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River Rat Certification

Above: Grace Peven rowing on the Grande Ronde River (circa 2002) with brother, Ben, behind.

Story By: Grace Peven

I recently underwent training to become a certified river rat. Not a rodent with a long snout and a sparsely haired tail that lives near the water, but a rafting guide.  In mid-April, twenty students, and twenty well-experienced guides and instructors embarked on a week of intensive training on Oregon’s Deschutes River.  

My romantic aspirations of conquering mighty currents and rapids are rooted in a childhood full of river adventures. My mom and my dad met through rafting, became guides, and eventually passed on the rafting gene to me.  I’m eternally grateful to my parents for raising me on the sandy beaches and serene waters of the Salmon River.  Many years of rafting with close friends and family inspired an ambition to carry on the family legacy of guiding. This led me to start work at Orion Rafting when I turned 16. I was warmly welcomed into the rich culture of Orion. For my first two summers, I perfected my pepper and watermelon slicing, preparing the tasty lunches for the company’s day trips on the Wenatchee River. I also greeted and helped guests before trips. The long-awaited 18th birthday finally came around, which qualified me for guide training and to, hopefully, find a spot on the guiding end of the rafting spectrum.

My days of guide training started with dew on my sleeping bag and a river mocha in my mug (hot cocoa mix and coffee).  After cinnamon rolls for breakfast, we practiced crucial knots, adding up to about twelve different knots by the end of the week. Now I can tie a mean double fisherman’s knot.  After a full morning of lessons on hydrology, rescue techniques, and maybe a few unexpected skits, we would find ourselves applying our freshly learned skills on the river. 

Photo by Dane Doerflinger: Students gather to scout Boulder Bend Rapid on the Wenatchee River, just below Leavenworth.

Each day I absorbed bountiful amounts of vitamin D as well as a surplus of wilderness, safety, and river knowledge that was useful information.  It was refreshing to be taught practical lessons and actually apply them to the real world.  For a high school student, this abstract idea of practical learning and application was astounding!  I wasn’t cramming for a test; I was learning to apply skills towards a three-dimensional situation. 

At the end of the day, after digesting mounds of a Dutch oven dinner and a luxurious desert dish, we would huddle around a campfire to listen to stories and songs. With thirty-plus years of rafting experience under Orion’s belt, the stories and scenarios retold in the light of the campfire inspired my young guide- self and affirmed my excitement to join this spirited group of exceptional rafters. 

My training also emphasized how much of a team sport guiding is, the importance of thinking as a group, and the need to work cohesively with the people surrounding you.  Not only did we paddle together, we participated in team-building activities.  For example, we were assigned a task of fitting all twenty of us students on a rock with a three-foot diameter, while successfully completing an entire song.

Photo by Dane Doerflinger:  Instructors lead another scout before Rock n' Roll Rapid on the Wenatchee River, near Peshastin.

On the river itself during my first turn at the helm, I successfully made it through the rapid with all persons remaining in the boat.  My heartbeat quickened as I took the guide stick into my hand for my first class 3 guiding episode.  In the middle of the rapid, Buckskin Mary’s, a monster-wave awaits to devour its visitors.  I faced the wave head on, prepared for turmoil.  “All forward!” I commanded.  Seated at the stern of the boat, I watched in awe as a white curtain engulfed my crew, momentarily halting our raft with its sheer force.  My crew aggressively paddled through the powerful wave with grins stretched across their faces.  We emerged from the bowels of Buckskin Mary’s with yells of victory and thrill.    

This summer I hope to enjoy similar experiences, guiding the Wenatchee River.  We’re incredibly lucky to have one of the most sought after rivers in the state, running through our backyard. The Wenatchee is filled with rollercoaster waves that will leave no one dry by the end of the day.  Granny’s Rapid, my personal favorite, contains a thrilling set of monstrous waves.  Residing a quarter mile from the Cashmere take-out, Granny’s is the perfect end to an 14-mile day trip with equal measures of turbulent whitewater and peaceful green water.

Photo by Dane Doerflinger: Post-guide training on the Deschutes River.      

A particularly important lesson I learned during guide training was humility. One of our days on the Deschutes we swam a class 3 rapid. The students experienced an up-close-and-personal demonstration of the relentless force of the river. Drinking in river water and being swept about like a log made me forever grateful for our safe rubber rafts. It motivated all of us to perfect our guiding abilities to avoid swimming future rapids. 

To further emphasize humility and to show our recognition of the greater power of the river, we partook in an Orion tradition of dropping a small rock in the river as an offering to the River Gods.  The rock symbolized respect for the mighty power of the current.  We are subject to the pull of the water, the powerful surge of the rapids, and the relentless, unbounded current.  We simply must accept and appreciate the river’s natural power over our human weakness. Pay attention the Golden River Rule, we were told: Respect the River Gods and they will tolerate you.  

Above: An early morning hike above the Deschutes River.  Part of the appeal of rafting is also enjoying  the surrounding landscape.