6 Things

June 25, 2008

I’ve been in a blogging drought lately.  If good intentions counted for anything, I’d be on my second or third book by now.  But, they don’t, so I’m not. 

To break the dry spell, I’ll hit each of the 6 topics in the masthead – family, faith, politics, current events, career, and outdoor adventures. 

Family first.  As it should be.  On Sunday we took our 3 girls up to Pennsylvania for two weeks of summer camp.  We couldn’t be any more pleased with this camp.  The girls love it, and have a wonderful experience there every year.  That said, while they are away my thought patterns tend to run something along the lines of how-are-they-doing-what-are-they-doing-will-there-be-any-letters-in-the-mailbox-today-how-many-days-before-we-pick-them-up.  I should really be a joy to be around in 3 years, when our son is old enough to join them.

Faith.  There’s an interesting flap brewing between James Dobson and Barack Obama. It seems that Dobson has taken issue with a 2006 Obama speech in which Obama pointed out that Leviticus suggests that slavery is acceptable but eating shellfish is sinful. Obama also noted that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t exactly in line with Defense Department policy. Expect finger pointing and mischaracterizations to ensue – on both sides.

Politics. Obama has asked his contributors to help Clinton retire her campaign debt. Sorry, no can do.

Current Events. George Carlin’s passing over the weekend reminded me of going over to my neighbor’s house to listen to his new Class Clown album. As the album was released in 1972, this meant that I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 years old at the time. Suffice it to say that my friend’s parents ran a somewhat looser ship than mine did.

Career. I learned today that a former colleague has moved his family to one of the area’s most exclusive country club communities. His reputation, at least when I worked with him, was that of a mediocre performer who exceled at playing the corporate game. I’d like to be able to congratulate him on his success and move on, but this is going to take some time to digest.

Outdoor Adventures. I sent out my annual email to organize a whitewater rafting trip to the Gauley River. I have a talent for making things more complicated than necessary, and I did a bang-up job this time by inviting input on changing some of the aspects of the trip. I wish I hadn’t opened that Pandora’s box because predictably, responses are all over the map. It’s hard enough to find a weekend that suits everyone; I can’t imagine what possessed me to add additional variables to the mix.

Well, that’s it. All 6 topics covered. I’ll try for a less disjointed post next time.


The Next Best Thing To Being There

October 2, 2007

Sorry, I’m not quite ready to shelve the whitewater theme just yet.  Bear with me.

After spending way too much time on YouTube viewing rafting videos, I have found a 3-part series that comes closer than most to showing what it’s actually like to raft the Upper Gauley.  Most commercial rafting trips are accompanied by a kayak videographer who paddles ahead of the rafts, then pulls onshore at various points and films the rafts as they navigate the rapids.  As entertaining as these videos can be, they really don’t give much of a flavor of what it’s like in the raft.  These three videos, however, combine footage from three sources – the kayak videographer’s footage, plus footage from a rafter’s helmet cam and footage from a rear-facing camera mounted on the front of the boat.  The end result is probably the next best thing to being there. 

The first clip has an intro and then footage of the first major rapid, “Insignificant”. 

It’s not, by the way. 

The second clip features my favorite rapid, “Pillow Rock”.  You run Pillow Rock by charging as hard as you can straight for the giant namesake rock, then at the last moment you shoot up and then veer past it on the right, slapping it with your paddle as you go by.  Sometimes you get it, sometimes it gets you. 

This clip also includes “Lost Paddle”, which is the longest and probably the most dangerous rapid on the Gauley.  I particularly like this clip because you can hear the guide’s urgent commands and the rafters’ grunts and groans as they press on through this very long rapid. 

The third clip shows “Iron Ring”, and finally, “Sweets Falls”.  Sweets is a spectator favorite due to the many rafts which wind up flipping in the Box Canyon below the falls.  There’s a Roman Coliseum-like atmosphere as the crowd waits expectantly for rafting carnage to ensue.

Many thanks to mwstoll, who put these videos together. Good stuff. 

Gauley Postscript – Could vs. Should

September 27, 2007

We had big waves, and we had a safe return.

It was a great trip.  This was the sixth year that I’ve been organizing these rafting trips, and we had our biggest contingent yet with 13 rafters.  Several are repeats who have come to look at this trip as an annual rite of early autumn, but every year we add a few more to the list.  Everyone was gracious with their thanks to me for organizing the trip, and my response was always the same – I’m happy to do it.  Organizing a rafting weekend every year guarantees that I will be able to go rafting every year.  And, I do get a lot of pleasure out of making the experience available to others.  This year’s trip, however, left me wondering whether there is a way for rafting to play a more prominent role in my life.

In a blog post written while we were getting ready to set out on the Lower Gauley run, my wife showed how well she knows me:

They’ll come home thumping their chests dreaming of jobs that allow for this kind of fun every weekend and on the days in between! Monday morning will come quickly and will hit hard. Such reality is never pretty! Soon the fantasies of the dream job on the river will fade and they’ll begin making plans for next fall’s river trip.

Guilty as charged.  With 15 notches in my whitewater rafting belt, a dozen of them on either the Upper or Lower Gauley, I have to admit that the thought of leading trips instead of paying for them has crossed my mind.  This is nothing new, as I’ve always returned from my rafting adventures euphoric and full of grand ideas.  However, as I’ve gotten to know some of the guides on more of a personal level, I’ve come to realize that joining their ranks really is within the realm of possibility.

After all, not all river guides are pony-tailed 20-somethings who alternate between guiding in the summer and teaching snowboarding in the winter, living out of their car all the while.  There are Gauley guides who spend Monday-Friday behind a desk, or in a classroom, or even a courtroom.  While some Gauley guides are transients and others are West Virginia locals, there are many more who live up to several hours away.  They clock out of their “real” jobs on Friday afternoon, then head to W.Va for the weekend.  In fact, our guide this weekend has a longer commute from his home in Ohio than I would have from Charlottesville.     

So what would it take to become a guide?  I’m physically capable, and have a reasonable whitewater experience base upon which to build.  I would need to go through guide training, which takes place on successive weekends throughout the spring.  Once trained, guides can start leading trips on the New throughout the summer and fall, then the Lower Gauley, and finally the Upper Gauley. 

And that, of course, is why I can’t be a river guide.  The fact that I could spend my weekends as a river guide doesn’t mean that I should spend my weekends as a river guide.  There are guides who are married, and there are guides who have children.  However, I think it’s a safe bet that there are few if any guides who live three hours away from the river and have four children.  If there are, they certainly aren’t involved with their families’ lives in the way that I need to be with mine.

It’s taken me a few days to come to grips with this reality, as my wife predicted.  Now I feel rather silly and selfish for even having considered it.  But, it was an important exercise for me to work through.  Self-awareness and all that, you know. 

If my life situation was different, I believe that I would be guiding, regardless of whatever I was doing Monday-Friday.  I really do feel that strong a connection to it – the river, the adventure, the whitewater fraternity.  But, my life is not different, and I thank God that it is not.   

Crossing Off The List

September 21, 2007

I keep a mental list of outdoor adventures that I want to undertake before I am too old to do so.  Some of the things on my lifetime adventure to-do list will probably, once checked off, fall into the “been there, done that, got the t-shirt, don’t need to do it again” category. 

Skydiving, for instance.  I really want to jump out of an airplane.  But, once I do, I somehow doubt that I will feel compelled to repeat the experience.  Perhaps I will – I had a housemate in law school who had hundreds of jumps in his log, had his own gear, and would have done it every weekend if time and finances allowed.  Maybe I too will become similarly hooked.  But, I don’t think so.  I want to skydive for the experience of doing it – I don’t see myself wanting to spend my weekends refining my technique. 

Caving is another example.  My underground experience up to this point is limited to Luray Caverns.  I would like to go down deep where they don’t give tours and charge admission, to get muddy and probably a little scared exploring the world underneath our feet.  I have an uncle who was an avid caver college, and spent a lot of his free time exploring and even camping in the caverns of western North Carolina.  My uncle and I are alike in many ways, but I think our paths diverge here.  I have a touch of claustrophobia and I just don’t see myself making a habit of squeezing through tight underground passages.  I would like to do it once, however.

One thing that is not in the “been there, done that” category is paddling world class whitewater.  Year after year I find myself organizing trips to raft the Gauley River in West Virginia.  I have rafted the Gauley – the “Beast of the East” – 5 times.  I can recite the Class V rapids on the Upper Gauley by heart:  Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Iron Ring, Lost Paddle, Sweet’s Falls.  I can picture them all in my mind’s eye, even sitting here in front of my computer.  It’s not like the rapids change all that much from year to year, after all.   

So why is whitewater rafting not on my “been there, done that” list?  I think it’s because the night before every Gauley trip, I get butterflies in my stomach.  I have rafted those rapids before, and I know what to expect, but if I push the bravado aside, what’s left is a healthy case of good old-fashioned nervousness.  But, if the pattern holds, that nervousness will soon give way to exhiliration, and then I will return home wondering only half-jokingly if there is any way that I could support a family of 6 while working as a river guide.  That is why whitewater remains on my lifetime list, to be crossed off again and again and again.

We head up to West Virginia tomorrow morning.  Wish us big waves and a safe return.    


Gauley Season 2007 – Trip Planning

July 18, 2007

Every year about this time, I send out an email to friends and acquaintances soliciting interest in a 2-day rafting adventure on the Gauley River in West Virginia. Things are shaping up well for Gauley Season 2007.  At this writing I have 12 confirmations, with another couple who I’m still hunting down. It’s looking like a good and diverse group – several friends from church, a couple of guys from work, a fellow parent at my kids’ school, and a fraternity brother from college. Most have done this trip with me before, and those who haven’t are looking forward to it.  By the way – if you are reading this and received an invite but haven’t responded, please do so.  If I know you and you did not receive an invite but would like to go, let me know. 

The outfitter that we use on this trip requires that rafters be at least 16 and recommends previous rafting experience. The only requirement that I add is that rafters have a good attitude – I want everyone to have some idea of what they are getting into, to be able to put up with some temporary tension and discomfort, and to invite challenge.   

The responses that I have received to my rafting invite email this year have varied from “I AM IN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” to “I’m not one to crap in the woods and roll around in the dirt at night,” with everything in between.  I’m excited that the former will be joining us again this year, and as for the latter, as much as I’d like to get him off of the golf course and into the woods, I respect his honesty.  Rafting a Class V+ river isn’t for everyone.  

But I sure like it.    

Kayaking in Duck

July 17, 2007

Still flush with whitewater adrenaline after a fall rafting weekend a couple of years ago, I came home determined to get a kayak.  A weekend spent rafting a Class IV-V river packs in more excitement than many see in a lifetime.  Still, once I had been rafting enough times to become relatively confident that I would in fact survive each trip to see my wife and kids again,  I wanted to ramp it up a notch.  Even while rafting I would find myself casting wistful sidelong glances at the kayakers zipping through the rapids, seeming at one with their boat and the water. 

I love rafting, but in a raft, you are are on top of the rapids.  In a kayak, you are in the rapids.  In a raft, you are one of 8 paddlers – while everyone has a role to play, you can generally miss a stroke or two and still be OK thanks to the efforts of your fellow paddlers.  In a kayak, you are it.  I wanted that experience.  So, I found a decent used whitewater kayak for sale, got a paddle, helmet, spray skirt and PFD, and I was ready. 

That was two years ago, and the kayak still hasn’t seen a river.  Life tends to get in the way.

It was understandable, therefore, when my wife looked at me a bit skeptically the other day when I told her that I was taking my kayak on our beach vacation.  Not to be deterred, I took the boat down from the storage rack that I had built underneath our back deck, knocked the old wasp nests out from inside the cockpit, and spent the next hour figuring out how to make enough room on the roof of our minivan to accommodate both the kayak and the rooftop carrier that was bulging with boogie boards, sand toys and the other unnecessary necessities that accompany a family of 6 on a week at the beach.  The boat would have looked more at home lashed to the top of a jeep or laid in the bed of a pickup than it did strapped to our minivan’s luggage carrier, but I eventually got it loaded and ready for the road.       

We made it to the beach, and yesterday I hoisted the kayak over my shoulder and headed down to the ocean.  I had flippantly told Jennifer before I left that she should call the Coast Guard if I wasn’t back by suppertime, but I was only half joking.  I had never taken the boat out in the ocean.  The waves were relatively calm, but even so I knew that there was a decent chance that I would flip.  The eskimo roll lessons that I had taken soon after I bought the kayak seemed long ago and far away.  Given that they had taken place in an indoor swimming pool and not in the Atlantic ocean, I guess they were. 

My first challenge, though, was getting the thing in the water.  The kayakers that you typically see at the ocean are usually in stable”sit on top” boats made for the ocean.  You launch these in much the same way that you launch a surfboard – push through the first few waves and hop on top.  My kayak, on the other hand, is a whitewater river boat.  It has a rounded bottom and no keel, so it is easy to roll.  Complicating the situation is the need to squeeze the lower half of your body into the cockpit, and then attach the spray skirt around the edges of the cockpit so the water will stay where it belongs – outside the boat.  

My plan was to take the kayak out beyond the breaking waves, hoist myself on top, slide my legs into the cockpit, fit the sprayskirt, and be on my way.  It made sense at the time, but it was totally unworkable.  Hoisting myself on top of the boat was easy enough, but this technique had me laying on top with my stomach over the cockpit.  The only way that I could pull my legs up under me and slide them into the cockpit was to grab onto the cockpit edges and do a gymnastics-type move where I’d push up with my arms, fully extend and lock my elbows, do a crunch as I brought knees up to my chest, and then slide my feet inside.

This would have been hard for me to do on parallel bars.  Doing it on a tippy kayak floating in a calm lake or swimming pool would have been extremely difficult.  Doing it in the ocean with waves rolling in every 5-10 seconds was impossible.  I’d get up on top, and as soon as I started to bring my legs up, I’d flip to one side or the other.  Or, a wave would come in and deposit a couple gallons of ocean in the cockpit.  Or both. 

After repeated failed attempts, I decided to try a new approach.  Maybe I was on the wrong side of the boat.  I moved around to the other side and tried again.  That was worse.  Then, having tried everything else, I tried again facing the stern instead of the bow.  I got up on top, and this technique did result in my feet pointing forward, the right direction.  The only problem was that I was on my stomach, and needed to be on my back in order for my feet to go in the cockpit.  Imagine laying on a log floating in the water, then trying to flip over on your back.  Add in some waves and you get the idea.

By this time my arms were starting to tremble with exhaustion, and I was yet to paddle the first stroke.  I became resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen – not this way, at least.  I grabbed the tow rope and headed back toward the beach. 

While all of this was going on, I had been vaguely aware that I was accumulating an audience onshore.  All of my crowd was back at the beachhouse and missing the entertainment, but there were a lot of strangers who getting quite a chuckle at my expense.  The older I get the less I care about that sort of thing, but I wasn’t excited about getting so close that I could hear the snickers, be they real or imagined.  I had no choice, though, so I trudged on in, directly toward several young women who had put their beach chairs on the water’s edge to as to get a better look. 

One of them got up and walked toward me as I was still making my way to the beach.  I put on a forced smile.  “Y’all enjoying the entertainment?”

She smiled and looked a bit sheepish.  “We were laughing a bit,” she admitted.  “Do you need any help?”

She was obviously an athlete, with shoulders as broad as mine.  I figured her offer was a serious one, but I wasn’t sure what she could do.  I didn’t see how I could launch from the shore and get through the waves.

She continued.  “I think if you go ahead and get in the cockpit and put the sprayskirt on, I could give you a push and you could get through the waves.”

Her terminology was significant.  Cockpit.  Sprayskirt.  Oh, no.  I’ve been embarrassing myself in front of a kayaker.

“Do you paddle?”I asked, knowing the answer.

“Yeah, I run a kayaking club at my college.”

Now it was my turn to laugh.  “I didn’t realize that I was getting laughed at by an expert!  Sure, it would be great if you could give me a push.”  I got in, attached the spray skirt, and with the help of a good push and a few hard strokes, I was on my way.

And that was that.  I made it back in to shore about an hour later, with nary a flip or Coast Guard rescue, looking forward to paddling again another day.

Future Raft Guide?

November 1, 2006

Here’s Morgan’s first official rafting photo. That’s her in the back, executing what the guide told her would be her most important command of the day – “get down!” I had planned on being next to her in the raft but the guide wanted me in the bow. OK – that’s my favorite spot anyway!

I’ll do a more detailed post on our adventure once I get the other photos developed (life’s gotten in the way), but I couldn’t resist putting this one up now. The rapids aren’t much in this shot but we’d just finished running through a nice wave train. Morgan’s expression is one of excitement and not of terror – I promise!