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essays from the field Roo Riley


Team Utah frozen in time. And fear.

the raft race rally by dave shively The casual passerby poses a valid question: “Are you guys going rafting or spelunking?” Half of our six-man team looks more like cavers than paddlers, decked out in rockclimbing helmets, rain shells and running shoes, their torsos wrapped in overstuffed commercial life jackets. We don’t exactly fit in with the elite competitors at the U.S. Rafting Association National Championship, the winners of which will represent the United States at the 2009 World Rafting Championship in Bosnia. Most of the teams we’ll be racing on Idaho’s South Fork Payette are composed of career guides with decades of whitewater knowhow. The squads from Colorado, Oregon, California and Idaho have spent seasons honing technique at local races, as well as courting gear sponsors for everything from highperformance rafts to matching helmets, paddles and PFDs. I haven’t even met the people I’ll be racing with. My brother-in-law, Tom, had convinced some fellow staff members from his Salt Lake City outdoor program to enter a team. Hence the climbing gear. Our teammates weren’t complete outdoor adrenaline newbies, they were just new to paddling stout whitewater. Still, with Tom’s experience, I liked our chances. He’d raced on the U.S. national team years prior, and as a commercial guide he’d steered amateurs through Class V rapids for years—a perfect resume for a weekend combining consequential racing with rookie rafters. Tom knew I’d jump at any viable excuse to go boating in Idaho, and sure enough, two minutes after picking up the phone I am officially part of the team. My first assignment: Drive from western Colorado up to Idaho, with a 230-mile detour to pick up a race-ready raft Tom had called in a favor to borrow. My road-weary Subaru rolls into Crouch, Idaho just before sundown the next day, overloaded with the packed raft, a kayak, six paddles, two new teammates and a dog picked up in Salt Lake, plus camping and boating gear. Before dark, we join the rest of newly dubbed ‘Team Utah’ to scout Staircase, the lengthy Class IV crux of both the sprint and downriver events. Tom is replaying footage from the day on his camera. Teams with far more experience have been flipping in the seemingly unavoidable hole below the entrance. The long, brutal and bruising swims ripple anxiety through our group. “The reality is that this isn’t a venue you race with a bunch of yahoos,” Tom says. Let’s define yahoo. 46 |

Adam and Stefan, one-third of our six-pack, are on their way to ski Mount Rainier. I ask Stefan what sort of whitewater experience he has. “Oh, I did some, like, Grade Two stuff one time,” he says. Yikes. This is why we leave the borrowed fiberglass paddles for race day, using cheap raft-company sticks for our white-knuckle practice run through Staircase, which, to everyone’s surprise, doesn’t end in bloodshed. So at least we can paddle downhill. But as a worlds qualifier, we have to race slalom as well—by far the most technical discipline, demanding unspoken, synchronized draws and pries, working as one to catch eddies and fight upriver through certain gates. Our confidence isn’t bolstered the next day when we arrive for our virgin slalom practice. The streamlined Oregon Rafting Team truck is already there, emblazoned with team logos and carrying a custom AIRE raft. One of them says both their A and B teams have been training for months. “You should stop by the River Pond Campground later for some beers,” Bret, Stefan’s twin brother, offers up. “No thanks, we’re pretty focused,” the Oregon paddler replies as he gets back in the truck and heads upriver to what we can only assume is some kind of mobile command station. We still have to scrape up the $250 entry fee. “Look at us, we ought to be sponsored by Deseret Industries,” Bret says of Utah’s equivalent of Goodwill. “This is like The Mighty Ducks combined with Cool Runnings. Except in Cool Runnings they actually won.” I consider the comparison. Die-hard ski mountaineering bros from whitewaterstarved Salt Lake is a fair analogy to Jamaican sprinters turned bobsledders. “Wait a second,” I say, recalling an important plot point. “They don’t win at the end of Cool Runnings. They flip over.” “Oh yeah,” Bret says. “But then everyone does the slow clap for ‘em.” Either way, not flipping is the bottom line. Which isn’t a huge concern in the Class II-III slalom, where we serve as guinea pigs, running through (or close to) enough of the nine gates for teams in legit contention to plan their own lines. The Saturday sprint event down Staircase, with the river barreling just shy

of 6,000 cfs, is another story. Like a car staying in gear to maintain control offroad, everyone must pull their weight, every stroke must create traction. If one piston fails, or falls out, the desired line turns into disaster. Everyone’s on edge. I can even sense it in Tom. “Only locking carabiners on the boat,” he snaps, pulling off a clipped water bottle as he makes the final rigging calls. We nail our first line and tempt fate again with a second, optional run to clock a faster time. We get it, screaming out the pent-up adrenaline as we cross the finish line. That success, and the trust forged in collective effort and pain, quickly binds our crew together. The on-water crucible turns what was a group of goofball strangers into closer acquaintances than colleagues I’ve made office talk with for years. That night, before the final downriver race, Team Utah goes big at the Dirty Shame Saloon. The rain is pounding, the live bluegrass turns muddy sandals stomping and the PBRs are a buck apiece—a perfect storm of events for river-runners camping in the nearby swamp. The downriver race flashes by in a blur of one endless head-down, leanand-pull motion. The details quickly fade, but I’m sure that the slightest whiff of sweaty polypro tinged with beer and Bush’s Baked Beans will forever summon the frenzy of strokes. This is an endurance race won in the flats between rapids, and where raft racing gets weird. You don’t stop paddling. For 25 minutes. Shoulders strain as you focus on breath and technique through the barrage of waves. Tom keeps us going and greases the line through Slalom, the final rapid, and we keep digging to the North Fork confluence finish, joking through grunts that we’ve “gotta earn that slow clap.” We find out later we finished a mere 16 seconds behind Oregon in the downriver race, earning fourth place overall. It’s still a long way from the worlds, let alone the possibility of a Team Utah reunion for another race. But when the frivolous forces of enthusiasm converge, you just ride it out, paddle hard and see what happens. — Visit for results from the World Rafting Championship, May 17-24.

The Raft Race Rally  

First-person tale of a ramshackle team's run at the 2008 U.S. Rafting Association National Championship. June 2009 Canoe & Kayak magazine.

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