by Eric Johnson
Photo Cred:"Rivers lead us to the most serene places, some areas untouched by man. But on the other side of the spectrum, more often than not, man has altered in some way, our most precious resource. But this place has recently seen both scenarios, where man came and then left. And Mother Nature continues on flowing freely. I am in love with the places we can defend, respect, and cherish like the Lower White Salmon. This image displays the calm before the experience just downstream. Down stream we go..." -John Webster of Boise, Idaho | White Salmon, Washington | CTR 2018
The kayakers showed up to the put-in at the Boundary Creek Boat Launch with small cars and a couple of kayaks strapped to the top. The rafters showed up with vans full of gear, and rafts on a trailer with even more gear beneath the rafts. The kayakers wrung their hands while staring at the pile of gear stacked on the boat launch. The rafters shrugged and dug around for more cam straps.
“Yes, the pink blowup Flamingo Floaty is coming with us.”
We were a mixed group of Kayakers, and Rafters about to embark on a six-day trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The act of rigging and packing for the trip forced us out of our tribes and into the uneasy company of the “other,” so we made nervous small talk.
Many of the kayakers on this mixed trip had done self-supported multi-day trips, including down through the Grand Canyon. They talked of the suffering incurred by trying to fill their kayaks with enough food and gear to survive. I heard stories of eating gross, but energy dense food and pooping in wag bags, which then get shoved in pvc tubes. And even worse, hundreds of miles of river with no beer.
The rafters could not relate to the deprivation, but we had our own stories of empty wallets and strained backs from all the gear we have purchased and hauled up and down river banks.
Perhaps we kayakers and rafters had some common ground or common water so to speak. Perhaps I could forget that web pages have been devoted to derogatory back and forth between kayakers and rafters.
So, in the name of charity, tolerance, and curiosity, I tasked myself with studying these kayakers in an effort to debunk or confirm some of my own preconceptions.
And I’m happy to report that kayakers are people too.
Myth #1 Kayakers are freeloaders who just want rafters to carry their beer or who want to drink yours.
This isn’t true. Sometimes it’s wine. As In the case of Hillary, a kayaking teacher from Denver who cleverly hid two Bota bags in a small dry bag. To be fair, she also let me drink some of her wine. And while a couple of the kayakers did drink my beer, I also drank theirs. After all, on my raft, I sit two feet from the beer cooler. So, it’s the kayakers who had to trust me.
Myth #2 Kayakers are selfish.
The paradox of rafting is that you bring more stuff to enhance your comfort, but the daily loading and unloading of said stuff diminishes comfort–seriously. In some ways rafting is like moving to a new apartment, daily. In real life your friends would stop showing up to help you move. But, day after day on our river trip, the kayakers hopped in the gear brigade line and helped move everything up the bank of the river to camp. Several of our kayakers gave up their unencumbered freedom to paddle rafts. And our oldest kayaker, Charley, spent and evening teaching a non-kayaker to roll.
Myth #3 Kayakers are all the same dude.
Close your eyes and imagine a kayaker—young, male, lean, long hair, gauged ears, tattooed knuckles, ability to make the word “boof” sound like a word anybody might use and a name like Steve-O. Yeah, actually, that guy was one of the kayakers on this trip. But he wasn’t at all as one-dimensional as he sounds.
And he wasn’t the only type of kayaker. Apparently, all different sorts of people kayak. Hillary, for instance, wasn’t a dude at all. Mark was a math teacher; Alex was a vegan, with a Ph.D. Chris was an electrician who was built like a football player. Charley was seventy year old bridge playing grandpa. And Drew was an ex-marine.
Myth #4 Kayakers are careless
Kayakers probably are more likely to be adrenaline junkies than rafters. But most of them can also dial it back when necessary. On our trip, the kayakers paddled ahead and scouted rapids, waited in eddies for the rafts, and found camps. They served as aquatic carrier pigeons between the less maneuverable rafts, sending messages and the occasional beer. And, in camp, it wasn’t a kayaker who, cut his foot, fell off the back of his boat, or rolled over in his tent and peed in his shoe. But it wasn’t me either (at least the peeing in my shoe part).
Video Cred: Alex Alexiandes
Myth #5 Kayakers don’t belong around children
I’m reminded of the famous philosophers Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings who said, “Mamas don’t let your Babies Grow up to be Kayakers” or something like that.
In the rapid above Tappan Falls a raft hit a rock wall and dumptrucked all the passengers except a nine year old girl named Addy. When she saw that nobody else was in the raft, she abandoned ship and jumped into the current above the falls. Alex, one our kayakers, rescued her and pulled her safely to the other side of the river, so I could think of worse things she could grow up to be than a kayaker.
Myth #6 Kayakers have dirtbag tendencies.
True, one of the kayakers did sleep under a trailer when it started raining the night before launch day. Another wore some prescription glasses that had been found in the river claiming that he could finally see. And Hillary had part of the undercarriage of her car held up with electrical tape. But kayaking gear isn’t under lock and key at whitewater shops. So they couldn’t be as bad as climbers, right?
Myth #7 A Kayaker will steal your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend
This might actually be true, but they’re going to give your loved one back before launching because…it’s a kayak.
Myth #8 Rafters and Kayakers don’t belong together.
But I’ve discovered that we do. Kayakers don’t smell when they get wet as I was always told. It’s just their gear. And despite the fact that online forums keep us separate, we don’t have to live this way. I can enjoy watching kayakers surf, boof, squirt, and roll and they can appreciate bringing an actual camp chair on a river trip.
Toward the end of the trip, I found myself auditioning for the kayakers as a potential gear boat captain on future trips. When I mentioned this to the kayakers, a couple of them admitted that they were auditioning for me as potential safety kayakers on future trips.
This was a beautiful moment. There in the late evening light, along the banks of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, kayakers and rafters stood together and realized that we were one… at least in the eyes of Rec.Gov and the river permit system.