The Scout: Reading Water in the WestJuly 25, 2018
Most of us learned one of the hardest lessons of our lives when we were just babies. After a dozen or so months of life, we began to push ourselves up from all fours onto our wobbly, precarious legs, to take our very first steps. And then, we fell.
In fact, the average baby falls about 17 times per hour when they are learning how to walk! That’s because they are retraining nearly every muscle in their body to move around in an upright position. It’s not so easy. And it’s not all that different from learning how to run a river, actually.
New boaters are not just learning how to pull at an oar. They are learning how to brace with their leg muscles, how to sit comfortably, how to position every muscle in their body to direct a vessel that’s several times their weight. They are learning how to see the world in a whole new way, just like a baby learning to navigate the world from a horizontal viewpoint.
River runners have to learn how to ‘read’ the water. That’s because, unlike walking or riding a bike, the surface underneath a boat is not staying still while you move over it. It’s a torrent of cold, glistening water that’s moving at several thousand feet per second.
Reading water is so important to safe and successful river running that there’s a whole role designated to the task: scouting! Scouting is when the boater gets off the boat, stretches their legs, and take a good long look at the river they are about to run down.
Even very experienced boaters who have run a stretch of river a hundred times will take the opportunity to scout. You never know if a new boulder might have been pushed into the current, or how the water levels can make what was a small bump a huge rapid that could suck you under. Every guide scouts and every guide has their own scouting style.
Some will throw a stick into the water to see how it floats down with the current. Others will hike up to a vantage point and make sure to get the view from every angle. But every guide has a special pre-rapid ritual that they perform during their scout.
Rituals hold particular significance for people who are performing a craft. Serena Williams is known to wear the same pair of socks in every tennis match when she is on a winning streak. Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant is known to take a special moment to iron his shirt before every live concert. The philosopher-mythologist Joseph Campbell once described the ritual as “the enactment of a myth… And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow.”
So, rituals are a way of getting in touch with our own truest and most wise instincts. River runners need nothing less when they are about to take on the whitewater. For some guides, the ritual is something serious and somber, like the reading of a poem. But for others, it’s something a bit… lighter.
Holiday’s very own Lauren Wood describes their pre-rapid ritual as “strapping down everything, and then before un-tying my rope I make sure to step into the river and pee, just in case I feel it coming on as we’re heading into the tongue of the rapid.” Others may have a little river-jig that they perform to get their jitters out.
No matter what a guide’s ritual is, that moment of assessment and alignment is key to successful whitewater rafting. Like many things on the river, the stakes are high, and they are best faced dead-on, with respect, skill, and a bit of playfulness.
Easton Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer. He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing and playin’ some mean banjo. For more writing from Easton, check out his organizing collective’s blog “Brine Waves” here or stay tuned for future loggings in River Currents.