River rafting addictive for guides and clients

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2004

WENATCHEE, Wash. Shelby Scott swore he wasn't coming back.

After two summers on the Wenatchee River guiding raft trips by day, camping or couch-surfing at night - the 27-year-old from New Mexico was ready for a change of scenery. When the snow melted at the Utah ski resort where he works in the winter, he planned to spend this summer guiding trips on Idaho's Payette River instead.

But Scott says he couldn't help it. Come spring, he packed up his Ford Bronco, strapped his kayak on top and headed to Leavenworth, where he joined scores of whitewater junkies who work as rafting guides each year.

''I just showed up,'' he says with a grin, catching a ride back to Leavenworth after spending the night at a friend's cabin in Plain. ''Here is big-water fun. Big, juicy waves. That's where it's at.''

To locals, they're mostly hidden from view glimpsed occasionally from the highway in the back of a brightly colored raft, or huddled together in the beer garden at Uncle Uli's Pub in Leavenworth.

But when the water runs high in spring and summer, a subculture with decades of history springs up along the Wenatchee River. For every commercial raft trip that goes down the river, there's an experienced guide who makes it happen.

Some live here year-round, with houses, families and wintertime gigs. Others are vagabonds just here for the season, sleeping in tents, orchard shacks or raft bottoms. There are full-time guides, and weekend warriors with Seattle office jobs.

Lester Stoltz, a 23-year-old guide who moved here two years ago from California, sleeps in the bottom of a raft or in a tent on Peshastin Creek during rafting season. His fellow guide, Adam Dodson, was doing the same until he moved in with his girlfriend.

''What do you call a guide without a girlfriend?'' Dodson jokes. ''Homeless.''

Most guides are in their 20s college students or ski bums, with a lot of swagger and little to lose. But some are hard-core locals with decades of experience. Working hard during the day, and often partying just as hard at night, they form a bond that cuts across age and geographic lines.

''It's family,'' says Emily Finn, a 26-year-old guide from Wenatchee. ''You have to trust the people you're on the water with. If something happens, you want them to help you out just like you'd help them out.''

She stands in the parking lot beside the river at Cashmere's Riverside Park at 8:30 a.m., sipping a latte and waiting for a Boy Scout troop to show up for the day's float. The truck she pulled up in is stuffed full of clothes, camping equipment and river gear.

Mostly, she says, guides live out of their cars. It's a chaotic life where you're never sure where you'll end up next shuttling between put-ins and take-outs during the day, making last-minute plans at night.

A full-time guide for three years at Alpine Adventures' Wild & Scenic River Tours, Finn says she makes enough to get by. The standard guide's pay at most companies is $55 to $85 a trip, plus tips.

''You basically live off the tips,'' she says. ''It's not a lot of money. But I get to wake up every day and say, 'I love my job.' ''

It's the Wenatchee River itself that pulls guides and their paying customers to the valley. Commercial outfitters say there are about 20 companies running trips on the river, with customers coming mainly from Western Washington.

There are no comprehensive statistics on how much the river gets used, but the stretch from Leavenworth to Cashmere is by far the most popular rafting route in the state, says Douglass North, a King County Superior Court judge and author of the book ''Washington Whitewater.''

Filled with moderately difficult Class III rapids with names like Suffocator, Snowblind and Drunkard's Drop, the Wenatchee offers whitewater thrills without the dangers of narrow canyons and log jams. Rafters get out and carry their boats around the most hazardous obstacle, Dryden Dam.

But any river can be dangerous. A guide's job is to keep passengers safe while thrilling them at the same time.

''A good river guide really likes people. They're sharing the experience,'' says Gary Planagan, owner of Osprey Rafting. ''You get to relive the first time you went down the river. You see that joy reflected back at you.''

A second-generation guide from Portland, D.J. Tuttle has been living and rafting on the Wenatchee for more than 15 years and recently started his own company, Action Rafting Co., in Monitor.

Tuttle reckons he's been down the river 3,500 times, but he says it never gets dull.

''How can you not get a rush going up a big eight-foot wall of water?'' he says. ''That's pretty thrilling.''

Accidents on commercial rafting trips are almost unheard of, says Deputy Bob Francis, head of the Chelan County sheriff's Swiftwater Rescue Team. They're more common among amateur rafters, he says, including a Redmond teen who drowned last summer in Tumwater Canyon.

The explosion of kayaking in the late '90s left the river more crowded than ever. Some rafters complain about the congestion, but few think requiring permits is the answer. The parts that get rafted mostly lie along private property, and with no government agency claiming control of the water, regulation seems unlikely for now.

Tuttle says guides sometimes act as river police, warning people if they're about to do something stupid or if their boat isn't worthy.

''Pretty much I'll yank somebody off the river if I think it's unsafe,'' he says.

On a Saturday morning in May, dozens of cars pull one by one off U.S. 2 into Osprey Rafting's gravel parking lot. They disgorge about 60 people mostly young, many out of shape, but all raring to hit the rapids. Planagan and his guides rush about, fitting them in wetsuits, handing out paddles and herding them to the put-in sites. One group marches out of town along the highway and down through the evergreens to the river, where four rafts wait on the bank.

Two are for customers, and two are for this year's crop of rookies, who are finishing up their training to be river guides. Planagan pauses beneath the pines to rally the group, giving guides and rookies strict orders to hit every wave possible.

''We're going to go as big as we can without flipping,'' Planagan tells the customers. ''Because on my first whitewater trip, I didn't even get wet.''

They shove off, with Jonathan Clifton, an 18-year-old farm boy from Quincy, at the helm of one of the rookie rafts. It's only his third time piloting on this violent part of the river, and he admits he's scared.

Adding to the pressure is the watchful eye of Planagan, judging the rookies' performance as he pilots the lead boat. A rookie's supreme goal is to get ''checked off,'' when your training is done and you're ready to guide.

One mistake, at least when Planagan's watching, could set you back days.

''He's never looking when you do something right,'' Clifton says. ''As soon as you mess up, he's right on top of you.''

That night, while the rookies are busy scrubbing out the used wetsuits, Planagan announces he's checking Clifton off. The other guides dump the dirty wash water over his head to celebrate. The farmer in Clifton is matter-of-fact about becoming a guide.

''It beats driving a tractor,'' he says.

Lori Sebring sips a beer in her wetsuit and recalls how she became a guide in 1999 for River Riders in Leavenworth.

She was 26 then, working in her hometown of Seattle as a mortgage underwriter and pulling in $40,000 a year. But after training to become a river guide that spring, she quit her job and moved to Leavenworth to guide full time.

Rafting in the summer and teaching at Stevens Pass Ski Area in the winter, she makes a fraction of what she did then. But watching the sun bounce off the river, she says she's never regretted the choice.

''I'd go back to Seattle and it'd be road rage. Here, everyone knows each other. It's a combination of that and love of the sport,'' she says. ''If I had it to do over, I'd do it all the same.''

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