Riding the turkey boat

Michael Callahan | Boulder Weekly

“High side! High side!”

Before I could react to the command, Dane Swanson and Cody Brown had jumped to my side of the raft, with Brown bellowing, “What are we doing here?” The clamoring was a reminder of the main tenet of disaster management on the water: If you’re not moving, you’re dying. Our turkey boat, guidespeak for a raft full of guides or guide trainees, was pinned against a huge rock dubbed by trainees this summer as Wrap Rock — a name earned for reasons that were becoming obvious. For Brown, Swanson and oarsman Gary Garlinghouse, the immediate task was to push, pull and drag the boat off the rock and back into the current before rushing water pinned us down. For me, the immediate task was to keep from soiling myself, pick out a landing area well beyond my leaping capabilities and curse that I had actually paid attention to what cubic feet per second is, and was aware of the pressure that much water can exert.

After a few tense seconds the raft wrested free from the rock, as did the vision of myself buried alive under an avalanche of rubber and rushing water. It was a potentially risky situation with an outcome dependent on a variety of factors — none of which I had properly prepared myself for. I was left wondering, what I had gotten myself into, thinking I could survive a day of raft guide training? And who would want to do this all summer?

We left Vail just before 7 a.m. for the hour ride to the No Name exit in Glenwood Canyon. Stunning vistas and curving turns threatened to lull me back to sleep until Swanson, raft guide trainee and the person I had secretly put in charge of resuscitating me if I ended up swallowing copious amounts of mountain runoff, murmured, “That’s where we’ll be rafting today … right down there.”

My eyes darted to the left, catching a glimpse of the Shoshone rapids, a Class 3 section of the Colorado River and arguably some of the wildest rafting terrain in the state right now due to the all-around low water flow. We would be facing rapids with names like Tombstone (where you can get buried if you’re not careful), Pinball (the raft is the ball, and the rocks are the bumpers) and Maneater (whoa, here she comes).

As we pulled up to Rock Gardens Rafting at the Glenwood Canyon Resort, Swanson grabbed his helmet and gear, pausing a second before bounding up to the boathouse to remind me of something.

“If anyone asks, just tell them you’re somewhat experienced,” he said.

My mind fervently extended that wayward canoe trip from Boy Scouts summer camp into being “somewhat” ready for what’s to come.

“Let’s go ahead and have him sign a liability waiver,” guide leader Jay Berkes said in lieu of a formal introduction.

The grizzled veteran — at 24 years of age — spit out the schedule for the day. Raft trips depart at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Guides scurried about to stack the deceptively heavy rubber rafts on top of each other for the morning run, pick oars and paddles for each boat and tie down loose ends for the 10-minute drive to the launch. As someone with a laid-back attitude who was anticipating foamy rapids and bounding currents, I felt very fish-outof-water. Not knowing a trucker’s hitch from a slipknot, most of my effort involved using my noodle arms to carry rafts and trying to stay out of the way.

“There’s a lot of turnover in this industry,” Berkes said, seeming to sense that I understood the reality of the work necessary. I pictured many an aspiring summer adventurer intent on navigating whitewater hopping a bus back to civilization upon the realization that along with adventure goes low pay, hard work and shifting hours.

After a quick drive up the canyon, we unloaded under the watchful eye of a Colorado Department of Wildlife inspector. Inspectors can fine guides for violations as minute as not having all five PFD (personal flotation device) clasps fastened around a passenger’s beer gut. Then the turkey boat hit the water with me and three rookies. Gobble, gobble.

River guides have plenty of their own jargon. Civilians pretty much disregard it, until it’s being yelled at them during a crisis. “High side” means whatever side of the boat is farthest from the water, which doesn’t make much sense until you find your raft stuck on a rock. A hand should be on your T-grip at all times, meaning you hold onto the end of your paddle so as to not knock your teeth out when bumping into a rock. Your PFD is designed to allow guides to pull your dead weight out of a fast-moving current before you succumb to the flow of the rapids, which is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).

Looking at a river, you might be able to suggest that it is moving fast or slow. But cfs gives insight into the volume of water on which a raft, or person, is moving downstream by measuring the rate at which a volume of water passes through a hypothetical 1’ x 1’ x 1’ box. Even at the historically low rates that the Colorado River is running this time of year — 1,100 cfs in early June — the discharge of water is roughly equivalent to about 8,200 gallons per second. The Colorado River District, Denver Water and the Bureau of Reclamation have recently added flows to the Colorado River through the Shoshone Outage Protocol, a pact to keep water at levels high enough to help prop up those businesses that rely on the river. But they can only do so much to keep the rivers flowing.

With the low water levels this summer, rocks that would go unnoticed during average discharge introduce themselves, forming walls, eddies and other current-altering mechanisms. It makes for an especially “bony” ride through the rapids. The hazards for unsuspecting or unprepared raft pilots can make the difference between enjoying and just surviving a ride.

The jutting obstacles not only provide tourists with the opportunity to confront more whitewater, but allow rookies learning the way of the water to hone the vigilance required to steer around such potential dangers. Bony years on the river also require an additional layer of customer service.

Summertime tourists don’t necessarily care how many cubes of water can flow downstream, but are looking for a little excitement on their vacation. Slow times during the ride — made so by changing terrain — are punctuated with off-color humor, plausible tall tales and history. You never know when that anecdote about Teddy Roosevelt killing his first grizzly bear in Glenwood Canyon might result in a little tip cash at the end of the run.

It seems the key to being a successful river guide lies in the balance between knowing you can navigate a boat to safety alone if need be and making sure your passengers get a hands-on experience and feel like they helped guide as well. Usually, that can be accomplished by some well-placed chants to “paddle forward.”

“Ready for a swim drill?” Swanson asked, nearly pushing me out of the boat with his suggestion. My mind was telling me “I don’t have to” as I felt my scrotum trying to find its way back inside my body. Plunging into the bracing waters, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the turkeys’ faces. After thrashing around for a minute, trying to hoist myself back into the raft, my arm strength sapped and my kick stroke failed. Humbled, I offered up my PFD straps so I could be hoisted back into the boat.

“So, do you have any more journalism questions for us?” rookie guide and fellow passenger Cody Brown asked while taking a bite from a Clif bar he had smuggled inside his PFD. Ashamed from thrashing about like a wounded seal, and my stomach beginning to growl its displeasure over skipping breakfast, I shook off the sarcasm and tried to think of ways to dry myself after my June polar bear plunge.

After all, he’s the crazy one. Rookie guides make virtually no money. The work is difficult and, at times, dangerous. There is the matter of dealing with the public, and, with that, a responsibility to keep that public safe at all times while giving them an unforgettable experience.

This isn’t some summer slack job.

It’s akin to being a bus driver, except potential potholes are usually buried by rushing water. It’s made to look easy, but underneath the veneer of a confident river captain often lies the uncertainty of having to make a decision with shifting variables.

So why not tend bar or work at a resort? Those who learn the trade seem to know those daily float trips are much more than a simple booze cruise. Through work ethic, a love of the outdoors and thrill-seeking independence, rookie raft guides invest not only in their own well-being (you get in shape quick carrying those boats), but put a down payment on future summer employment for a skill that provides a lifetime of entertainment. Bottom line? Rafting the open water is more exciting than the alternatives.

“It’s better than working the oil fields,” Garlinghouse said of his previous employer on the Western Slope.

Farther downstream, my eyes off the man-killer rocks and on a huge raptor riding canyon thermals, Swanson said, “Here, grab this oar for me.”

Before I could fully process the request, he shifted out of the oar frame and instructed me to sit in his stead. By the time I grabbed the other oar, the realization that somehow I had found myself in charge of a river raft was tempered by the fear of all those potential dangers I had blithely ignored when casually pointed out to me previously.

It’s not at all like learning to drive.

Steering becomes more of a predictive measure than a causal result. You’re not just turning the wheel when you come to a crossroads; you are pushing and pulling the boat to position it for upcoming movements, planning to steer around obstacles still far ahead of you. Attempting to use two oars to steer becomes akin to rubbing your belly while patting your head — that is to say it is mildly difficult to learn, and infinitely harder to master.

As I slowly learned the maneuvers and started gaining confidence, I let my fears subside and began to appreciate the artistic movement that goes into navigating a waterway. The best guides seem to barely touch the water with their oars, feathering their way down the river with a correct ferry angle — the subtle movements needed to keep a boat riding the currents and staying away from pitfalls. It took me five times the effort to keep a reasonable following distance from other boats in our party.

By four in the afternoon, my arms hung by my sides, my feet were an amalgam of skin, blood and sand, and my energy was tapped out. But before I knew it, we were eddying out back at No Name.

After all the work and worry, the most painful thing I had to deal with was the lobster-like reddish hue my forearms and thighs were beginning to display.

I summoned enough strength to lift a plate full of BBQ and a Dale’s Pale Ale to my lips, wondering if the life of a raft guide could be for me.

All that went through my mind was “leave it to the turkeys.”

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