The River Wild

For River Rats and Amateurs Alike, There's No Thrill Quite Like Riding the Rapids
| By Larry Olmsted | From The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

The Bío-bío. The Zambezi. The Omo. The middle fork of the Salmon. The Tuolumne and the Tatshenshini. These names conjure up adventure, images of exotic lands far, far away. For river rafters, they are Holy Grails, the Everests and McKinleys of white water. Yet as the world becomes smaller, the foreign more commonplace, these surging, boiling waters filled with wild rapids beckon first-timers along with the most hard-core river rats.

Riding the rapids has been aptly described as a wet roller coaster. After miles of calm, serene river, on the horizon appears a point where the river seems to end -- a drop in elevation that causes white water. As you near it, the water seems to be boiling, throwing sheets of spray into the air. The most extreme rapids can be heard before they are seen, the roaring force of millions of gallons of turbulent water colliding with rocks, forming swirling whirlpools, high waves and conflicting currents.

As the raft enters the rapids, the bow rides up waves and then crashes down into the troughs and, as on a roller coaster, you feel the drops in the pit of your stomach. As the raft crashes through the wave tops, walls of water liberally spray over the bow, dousing all aboard. In the angriest confluences the rafts are lifted on edge, or stood on their noses almost vertically, or bounced to and fro, seemingly powerless in the grip of mother nature. Some rapids form "wave trains" -- a series of big breakers running one after another, hurtling passengers up and over, up and down, like a bucking bronco. In seconds that seem like hours, the rapids end and the charging raft returns to a near standstill, drifting idly again while smiles spread and heart rates drop. All eyes turn downriver eagerly scouting for the next wild ride.

The sport of river rafting was fueled by the wide availability of surplus military-issue rafts after the Second World War. These replaced the homemade boats used by explorers and adventurers, and in a few years inflatable rafts were commonplace on rivers across the United States. Soon private manufacturers got into the act, technology and skills improved, and commercial river rafting, once limited to the Colorado and a handful of other Western rivers, swept the globe.

Like other adventure sports, various forms of rafting can be found. Some fans of the sport are content to drift through stunning scenery and experience nature firsthand, while adrenaline junkies travel the globe looking for more and bigger white water. Some rafters take an active role in paddling, while others leave the work up to guides. Many care more for the camaraderie in scenic locales than for rapids. The only thing rafters have in common is their love of the river.

"Wild rivers are Earth's renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning," Richard Bangs wrote in his book Whitewater Adventure. "And wild rivers bring out the renegade in us, enticing us to leave behind all that we've been taught and to let ourselves surrender to that special symphony. And when we hear that music, we know that it is a secret the river is sharing, a knowledge that the clearest way into the universe is downstream."

Bangs is the Edmund Hillary of rafting, largely responsible for globalizing the sport, taking it from the Colorado River to every corner of the Earth. "I was swept away by the concept of rafting as a gentle way to access the wilderness," he says, recalling a stint in 1969 as a river guide in the Grand Canyon. "It is hours of reflective solitude interrupted by seconds of thrilling adrenaline rushes." Bangs has been rafting ever since, pioneering new routes down untraveled rivers.

Thrill seekers should be forewarned that no matter how wild the river, its length or drop, most of the time spent rafting consists of idle floating, watching scenery pass by at a pace slightly faster than walking. The rivers chosen for commercial rafting trips are showcases for stunning natural beauty, from the towering walls of the Grand Canyon to sightings such as Alaskan grizzlies fishing on riverbanks.

"On some of our trips, if you're a white-water junkie, the river itself is the reason you're there," says Mark Campbell of Mountain Travel-Sobek, the renowned outfitter launched by Bangs. "On others, the river is simply a highway to take you into areas you otherwise couldn't go."

Rafting choices are as varied and endless as the rivers themselves. Float trips are just that -- placid journeys adrift in the current through natural settings. The Tatshenshini River in Alaska and Canada's Yukon, for instance, draws legions of loyal devotees despite having a dearth of major rapids. The reason: it's a 100-mile trip through canyons, close to moose, wolves and grizzlies, and through a forest of icebergs calving from glaciers that line the mouth of Alaska's Alsek Bay. Wyoming's Snake River twists through beautiful Grand Teton National Park, a delightful float trip that rewards passengers with superlative scenery yet never encounters any remotely dangerous rapids, remaining a sanguine Class I for nearly 50 miles. Four-year-olds make this trip.

"I've stepped back from the 'adventure' of rafting," says Chris Haines, a retired contractor from Columbus, Ohio. A certifiable river rat, Haines has run the must-do, big-name rivers all over the world, starting with the fabled Zambezi in 1984. "It began on a whim when a friend called and said, 'Meet me in Zambia, we're rafting the Zambezi.'" Haines had never been on a raft, let alone in a river approaching the Class V rapids of the Zambezi -- some of the fiercest white water in the world. (White-water rivers are rated Class I, for calmest water, to Class VI, for highly dangerous. Class V is usually the most extreme conditions that nonexpert rafters can attempt.) Since then, Haines has descended the Colorado, West Virginia's Gauley, Chile's legendary B"o-b"o and rivers in Alaska, Pakistan, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Still, he insists thrill seeking is a thing of his past. "Class V doesn't matter to me too much anymore," he says. "River rafting is a great way to see the countryside, taking more and better gear than you ever could on your back. If you don't like the scenery, it changes every few minutes."


Gear is a big part of rafting. While there are plenty of white-water day trips (a great way for novices to get their feet wet before signing on for longer journeys), all major river trips are overnights, and that means camping. If memories of Boy Scout backpacking trips and freeze-dried food horrify you, fear not. River camping is a far cry from roughing it.

Surprisingly, the majority of time on a white-water rafting trip is spent on land. Guides set ashore in the late afternoon to set up camp and prepare dinner while it's still daylight. As guests crack beers, light cigars and get comfortable, the guides assemble sophisticated kitchen equipment from the endless array of specialized gear tucked into the rafts. "At night, our guides turn into chefs," jokes George Wendt, owner of Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (OARS), a leading international trip outfitter and specialist in Grand Canyon trips, based in Angels Camp, California. While many guests are content to read or talk, rafts carry diversions ranging from horseshoes to boccie to volleyball.

On sandy beaches and pristine riverbanks all over the world, rafters feast on filet mignons, legs of lamb and salmon steaks, and wash them down with wine and beer. First light wakes campers in their comfortable tents or, if the mood strikes them, under the stars. The smell of freshly brewed coffee draws guests to the dining area where blueberry pancakes, omelets, French toast and frying bacon fortify them for the day to come.

The rivers, the scenery and the rapids get people on rafting trips. The fine food, the secluded wilderness campsites and the company bring them back, over and over again.

"There was a point where we camped right at the base of a glacier," recalls Steve Wilcox, a bank executive from Chicago. "I had brought my personal Martini shaker on the trip because I was determined to make a drink with 10,000-year-old ice." Wilcox never would have enjoyed this unique cocktail had it not been for the camaraderie that attracts many to the sport. "The first time I went on a raft trip was when I picked up a trip at a benefit auction," he says. "It was on the lower Salmon and Snake rivers, and it was great. River rafting is a great equalizer and all the guests are in the same boat, so to speak. I'd never met any of these people before and we had a great time. The only problem was it was too short. We all decided to get together the next year for a longer trip. We've been going for five years now. It gets me away from the fun of working in a bank every day." Wilcox and the onetime strangers who have become friends have run the Firth, in Canada's Northwest Territories, the Colorado, the middle fork of the Salmon, and the Klinaklini.

Martinis, fine food, beer and wine are not the only pleasures to be enjoyed on the river. Since you are never indoors, there is no one to protest the enjoyment of a few good cigars. Stuffed into the waterproof army surplus ammo boxes that are de rigueur for storing cameras and other personal gear on a raft, cigars are popular accessories for river rafting, even part of the sport's history.

"Back in the early days of rafting, in the late 1960s and early '70s, we had a fine tradition," Bangs recalls. "We'd get to Lava Falls, the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon, and at that time we weren't allowed to take clients down Lava. They would get out and walk around the rapids; and the guides, after strapping everything down, would light a big cigar at the top. Before the best route through Lava was figured out, it used to be a horrific, momentous descent. If you still had that cigar lit when you came out at the end, it was a heroic feat. It meant you were a good guide."


Rapids may not be essential to a good river trip, but it is the thundering white water that attracts many rafters, and the adrenaline pumping after a tumultuous descent that leaves memories. Nowhere in the world can so much white water be run as safely by first-timers as on the Colorado River in Arizona. There are rivers that are wilder and more exotic, but there is only one Grand Canyon, and the Colorado flows through it, nearly a mile below the surface of the surrounding plateaus. "The Colorado through the Grand is simply the premier American white water," says Steve Jermanok, an author of outdoor guides such as Frommer's Great Outdoor Guide to New England. Some 160 individually named rapids lie along 277 miles of river in Grand Canyon National Park, making for a variety of rafting experiences.

"The Grand is excellent, very safe big water," says Bangs. In his book Rivergods, Bangs recalls seeing a home movie of the river for the first time: "As the screen flickered, a spell was cast over me. I was mesmerized: the waves seemed oceanic, ten times the size of anything I'd encountered…The scale was overwhelming -- the canyon walls, the crests and troughs, the eddies, the wet grins…I drove home with a monomaniacal craving: I had to run the Colorado, or die."

Commercial rafting was largely born in the Grand Canyon, and the Colorado has probably been run longer than any river on Earth. As a result, guides know it like the backs of their hands, know where to enter the rapids and what line to take through them. While early explorers wrecked boats and lost lives on the Colorado, today guests without rafting experience shout with glee as the waters of Lava Falls and Crystal Rapid spray over them. Clocked at speeds up to 35 mph, Lava is considered the fastest navigable water in the United States, and it is the highlight of the trip.

The steep walls of the Canyon make access to the river limited, so rafters can enter or leave the river at only three points. Rafting the length of Arizona, between Lee's Ferry, just below the Glen Canyon dam at the Utah border, and Lake Mead at the Nevada border, is the world's classic river trip and takes 12 to 16 days. Ask anyone who's done it, and chances are you will encounter the phrase "trip of a lifetime." The upper, middle and lower parts of the Canyon can be run separately, or in combination, in trips ranging from three to 10 days. River permits are difficult to obtain and most commercial Grand Canyon trips sell out nearly a year in advance. Experienced rafters organizing their own trips routinely wait a decade or more for permits.

Besides the Grand Canyon, numerous domestic rafting trips are worthy of acclaim. Notable day trips include the American River in California and the Gauley in West Virginia, which Jermanok describes as "a real screamer, Class V all the way. You just hang on and hope for the best." Both can also be run on overnight trips. Longer classics include the Tuolumne in California's Sierra Nevada region and the middle fork of the Salmon in Idaho.

Just as white water seemingly boils in the rivers, it simmers in the blood of rafters, many of whom pursue a wish list of thundering destinations. Africa's Zambezi not only offers prolonged Class V rapids, but a wildlife safari along the shore, as rafters float past hippos, crocodiles and antelopes. Before it was dammed, Chile's B"o-b"o was considered the world's toughest rafting adventure. Even in its present "calmer" state (the river formerly held Class VI rapids), the Bío-bío still boasts Class V white water that has drawn pilgrims from around the globe.

"My wife bought me a rafting trip from Rivers & Oceans [now part of Butterfield & Robinson] for my 50th birthday, and I've been hooked ever since," says Bob McGillivray, a dealer in rare stamps from Vancouver. Butterfield & Robinson is a high-end outfitter renowned for its top-notch equipment and first-rate food.

While McGillivray qualifies as a white-water fanatic, his approach is a bit different. He rafts the same river each year, Canada's Chilko. "It's big white water, beautiful scenery and usually a great group of people."

Rafting trips offer three options. Oared rafts are rowed by a guide, who sits in the middle of the boat and operates a pair of oars like a rowboat. These trips are the most stable craft, and since the guide does all the work, these are suitable for novices, even on the world's roughest rivers. Some veteran rafters prefer oared boats, because they can relax and enjoy the ride or just take in the scenery. In calmer waters, guides will often let passengers take a stab at rowing.

Paddle rafts are the most participatory boats because every passenger pulls his own weight. Using unmounted paddles like a canoe, rafters row while the guide, usually in the rear, steers and gives paddling commands. Passengers in paddle rafts are more likely to end up in the drink, but have more control over their destiny. Many hard-core rafters feel this is the only way to go. But most outfitters will not take passengers without Class IV experience on Class V trips. Even Class IV rapids should not be attempted in paddle rafts by novices.

Dories are wooden boats, reminiscent of the ones used by the early explorers who first succeeded in running the Grand Canyon. As in an oared raft, the guide is in control. The difference is that while inflatable rafts plow through waves, dories ride up and over them, crashing through the rapids, giving the most intense experience possible. A dory is more likely to sustain damage than a raft is if it hits a rock, so dories are run only on high water volume rivers such as the Colorado.

Paddle and oared rafts are available on most popular rivers; some trips use both so guests can have different experiences each day. Similarly, in the Grand Canyon, many outfitters run dory trips in addition to raft trips. On almost all rivers, outfitters also make kayaks available, so guests can try several modes of transportation. In calm, flat water, even first-timers can give kayaking a try, while guides will allow only experienced kayakers to shoot the rapids.

For some adrenaline junkies, running Class V rapids on famous rivers is not enough. For them, rafting offers a unique option found in few other sports: a place in history. While explorers are running out of peaks to climb and places to discover, there are still an abundance of rivers yet to be run. There are still "first descents."

The first-descent craze traces its roots to May 1869, when one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell and nine other men departed from Wyoming's Green River to do what no one had done before: run the Colorado's thousand-plus miles. At the time there were no inflatable rafts, just poorly made wooden boats. White-water rowing technique was nonexistent, and Powell's strategy was to run the rapids backwards to better row against the current, an approach that today is regarded as truly backwards. As they descended into the heart of the canyon, he wrote in his journal:

"We are now ready to start our way down the Great Unknown. ?We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but ripples, and we but pygmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture about things."

More than three months later Powell emerged from the Canyon, having experienced a journey so arduous that three of his crew abandoned the boats midway, preferring to walk out of the then-uncharted Canyon rather than face more rapids. (They were never seen again.) Powell, on the other hand, immediately vowed to do the trip again.

Roughly 100 years later, Colorado river guide Bangs decided that the growing phenomena of white-water rafting could be taken abroad; he formed a company to organize international river trips. Since then, Bangs has made 35 first descents and to this day, Mountain Travel-Sobek specializes in such trips, offering a select few customers the opportunity to experience unknown rapids once or twice a year.

The trips are limited to those with extensive white-water experience, and are far cries from some of the other rafting and "soft adventure" travel packages available. By their very nature, first descents involve the unknown. While the guides on the Colorado know every rapid intimately, these waters are entirely unexplored. "We've run 65 first descents," says Mountain Travel-Sobek's Campbell. "This goes on all the time, and we have a following that wants to go on these trips. You have to have an expeditionary spirit."

You also have to be able to afford it, and be ready to take a lot of time off on very short notice. Since first descents are done in regions where the rafting companies have no offices, no warehouses and no local staff, and the length of each trip is unknown, they cost several times more than an ordinary trip, which averages $200 to $250 per day. Passengers may reach the rivers by pickup trucks or on the backs of yaks. Still, plenty of rafting adventurers sit by the phone ready to go with Mountain Travel-Sobek or other outfitters.

"Unlike other trips, no one knew what was around the corner," says Jermanok, who went on Rivers & Oceans' first commercial descent of the Klinaklini river in western Canada. "We didn't know what to expect and often things went awry, but it just added to the sense of adventure. We truly experienced the wilderness, camping where there was no one else, where no one else had been. It was an awesome trip."

First descents are the pinnacle of the sport, reserved for a cadre of skilled and experienced white-water rafters. Many of the rivers that were considered unnavigable until rafters conquered them in recent years are now standard trips found in any number of outfitters' catalogs. Ethiopia's Omo River would not see a successful raft trip until 1973; the famed Bío-bío wasn't run until 1978; and the Zambezi, a feather in the cap of rafters everywhere, remained unconquered until 1981. Until three years ago, the Klinaklini hadn't been mastered. Today, these rivers are accessible to virtually anyone with the conditioning, experience, cash and desire to see exotic locales from the unhurried perspective of a raft.


Larry Olmsted is a freelance writer based in Vermont.