Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

“Everyone out of the boat…”


It was late winter, I was sitting at the bar with my new friend Chris at the Brew Pub on Dickson St. in Fayetteville, USA. I am quite sure we should have been studying for an upcoming exam in the class we shared, but our conversation turned to what our plans were for the summer. Chris knew someone who knew someone who had done some rafting in Maine and learned they were always looking for new guides. Training started in early May and Chris was going. My plans for the summer had fallen through and being on the river every day for a summer sounded pretty good. So we loaded up the trucks and drove to Maine.

To have whitewater you need three things: water volume, gradient, and structure. To have commercial viable whitewater rivers you have to add consistency. In Northwest Arkansas we have varying degrees to the first three, however we don’t have consistency. For that you need a snowpack in the mountains or a huge fauset, in the form of a hydroelectric dam. Maine has both.

I have spent many a day in an open canoe on the Buffalo National River, which was only a few miles from my house. Cut-off jeans and tube-tops were the uniform of choice and on a good day things could get exciting at Gray Rock, a class 2 riffle that would tip a few canoes creating a redneck yard sale of folding chairs, fishing rods, and beer koozies. Unattended coolers full of cold beer floating down a river in a dry county was the hillbilly equivalent of winning the lottery. As far as real whitewater, up to this point I had never seen a whitewater raft in person, much less ride one down something that would require a helmet and life jacket. These things were totally against my rules of life, #1 Always look good for the camera, #2 Don’t spill your beer, and of course Safety 3rd.

The First day of training to be a Registered Maine Guide

After a 36 hour road trip I remember emerging early from my tent to see my breath and large patches of snow still visible in the forest behind our campsite. As we gathered and met all the new victim…I mean trainees, the staff kindly led us over to the room where all the wetsuits were kept. We walked right by all the customer suits, neatly hung up smelling all fresh, to the back where the “vintage” suits were kept. I’m convinced these suits were part of a slow fermentation experiment, only to be disturbed once a year during training week. Otherwise stuffed in mesh bags with holes only big enough to let the spiders make their homes for the winter, we fished around to find suits that would fit… sorta. After getting our tired looking lifejackets and helmets, we grabbed a paddle and loaded up in an old faded white Chevy van that for some reason had one green bench seat that wasn’t attached to the floor.

I don’t remember much of the chat from the first day. We sat in the back of the van on the floor like sheep to slaughter, couldn’t really see out as the windows began to steam up during the 20 minute journey up to the dam. There seemed to be a nervous energy amongst the owners and the guides that were training us. Like an butcher not wanting to frighten the sheep, the guides spoke in some form of code the unsuspecting couldn’t understand. “It should be pretty exciting out there today, the river is running at over 13,000+ CFS.*” “Sweet 13,000C..f.. s”, I said while nodding in false confidence with the others, like a bunch of bobble heads. “What the hell is 13,000 cfs?” someone whispered.

*CFS = Cubic Feet per Second. It is the measure of the volume and flow of a river. For reference one CFS = about one basketball. The Kennebec river is considered a high flow river and on any given day the release from the hydro power dam was 4800 or sometimes 6000 cfs. On a couple of special scheduled days a year a max flow of 8000 cfs would be released. 13,000 basketballs per second was flood stage and a different ballgame altogether.

As we arrived at put-in we heard a thunderous roar of water as the flood gates were fully open and what seemed to be enough water to douse the fires of hell launched over the top of the dam. “What the heck have we got ourselves into?”

What outwardly seemed like mercy, we ended our first run at the halfway point. Wet, cold and out of breath after climbing the endless stairs at Carry Brook take out, we loaded up in the back of that ol’ white van to discover what seemed like mercy was actually S&M of the darkest kind. We had 5 more runs…

Most of that first day is fuzzy, If there was instruction, I don’t remember them. If they told us the names of rapids, it was a week before I could distinguish where one foamy cauldron from Sheol ended and a new one began. I am not even sure if everyone that started the day made it home. Nearly 25 years have passed and a few of the details have escaped me, however, the second trip down the river left an indelible mark that will never be forgotten. That trip began with owner Pete saying “All the trainees are with me.”

Pete was a tall, fit, middle aged man with a full head of black unkept curly hair, and a mustache that made Tom Selleck look like a boy in the throws of puberty. So when Pete said “get in,” we all got in. I didn’t remember any of the names of the rapids after the first trip, except one, Maytag. At the top of the rapid Pete told a boat full of cold, nervous, rookies that as soon as we hit the towering mountain of a wave known as Maytag we were to all jump out of the boat. We all responded with nervous laughter, cause NO WAY he could have been serious. We couldn’t have been more wrong. As the raft crested the powerful hydrolac he yelled “everyone out of the boat…” For possible legal reasons I can’t comment to the degree of willingness we all found ourselves out of the boat. But I would say fellow newbie “Skinny Ray,” recalls the life-saving grip he had on the line around the outside of the boat was mysteriously loosened by a sharp strike from a lone paddle from within the raft, and so began a violent, airless, dance with the sickle wielding creacher that tows the line that separates this life from the next.

If you want to know what “swimming” Maytag at 13000 cfs is like, imagine being flushed down a toilet. No, not your eco-friendly, low volume, home jobber. I’m talking about one of those airport types that are hooked up to some explosive air tank that with one false move misfires while you are still on it. Heaven forbid you are making a complete seal when it goes off. It’s the type that kept my niece from using public toilets until she was a teenager. Now imagine your one inch tall….that’s Maytag

I didn’t die, I didn’t die, I didn’t die… As our limp bodies were all pulled back into the boat with water and snot seemingly pouring out of every orifice, some heady questions began running though my mind.

1. Is our new boss legit, bat $!*t crazy? 2. Does he hate people from Arkansas? 3. How could that possibly be training?

As we coughed and sputtered and began to compose ourselves, Pete giggled at the pathetic sight of his fresh crop of new guides in training. Then, with a serious tone, he said, “Don’t ever forget what that felt like.”

What Pete knew then and would take me some time to learn is, The Kennebec River would not always feel like a place of darkness where dead people go, but in time would soon be a joy filled playground where we would regularly and voluntarily swim these same rapids for the pure enjoyment.

For the guide, remembering that feeling cautions us when working with guests who might be nervous or those rowdy ones who only think they want to flip the boat in the biggest rapids. Having that memory allows us to be a non-anxious presence when things don’t go to plan or fear is striking the heart of a crew member.

In life, it is the tough and sometimes painful experiences that help us become who and what we are. With time and with perspective, some of the worst experiences can become tales we tell others with humour around the campfire, or become opportunities to help guide others through similar experiences we now no longer fear in the same way.

There has never been a time in our generation that has been crazier than now. Mental and physical health, job loss, financial security, those around you might need an experienced “guide” that has walked through some of these things in the past, and through snot and tears said “I didn’t die, I didn’t die. You might be the help they are looking for.

* The details of this story, as with all Whitewater Wednesday stories, may not be factually accurate – it’s just how I remember it. No guides were… physically harmed in the events of this tale.