Bash for cash, flips for tips: Tricks of the boatman’s trade

Article by Richard Proboscis

Recreation – July 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Most rafting guides would hate to have a crew like this one. Six men who weighed over 250 pounds each and had never been rafting were slowly and gracelessly getting into an inflatable boat that sat on the dry river bank. One man laughed that he had not worn shorts in front of other men in over ten years. A dozen professional raft guides were watching to see which among them would be assigned the brutal job of guiding this heavy raft.

John Jacob closed his eyes and nodded when the trip leader said that the job would go to him. But it became clear in the first rapid that the men were gorilla-strong and worked together like a machine. Jacob’s boat weighed well over a ton, but he had a decade of experience on dozens of rivers, and his crew was powerful and responsive, making the raft move as nimbly as a kayak.

After the six herculean men had earned the confidence of their guide, Jacob began to think of earning a tip. He presented an option to them, and they yelled in unison for Jacob to guide them into the most dangerous and exciting part of the next rapid.

The two men from Texas drawled “Drive us in the hole, Bubba!”

The two men from Oklahoma yelled red-faced: “Bring it ON!”

The man from Wyoming smiled quietly with lowered eyebrows, then bellowed, “Let’s gut it.”

The rapid is called Spikebuck and professional photographers with long lenses sit on the river bank to capture the action as raft after raft takes the same course through the violent water. Jacob deviated from the known route of safety and drove with authority into the most fearful portion of the river’s rage. The photographer’s motordrive hummed as he peered over his camera with both eyes wide and his mouth hanging slack.

The heavy raft rose on a smooth green hump of water, then dove straight down into a deep roaring hole. The inflatable boat disappeared under the billowing white water for five seconds before emerging like a phoenix. Jacob quickly counted heads. Then, still gripping his paddle, he punched both fists into the air in celebration; all six crew members were still in the raft.

After the trip was over, the photography company arrived to sell the adventurers pictures of themselves braving the broiling whitewater. The big men passed the eight by ten photos between them and imitated each others facial expressions as they loudly described what was happening in each frozen instant. One by one, they gave Jacob a token of their appreciation, and he earned that rare and elusive thrill: a triple digit tip.

A third of the companies that sell whitewater rafting trips on the Arkansas river have the word ‘adventure’ in their name. That word denotes risk or uncertain outcome, and clearly the idea of risk is what the rafting industry sells. Rafting customers purchase T-shirts by the armload that have sayings like “The Arkansas River — Where No One Hears You Scream” and “Rafting: Know Fear” so that customers can show others that they court danger and live adventurous lives.

But behind the billboards, the insurance companies and lawyers have seen to it that the risk and adventure end with the advertisements. While it’s true that forces of nature grant no guarantees and respect no person, those who fear the roaring anger of a whitewater river would do well to know that statistically people are ten times more likely to encounter a threat to life and limb while traveling in a car than while rafting with a commercial rafting company. Company owners have worked hard to eliminate, or at least substantially reduce, the risks.

But the only customers who want to know that are mothers whose children are about to go rafting. Most customers want to believe that they are risking certain death, and that Meriwether Lewis was not a whit braver than they.

Rafting guides have to cater to their customer’s desire to believe that they are looking death in the eyes, while delivering the safest possible trip. A professional river guide can take any crew down any stretch of the Arkansas River without bumping anyone out of the raft, and that’s exactly what head-boatmen and company owners expect of their guides.

The guides, however, are itinerant professionals. Many live in campers, buses, and tents, and they go from river to river following the rafting seasons. Companies pay guides from thirty to eighty dollars per trip, depending on experience, and a typical guide gets between five and ten trips per week. A senior guide with a busy company — whose body can endure the brutality — can conceivably guide fourteen trips in a week, but such hardcore boatmen are rare.

Guides must purchase an array of river gear that costs upwards from fifteen hundred dollars, as well as proof that they have taken classes, both medical and river oriented. That education can be gotten for as little as five hundred dollars, but it often runs well over a thousand.

A wilderness EMT, twice recertified, with SWERT (Swift Water Emergency Rescue Technician) training, and kayak expertise has well over ten thousand dollars invested in making himself the best river professional that he can be.

A guide’s paycheck is for the expense of living a nomadic lifestyle, but the day to day expenses of food, drink, ibuprofen, sun screen, et cetera, depend on the generosity of clients. If a guide doesn’t do everything in his power to make his clients happy, then he’ll be folding laundry for beer that night.

A guide who doesn’t earn more money than his modest paycheck will find it difficult to pay back loans, secure medical certification, or get to West Virginia for the autumn rafting season. Every guide, in his own fashion, must show his customers some real excitement.

When conditions are perfect, a guide may allow a little risk to enter the equation. Some guides engage in a practice called “bash for cash” or “flips for tips.” Customers instinctively know when the line between fun and risk has been crossed, and they often provide generous gratuities for the brave souls who give them the real adventures they crave. Some guides inform their customers of their intent, but others depend on the Rambo-effect to enlarge their tip.

An Arkansas River guide I’ll call Wily Will, has the exact same ‘accident’ five times a week, as long as the water is high. As surprised customers bob to the surface with wide eyes, and gaping mouths gasping for air, Will swims like a tattooed Tarzan to drag his customers to a safe eddy. He calls it “cha-ching eddy,” for the sound a cash register makes. Will knows the exact moment to dive into the river to save another swimmer so that everyone sees, and he always tries to save a child last so that everyone can have some of what he calls “eye-candy.” It’s quite a show, and it enables Will to indulge in his taste for heavy, dark, imported beers.

There is, however, a fine but distinct difference between the honed skills of an experienced guide and the reckless incompetence of a young guide imitating his superiors. Good guides will study a rapid from shore during the low water of winter, sometimes taking pictures or even video. A lesser guide will simply flip the raft and see who gets hurt. A good guide knows where the safe spots to swim toward are, and is able to get all of his swimmers to that spot. A lesser guide begins looking for an eddy when he needs one, and comforts his customers by laughing psychotically and yelling “We’re all going to die!”

A well-trained, highly experienced guide knows that as counterintuitive as it may seem, the high water season of late May and early June is the best time to flirt with danger on the Arkansas. People who find themselves swimming, instead of rafting, tend to become injured because they’re dashed against rocks. When the river is swollen and fast the rocks are deep under the surface, and the swimmers glide over the single greatest cause of injury.

That is not to say that a river at flood-stage is safe for swimming. The section of the river where some extra thrills are allowed has to be chosen wisely. Many young and fearless guides think it’s fun to flip a raft in Sunshine Falls of the Royal Gorge without ever questioning why the rapid directly downstream is called The Grateful Dead.

(It’s not for Jerry Garcia and his band. It’s because anyone who swims through it, will be grateful to see the approach of the reaper before they’re through that rock-slamming stretch of river.)

While it may be true that if you seek adventure, you may have to risk getting hurt, it is simply incompetent to advance danger to a point of guaranteed injury.

But the lure of a big tip does have a profound and ugly effect on the scruples of even superlative raft guides. And waiting for the perfect conditions to offer a bit of a thrill may drive a guide to desperate measures.

Four firemen in the raft may be screaming to do a dump-truck at Kamikaze rock, but an elderly woman with a suspicious chest scar and a skinny kid who keeps shivering uncontrollably are also in the boat. Head-boatmen and senior-boatmen are expected to keep guides from having dumb fun, but sometimes it happens that six boys, too young to drink beer, offer to tip their guide wildly if he can flip a boat in August at the same place they flipped last May. Most professional guides would never be tempted to risk serious injury for a tip, but sometimes things don’t go as they should. For the sake of giving customers what they want, guides have been known to do things that they know they shouldn’t.

The Arkansas river is blessed with hundreds of fine and scrupulous guides who would not only resist the urge to court real danger for money, but who would see to it that the river rangers have a talk with any guide who does. However, if you should find yourself in a raft with five hearty thrill seekers who are well-equipped and eager for adventure; if the sun is hot and the water is fast and your guide asks with a suspicious gleam in his eye if you would like to have some real fun; then hold your breath. You just may get a taste of the real adventure that your T-shirt brags about.

Richard Proboscis is the pseudonym of a river guide in the upper Arkansas Valley.

The names and personal characteristics of all of the people in this story have been altered.