RICHMOND — Almost 3,200 miles the Yangtze flows, winding eastward from the Tibetan plateau through the bulk of mainland China before blending with the Huang Hai, the Yellow Sea of the north Pacific Ocean.
It is this river that presents the challenge now for 28-year-old author of “Whitewater Rafting” (Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 361 Pages).
But closer at hand for William McGinnis, a modern-day “Whitewater Bill,” born and raised in Richmond and a 1965 graduate of Ells High School, are the tropical waters of Rico Grande de Santiago in Jalisco, Mexico.
“Friends report it is a great run through exciting rapids,” said McGinnis, owner of Whitewater Voyages/River Explorations Ltd., whose book will be available as dealer shipments arrive.
McGinnis, who holds a masters degree in English from San Francisco State University, bases his enterprise here but it ranges over rivers in California, Oregon and British Columbia.
“I’ve always been intensely drawn to the outdoors and to water especially, and to writing,” he said, “and it looks like I’m piecing together a career involving both.”
And he will get more of both in short order if the hopes and work of Kathleen Macmillan pan out.
She is a Sinophile, long-time family friend, University of Wisconsin student with co-major in Chinese and philosophy, and “that rare individual who is a true scholar,” he said. She is trying to get McGinnis to the headwaters of a major Chinese river next summer.
“The trip would have a tremendous sense of expedition and adventure in going into a strange culture,” he said. “Just getting your gear to the put-in point would be fantastic.”
McGinnis, who said a rope burn is the worst injury he has seen in 10 years of rafting, is already designing special frames for the rafts that can be transported by air.
“Kathy has been working a long time trying to organize a trip to China, and a rafting trip is so apolitical,” he said, adding a trip to the People’s Republic of China would probably involve a group of 30 to 40 people.
“I just got the word that I should be thinking about next summer,” said the man who has spent the past four years organizing rafting trips and believes “as long as I can continue to write I’ll stay with it.”
Besides, he said, “the possibilities for adventure are dying out, but this is an age of exploration for many rivers. Some are marked unnavigable on maps, but I want to find out how many can be navigated with new methods and equipment.”
“Right now it’s become that,” he answered asked if his is a paying venture, “but there’s a long way to go to compensate me for the time I’ve spent.”
“Whitewater Rafting,” he said, was 2 1/2 years in the compiling, took a year to write, and “is the first thorough guide to rafting to appear.
“There is nothing quite so beautiful as a wilderness river, and rafting is inexpensive and intensely beautiful. It’s a chance to experience a very different way of life. It’s an adventure.
“It looks like I’ll be going up and running the Chilcotin and Thompson,” said McGinnis, referring to two British Columbia rivers, adding he plans to attend the theater in his off-season “instead of crowding in another raft trip.”
But what about November and that trip down the Rio Grande de Santiago, and what if there are no takers?
Whitewater may seem far removed from desert sand or mountain granite, it its impact on the sensibilities may be remarkably similar. And not only upon the emotions, either — all these inspire in a certain kind of person an almost compulsive desire to learn, to retain, to pass knowledge on to others who will follow the same trails, wet or dry.
So it is that this work is so reminiscent of The Complete Walker which, in its first form and in its later revision, has brought such deserved recognition to Colin Fletcher. Both McGinnis and Fletcher are students constantly adding to the store of knowledge through communication and experience. Both know their subjects far better than all but a very few. Both are teachers. Both are adventurous but each has a tremendous respect for the dangers that await the unknowing, the careless, the unprepared who venture into the wilderness. The outdoor knowledge accumulated by such folks simultaneously heightens their enjoyment and diminishes the danger.
Like Fletcher, too (and here we’ll abandon the comparison), McGinnis has created a book of concentrated information while skillfully mixing enough humor, imagery, example and anecdotes to maintain a constant flow of interest.
“Whitewater rafting” is several things. For one, it’s a guidebook to over 30 of the best river runs in the United States, following each run from its inception to its end and pin pointing danger spots along the way.
It’s also an equipment book, a camping book, an outdoor cooking book (with a proper respect for that great instrument for outdoor cooking, the Dutch oven) and a book on river safety. It is, too, well-illustrated with photos and drawings.
Change the “quiet desperation” Thoreau applied to most men’s lives to quiet determination for William McGinnis.
Four years ago, he decided to write a book about whitewater rafting, a sport he had pursued for nine years. McGinnis shot his lanky body up in a trailer at Dillon Beach and labored 10 hours a day, seven days a week for one year.
“I lived and ate that book completely,” he says. McGinnis developed the habit of gathering little writing pads about him so one would always be within reach when choice phrases popped into his brain.
The pad next his pillow was used heavily. “I trained myself to wake up just long enough to write down an idea and go back to sleep without becoming fully conscious,” he says.
In July 1975, Quadrangle Press released his 361-page book Whitewater Rafting. Reviewers for Bay Area newspapers hailed the book with phrases that made them sound like strangers to wild river running, but devotees of free flowing English language.
What’s refreshing about both Bill McGinnis and his book is a vocal style that is pleasing to the it. You can talk to McGinnis for hours and never hear the clichés — like “burned out,” or “fired up” and “far out” — that clutter the conversation of most river runners.
Lots of rafters, including some who work as professional Whitewater guides, own McGinnis’ book. And even those who criticize certain technical points agree it describes a safe, perhaps overly cautious approach to a beautiful sport.
At 28, William Guinness has also succeeded where a good number of robust young men have failed — establishing a small river company that survives in a drought and the competitive outdoor recreation market of the Bay area. He thinks his success is no mystery, the product of confidence and dogged effort.
“I never thought about it, I just did it,” he says.
Near the end of his book-writing chore, McGinnis was compiling one of several appendixes: a list of outfitters who offer commercial river trips to the public. Spontaneously, he decided to list a company of his own.
So was hatched Whitewater Voyages — River Exploration Ltd., now entering its third year is the sole economic support of William McGinnis’ existence. (He expects some money from the book soon since its sales paid off the publishers $4000 advance around the middle of last year).
As California’s second drought threatens to demolish some small outfitters and dent big ones like the American River Touring Association (which has already closed its Sierra River operation this season), McGinnis expects Whitewater Voyages to flourish.
Small size and flexibility, not to mention creativity, are McGinnis’ advantages. Operated from his house in El Cerrito — where booking office, rafting gear and living quarters jostle for space — the company has its owner as the only full-time employee. All river trips begin and end at McGinnis’ house.
Started in 1975 after the book was completed, Whitewater Voyages began with about $3000 worth of gear, no vehicle and $500 cash. The company’s first major chore was to attract bookings, so McGinnis commissioned the first of three annual brochures. It describes trips on California, Oregon, Texas, British Columbia and Mexican rivers next to this quote from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“We said there wasn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable in a raft.”
McGinnis says the brochure was made economically feasible because the designer, typesetter and printer all wanted to go on a river trip.
Even now — going into the 1977 season with $20,000 worth of equipment, including a van, 14 rafts and four rowing frames — he still operates the company as much as possible on a barter economy.
“It’s still impossible for me to carry on as if I have money,” he says happily.
Some people who have worked for McGinnis say he can hold onto a dollar like a turbulent reversal. But they enjoy working his trips, which have been known to include a stop at Disneyland on the way to the Rio Grande
Unlike big outfitters with fixed operations, McGinnis plans Whitewater Voyages’ itinerary each year – with a flair. In addition to Western rivers like the American, Merced, Carson, Klamath and Owyhee, he cooks up exotica like a 36-day camping and river trip through Europe, Scandinavia and the Soviet Union scheduled for 1978 for a mere $1,300 plus air fare.
A river running and cultural exploration of Mainland China, originally planned for last year, has been “in limbo” since the death of Cho En-Jai. And McGinnis scored a big publicity coup last year by advertising one Rio Grande trip as a search for the mysterious “Big Bird.”
The payoff for each imaginative scheduling is that if the drought continues to dry up Western Rivers, McGinnis says he could survive on a few major expeditions in foreign countries.
Writing the book has predictably put McGinnis on display in the river-running community, a rather close, gossipy group.
“All I have to do is get my boat hung up on a rock and the news spreads up and down the river,” he says. “I’m a little bit chagrined and a little bit flattered.” Sometimes the news gets distorted. “People have come back and told me I flipped on a river that I haven’t been on in months.”
Not all these reports are mistaken, McGinnis admits, owing to his penchant for trying new tricks amid roaring rapids. The practice has its penalties: “I’ve made mistakes that no one has made before or since,” he says somberly.
That’s not to say I’m not a top-notch boatman,” he adds, laughing at the blatant immodesty.
McGinnis believes in mistakes. The image of expert river running lustily rowing through heavy water without taking on so much as a bucketful of water is not only a myth, he says, but “not even a goal worth striving for.” If you never make mistakes, how do you expect to learn anything, he reasons.
Don’t get the idea McGinnis operates by caprice, or by the “if it was meant to happen, it’ll happen” philosophy. Whimsical pragmatism is his style, never sheer whim.
Take the book born of sheer desire to write. McGinnis wrote the proposal for it while completing his Master’s degree in English at San Francisco State. He was, at the time, serving alternative duty as a Conscientious Objector to the draft by working at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a “rundown social agency.”
Then, in October 1978, with his degree and the publisher’s advance in hand, McGinnis secluded himself in the trailer at Dillon Beach. Today, his writing career continues with a lucrative commission to write an article for Rolling Stone’s slick new magazine Outside.
In addition, McGinnis has two new books underway including a novel about “death and intense events” befalling a small group running the Rio Grande. He filled several notebooks with impressions of that river and the people he was with on a trip last year, but the book will have to exceed reality since the most serious accident he’s seen in 12 years of running rivers is a cut finger that required two stitches.
McGinnis’ other book-in-the-works is “A personal response to rivers,” something of an aquatic equivalent to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.
Ten-foot oars angle out over the water as 1200 pounds of inflatable raft, with all its equipment and its crew of four drift toward the brink.
Almost casually, boatman Ward Hall savors the suspension of time that precedes each explosive river rapid, bracing the heavy oars under his knees.
His eyes, schooled to watch for hidden rocks drink in the bloom of purple and yellow wildflowers stretching along the sides of this glacial Mother Lode canyon, 190 miles East of San Francisco.
“Hey Ward.” calls one of his crew, “Aren’t we getting a little close?”
Hall grasps the oars and in two quick strokes of a double-oar turn, pivots the boat 90 degrees left to face the torrent of Bailey Falls head on.
By 1984, maybe sooner if it rains a lot, Baily Falls will vanish, along with nine miles of rapids under an artificial lake created by the Army Corps of Engineers’ massive New Melones Dam.
But, in this early spring on 1978, the flow is still fast, and Ward’s 17-foot long, nylon-neoprene raft, a bouncy elliptical doughnut, swoops over Bailey’s up
The winter snowpack still hugging the Sierra and the past four months of heavy rain guarantee a big and long commercial rafting season in the state this year.
After two years of drought, interest in river running is higher than ever before and rafting companies are besieged with bookings.
The Oakland-based American River Touring Association (ARTA) the West’s largest river outfitter, reports that all but a few of the 5000 places on its trips this year are already filled.
Even a small outfitter like Tom Malcamp who combines his outdoor shop in San Francisco’s Sunset district with a river touring operation, expects to more than quadruple business over 1975, the last good river-running year before the drought, when 60,000 people ran the South Fork of the American.
Most boatmen learn the craft in “whitewater schools” conducted by large outfitters like ARTA and smaller ones like Whitewater Voyages of El Cerrito.
Foremost, perhaps, among commercial scouts is William (Bill) McGinnis, who owns Whitewater Voyages. The lanky 31-year old was the first commercial rafter on half a dozen western rivers now run by other firms.
McGinnis is typical of boatmen: well-educated, friendly, and enamored of his profession.
Boatmen frequently know the geology, biology and history of a river in addition to its tricky hydraulics.
Most river running occurs between June and September. But it is in the early spring, wetsuit weather–before runoff causes flood crests running 10,000 cubic feet per second–that new boat rowers must be trained.
Which is why Ward Hall, 22, one of six instructors and the lead boatman of a six-raft flotilla skippered by McGinnis, was poised the other day on the edge of Bailey Falls in the middle of the run thousands of boatmen will take this simmer.
The two-oar boat behind Hall’s hits Bailey straight on.
There is another way to run Bailey, off to the left, down a relatively smooth chute that disappears at low water. Boatman Eric Leaper led the smaller paddle boats through the easier course.
Paddle boats, which carry a lighter load than rafts powered by oars, are more likely to flip. The crew has to work together as the paddle captain calls out “forward,” “backward,” “left turn,” “right turn,” or “stop.”
Leaper wears a waterproof camera, wired and bolted to a kayak helmet. He has run many rivers in the Rockies, but this is his first trip on the Stanislaus.
He scouts every rapid, pulling off into an eddy upriver to check for hazards and the “V” of the main current.
He knows them all:
Cadillac Charlie . . . Widowmaker . . . Death Rock . . . Devil’s Staircase . . . Bailey’s Falls . . . and, finally, Rose Creek Rapid.
When the 22-person party floats into camp, just above Razorback Rock, dusk is falling.
Although a full orange moon will illuminate the chasm later, twilight’s patchy, gray clouds hint of rain and McGinnis orders two large tarps set up as tents.
The night is cold, but dry, and the tarps aren’t needed. Dew greets the breakfast crew, which hauls out a twisted grill and fixes scrambled eggs over a fire of wood carried down over an oar boat.
By 10 a.m. the expedition is underway, with students in control in all six boats.
The rafts shoot inches past Razorback, just missing the knife-like edge at the base of the 300-foot cliff towering over the river.
These last four miles to the takeout at Parrott’s Ferry, an old river crossing now part of hte Federal Parklands, offers rapids very different from the first day: smaller waves, fewer heart-thumping drops. But more precise maneuvering around boulders and shallows. It’s a colorful itinerary.
Sierra Club Rock – named because a boat loaded with members of that organization crashed there in 1970. Cop Rock – where a raft paddled by seven “drunk policemen” wrapped in 1971, Hall recalled.
Chinese Dog Leg _ near an old camp of Chinese gold miners, where the river snakes around and zigzags at the last moment, too late for some rafts to avoid the sucking current and save themselves from being pinned to a big rock.
By noon–and with neither a flip nor a wrap to mar the journey–the McGinnis convoy slips under the old bridge above Parrott’s Ferry rapid and pulls into shore. This is the sixth day of training in this seven-day whitewater school: Three days on the Stanislaus followed by four days on the American, and the students are tired–but eager for the next run, over the same stretch of river, this time with students in control.
As the caravan loads up, the grunt of bulldozers moving mounds of earth to build a stately high bridge that will span a flat, man-made lake, drown out the rush of whitewater.
The Basics on River Rafting
River trips range from the one-day jaunts on Sierra streams in California to expeditions of several weeks on Rocky Mountain waterways.
Some rivers, like the Klamath in Big Foot country, or the lower Green looping through Utah, offer a mild, warm ride, a “float,” rocked by gentle rapids every few miles, ideal for the not so brave.
Others like the Colorado in Grand Canyon country and the Salmon in Idaho rush along in big waves and drops that raise adrenalin higher than the spray.
The toughest rivers for the most expert boatmen are “technical” waters such as the Tuolumne, immediately south of the Stanislaus in the Sierra, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The water isn’t “big” as boatmen talk, but the zigzag courses boatmen must carve through boulder gardens demand precision and farsighted readings of river currents.
Many river outfitters provide distant trips on rivers in Alaska, Canada, Africa, South America and Europe.
Information can be obtained about river firms by writing to Pacific River Outfitters Association, 6505 C. Telegraph Avenue, Oakland CA, or Western River Guides Association, Inc., 994 Denver Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84111.
Prices range from $40 to $50 for a day on the Stanislaus to $300 50 $400 for six days on the Salmon.
With proper observation of river safety and some bucks you can also run a river on your own.
Inexpensive inflatable rafts cost about $100. Better ones, suitable for longer trips, cost $1000 or more. Life Jackets, rope and incredible assortment of odds and ends are also a must.
Sturdy oars and a rigid rowing frame for an oar boat cost more than $500, but paddles enough for a five-man paddle boat with two extras run a little more than $100.
Tumbling from either your own boat or a commercial raft, even in rough water, is exhilarating and usually safe. But riders may be in trouble if the raft flips or “wraps.”
A flip can trap a swimmer underneath the boat or between the raft and an obstacle. Flipped boats can be righted in slow water with no harm done, provided gear is securely fastened. Knots should be tied for quick release.
“Be careful of line,” warns McGinnis “never tie yourself to anything and be sure the lines can’t snare you.”
When a raft collides with a boulder, a wrap – where the boat hugs the rock pinned by rushing water – is always a threat. Passengers should jump for the “high” or downstream side to keep the raft in the water and, perhaps, spin it away. If the boat wraps, thick safety ropes looped around trees for leverage can be used to yank it free.
Sometimes people have to sit on the bank and wait several hours for lower water to float the raft off.
Despite it’s legendary thrills, river rafting seldom is marred by fatalities.
Keven Clarke of the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t know of a single death due to a commercial trip on the Stanislaus in four years.
When Bill McGinnis was a boy in the East Bay he walked the ditches when it rained, instead of the sidewalks.
There’s nothing particularly unique about that. We’ve all done it, I guess, sometimes getting swatted for having wet feet – or tracking mud into the house.
With us it was grimy kid stuff. With McGinnis it was a fascination that took him past swollen ditches and rising creeks to white waters of the West and eventually a career in running rivers around the world.
Next Sunday, he and a group of some 20 adventuresome souls will meet in the Ritz Hotel in Oslo for a 13-day McGinnis led whitewater excursion of Norwegien rivers – rivers, he says, that are “unsurpassed in Europe or anywhere else for sheer, heart-thumping excitement.”
A student of English literature with a Masters in English from San Francisco State, McGinnis – in his Norwegian Odyssey brochure – describes the adventure as:
A headlong plunge into the luxuriant, vertical land of fjords and waterfalls of lovely, honest people and pure dazzling whitewater past lakes and cataracts and over wind-swept mountain plateaus swaddled in glaciers and perpetual snow. into a tight, winding, wild crack between snow-capped mountain massifs. where we navigate one wild, plunging river after another.
Born in Richmond 32 years ago, McGinnis graduated from mud puddles and at 17 worked as a river guide, running rivers in Arizona, Idaho and British Columbia, always seeking out rivers of greater challenge. He found a career in whitewater rafting, which grew, he recalls, “in ways I never anticipated.”
This evolved into a business he calls Whitewater Voyages/River Exploration Ltd. based in El Cerrito.
In 1975, McGinnis authored a book “Whitewater Rafting” New York Times Quadrangle, $12.50, a guide to more than 30 of the best river runs in the U.S. The book follows each run from its inception to its end, pinpointing danger spots along the way.
Articulate as well as enthusiastic, McGinnis describes his business as: “A small outfit offering a broad range of river voyages. With us, one can experience everything from one- and two-day trips near San Francisco to extended expeditions on other continents, everything from the refreshing dip to the deep immersion.”
Whitewater Voyages uses rugged, inflatable 12- and 15-foot — “compartmented and unsinkable” — paddle boats with six to eight people plus a guide in each.
McGinnis’ 1979 schedule of itineraries lists three, four- and five-day voyages by inflatable kayak in the Stanislaus, Merced, Klamath and American rivers in California and Oregon, a Rio Grande/New Year expedition, British Columbia, Turkey, Russia and Scandinavia voyages, in addition to the Norwegian Odyssey, which he says is being assisted by the American River Touring Association, a non-profit educational organization based in Oakland.
McGinnis says he works “April through September, but there’s a lot of preparation _ a lot of off-river business involved.
“We have some fantastic rivers lined up — some we’ve never run before. The French Alps, French Pyrenees and Spanish Pyrenees — some are really great.”
Cost of the June 24-to-July 6 Norwegian river trip is $1,522 (plus U.S.-Oslo round-trip airfare of approximately $800). No visas are required and “we help arrange airfare,” McGinnis adds.
From Oslo, the group goes by train to Myrdal to Flam for overnighting at the Flam Hotel, by boat along the Aurlandsfjord and Sognefjord to Laerdal, by van to Tisleia camp and the first four rivers. Taking a brief interlude from rafting, the voyagers will then hike into Jotunheimen, “the home of the giants,” relax for two days beside Lake Gjende, explore a glacier and go on to other rivers, ending up in Oslo.
“The entire journey is suitable to people without a real athletic commitment to rafting,” says McGinnis, who has scheduled the Norway expedition again for 1980, from June 22 to July 4.
The Norwegian trip, McGinnis says, “is a special experience. I find the people not only weathly in goods, but also in spirit. And there’s a tremendous awareness (among them) of the need to conserve.”
For additional information, contact McGinnis at: Whitewater Voyages.com
Three tours are being offered in Peru this fall and summer by guides John and Cherl Tichenor, in conjunction with the American River Touring Association. They are:
A 22-day Apurimac-Vilcababa Exploration, combining plane, train, rafting, hiking and trucking into the Peruvian wilderness, a 10-day tour for hikers and rafters along the train to Machu Picchu, and a 15-day tour of the “Amazon headwaters,” combining visits to ruins, jungles and sights of Lima.
The local folks upstream in Cedar Flat, Del Loma and Big Bar get suddenly serious when you talk about taking rafts into the Gorge.
And if you’re a compulsive river-reader, you’ll run your eye up and down the visible stretches of that jumble of rock and water, noting the impossibly narrow chutes, the foaming holes and the strategically-placed wrap rocks, and you’ll not your head and scratch your chin and finally say to yourself with absolute conviction, “Nope, that sucker’s suicide. It can’t be run.”
And you’ll be very nearly right.
The canyon is called Burnt Ranch Gorge, an eight mile stretch of the otherwise just lively and lovely Trinity River, and for years the only people who took rafts into it emerged at the bottom dead. Upstream the Trinity is a Class III jewel wandering through one of the prettier river canyons in California. But at Burnt Ranch the walls close in to form a mountain crevice so narrow, steep and choked with boulders that the only argument about it’s difficulty revolves around whether it is Class V or VI.
The issue is academic to most people. Certainly the two men who took a small raft one recent spring into the bowels of the Gorge appreciated the difficulty, if not the danger. Their bodies, discovered downstream, added a pall to the river’s formidable reputation.
Dick Schwind’s well-worn guide book to west coast rivers proclaims Burnt Range Gorge “not recommended for boating.”
Schwind nevertheless kayaked the Gorge in 1970, portaging repeatedly, and carrying pitons and climbing rope stashed in his boat, fearing the need for a vertical carry around some of the less runnable rapids.
Other expert kayakers have followed but most still carry at least once or twice and until the summer of 1983 the consensus was clear: You don’t do Burnt Ranch Gorge in a raft – only in a kayak, and then only if you’re nuts.
Enter Bill McGinnis, outfitter and author, who with his fearless (or foolish) head guide Jim Cassady, has pioneered numerous first-run raft descents.
McGinnis and Cassady thought maybe the Gorge could accommodate well-trained crews in small, agile paddle boats. Rafting skill would be important, but so would a balance between abject terror of the Burnt Ranch rapids and confidence that river running skills have advanced to a new plateau.
There’s no question the limits of river running have been extended, the ante’s been upped and the definition of a runnable river sounds different today than it did a decade ago. What, after all, is a Class VI rapid? Is it something guaranteed to kill you, like Ishi Pishi Falls on the Klamath? Or just something that will scare you blind, like Lava Falls or Crystal on the Colorado?
Rafting Burnt Ranch Gorge defines the question further, if not the answer, and McGinnis’ successful exploratory there proved that the right people, with the right equipment, can extend themselves into new realms of whitewater rafting.
To run the Gorge you put in beneath the Cedar Flat Bridge in a pool of calm, emerald green water, bordered by a soft sandy beach. It is a deceptively tranquil beginning.
The first mile meanders through gentle rapids in a broad gravel bed as the river flows toward China Gulch, a massive scar on the southern flank of the canyon wall. Chinese gold miners were buried there in the nineteenth century when part of the mountain fell into the river.
Beyond the gulch the river begins to gather its fluid force and the water moves faster toward a Class IV rock garden that would scare you were it not for the more frightening dragon’s mouth lurking 100 yards downstream, a slit in the side of the mountain where the river disappears into darkness.
The entry rapid nailed a McGinnis raft in 1983 wrapping the one oar-powered supply boat to a midstream rock like a slice of salami around a hunk of mozzarella. It took half an hour to free the raft and by the time the group was reassembled all were in a proper state of apprehension for the real rapids ahead.
Burnt Ranch Gorge drops between 60 and 100 feet per mile and the descent begins with a bang. You don’t so much float through the Gorge as drop into it. Once past this narrow slit in the canyon wall, the Trinity takes you to a river-wide obstacle, a neatly arranged row of truck-sized boulders with one narrow chute in the middle leading over a 10-foot waterfall.
The drop is clean and the pool below it calm with the silence and presence of a gothic cathedral. Sheer rock climbs skyward 2000 feet enclosing the river in a stony embrace. McGinnis calls the entry rapid Pearly Gates. It fits.
What follows is some of the most heavenly whitewater ever caressed by a raft. Through a continuous succession of pools and drops, the Trinity alternates between peaceful calm and sudden, furious descent. Scouting is mandatory at virtually every rapid and some require so much attention that the eight mile trip can easily stretch to two days.
Water level dictates different strategies and the need for fluid logistics. Burnt Ranch rapids typically squeeze the river through channels tighter than a small raft is wide, over drops that lead directly to wrap rocks, and through great gaping holes that suck boats down and fill them fast.
It is possible to take a 12-foot paddle raft through this maelstrom without a single portage. But every single move must be planned in advance and a second’s hesitation, or a couple of half-hearted paddle strokes, could spell disaster.
In Burnt Ranch Gorge you don’t just run over waterfalls, you navigate down them. There are times when it is necessary to move a boat sideways with draw strokes while dropping down the face of a falls. One rapid requires that you enter it backward with an upstream ferry angle in order to paddle furiously across the current to reach a narrow gap between two rocks, not quite as wide as the boat, and the only path through the rapid.
All this is awe-inspiring, but it still doesn’t prepare you for the sight of Burnt Ranch Falls, a succession of three waterfalls that shatter the river into a rolling seething frenzy.
Those of us who saw it for the first time in 1983 watched the river churn itself into spuming foam in the evening twilight and couldn’t imagine a way through. We had the evening to contemplate the prospect of doom before running the falls the next morning.
The first drop, which some call Jaws, funnels you through a crack between two gaping canine molars as big as summer cabins, then down over a 15 foot falls into an angry hole at the base of an undercut rock. The entry isn’t quite wide enough for a raft and you have to raise a tube to slip through without sticking.
But that part is easy. Below is the heart of Burnt Ranch Falls, a staggered series of Class V drops which gather foam and fury as they carry you toward an ugly mid-stream truck-sized boulder. Entry is everything, but once you’re committed the rest is up to the river. It is not, somehow, as impossible as it seems, but the worst is still ahead.
The lower falls is a fast hundred yards below, where the river squeezes through a jumble of giant blocks before cascading into a rapidly narrowing chute which collides at the bottom with the undercut canyon wall. To enter this madness boats must bump and grind over a narrow rocky channel, then drop eight feet over a waterfall into the top of the rapid. From there the current carries you through a succession of violent holes until it collides with two large, barely submerged, totally unavoidable rocks.
More than any other rapid in the Gorge, kayakers portage the lower falls. But that is not a reasonable option for rafts.
There is no pretty or precise way to run the falls. It doesn’t matter that rafts routinely spin, wheel, waffle, twist, crash and almost burn; it matters only that at the bottom they are right side up with a full crew. This is not a place to swim.
Below the falls Burnt Ranch Gorge offers a parade of solid Class IV and V rapids with one once-unrunnable whopper, Gray’s Falls, at the end. Along the way is every imaginable combination of water and rock, the enduring beauty of a pristine gorge decorated with lacy waterfalls and green grottoes of fern where beaver and otter prowl the banks.
There aren’t many places in the world like Burnt Ranch Gorge and not many people will ever intimately experience it. That is part of its charm. The odds of meeting anyone else along the way, save the anglers who congregate at the falls, are slim.
But the elite nature of this river run imposes some special requirements. Burnt Ranch Gorge is no place for macho boatmen with more bravado than brains. To run it successfully in rafts requires great skill, careful preparation, the right equipment and a certain amount of luck.
For those few with the ability and experience to run Burnt Ranch Gorge, the risks are reasonable and the rewards wondrous.
El Sobrante, California — at 38 Bill McGinnis is owner of Whitewater Voyages/River Exploration Ltd., a rapidly expanding rafting company running more rivers and carrying more passengers than any other California outfitter.
Eleven years ago, the graduate of Ells High School and San Francisco State University, was living rent-free in basement digs at his folks place, preparing to launch his business with two rafts, no wheels, and a $500 “grant” from his grandmother.
Not counting rafts already retired, his firm today has “111 first string ships of the line,” generally costing more than $2,000 wholesale each, seven buses, a full-time, year-round staff of nine, and more than 100 guides at eh peak of the season.
“This is the last year of growth at the rate we’ve been growing.” said McGinnis, whose book “Whitewater Rafting” has become a classic among rafters. “We’re going to level off. Two new rivers will be added this year, making 23 altogether, the vast majority in California and Oregon.”
Operating out of headquarters on San Pablo Creek, McGinnis said winter’s heavy rains mean good business and an extended season. There’s plenty of ice and snow at higher elevations, and rivers run higher.
Trying to keep his embryonic business afloat at its beginning, he traded river trips with a graphic designer and printer to get his first brochure.
“I tried everything I could think of, but not much worked,” he recalled. “When I first started I typed every letter, confirmed every reservation, and answered every phone call.”
Then a publication called Heliotrope listed one of his trips on the South Fork of the American River as a whitewater classroom, and business accelerated like a barrel going over Niagara Falls.
“The trip filled,” McGinnis said. “Heliotrope kept calling to tell me the class was full, and would I teach another. It was successful beyond my wildest dreams, and formed the nucleus of this business.”
Response came at rafting’s moment of evolution.
Marked improvements in equipment were occurring, leading to tougher, more stable, self-bailing rafts, skill levels among McGinnis and his guides were increasing, and they were ready for tougher rivers, as were clients. They were all evolving as better river runners ready for additional challenges.
“There were a bunch of California rivers perceived as too tough to raft,” he said, “but combining the above factors, they were runnable. That is what I’m so proud of. We pioneered trips on those rivers.”
When Whitewater Voyages started, there were approximately 10 rafting companies, and today there are more than 100. In five years, the number of recognized raft runs statewide has more than doubled, a far cry from when Heliotrope delivered its “incredible response,” McGinnis said, “and I advertised for “Person with van or truck wanted to join rafting company.”
Whitewater clientele comes predominately from western states, but they keep coming back for more from as far away as New York, participating in trips on rivers from the Grand Canyon to the Bio Bio, Chile’s largest.
But the majority of International trips, McGinnis said, require too much responsibility, and in the past have lost money.
“I’m having fun and at times going crazy,” the bachelor boatman said, “because there are so many details in running this company. Thank goodness I’ve got great people working for me. I’ve come close to marriage, but I guess I’ve been married to Whitewater Voyages all this time.
“I’m getting better at personal relationships, and I don’t think you can sum me up as a businessman yet.”
He also wants to find time, energy, and commitment to write a novel, involving, naturally, a river trip.
“I’ve decided I like this too much to ever leave it.” McGinnis said, “but coping with the ongoing avalanche of details is fantastic. I have to do all the things left over, lead every whitewater school and do hiring. I may have to delegate more of the leadership role.”
Whitewater Voyages, he added, grosses less money than a busy corner gas station, “but certainly grosses more fun.”
To critics who complain rafters turn rivers into litter scarred aquatic freeways, McGinnis said “rafters don’t litter rivers. A raft leaves no trace of its passage, and rafters take great pains to leave banks as clean as they found them. But some rivers are extremely popular, and some people choose them because of their resort atmosphere.
“They have the same appeal a down-hill ski resort has over cross-country. Folks say, “Hey, this is where the action is.” Already, there is some restraint on the number of outfitters and trips per day. It’s essential to preserve the natural habitat and provide rafters with the experience they seek. They’re not paying to run on a freeway with bumper-to-bumper rafts.”
LAKE ISABELLA — Long known for its wild white water, the quiet and more gentle aspects of the Kern River have found a champion in Whitewater Voyages.
Whitewater Voyages, the largest whitewater rafting outfitter in the state, is expanding its operations in the Kern River Valley following successful bid for a special permit awarded by the U.S. Forest Service for the upper Kern.
The issuance of the permit — which is being appealed by four local whitewater rafting outfitters * — allows the company to take more visitors into areas of the upper Kern River. Because of the appeal, which is expected to be settled this year, the permit is temporary.
According to company owner Bill McGinnis, the permit not only will allow the company to increase the number of whitewater rafting grips, but develop trips designed for visitors seeking a more tame river experience.
Scenic, natural history float trips down the Kern River, McGinnis said, will enable everyone from very small children to seniors and the handicapped to enjoy the majestic beauty of the Kern River while learning about the plants and animals that inhabit its banks.
“I feel we can offer something very valuable and unique,” he said. “There’s a whole other side which is just savoring being there and learning about what you’re seeing.”
McGinnis also predicted that the permit will allow the company to run an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people down the river — a considerable increase for the company which typically runs between 5,000 and 7,000 riders annually.
With the new permit, “We can offer all these different types of trips and have a much bigger presence there and a bigger facility,” he said.
McGinnis hopes eventually to construct a Whitewater Voyages Boating Center on acreage near Kernville where he can offer lodging, a camp for youngsters and other tourist services.
McGinnis already is gearing up to build an additional $50,000 facility in Kernville’s Frandy Park.
“I’ve managed to grow the company at an amazing pace,” he said. “I started on a shoe-string and I’ve been very fortunate. I look at all this and I’m just totally amazed.”
McGinnis started the company in 1975. It is based in El Sobrante, a community in the San Francisco Bay area. It offers 14 different runs on seven rivers in California and Oregon, including the upper, lower and Forks of the Kern River, the American River, the Yuba River, the Merced River and the Kaweah River.
The company also offers half-day to five-day trips ranging from $62 to $615 per person, as well as weeklong whitewater summer camps for kids, inflatable kayak and paddle cat courses and white-water schools for river guides. The company grosses between $1 and $2 million a year, a far cry from the early days when McGinnis launched the enterprise with two rafts and a $500 gift from his grandmother.
That first year, McGinnis traded river trips to pay for his first brochure, hired a river guide who had a van and quickly made a name for himself by booking exploratory trips and conquering rivers that were once labeled “unrunnable.”
In 1975 McGinnis published his first book, “Whitewater Rafting.” Now out of print, the book went through three printings and solidified his reputation in the world of white water.
McGinnis originally planned a career as a writer and earned a master’s degree in literature before turning to his other love — the river. He said he began developing a philosophy on the river when he was 18 years old and worked as a guide for the first outfitter in California.
It was a time, he recalled, when “the guides were cool and the clients were turkeys.”
The machismo attitude so prevalent on the river left McGinnis feeling miserable. “It obscured even the beauty of the river,” he said.
McGinnis summed up his customer service philosophy in a second book, “The Guide’s Guide,” published in 1981. The 130-page guide focuses on creating an atmosphere on rafting trips that is conducive to pleasure and personal growth.
“I see a river trip as more than just a physical journey,” McGinnis said. “It’s a movement of emotion from fear to confidence to joy. It’s a movement from feeling a stranger in a group to feeling accepted and connected.”
It is an emotional journey that McGinnis says he offers his riders. “Our philosophy is to provide the safest, most enjoyable trips possible and to nurture the human spirit,” McGinnis said.
“Bill wants to do good for everybody,” said friend and fellow whitewater outfitter Chuck Richards. “He wants to run soothing, pleasant trips, introspective trips.”
“Look cool, have fun and stay in the boat!” These are the most important things to remember, says Matt Weiss, 12, as our raft drifts along the South Fork of the American River on a brilliant, mid-July day. Sky: cloudless; air temperature: mid-80s; river temperature: a cold 48 degrees.
Today is the fifth and final day of Whitewater Voyages’ summer camp for kids. For his final, Matt is going to captain us through the biggest rapid on the upper South Fork, aptly named Troublemaker. The crew–Alison Kirby, 12; Nat Hughart, 16; Bill McGinnis, 48, our guide for the day; and me–will paddle the raft wherever he tells us.
We strap down our gear bags and water bottles, and get into position. There’s white water ahead.
I had arrived the night before at Whitewater Voyages’ River Park campground in the Sierra foothills about 45 minutes east of Sacramento. Booked for a weekend of rafting to celebrate my 39th birthday, I joined the kids’ camp on Friday to get in an extra day.
Although I have no kids of my own, I guess I’m still a kid at heart. I’ve worked as a river guide and a camp counselor, and was curious about the combination of teenage exuberance and white-water thrills.
Feeling intrepid, I pitch my tent under Ponderosa pines and, with only a twinge of guilt, flop out my four-inch-thick foam mattress. Staring through the tent’s dome at the star-flecked Sierra sky, I snuggled luxuriously and let the music of the river lull me to sleep.
The next morning, I join eight young campers and four guide/counselors for breakfast at the camp’s outdoor kitchen–a semicircle of picnic tables set in an oak-and-pine fringed clearing.
I’m invading a tightly knit group of adolescents, who, in five days of running rapids and camping at River Park, have bonded and formed their own social order. There is the usual razzing (14-year-old Dory Kramer is nicknamed “Bacon Boy” for his breakfast proclivity), but I’m struck by their spirit of cooperation as they fix breakfast and clean up together. One of the camp’s main goals, McGinnis tells me later, is to foster teamwork.
After breakfast we ride a bus upriver to our put-in point just below Chili Bar Dam, one of two major hydroelectric projects on the South Fork. To kill time on the ride, the kids share some of the safety tips that they’ve learned.
From Molly Trombley-McCann, 12: “If you fall out of your raft you should float with your feet pointing downstream to fend off rocks.”
From Jason Ng, 12: “Most injuries occur on shore, like slipping on rocks and getting poison oak. Sunburn is the most common injury on a river trip.”
At Chili Bar, the kids help the guides pack and rig our boats: inflating the 14-foot rafts, filling water bottles, securing coolers and gear bags. We have three rafts, with one guide for every two or three campers. Each day the campers’ bus upriver and raft down to River Park, or launch from River Park and bus back. The South Fork has two runs: the eight miles from Chili Bar to River Park, and the 12 miles from River Park to Folsom Lake.
McGinnis briefs us on the day’s itinerary–rafting all morning, lunch by the river, rafting all afternoon to River Park. Then, about 10 a.m., we cinch up our life jackets, grab our paddles, climb aboard and paddle into the swift, deep current.
Meatgrinder, our first rapid of the day, approaches. As we coast toward it on a smooth, V-shaped tongue of water, Alison adjusts herself in the captain’s seat in the stern. For a moment I wonder if I’m crazy rafting in icy water with a 12-year-old at the helm. But Alison is confident and calm. Barking out commands to us as we drop into a series of frigid waves and frothy, swirling troughs, she guides us through without bashing into a rock, flipping the boat or losing someone overboard. “The South Fork is a very forgiving river,” McGinnis says. “That’s why it makes an ideal teaching river.”
All week the kids have been learning how to maneuver rafts, rig and repair boats, and rescue “swimmers”–the rafting term for overboard crewmen. Today is graduation day, with Alison, Matt and Nat taking turns captaining our raft through a large rapid. To captain a boat you must read the current, decide how to avoid obstacles, and yell out commands to the other paddlers so that together they can navigate such rapids as Meatgrinder, Racehorse Bend, Triple Threat and Troublemaker.
Rapids are rated from Class I to V–from calm water to fierce white water that can include dangerous rocks and even small waterfalls. Meatgrinder is a Class III, Troublemaker is a Class III+. The South Fork, a Class II-III river, is great for beginners, with a strong current, some obstacles, such as boulders and tree limbs, and moderately challenging white water.
“All forward!” “Back paddle!” “Right turn!” “Left turn!” Commands fly over the raft along with sprays of icy water. I’m impressed by the kids’ aplomb after only five days. Aged 12 through 16, the campers comprise six boys and two girls from all over California. This is the first kids’ camp operated by Whitewater Voyages, one of California’s top white-water outfitters. McGinnis and the other counselors tell me that it’s been a rewarding, if somewhat exhausting, experience to watch kids from a variety of backgrounds bond and gain confidence in their rafting skills.
A white-water instructor with over 34 years of experience, McGinnis is Whitewater Voyages’ owner and founder. Author of “The Guide’s Guide: Reflections on Guiding Professional River Trips,” as well as several other books on white-water rafting, he got the idea of an instructional camp for kids from parents who wanted to teach their kids how to raft.
McGinnis said kids proved to be his toughest students. “It’s a typical teenage stance to act cool and unenthusiastic. So I learned I had to keep the seminars short, humorous and hands-on whenever possible. The good thing about a river, on the other hand, is that it demands a kid’s attention.”
At Class III Racehorse Bend, I get a chance to captain. I started rafting 20 years ago when I was in college in Oregon, where I guided trips on the upper Rogue River. But the first run of the season is always a thrill. I jab my paddle in the current, yelling out commands as we blast into the white water. Bouncing through without a mishap I feel the kids’ respect for me growing. I’ve passed the river’s test; I’m now one of them.
After Racehorse Bend we pull over for lunch. This time the counselors prepare the food while the kids laze in the shade, recounting each others’ morning runs. Lunch is an array of fresh fruits, cheeses, cold cuts, bread and cookies, spread over the two wooden planks of an impromptu buffet table.
One the most popular white-water rivers in California, last year the South Fork of the American carried about 140,000 passengers on commercial and private rafting trips. Its rafting season typically lasts from April through October. Dam releases allow for steady water flow throughout the Sierra summer.
Apres lunch is no time for satiation and a nap. Quite quickly we’re embroiled in Triple Threat, a rapid with three distinct sections. This time Nat is our captain; with a vise grip on his paddle he rudders our approach. Following his commands, we drop into the white water and cleave through big, back-cresting waves, as synchronized as a swim team.
“Awesome!” captain Nat declares, beaming with pride.
Next up is Swimmers’ Rapid, a relatively calm stretch of river where the hardy can jump in and ride the current, sans raft. We’re instructed to assume the correct position: feet first, arms out, head up. I’m a cold-water wimp, raised in Southern California, but, like the kids, I’m wearing a wetsuit. Feeling macha, and to celebrate my birthday, I take the plunge, whooping as I hit the icy water. Even with 3 millimeters of neoprene and a life jacket shielding me, the water is incredibly cold. It’s a feet-first, full-tilt-boogie bodysurfing ride, careening up the face of one wave, plunging down into its trough, rocketing up the face of the next.
After Swimmers’ Rapid, we enjoy a long serene float as the canyon widens. Hawks ride updrafts overhead and a warm breeze makes the cottonwood leaves shimmer in the late afternoon sun.
“There’s something about a river trip that brings people together,” McGinnis muses in a quiet moment. “Kids learn they need each other; to be effective in a raft you have to work as a team. It’s hard to be a teenager today–wondering if you should be an adult one moment, a kid the next. A river simplifies things into basic issues.”
Some parents are just as enthusiastic. Jerry and Marty Abts of Fresno sent their son, Chris, to the July camp hoping he’d find a positive outlet for the summer. He liked it so much they sent him back for the August camp. This summer Chris, now 17, will be attending Whitewater Voyages’ Guide School with the goal of becoming a guide when he turns 18.
Jay Weiss, Matt’s dad, said Matt learned so much about rafting that some of their friends have asked Matt to help guide a trip on the Kern River.
“At first I was scared to let her go because she was young for the camp,” said Cynthia Silva of her daughter, Nicole, 11. “But she came back with such an air of confidence it’s amazing. It’s like she knows she can make it out there in the big world now.”
Floating contentedly in the late afternoon sun, our peaceful flotilla suddenly stirs to life. Troublemaker–and maybe trouble–is right ahead. Photographers and other spectators watch from shore, hoping to witness the occasional, spectacular boat flip, cheering loudly as each boat clears the rapid. Matt stands in the back of the boat, sizing up our position.
Seeing that we’re drifting too far to the left, he yells “Back paddle!” and together we stroke backward to center our raft in the current. Soon we’re plunging headlong into the churning, mashing hole, whooping and yelling as sheets of ice water break over the bow and drench us. Several adrenaline-charged moments later we’re safe in calm water, smiling and intact.
Infrequently, some new toy or tool sends a sport into a giddy growth spurt. Alpine skiers saw just such an explosive development occur with the popular new “super side cut” skis. Now, a similar phenomenon bids to create a quantum leap in the world of river-running. Its name is “paddlecat.”
Key attributes of a dynamic new tool are: It should enable easier learning of the sport for beginners; yet it must also give a boost to current players. Paddlecats accomplish both these things, and also offer a hotter combo of durability, portability, versatility and value than any other river craft on the market.
“Paddlecats shall be as big a step for the whitewater world as self-bailing rafts once were,” predicts Bill McGinnis, owner of Whitewater Voyages — one of California’s premier rafting companies. “I tried one on the Tuolumne (River) and got sold. It ran it all, including Clavey Falls, no problem.
“They are amazingly stable. Even people of moderate paddling ability can go up a level, just by jumping onto one.”
Paddlecats are deceptively simple in appearance. The “cat” part comes from two inflatable raft tubes, laid out in catamaran style. These are linked by a frame (which incorporates a seat) made of either thick Lexan plastic in the Otter version, or metal tubing and nylon webbing in the SOTAR type. Depending on the components used, weight ranges from 40 to 50 pounds.
“Catarafts,” similar but much larger craft equipped with rowing frames and oars, have been sold for almost a decade. These new paddlecats are shorter, narrower and light enough to be effectively driven with a double-bladed kayak paddle.
SOUTH FORK TEST McGinnis, who has concocted and promoted fresh developments in river- running since 1975, recently engineered a group demo-day on the South Fork American to tout the paddlecats.
One voyager, Michael Johnston, 45, director of Tourism for El Dorado County, exhibited enthusiasm about his bright blue craft. “I’ve done plenty of trips with others, aboard big rafts,” he said. “But it’s far more exciting to go solo on one of these, and in control of my own destiny.”
A dozen paddlecats, half of McGinnis’ new fleet, were given to clients such as Johnston, as well as guides from Whitewater Voyages, seeking familiarity with their outfit’s latest option. McGinnis had playfully painted names ranging from “Arouse” to “Thriller” on each craft. His type of paddlecats employ SOTAR Elite raft tubes, and Lexan frames from Otter Industries. These feature seats with strap-adjusted backrests, as well as thigh straps that aid a more responsive performance.
We launched onto the South Fork for its Chili Bar run. It became quickly obvious that the claims of dramatic technical advance were valid. The nearest competitors of paddlecats are inflatable kayaks — long, narrow rafts with solid floors that have been in use for decades. But paddlecats have no floors to shove through the water, and also have no tendency to collect splashes of water, so they’re remarkably more agile than inflatable kayaks.
To pop into an eddy behind a rock or curve of riverbank, all one must do is poke the bow of one tube into the eddy, and lean against the thigh strap in an appropriate manner. Because these long, twin tubes have modest tracking ability (a tendency to stay on course), paddlecats also excel at ferrying (crossing a stream at an angle while paddling against the current). I was even able to briefly surf the craft on standing waves at Maya, Troublemaker and Old Scary rapids.
Besides their excellent handling, paddlecats boast ample floatation for carrying accessory dry bags laden with camping gear and other equipment. This makes them quite attractive for self-supported river trips of several days. Their portability — especially with tubes deflated and lashed to the seat/frame — means they can be easily hiked to remote rivers. In fact, water safety instructor Tim Delaney says he already has used the paddlecat in this fashion for several wilderness runs.
TARGET FOR WIND
Just one flaw appears in performance: the high and lordly seating position, which provides a rider with great visibility and good leverage on paddle strokes, also makes you a target for upriver winds, or blasts coming from across a lake. But where winds don’t pose a problem, anglers may also find them an attractive option.
Those exploring the paddlecat’s performance on the South Fork did pay some dues. Johnston collided with another raft and upset at Meatgrinder rapid, and two paddlers punched the First Threat wave at a bad angle and took a swim. Two more swam at Troublemaker. But the paddlecat is easy to remount after an upset, and by day’s end, all still were smiling.
MyPrimeTime.com — Bill McGinnis spent his college summers putting on far-flung river adventures with friends, his genuine love of the outdoors pushing his spirit to explore. One day he took out an ad in the paper: “River explorer/writer needs people for exploratory trip down the Selway.” People signed up. And Whitewater Voyages was born.
Today, McGinnis, 53, is a respected pioneer in the adventure sports industry, which has grown from fringe acceptance to a “must have” experience for millions. His company, started with two rafts and $500 from his Grandma, has evolved into California’s largest rafting outfitter. Perhaps just as important, he’s struck a rare balance among his work, passion and life.
You pioneered rivers that were once considered unrunnable. What sort of skills did you need to run those trips?
We had strong and open teamwork, a willingness to work together in a supportive way and to create an atmosphere, not of criticism or rivalry, but cooperation.
Are there parallels between running a river and running a business?
Yes, running a business has everything to do with personal skills and creating an atmosphere where people can make mistakes, be themselves and enjoy themselves. Create this atmosphere and you can bring out people’s best. You need to delegate to their strengths and minimize the impact of their weaknesses.
Especially so when you’re talking about a challenging river where a mistake could be disastrous.
It is not enough to just get people down the river safely. They also need to have a good time. To inspire that type of guiding, you must treat people as full and important and valuable human beings. Their ability to connect with people, to make good decisions, to be an effective part of a team, has everything to do with their own self-esteem, their own sense of being accepted.
Some would say that you have a dream job. Do you have any advice for those looking to combine their work with their passion?
California’s largest rafting company, Whitewater Voyages, has bought Spirit Kings River Whitewater for an undisclosed sum.
The purchase enables El Sobrante-based Whitewater Voyages to guide one- and two-day rafting trips on the Kings River in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests east of Fresno. The Kings River is known for its long roller-coaster-like rapids, company officials said, but is still suitable for riders of all ages.
The addition of the Kings River places Whitewater Voyages in the unusual position of being able to guide trips on every popular white-water river in California, including the Kern, Kaweah, Kings, Merced, Tuolumne, the three forks of the American, Yuba, Klamath and Salmon, said Bill McGinnis, founder of Whitewater Voyages.
The addition of the Kings River “is the dawning of a new era, because the Kings is a wonderful river with good capacity. We’ll be one of three outfitters on the river,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis is a pioneer of California river rafting and has written four books on the sport. He began Whitewater Voyages (www.whitewatervoyages.com) in 1975 with two used rafts, no car and $500 from his grandmother.
For people new to rafting, the thought of floating down through the swirling currents and surging, cresting waves of an actual wild river in an inflatable rubber boat composed mainly of thin air no less can be a daunting prospect. Such fears are entirely normal. In fact, when most people contemplate outdoor adventure activities like whitewater rafting, it is entirely normal to experience fear, consciously or unconsciously, on a number of levels. There is physical fear: Am I going to get hurt? Am I going to die? There is social fear: Am I going to be accepted or rejected by this group? And biggest of all, for most of us, are fears around issues of self esteem: Can I do this? Am I OK?
First, some facts: Modern whitewater rafts are extremely rugged, stable, compartmented and unsinkable. All participants of guided river trips wear very buoyant high-float life jackets. Whatever California river you pick, literally thousands and in many cases hundreds of thousands of people have safely rafted before you. While, just as with any outdoor adventure activity, there is inherent risk, rafting with professional guides is far safer than skiing, and probably safer than driving on a modern freeway or walking on a city street.
Second, realize that skilled river guides implicitly assuage all of these fears in the very way they prepare you and guide you down the river. Every trip begins with a thorough safety talk and in-boat training which teach you everything you need to know to make it safely down the river thereby addressing physical fear. And by doing this with warmth, caring, good humor and respect, professional guides create an atmosphere of acceptance and support and good fun in which social fears and fears around issues of self esteem melt away.
In fact, a typical river journey with well-trained guides is much more than just a physical movement from put-in to take-out, it is a journey from fear to confidence to joy, from being a stranger to being known and feeling bonded with one’s boat mates, from feeling perhaps scattered and self-critical inside to feeling more self-accepting, more whole, more fully alive, and, as an extra plus, from feeling cut off from the natural world to feeling connected with and truly amazed and delighted by the magic of our planet.