Friday, January 22, 2010

My early days on the "T"

I fired up the wayback machine this week and came up with a few reminiscences of my river guiding career.

Back in 1983, several years before there were self-bailing Avon rafts, the Tuolumne was considered one of the more difficult commercially run rivers in the West. In fact, our company’s name is taken from one of the original “Big Drops” - Clavey Falls.

Back then we ran 16’ gear boats piled high bow and stern with duffle bags loaded on plywood decks. There were no drybags. Everybody put their personal gear in nylon duffle bags and then we wrapped everything up with big blue tarps (for maximum water resistance). When you were done rigging, the pile was so high often it required the guide to turn the boat sideways or stand up on the slant board frame just to see downstream. A couple of coolers were slung in the cockpit and the center section was left open so that you could bail what water you could reach out of the bilge. We’d carabiner two 5 gallon buckets next to the seat for bailing purposes. Two buckets were required because sometimes you’d lose one in the frantic effort to lighten the boat by as many bucketfuls in as short a time as possible. Believe me, you did not want to be without a bucket!

On a typical trip, we might run one or two paddle rafts, a couple of stern loaded oar boats with passengers in the front, and a couple of the aforementioned gear boats. You had to plan your routes to avoid as much whitewater as possible, keeping as much water out of the bilge as you could. Nonetheless, quite often in the middle of a rapid you would find yourself caroming half out of control, bilge full of water and straining to see over that load.

The Forest Service on the “T” requires that a guide run the river top to bottom at least three times before taking commercial passengers. Hence, the gear boat is often run by a “training guide”. Essentially a “training guide” was somebody who was rowing a heavily-laden boat, down a river they don’t know well, and not getting paid for it. As a second-year guide in 1983, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity.

Things may have changed since then, I don’t know. But back then the more experienced guides literally threw everything and anything they didn’t want to carry on your load. Instruction for rapids included the following:

“Keep up, follow me, and don’t get stuck”.

Because you were rowing a boat by yourself, you needed to make sure you didn’t get stuck.

Early on in the trip, at a rapid called Nemesis, you have two choices:

One is to to run left at the bottom and risk getting royally stuck.

Or two, run what we used to call Airplane Turn where if you did it right you pivoted your raft down a chute, not getting stuck. If you missed a stroke, you would end up hopelessly wrapped around the entrance rock.

I remember seeing a photo on the cover of National Geographic magazine of just such a wrap on that very rock. Fortunately, I never lost an oar or missed a stroke there. Later on, after qualifying as a lead guide and after self-bailing rafts came along I decided I never had to try that move again.

The most challenging rapid on the Tuolumne, the one it is really known for, is formed just downstream of where the Clavey river comes in. The route over Clavey Falls is hard to read from the river, and so requires a look from shore. At high water it’s difficult to scout right, as that requires a hard pull across the current that’s much stronger because of the Clavey coming in at that point. So at high water, you scout left and at lower levels, scout right.

Prior to my first training trip, I had seen the river twice; once at low water, and once at high water. Naturally the level was right in middle of the two extremes for my first crack at rowing it myself. Our lead guide decided we would scout right.

In addition to his minimal approach to instruction, he felt that training guides should be able to secure their boat with no assistance. So landing upstream of Clavey Falls meant you first made sure that your stern line was unfurled and laying on top of the load. Then, after pulling as hard as you can, you jump over the load, grab the line and leap for the shore right before the raft hits. Miss your timing and the boat bounces off of shore, and you’re hanging on for dear life-with visions in your head of the fully loaded raft dragging you over the falls.

If you’ve done it right, as the boat hits shore, you wrap the rope around your waist and hunker down in a body belay. Later on, when I began training guides on the “T” their boats would come in last with assistance from the crew already on shore. Call me soft if you will, but we never had anyone dragged downstream by his or her overloaded boats anymore.

These days, my guess is that when new guides arrive at Clavey Falls, the more experienced among them show them possible routes, things to be aware of, and probably have them watch a boat or two “do it right” before shoving them off. A more callous lead guide would make a training guide go first, “so we can be behind you in case you screw up!”

Our lead guide that day is probably thought of very fondly by his mother. But I don’t personally recall any fond feelings for him as I untied my boat, pushed off by myself, and quickly clambered up and over my load. I grabbed the oars (heavy solid ash oars) and looked down at my hands - shaking. With just a few strokes to clear the shore, I felt the current pushing me towards the falls before I was ready. I was not really sure where the route was—after all, I was the lead boat on our trip now, with no one to follow.

I struggled to pivot the overloaded craft sideways so that I could see downstream. Water was sloshing about in the bilge making the boat even more unwieldy—I’d forgotten to bail it before shoving off. Here comes the falls! Time to straighten it out now and brace...(I can’t really see ahead of me as there is this huge blue tarp full of camp gear and our passenger’s worldly possessions in my way).

In an instant I am at the bottom of the falls and my boat is totally full of water. There’s no time to bail. Here comes the hole! (I’d heard that if a raft hits that hole dead center, it stops abruptly, rotates sideways and goes over in mere seconds--something I’d learn firsthand later in my career.) There’s no chance I’m going to make the pull to the green highway - a nice tongue of beautiful water marking the border of that seething beast - the route you’re supposed to take.

It doesn’t matter. My boat is so loaded with water that it’s gushing back over from the bilge into the river (a classic “Grand Canyon swamp”). All I can do is haul on the right oar with everything I’ve got and hope to straighten it out before plunging in. And within the next moment, my boat and I are both into and out of Clavey hole. Completely out of control now, I drop sideways down the next drop and shoot into an eddy. And bail. And bail and bail and bail. 5 gallons, 10 gallons, 15....

Finally my boat is empty. The other boats fly by, passengers busily bailing and hooting and hollering. A thumbs up from my lead guide, and it’s off to camp we go. He gives me that look and I can hear it in my mind: “Keep up, follow me and don’t get stuck. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to gather lots of firewood before camp, because we don’t use a stove and trainees are in charge of the cooking fire”.