the floor of the raft.

“All back!” I yell, calling for my crew to paddle backwards to buy some time while I untangle myself from the pile of people on the bottom of the boat. I free myself as quickly as possible and return to the oars, shouting the command to paddle forward. We race to catch up to the second ejectee, who is being swept unknowingly toward a dangerous river hazard called a hydraulic.

Hydraulics, also known as “holes” are formed when water pours over the top of something submerged – usually an underwater shelf or a large rock – and re-circulates back toward the submerged object, creating a horizontal whirlpool. Holes can be very difficult to escape and are especially dangerous for swimmers.

We are able to snatch up our rogue passenger before he is swallowed up by the hole, and I maneuver the raft to the bank for a momentary stop in some still water for a very stern conversation. I am able to convince the developmentally-arrested men in the front of the boat to save their antics for later in the evening when they are no longer in my care.

The rest of the trip goes surprisingly smoothly, and at the boat ramp I thank my crew for a job well done. After snapping a few pictures with the some of the passengers, I bid them all goodbye and jump in a van that’s waiting for me at the top of the ramp. My guests board a bus back to Jackson Hole, and I return to the starting ramp to do it all over again. As we meander down the winding road that leads back to the beginning of my next trip, I pray for an entire crew of girls from UCLA.