Bill the river guide was a welcome contrast. I’d spent the last day and a half traveling on a church retreat with a couple of deacon chaperones and a dozen squeaky-clean teenagers. So when we unloaded on the bank of the New River and met the man who would be steering our raft, I sidled close to him. Bill looked like a good guy, relaxed and confident, yet something about him felt edgy. He was old enough to be my father, but his cut, posture and handlebar mustache made him more like the unmarried, childless uncle that breezes into town to sleep on the couch and drink all your dad’s beer.
I wanted to tell Bill that church retreats were not my thing. I was no fan of being bushwhacked with bible verses, and found it near impossible to muzzle my foul, adolescent mouth. But when some of my more-pious pals told me about their plans to raft the New River Gorge in West Virginia, I quickly converted and jumped on the church bus. There’s nothing better than floating down a river. I’d spent enough summer days canoeing and inner-tubing the Mohican near my hometown in central Ohio to know how a day on the water can be carefree, the type of thing a teenage boy conforms to with ease.
Bill introduced us to the river with a couple of good, rollicking rapids and a splash fight with another raft. But as a hissing roar intensified downriver, our guide’s tone changed. Bill announced that our puny sixperson raft was approaching the Double Z, a class-V rapid with balls. It was named after the serpentine path we’d have to cut to avoid the snaggletooth boulders and giant holes strangling this stretch of the river. Bill quickly reviewed our arsenal of strokes and maneuvers. “Good,” he said, firmly pulling his faded ball cap into place. “If you go in the drink, point your feet downstream, don’t let go of your paddle, and hang tight. Someone will fetch you up.”
We clutched our paddles, jammed our sneakered feet under the gunnels, and dipped down the tongue of the rapid. Bill barked above the thunder of shattering waves, “All ahead!!!” We dug into the tumultuous rage, our paddles catching more air than water. We lurched over a dip and bucked up hard enough on a recoiling wave to send a few paddlers into the center of the boat. We went into a slow spin. A leviathan rock crept toward our port side. I waited with paddle poised, confident that Bill would shout a command and slip us past the ragged obstacle.
That’s when I heard it: “All back paddle!” The voice was very wrong, high-pitched, the order screamed like a question. I looked back. Bill was gone. In his place, a soaked, panicked deacon had taken the helm with the charge of seeing us through Hell’s own stretch of the New River. All I could think was, God is dead.
River guides are everything to the recreational paddler. They promise an intoxicating blend of joy and danger. They demand physical exertion and encourage languid rest. They protect, lead and sometimes even provide sustenance. Within the first minutes of the relationship, the paddler develops a burgeoning respect for the guide. It might happen while watching him or her lash down gear, their hands quickly pulling off complex knots without their eyes following the work. Perhaps it’s when he or she covers the rules of the river with calm confidence, but can’t disguise an eagerness for getting back on the water, although they most likely have covered its length a hundred times. Whether it’s on the banks or out in the current, the river guide ends up with a commanding degree of respect and sometimes more.
Yet, these folk are a riddle. For all their knowledge and skill, they come across as riffraff, some hybridization of Huckleberry Finn and a California surfer. The river defines their look. All their clothes are quick-dry and cut for maximum reach and flexibility: short shorts and sleeveless tops. The sun has darkened every inch of exposed skin. Most display pale webbed patterns atop their feet when they kick off their sandals. River men and women alike are strong. The power is most evident in the shoulders, round as wood knots but fluid as pistons. The hair is usually ruffled like it was dipped in the current and allowed to dry in place. Ponytails and braids are tied back tight, the head covered with a seasoned cap or visor. They are coarse, but courteous; grungy, but orderly. They are so uniformly rakish, roguish and tantalizing that they must all possess some closely guarded River Guide’s Manual. Probably resembles a tattered and defaced Boy Scout Handbook, chock-full of rules for dress, demeanor and arcane methods on how to evoke awe, envy and lust from the city folk.
Above all, river people have a relationship with their river. They know its bends and banks, the glassy flat and the sucking hole, its history and moods. They ply a world that is purely foreign to outsiders, a strange realm of water and rock. But a place that calls to us all. Rivers are in our dreams, our religions, our myths. Rivers are synonymous with movement, division and transition. The river is a watery womb, the baptismal promising rebirth and the causeway to the underworld. And it’s the river guide that takes us there. He or she is the boat person, the ferryman, the gatekeeper.
So when I looked back to the rear of the raft and didn’t see New River Bill, I was sure we were all going to die.
Our boat met the rock hard enough to send me into the lap of my friend sitting on the opposite gunwale. The craft bent briefly and started to groan like grinding molars as it shimmied up the rock. The current snatched the upstream side of the raft and started hammering it under. We were going to flip.
“Up! Up! Up!” the deacon shrieked, scrambling away from the swallowing waves.
Everyone else jumped or fell into center of the raft, now quickly filling, so it was like diving into a frothing cauldron.
Someone finally translated the dumbstruck deacon’s command. “High side! High Side!”
Remembering Bill’s sober lessons, we clawed ourselves atop, to where the neoprene was climbing up the rock. The raft leveled out and we slid past the obstacle.
Everyone bounced back into position and awaited the next command. The water in the raft was shin-deep and we moved sluggishly, less like floating and more like dragging. No commands came. The deacon had abandoned his post, throwing our fate to the will of the river. We immediately fell into a juggernaut wave trying to devour itself. With half the normal buoyancy, we smashed through the wave and took on another couple hundred gallons of water. Everyone gave up on paddling and hung onto something: rope, ammo box, neighbor. We hit one more rock, went sideways into a hole, and somebody took a paddle to the head.
The Double Z finally untangled itself and spit us out into an eddy where other boats were waiting. Our yellow raft resembled a cruising crocodile with more of it under the water than above. The center of the boat was a stew of river water, loose paddles, a sneaker and some drops of blood.
A spry guide from one of the other rafts leapt aboard and scampered down to the rear. Before we knew what was going on, he snatched a small bag off a D-ring and ferociously launched it into the river. A line of rope spilled out of the sack like the tail of a comet. The bag splashed down within a halfreach of Bill.
Our guide was floating in the current, facing downstream, paddle in his grip, grinning. He looked like he was captaining a submerged dory. He casually reached for the rope and his fellow river-man reeled him in. Bill pumped himself up onto the rear of the boat, stood on the edge and shook off the river like a dog. “Lost my hat,” he said, taking quick stock of his clients and the shape of his vessel. He smiled. “That was a damn good hat.”
After some bailing, we left the safety of the eddy. I stole looks at Bill while he checked on everyone and watched his strong hands gingerly tend to the head wound. There was more rough water to come; something called Dudley’s Dip just around the bend. Bill sat tall, scanning our path. The water dropped away ahead, a cloud of mist boiled over the void. His stare was calculating, his jaw tight. He swiped his paddle; two quick strokes straightened us out. The banks narrowed and we picked up speed. I should have been scared shitless, mumbling a prayer like the deacon. But my faith was in Bill, back there like a rudder. Damn, he was good. Badass.
He caught me staring. Taking his eyes off the river for only a second, he gave me a jaunty wink. I was smitten with a confusing awe.
At the end of the day at put out, with the rafts bunched on the beach and the buses idling with open doors, waiting to take us back to town, I slogged away from Bill and the river. I didn’t want to leave it all behind, whatever it was I had found that day. People started swapping stories in the bus, retelling the journey like it was nothing more than an amusement park ride. I silenced into a melancholic funk and watched Bill and the other guides sort paddles and life preservers.
Some kids dream of running away to the circus, or shooting for the stars as an astronaut. I sensed freedom and galaxies to explore in that river.
The emotional peaks and valleys left me with a puzzling headache. Only one thing to do: travel more rivers and encounter more of their guides so I could understand what I was feeling.
John wasn’t the best boatman in the four-raft flotilla, but that didn’t stop everyone from jockeying to get a spot on his raft. People wanted to be with John because he was crazy. He spoke in spasms, moved quickly in impulsive bursts and was fearless. His kind of crazy would most likely get him followed by a rent-a-cop in a shopping mall, possibly into a bar fight and definitely kicked out of a public library. But where his mania might land him in hot water in the cities and villages, on the Colorado River, deep in the trenches of the Grand Canyon, his lunacy was a dominant trait. John’s kind of crazy fueled a curious and open mind, unbounded energy and a thirst for adventure. Something told my brothers and me that we would see a different side of this river on John’s boat.
John’s backstory didn’t hurt his status either. A group of us stayed up late one night, talking around a lantern settled into the sand. With a warm breeze carrying the smell of water from where the Colorado churned over a small rapid down canyon, the conversation circled around other rivers and wild country.
Together the group listed off hundreds of riparian miles traveled: The Upper Hudson and Lower Youghiogheny; the Bear and Salmon; the Arkansas and American. Something happens when you get a group of guys sitting around talking about the outdoors in the dark, especially with the accompaniment of beer and whiskey. All storytelling funnels into an unannounced game of oneupmanship. It normally commences when someone introduces a degree of intensity: the height of a cliff, the length of a trail, the ferocity of a rainstorm. Amongst a group that consider themselves outdoorsmen, such a claim is akin to casting a gage down into the sand, daring the bold to take it up. Yarns were spun of out-skiing avalanches, narrowly avoiding lighting strikes and sleeping out in grizzly territory. I played up an encounter with a fearless porcupine in the Blue Ridge Mountains that was intent on ravaging my bag of trail mix.
John listened to all our bullshit, nodding and smiling. He sat leaning against a metal ice-chest, legs stretched out in the sand. When someone added humor to a tall tale John’s big, barrel chest would pulsate with cavernous laughter. The meager light from the lantern only darkened his red-brown face. He sported a shoelace thin braid. It hung to his waist in defiance of his receding hairline. His pigmentation and dark hair started rumors that maybe he was part Navajo, perhaps mestizo. In reality, John couldn’t have been more than a couple years either side of 30, but his sun-creased crow’s feet, well-worn hands and innocent brown eyes made his age impossible to peg.
The talk made it’s way around the circle and someone asked John what he did when he wasn’t running the Colorado.
“We wrap up around here in September,” he said, planting his can of beer into the sand so he could gesticulate freely. “That gives me enough time to wander around a bit before elk season up in Montana and Idaho.” He drew a squiggly line in the sand. (Could have been a northerly track or an antler.)
“So you hunt?” my brother asked after a long pause.
“Yeah, well not really,” John said, sweeping away his sand drawing with a bare foot. “I track and guide. I take hunters into the backcountry so they can bag a big elk. Mostly older guys from the Midwest and back East looking for a trophy. They pay pretty good.”
Maybe it was the beer, or the whispering lull of the Colorado that allowed my imagination to slip so easily to the romantic, but I painted a fantastic picture of John The Tracker. He was in buckskin, creeping low on a scrubby, snow-dusted hill trying to cut sign. His senses animal keen. On his hip, a big hunting knife with an elk bone handle. His hands tinted red from yesterday’s kill. At the close of the day, John The Tracker would ride his horse back into camp leading a bent mule, laboring under a load of meat, hide and rack. Davy Crockett, Grizzly Adams and Jeremiah Johnson would all salute Tracker John’s haul with a brotherly nod.
“In the early spring, I get back on the water,” John continued. “Not down here,” he said, flapping his hands at the black canyon walls. “The Snake. It’s wild. You got to wear a dry suit. Big hunks of ice in the water. Ran this one leg in a whiteout one year. Couldn’t see the tip of your paddle.” He paused again.
I went back to the imagination well. I saw John painted by the hand of Emanuel Leutze, the central figure in a revamped version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The Snake is frothing, shards of ice in the waves like rows of serrated teeth, passengers on the verge of panic, and John anchoring the whole thing. He’s there, erect as a mast, unflappable, one foot propped on an ice-chest.
“By the time that season ends, it’s time circle back down this way.” John stopped talking and took a drink of beer.
The group was silent, trumped. No one was willing to even try to take up the gage after John had wowed us, not with his story, but his existence.
Somewhere in the middle of John’s economical sharing, I had leaned in his direction and planted my hands in the soft sand. By the time he was done, I was practically at his feet in a repose normally seen on the covers of trashy romance novels, the ones with women fawning at the base of some paragon of a man. I loved John in that intoxicating moment.
This is my problem with river guides. I love them. I want to posses them, pull them close and collect all their secrets, their knowledge, but most of all their pure vitality. Out here, on the rivers, along the fringes of our trammeled world, they are alive in a way that makes them glow. It shines in their bronze flesh, wild hair, and courses across their solid shoulders. River people are a reminder of our older selves — explorers, pioneers, frontiersmen — holdouts from the time when every one of us had to have a personal relationship with our habitat. To boot, they are also the kids we were all anxious to outgrow, not knowing that things like puberty and responsibility euthanize the magic of wonderment, curiosity and wildness. Being these things, the river guide embodies a promise. That hidden youth and those lost ways of life are still out there and can be had by those willing to hack it out from where it’s buried. For that promise, I love the river guide.
Yet my real problem with river guides is that I hate them. Their life force, their contentedness, their freedom all make me sick. Sick because they show me and countless others what we might have been if only, somewhere back along the trail, we had meandered a bit. Daydreaming of people like New River Bill and John The Tracker makes the constraints of career, mortgage and domesticity ache just a little more. River people mock our open-24-hour, commuter lane, high-speed-connection way of life with their easier, more natural pace. Maybe if I could woo a river guide, he or she could tell me the secret to satisfaction, how he or she is so damned relaxed. I’d put the formula in a self-help book, sell it to a 100 million desperate souls.
I love the river guides as long as the river keeps us moving. But at the pullout, after I climb into the shuttle bus, and watch as they look forward to their next launch, I curse the river guide. My parting wave might as well be a middle finger. Damn you, river guide! You mock me with your very existence!
On the third day in the Grand Canyon, we came to a stretch of whitewater that promised to jostle us from our lazy moods brought on by hours of slow floating and geology lectures. I took this news lightly as it seemed nothing on this river could even begin to rock our craft. More barge than boat, our inflated fleet comprised four 20-foot-long rafts powered by outboard motors. The design of the vessel resembled a bloated hoagie flanked by two curling sausage-like pontoons. There was a steel deck settled into the center with hatches for ice-chests. Passengers sat on the deck, either leaning against the cushy walls or hunkered atop the ammo boxes. It was nearly impossible to even reach the water from the deck, so the idea of the river rising up with enough force to reach us seemed far-fetched. All previous rapids were rendered to ripples, steamrolled under our mass.
I sat at the base of the long line of lasheddown ammo boxes, a good six feet from the nose of the boat. A young lady sat atop the boxes directly behind me. She craned to the rear, “Is the next rapid bigger, John?”
“Crystal Rapid,” he answered, one hand on the throttle of the big outboard. “Not much bigger.” He bit back a grin.
The river banked to the right ahead and disappeared from view around a big sandstone wall. Everyone relaxed and chatted. Some fiddled with cameras. We glided past the wall and it suddenly sounded like someone had kicked open a jetliner door at 30,000 feet. Not more than a couple seconds away, the river channel dropped away and bounded back up into a quaking pyramidal wave.
“Hang on to something!” John shouted, gunning the motor. I swear I heard a snicker.
Everyone scrambled, grabbing anything that was tied down. No time to stow cameras or glasses, no slow-building thrill. I gripped a cargo line. The young lady hooked her hands into the shoulders of my life jacket.
The raft fell over the drop and I felt myself lift into the air, the rope biting into my fingers. I would later be told that the young lady was completely airborne, feet flailing in the mist, her hold on me the only thing from sending her catapulting to the back of the boat. We landed with a crash. My tailbone bounced off the steel deck and the girl’s face smashed into the back of my head.
No time for an injury report. The nose of the boat pitched back as we ascended the mountain wave. Everyone and everything was thrown back. The entire length of our boat reclined on the slope of the water. We appeared to slow as if creeping to the peak of a rollercoaster’s marquee drop. If we’d been a smaller raft, or a wooden dory or a plastic kayak, I have no doubt that we would’ve launched off the ramp of the wave. Instead, our fat tub of a craft stalled out during the climb and careened into the water like a falling oak. The top third of the wave swallowed us. We were not sprinkled. We were not splashed. We were submerged. For at least a two count, I lost all sense of the surface world — no canyon, no sun — nothing but cold and the guttural rush of turbulent water in my ears. And then it was over. The river flattened and slowed.
The passengers were stunned, quietly taking stock of what just happened. Emotions didn’t have time to form before John came bounding along one of the outer pontoons to the front of the boat. He hooted, an adrenaline grin splitting his face. “That was Hermit! Forgot to tell you about that one.” He put his hands on his hips. “Haven’t seen it running that big in a while.”
A few gave into the thrill and let out a soggy cheer. Others silently stewed and tried to shake the water off their cameras. The young lady pinched and wiggled her red nose.
I looked up at John standing there like Errol Flynn balancing on the rail of a pirate ship. You are good, really good. I love you, you asshole.
Jeff Osgood is waiting for the day when he hops into a raft with a female guide and is never heard from again. Read more of his scribbling at www.jeffosgood.com.