Celebrating 10 Years of Rafting!

What an amazing ten years! The 2006 Whitewater Rafting Season opens today at outfitters all over the United States, and this spring marks the tenth anniversary of my discovery of this amazing pursuit. Whitewater Rafting has changed my life in so many ways and has allowed me to make so many new friends from all over the United States--the most special of which are the Company Owners and Guides and Whitewater Professionals that I have come to count as true friends. I continue to be blessed and touched by their generosity of spirit, warmth of soul, kindness, humor and grace.

It all began back in May of 1996 when I took my first rafting trip on the South Fork American River in the middle of California Goldrush Country. Yep, that's me in the green hat back when I still had hair.

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I was visiting family out in California and was looking for something to do during the week while my family was at work. I opened my AAA Tourbook and found an ad for Whitewater Rafting by All Outdoors Whitewater Rafting. I had always wanted to go rafting, but never had the opportunity. This was it. I called them up and booked a trip on the South Fork American. Little did I know at the time, but I had just booked a trip with one of the Top Five outfitters in the United States. This trip set the standard for all my future whitewater rafting experiences, and I was fortunate that the trip whetted my appetite for more.

Lori Schlaven was the guide, and she was training a new guide. Lori was fun, patient, energetic, funny, intelligent, and completely in command on the river. She taught me how to paddle a raft and she gave me my right back stroke, which every guide on the Gauley River will tell you is a right back stroke they are glad to have in the raft with them.

That first trip was 20 river miles of amazing scenery and great fun. And it gave me sunburn on my shoulders so severe that even ten years later the freckles have not gone away. You know what? I wouldn't trade those freckles for anything.

It wasn't until 1998 that I was able to get back on the river again, this time on the New River in West Virginia. You see, I had heard about the Gauley River, but it was a major Class V and I figured I needed to work up to it with more practice. Everyone advised me the New River was just the ticket. Unfortunately, what I didn't know was, that in the summer of 1998 when I rafted the New, it was at extremely low water levels and missing most of its power. Still it was a fun trip, and after rafting 16 Miles of the New I knew I was ready for the Upper Gauley. Yeah, right.

So I booked a trip on the Upper Gauley the following year in 1999. Unfortunately, the weekend I was to go, there was a major hurricane coming up from the Gulf Coast. So I cancelled the trip and deferred it to October of 2000.

My trip on the Upper Gauley On October 7, 2000 was the one that changed my life. All the details of that trip can be found HERE. But to make a long story short, what happened was that I fell out of the raft at the top of the First Major Class V Rapid: ironically named "Insignificant."

If you've never swam a Class V Rapid, it's so hard to explain the icy cold of 48 degree water penetrating your wetsuit on a 42 degree day. It's so hard to explain the power of the rapids as they toss you about and dunk you under and spin you around as if you were a sock in a washing machine spin cycle. It's so hard to explain that even though you're barely moving a muscle and just being swept downstream while holding on to your paddle that the river is sucking every ounce of energy from your body and tiring you out so completely--really more so than if you had just ran a 10K--in a mere twenty seconds....

It was a rush. but more than that, it was one of those moments of clarity and revelation in life. And the confidence it gave me from experiencing, enduring, and surviving the thrashing of my life really changed me in ways that I'm still pondering and coming to terms with now.

I hope you'll click on the link above to read the full account--it's drama of the highest order and it was a permanent bonding experience for me--Man to the River, and Matt Urdan to Raft Guide Joey Anderson.

So after returning from that Upper Gauley trip, I started throwing myself into learning as much as there was to learn about rafting and whitewater. I joined American Whitewater and got involved and became a Stream Keeper and started working on some projects. Through which I examined the websites of every rafting company that operates in the US, I corresponded with them all, read their brochures, talked to many of the company owners and river guides and formed opinions and gained a knowledge base that has earned me the reputation of the most experienced commercial rafter alive today in the United States. It's not a distinction I attributed to myself, but one attributed to me by Gregg Armstrong of All Outdoors, Dave Arnold of Class VI River Runners, and Sutton Bacon, President of American Whitewater.

After learning about all these great rivers out there, I set goals of rivers I wanted to run, and I methodically started planning vacations around rafting. 2001 saw me going to the legendary Chattooga on the South Carolina and Georgia Border, out to California to raft with All Outdoors and American River Recreation on the Merced, The Tuolumne, and the Kaweah, and so much more. In California I rafted four days and covered 2300 miles by car in a 7-day stint on the West Coast, somehow finding the time to make it out to Crater Lake National Park as well.

This picture is of the Merced River Team Extreme. The Merced was low, only about 1100 cfs, but this trip and rafting with these guys turned out to be one of my all time greatest rafting trips for the fun we had fooling around on the river.

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And then there was my first trip down the Tuolumne with All Outdoors and Amy Blaskovitch. Here, standing in front of Clavey Hole right below Class V Clavey Falls, I was literally making a dream come true.

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Clavey Falls on the Tuolumne is one of the all time Classic Class V Big Drops. The experience lived up to its reputation and running it has been one of the highlights of my rafting career.

After returning home, I made two trips out to Maryland on consecutive Mondays to raft the Upper Youghiogheny with Precision Rafting out of Friendsville, owned and operated by the legendary kayaker Roger Zbel. I haven't been out to the Yough in a couple years, but I've promised Roger, Nancy, Margaret, Olliver, Mark, Walter, Steve, Tom and the crew that I have NOT forsaken them or the Yough and that I will be back this year.

Every raft trip in 2001 in the spring and summer was a warm up for my triumphant return to West Virginia and the Upper Gauley in the Fall. I rafted the Gauley on five consecutive days in September during Gauley Fest week. Friday and Saturday on a reverse overnight with friends I had met on the internet from the American Whitewater website and with "MY" guide, Joey Anderson. Sunday on a Double Upper Run, again with Joey, in which legendary Pillow Rock met the Titanic:

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I really loved showing the video of this to my father. He watched the video frame by frame, rewound the video, and watched me disappear frame by frame again. I can only imagine his thought processes as he spent twenty minutes watching ten seconds of footage. Hehehe.

Monday was spent on a Gauley Marathon, and Tuesday was spent on a special 4000 cfs highwater release on the Upper Gauley with North American River Runnersfor the World Rafting Championships. It was an exciting trip, and it was awesome practice for the true highwater trip I was to take two years later. But anyway, in five days I gained some notoriety and met more people: Tom Wagner, Aletha Stolar, Mark Lewis, Brian Jennings, Bobby Bower and a whole slew of Gauley River mainstays. Trip after trip, I just met more people and made more friends and became known without ever tyring to do so on the waters in West Virginia.

Here I am with Joey, and fellow Guide Barb at Sweets Falls on the Upper Gauley at the end of the Double Upper Run.

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2002 saw more milestones on the river. More trips on the Upper Yough, being beaten down by Cherry Creek--the ultimate in Whitewater Rafting in the US, and some fun on the Upper Gauley in the fall as you can see by me and Bobby Bower doing a promotional trip in full Cow Gear.

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2003 started out with a return trip to the Chattooga, and my first trip on the Ocoee where I met up with Sutton Bacon of American Whitewater:

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Sutton, you'll have to pay me an awful lot of money if you want me to take this pic off the web! ;-)

And then, something glorious happened. I was relocated to Parkersburg, West Virginia for work--only 2 hours from the New and Gauley, and rain system after rain system created high water conditions on the New and Gauley all spring and summer. So, I made it down every single day off from work and split my time rafting with NARR and Class VI. We ran the New at 6', R-3ed it at 7', 10', 12', the Upper New at extreme highwater of 55,000 cfs, the Lower Gauley at 5500, at 7500, at 10,000 cfs, and we also ran the Upper Gauley on those rare days when there were summer releases.

I rafted with more boats, met more guides, renewed more friendships and made more friends those highwater days than probably any other period of my life. Brian Jennings, Mike Kookura, Mike Baker, Danny Ochimoto, Melanie from Songer, Dan from Songer, Mary Lou at VI, Harriet at VI, Mark Schoonemaker, Marty, hell, everyone at NARR and VI; a group of awesome trainee guides at VI and most significantly, Kim Constans from VI. Kim became my most requested guide, and we bonded all summer long exchanging winks and knowing smiles as we rafted the Upper Gauley, the Lower Gauley, and the New with first time rafters.

Later, during Gauley Season, Hurricane Isobel dropped a ton of water the night before a Double Upper Gauley overnight. We put on before the river got out of hand, but by the time we reached the confluence of the Meadow and the longest and most notorious Class V Rapid, Lost Paddle, the river was raging well above commercial cutoff. 5600 cfs or 6500 cfs depending who you talk to, the river was big. There are features on a river at highwater that you never see at normal flows. Kim had never seen the Upper Gauley above 3500 cfs, and here it was at more than double normal flows.

At the third drop of Lost Paddle, there was this massive wave that was easily 20 feet high. Nothing on the river has scared me as much as that wave at this rapid at that flow. People get stuffed under undercut rocks in extreme conditions, and this is where I thought the raft was going over and I was going to end up in Davy Jones' locker. But damn if Kim didn't dig in, and damn if I didn't dig in, and damn if I didn't scream at the top of my lungs for the others to dig in and DRIVE! DRIVE! DRIVE!

And...we made it through our biggest challenge to the relief and cheers and applause of others downstream. You see, there were many guides bigger, stronger than Kim. There were many guides more experienced than Kim. There were many guides who talked a bigger talk than Kim. But no other guide took their boat over that 20' Wave at the Third Drop of Lost Paddle. Kim earned her standing on that day, and damn, did we enjoy a five minute hug completely glued to each other at the bottom of Sweets Falls after surviving that highwater run, and Damn if we didn't get quite drunk at the overnight camping spot that night.

2004 was a bit of a let down, rafting-wise. I only had two trips, but one was the Main Salmon in Idaho...an absolutely amazing run, and more of a relaxing, decompress kind of trip in the wilderness than an adrenaline pumping trip down a Class V River.

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In September, I got on the New once, but other than that, I had no other raft trips. I was in between jobs at the time of Gauley Season, but again this year, hurricane after hurricane came up from the Gulf Coast, and I had no intentions of getting out there on a highwater trip. Kim also seemed to have had her fill, and she disappeared from the rafting scene. After experiencing what we did in 2003, there's two lines of thought: one is that it can't get any better than this, pushing oneself to the limits and achieving. The other is, that trip was so terrifying I just don't plain want to do that again. In 2004, I was feeling a little of both.

But in 2005 my hunger was back. Highwater was flooding the Merced and the Tuolumne and South Fork American and closing Yosemite National Park so I had to go out to California and raft with All Outdoors again. I saw the SFA with AO River Manager Greg Dunkel in a private boat with just me and him and no one else on the river at 7000 cfs. It was amazingly special.

And then it was back to the New and down to the Ocoee, with Sutton Bacon, who had started his own rafting company The Cross, and we R-2ed the Upper and Middle Ocoee.

Every time I showed up at VI or NARR the running joke was: "Hey Matt, when are you going to come to work for us and train to guide?"

By this time, I wasn't a customer or a guest or an outsider any more. In 2005 I was invited to guide parties, hung out in guide lounges, went out to eat with the guides, joked with them, helped them set up for lunch on the river, and even went on Upper Gauley training runs wearing my own Type III PFD instead of the Type V customers are required to wear on the river.

And taking the highwater Upper Gauley trip and pushing it further, I had the real privileges of R-2ing the New with Brian Jennings, R-2ing the Upper Gauley with Brian Jennings (that's me on the left at the second drop of Class V Lost Paddle, just going over the Hawaii Five-O Wave):

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And then Shredding the Upper Gauley with Class VI Co-owner Doug Proctor:

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Amazing rivers, high water, low water, being part of the river running community and the AO, NARR, and Class VI families, being able to return favors to Class VI and Jeff and Doug Proctor and Dave Arnold, and NARR and Brian Jennings and Mark Lewis and Frank Lukacs....

What a ride I've been on for the last TEN YEARS! And it all started out of an AAA Tourbook, on an easy Class III River in California with one of the friendliest guides and persons you can ever hope to meet.

THANK YOU ALL--TO THOSE NAMED AND TO THOSE UNNAMED, BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. Here's looking forward to another great Ten Years and amazing runs and Unforgettable Memories.

Thanks for reading.

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Scottage said...

Nice post! I love rafting, but haven't done it in years. When I was a kid I took a 10 day rafting trip down the snake. Wonderful trip, and I hope to raft again soon. Thanks for stirring my imagination.

March 17, 2006 3:18 AM
-bRad said...

Great post and a good read! I haven't done a lot of white water rafting, but definitely seem to be getting more opportunities.

I'm currently in Montana and the Gallatin is running pretty good right now. I haven't seen the river out of The Crazies, but they should be Class V and VI at this time.

Keep rafting, but more importantly, keep doing what you love and that which challenges you to be more than you are.

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