A river run could be your adventure vacation this spring.

We huddled together on a boulder above Skull Rapid, surveying its churning waves, shouting over the roar, pointing to rocks and patterns in the current of this major rapid in Westwater Canyon of the Colorado River.

There is no doubt about how to run Skull (sometimes called Cisco Bend). Just before making a sharp left turn, the river funnels through a slit between a boulder on the left and a cliff wall on the right. The right channel of water collides with the cliff and feeds into a huge whirlpool, while the boiling center chute piles against the wall at the bottom of the rapid. The hard left side offers a slim chance for a clean run, and only the very best oarsman can thread the twenty-foot channel without scoring a “billiard shot” off one side or the other.

A hand clapping cry of “Let’s go down the river!” got our group scrambling down toward the boats. The kayak ran first, skimming across the smooth water and entering the rapid dead center. It glided effortlessly through the turmoil, before “eddying out” in a patch of quiet water on the right just in front of the whirlpool, the boatman ready to act as a rescue squad for the inevitable flip.

Next came the lead Sportyak, a lightweight one-person rowboat, manned by the outfitter-guide. Positioned with the stern to the left bank and the bow to the danger, the bouncing boat was sucked into the channel. With powerful oar strokes, the guide maneuvered it across current lines, eased down the left slot perfectly.

Almost immediately, our ten-man raft of whooping U-Paddlers entered the rapid, legs locked on side tubes like bareback riders, paddles digging for the solid water below the white-green foam, the rudder man barking orders, “Pull right! Pull right! Miss that rock!” The raft threaded the slot in a fairy tale run that was over in seconds. At the bottom, we shouted and hugged in exaltation, reliving the brief victory and praising each other for conquering Skull. An old hand on the shore who’d witnessed the whole spectacle said, simply, “The river gods just decided to let them through this time.”

Whether by kayak, sportyak, ten-man raft, or motorized pontoon boat, for one day or one month, white-water river running has become one of the most popular adventure vacations. River running is fast becoming a recreational sport in nearly all of the states, as well as in such countries as Peru, Ethiopia, Nepal, and New Zealand.

Today’s professional outfitter-guides provide any and every kind of river experience – “adrenalin high” trips, peaceful nature-oriented trips with occasional rapids, do-it-all-yourself trips, luxury trips with cocktails before dinner, and white water training sessions. Determining which of these trips is for you and then matching your preference with the outfitter who provides that trip is the key to a successful trip.

If you cannot bring yourself to sleep on the ground, encounter insects, or substitute a cold river bath for a hot shower, then try one of the various one day trips. They provide the same basic white water, without the wilderness, experience. You might include river running in an existing vacation plan, but remember that wilderness rivers aren’t close to anything but your own automobile.

Once you’ve decided on the trip you want, think about the area. Terrain and the overall wil- derness experience are insepara- ble, so take environs into account. If you love mountains, try the Idaho, California, or Oregon rivers. On the other hand, if desert solitude intrigues you, try Big Bend or the Utah Canyon-lands trips. If you think a majestic place like the Grand | Canyon would be your best loca-||tion, you might want to reconsider your choice. Rapids, yes. Scenery, no. You can only see up .”one canyon wall from the river level, so the magnificent view is completely blocked much of the time. There are other canyon systems just as scenic, such as the Rio Grande and Snake River canyons, and if it’s wildlife you want, consider the northern rivers, where you can often see eagles, otters, sheep, bears, ducks, trout, and salmon.

When you send off for brochures, check carefully for the following features:

Cost: The average charge is $75 to $100 a day for a multi-day trip. Cost differences between outfitters can mean differences in equipment, menus, personnel, and transportation to and from the river.

Most outfitters provide all equipment, including sleeping bag, ground cloth, eating utensils, waterproof bags, and first aid kits. Some outfitters will furnish them for a small rental fee. If you want a tent, bring one, for few outfitters provide them.

Outfitters provide plenty of food, and unless otherwise specified, all of the manpower to prepare it. While some outfitters provide camp fare on paper plates, others pride themselves on furnishing gourmet meals in the wilderness – pork chops, wild rice, zucchini, green salad, fresh sourdough bread – on Corning china. Suit yourself; you’re paying for it. Liquor is sometimes provided but you may need to pack your own; if you do, use unbreakable, leak-proof containers.

Once you’re there, everything is taken care of; but getting there can be half the trip. Wilderness trips occur in remote areas, and you must drive or be driven to these areas. Don’t take the cheapest trip only to find you are stranded 100 miles from anywhere at journey’s end, without your car or any transportation back to it. It’s more common for outfitters to fly passengers in and out of the river, using short-takeoff-and-landing planes on small dirt landing strips; so if the thought of a small plane or the sound of the stall alert makes you uncontrollably nervous, opt for a river you can drive to. If the brochure simply lists the put-in point and states, “We will meet at 8 a.m. at Sand Wash,” ask exactly where that is. (Sand Wash is the put-in for the Desolation Canyon trip on the Green River and is a lone sand bend in the river, about four hours by truck from the nearest paved highway.) When you take out, your car will be where you left it unless you’ve made arrangements to have it “ferried” to you.

Having checked costs, ask about family plans, or group discounts; you’ll probably want to go back again, and take friends and family.

At this point, there are usually a lot of unanswered questions remaining. The most common ones seem to be. . .

Is it dangerous? While there is an element of danger on any white water trip, you’ll be tended by qualified guides who, in most states, are trained, tested, and certified before they are allowed to carry paying passengers.

May I bring a camera? Yes. Waterproof army surplus ammo cans are usually provided for keeping cameras and equipment handy during the day. Keep the camera “canned” through the rapids unless it’s waterproof.

Where do I go to the bathroom? Because of environmental laws, commercial outfitters on most rivers are required to carry chemical porta-potties. Set up in tents (or behind rocks and trees), these facilities are available during camp time – morning and evening. Midday breaks are “shore stops.”

What do I wear? First, sunblock. Twelve hours a day in blazing sun is too much for even the most seasoned skin, so pack plenty. Use a big-brimmed tie-down hat that won’t wilt when wet. Cutoffs, T shirt/halter top, and tennis shoes are the optimal uniforms. Carry a towel and biodegradable soap for a “river bath” in the evening; a flashlight is helpful if there’s no moon. Most outfitters will provide you a complete packing list either in the brochure or with your trip confirmation letter.

Can I take children? Yes. The brochures will list the minimum ages, but the parent is the best judge of his child’s abilities.

How deep is the river? Nobody knows.

How “big” is the river? Rivers are rated for their difficulty, not size, and ratings can be as high on little rivers as on big ones. There are basically two river rating systems – the international scale, developed by kayakers, uses the I-VI Roman numeral scale; and the Western scale of measurement, invented by a Grand Canyon pioneer, uses the 1-10 base. On both scales, 1 is easy; VI and 10 are “navigable by experts at risk of life.” The stretch of river is usually given an overall number according to its largest rapid. The gradient, or drop in feet per mile, is also measured. The slope of a river indicates its overall speed, and rivers with gradients of less than ten feet per mile are usually slow, while those with gradients of more than twenty feet per mile are usually difficult and dangerous. The water flow is the final variable in measuring river difficulty, and river people use the unit of cubic feet per second (cfs). Casually referred to as “second feet,” cfs indicates the amount of water flowing past any given point along a river in one second. Eight hundred cfs is small, 5000 is large, 30,000 is gigantic. The cfs changes daily and seasonally, and the spring runoff, monster river can become a peaceful irrigation channel within six weeks. One “big” run, the Grand Canyon, is rated a 10 with one rapid. Lava Falls, dropping 30 feet in a quarter mile at an average of 30,000 cfs. In contrast, the Chattooga (the river of Deliverance fame), a “little” river, is rated a V with one quarter-mile stretch dropping 60 feet in a series of five mini-water-fall rapids at an average of 1000 cfs.

How fast and how far will we go each day? The “average” day on an oar-powered trip is twenty miles, based on an average current of four to six miles an hour. You’ll spend more time on the shore relaxing, eating, packing, and scouting rapids than on the water.

How many rapids are there each day? Of course, this depends on the river. West-water Canyon has fourteen rapids in one day; Cataract Canyon has five rapids in five days. As a rule, most of the river miles will be leisurely floats, with rapids flashing by three or four times a day.

Where can I get more information on the river? Many good river books are published now, and Taylor’s (in Preston Center) stocks a good selection. For a list of 70 or so names and addresses of professional outfitter guides on all the major western rivers, write to the Western River Guides Association, 994 Denver Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84111.

Additional questions should be directedto the outfitter, and no question is too simple. For instance, one Idaho outfitter keepsa letter from a prospective passenger postedfor his boatmen to see. In it, an elderly ladyasks to confirm her and her sister’s five-daySalmon River trip; she requests reservationseach evening at a nearby Holiday Inn, for”my older sister is quite a pill and not willingto sleep adventurously, as I am.”

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