Pilar, NM, New Mexico
Paddling Since: 1963
Join Date: May 2013
Swiftwater, Piracy and Professionalism
This thread may have already played out, but having caught some of its shrapnel, I'll wade in:
In the words of the immortal Catfish Callaway, I'm an "orange collar worker". I've been in love with rivers just about as long as I can remember. In 1963, a buddy and I planned an overnight canoe trip on the Colorado River (Texas). My mom tried discourage my going, saying "Oh Steve, you KNOW what kind of characters hang around rivers." I DIDN'T know then.... but I do now.
This is a true story. I actually became a commercial river guide in 1975, when Marty Mac Donnell picked me up hitchhiking in Sonora, CA. Then, with the arrogance typical of many second-year guides, decided I could do outfitting better and started my own company (miles from Elk Grove, in Terlingua, TX). My pard, Mike Davidson, and I haunted the local surplus stores for black bags and Mae West lifejackets, acquired two used Campways MiWoks and headed for the Rio Grande in Mike's old International pickup. Far-Flung Adventures, we called it.
A Big Bend National Park outfitter permit cost $25, contained one page of stipulations and no insurance requirement. I migrated to Taos (BLM) in 1979, to Jalapa, Veracruz after that; added Globe, AZ (Forest Service) to the route in '86. Mixed in the Ark, the Gunny and the sad, old Dolores.
"Putting People and Rivers Together" is our motto, words we still try to live by. Had amazing times along the way: a moonlight run on the Tuolumne, a hundred-thousand cfs on the Big Bend, Rio Jatate with Scottie Davis the winter before the Zapatistas tossed the Governor of Chiapas off the river bridge, a handful of firsts in the Barrancas del Cobre. Nothing that could properly be called a "career", of course.
River rescue entered the equation early as, in the pursuit of adventure, it inevitably will. For me, it came in the person of Jim Segerstrom, with whom I guided many Sierra Mac River Trips on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne. For those who don't know, Jim founded both Rescue 3 and the International Rescue Instructor's Association and may properly be credited (with others such as Slim Ray, Les Bechdel, Charlie Walbridge) as the godfather of the discipline of Swiftwater Rescue.
1980 in Taos was the first birthday of commercial outfitting on the Box and some of our fellow BLM permittees were pretty bad actors, safety-wise and therefore a threat to both the safety of river trip guests and the good reputations of those of us who aspired to a pretty high professional standard (like New Wave Rafting). Among the several safety measures the good actors decided to take, we invited Segerstrom to teach Swiftwater Rescue to guides on the Rio Grande. The May course has become an annual event. I became an instructor in 1986 (in an instructor course hosted by Bill Dvorak). In this process, I absorbed Jim's philosophy of accountability and his idea that there are (or ought to be) minimum standards for training solid rescuers.
The list of agencies who have taken our training over the years is long and it includes a number of professional rescue agencies (Dallas and El Paso Fire, Santa Fe, Bernalillo, Dona Ana and Grant County Fire), river managers (NPS, BLM, Forest Service), river "corollary" agencies (like Border Patrol, Proteccion Civil, Fish and Wildlife, Reclamation and their state counterparts), boaters (not just rafters, CMC, individual kayakers), etc. A month after Kerrville FD took our training, they saved kids' lives in the infamous "School Bus Disaster". This sort of thing makes Swiftwater seem very useful and important.
I've been privileged to work with some very fine instructors [e.g. Barry Nelson-another RQ3 co-founder, the legendary Reed Thorne, Jeff Saunders-now head of disaster preparedness at TEEX, Mitch Sasser-Chilean Navy and Futalefu, John Weinmeister and Harvey King (who are both posters and subjects in this thread)]. None were/are better at the profession than CJ Weinmeister. He has the gift.
John also has an explosive temper (duh); he did show his ass to readers of this blog. He embarrassed himself and is still seeking atonement. Steve and Kathy Miller of New Wave have graciously forgiven him his outburst.
I don't have to forgive him: I felt the same way. Like many primates, I have a strong territorial instinct, so that when I received the announcement of a Swiftwater Rescue course on the Rio Grande, barely two weeks in advance of our own, I was pissed, the same way local retailers are pissed when Wal-Mart comes to town (forgive the analogy, Nick): my none-too-lucrative livelihood was threatened.
Dear readers, you have other reasons to be suspicious of me, too. I am, after all: an unrepentant Texan, a river-exploiting entrepeneur ("industrial tourism operator") and a garrulous, old dinosaur. But, I am proud of the professional training program I've helped to develop and I have evidence that the majority of the river professionals I've helped trained are proud of the knowledge and skills they've acquired as a result of our training.
I don't feel like "the local swiftwater boy", a "pissy, territorial slanderer" or the purveyor of a product unfit to compete in the marketplace (much less a "hypocrite" or a "racketeer"). I did lead our troops northward into the Arkansas River Valley to teach the Colorado Mountain College courses for Joe Greiner, when the college administrators decided to see if they could find a better product than they'd been getting.
If anyone's still tracking with me, here are three take-homes I'd like you to consider:
1. Swiftwater Rescue is wide-open, like Tombstone, AZ. Neither the American Canoe Association nor Rescue 3 nor the National Fire Protection Association certify or monitor the curriculum their instructors teach. You take the instructor's course and you're on your own. This "process" has produced some fine courses, of great value to the participants (I suspect, without knowing his background, that Nick's may be one). It also produces some fly-by-night instructors. How well do you suppose the marketplace distinguishes between the two? Rescue SW arrived at the expedient of testing participants' skills: can they swim purposefully in Class 3, tow a helpless victim ashore, make two accurate throwbag tosses in succession, set up a z-drag? Minimum standards.
Communication among providers is very poor (this case is an example of the present quality of communication/cross-fertilization). If, as I do, you aspire to the highest degree in professionalism in instruction, a great deal more solidarity among the excellent instructors would be helpful.
2. River Piracy is illegal, unethical and unfair. If you provide river services for hire (including kayak instruction, tours and Swiftwater training) you must get a permit on most public-lands rivers. The BLM, NPS, Forest Service management plans respect the rights of the public to access the river and limit the number of commercial entities that can operate businesses. The rationale is that the agencies are charged with protecting the resource, public safety and the quality of the river experience (smaller crowds). River outfitters are held to minimum standards of professionalism, pay taxes, purchase liability insurance, etc., etc., etc. The costs of such compliance approach 50% of what the guest pays them.
I won't defend this system of forced investments, but suggest that anyone who flaunts it by taking money for river services is gaming the system and cheating those who play by the rules. (I'm not talking to Nick here.)
3. Our rivers need us to love and work for them. They give us such a rich treasure of experiences and are so ruthlessly exploited by our economic system that we are at risk of losing them one piece at a time. We should give something back by way of thanks. For me the medium is river activism. There are fewer rivers to practice our sport than there were when I started. How many will be left when you're facing retirement?
(They're planning to divert the Gila next year, didyaknow? The Yampa's been on the block for a while, too.)
Our sport is not immune from the "21st Century American cult of individualism". Humility and respect are attributes not always practiced on the river or the social media. I'd be even prouder to be a river boater if these values were more prominently displayed.
Talk to me, Nick.