MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 28th. Good morning and thank you for listening to WORLD Radio.
I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Whitewater rafting.
It was back in the 1970s that whitewater rafting first gained popularity. Now, more than a million people in the United States each year take guided rafting trips. But few understand the tips and tricks that make it all possible.
This summer, WORLD Radio Associate Correspondent Grace Snell shadowed a river guide to learn those ins and outs.
REICHARD: Just a note here: You’ll notice some of the audio sounds distorted. Well, those are the hazards when you MacGyver a mic to a river guide. Things happen!
GRACE SNELL, REPORTER: It’s 9:30 a.m.—time for the first run of the day on the Black River. A handful of river guides herd sleepy-eyed guests in yellow helmets aboard inflatable rafts.
VICKERY: In the old days, years ago when we were starting on this river in the 1990s, ‘Them rafters,’ that was how we would be referred to: ‘them rafters’...
Tom Vickery is the outpost manager for the Whitewater Challengers. His white hair and blue eyes stand out sharply against sun-tanned skin. Vickery has rafted in Colorado, Brazil, and Costa Rica. But in the 90s he settled down to captain a motley crew of locals and college students in upstate New York.
VICKERY: They're crazy, anybody in their right mind wouldn't go anywhere near that river. It's a dangerous river, people die all the time…
Today, Vickery’s shadowing a 19-year-old trainee waiting on his guide’s license. He’s been working with the novice all summer, teaching him what it takes to be a river guide.
Vickery says guiding is about more than just boating skills and water safety. It all comes down to crafting an adventure experience for guests.
AUDIO: [River sounds]
TOM VICKERY: Each rapid that you come to is like a play, is like a scene in a play, or a music score, and it has to build up, and you’re creating their experience as we go down the river, and until they come off the river and they’re like, “That was the best thing that ever happened. That was the best day of the summer.”
It takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work from guides. They have to be host, expert, and entertainer all in one.
AUDIO: [River sounds]
RIVER GUIDE: Three strokes forward, altogether…
The trainee Vickery is shadowing runs his crew through basic commands. Then they shove off.
RIVER GUIDE: For now, that’s our commands, and let’s have some fun today.
The raft is launching against a dilapidated urban background. Watertown used to be an industrial hub, but its mix of dingy shops now crumble and sag over the river. As the raft passes under Maggie’s Pub, the crew hits their first rapid—three big waves named “Hole Brothers.”
TOM VICKERY: He’s trying to keep the boat straight because if it turns it wants to dump us out one side and come off the wave so the skill for the guide is to be able to hold us there…
AUDIO: [Sounds from Hole Brothers]
Downtown fades as the raft drifts under Highway 81. The crew is now approaching Knife’s Edge—one of only two class four rapids on the route. If a guide doesn’t land its back-to-back drops just right, he can flip the raft and send the crew swimming.
TOM VICKERY: A small mistake can lead to a dump truck or people in the water, for the most part we try to keep people in the boat. It’s gonna be more fun for the customer.
Each rapid has different paths through it. Guides have to make split-second decisions about what their crews can handle. Today, the young guide takes his group on “True Path,” the “rowdier” path through Knife’s Edge.
RIVER GUIDE: That’s the fun line right there. I could have taken you Bee Line Skate, but that’s the more chill side. I like what we did.
AUDIO: [Bird sounds]
The second act snakes through “The Canyon.” Seven rapids fall rapid-fire between its rocky walls.
The crew crashes through three rapids, dodging rocks like “Sneaker Sucker” and “The Ripping Wall.” The raft bounces off “Panic Rock” in the middle of a rapid called Zag.
RIVER GUIDE: We’re gonna get a little bump here, all right then go all forward...
But the guide recovers and takes the crew safely over an eight-foot drop at Rocket Ride.
The last rapid is Shave and a Haircut. Here, the guide lets one of the crew “ride the bull”—perching on the front of the raft with a hand in the air as they go down.
AUDIO: [Rushing, screaming, all forward, nice work, keep going]
The whitewater lies behind them now. The guests hop out and paddle alongside the boat through the Swimmer’s Rapids. Vickery takes the time to debrief the run with their guide.
RIVER GUIDE: Zag was probably the low point when, I just like, I didn’t get the angle soon, and so I was starting from the left, which would have been okay…
TOM VICKERY: You’re trying to recover rather than reading water and understanding. I don’t expect you to read water like an experienced guide, you’re just not going to. I’m pointing them out because that’s how you’re going to learn.
RIVER GUIDE: Yeah, no, I appreciate that.
TOM VICKERY: You can’t live your next rapid based off of performance of the last one. You have to start fresh every rapid.
The swimmers climb back aboard for a final tow to the end. They stagger ashore at Fish Island and board electric purple school buses for the ride back.
AUDIO: [Gravel sounds]
The guests dismount back at the base and crunch up a gravel drive toward an Amish-made building with a shiny tin roof. They hang up life vests, rack paddles, and toss helmets into bins.
AUDIO: [Equipment sounds]
Guides and guests mingle outside smiling and chatting after hours of water and sun. For guides like Vickery, this is exactly what success looks like.
TOM VICKERY: Just being outdoors and enjoying it, getting away from the cellphones for a little while, I mean, when you're in the middle of a rapid, you’re not thinking about your work tomorrow. You’re thinking about getting to the bottom of that rapid. There’s something about experiences, especially in the outdoors, I think that really make a person complete.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Grace Snell in Watertown, New York.
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