How is it that I can travel 2,000 miles from my home river to Vernal, Utah, be on a river I’ve never paddled before, with complete strangers, and hear our guide Charlie—a man 19 years younger than myself—reply “Fluffy Bunny” when a high-tech worker from San Francisco asks the name of the next big rapid? Sorry Charlie, that’s my line. Or at least I thought it was.
I’d joined a commercial rafting trip on the Green River’s Gates of Lodore. I was there to write and film a story for Rapid and Rapid Media TV (Easy Green, Spring 2012). I’d never paddled in the Southwest but I could have given the safety talk verbatim, jokes included. It was the same guide talk I’d given clients a hundred times when I was Charlie’s age. It was the same talk cameraman Dan Caldwell gave on the Kicking Horse and Illecillewaet rivers in British Columbia. How does this happen?
Throughout the Southwest, a hunch-backed, longhaired, flute-playing figure is painted or carved into boulders and rock walls. Kokopelli is perhaps the most famous of all ancient rock art; you’ve probably seen him on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Legend says that in his sack he carries seeds and songs from town to town. He is credited with the spread of agricultural technology, teaching villagers how to plant and grow corn. Kokopelli was also believed to be a fertility god, prankster, healer and storyteller. He could have been a raft guide and paddler.
Like Kokopelli, when we travel to rivers, we bring the changing of winter to spring. We bring the melting of snow and the rain. We play jokes. We help and heal those sick with smog and congestion. Some say Kokopelli was capable of detaching his penis and sending it down the river to have his way with the innocent young maidens who were bathing in the stream. I don’t know about that, but raft guides have been the source of many human conceptions—we won’t mention names. And wrapped inside our large duffels among our paddles, helmets and gear, we bring our own stories and traditions from river cultures far away.
Long before paddlers were friends on Facebook, we had our ways of sharing information and passing on traditions. We had guidebooks and adventure stories. We had club newsletters, journals and magazines. We had bars, take-outs and tailgates. And we had teachers, instructors and mentors.
Long-time raft guides like Rapid columnist Jeff Jackson bounced back and forth between guiding in the Ottawa Valley and working for NOLS on rivers in the Southwest. Jeff was trained by the best river managers and now, in a senior leadership and mentoring role, he passes all of what he has learned down to the next generation—the third generation.
Get a few dozen or so dirtbag guides like Jeff with international airfares and, sure as Kokopelli’s hunched back, there will be guides on the Sun Kosi, Zambezi and Pacuare telling their guests as they approach the big rapids, “This one’s called Fluffy Bunny.”
Scott MacGregor is the founder and publisher of Rapid.