Totem: Keeping Around Old Gear

When I started my first job as a river guide, I had no equipment of my own. Other than a couple short canoe trips at summer camp, I hadn’t spent much time on the water. So it was with great confu- sion I read the following pre-season email, sent out to all first-year staff:

As you budget for the summer, bear in mind there is some gear you will want for your job. You WILL be in cold water. We can supply you with a paddle, PFD, helmet and wetsuit. Said gear will be entirely safe and functional, but be forewarned: you will look like a dork. You will have no sex appeal. All our staff inevitably invest in their own equipment.

More broke than fashion conscious, I arrived ready to wear whatever they gave me. The first thing I noticed was the color. Angular pink patches cut through a blue body so faded it looked more like acid- wash grey. The stiff, thick neoprene made me walk with straighter-than-normal knees—the fabric pulling my joints into alignment with the suit’s pre-cut shape that when dry, looked like it may be freestanding.


A few years later I blew my river guide salary on a hot new drysuit and technical layering system well worth breaking the bank.

Drysuit donned, I outfitted newbie interns in their own well-worn neoprene. I was cozy during an early-season rescue course. I stayed bone dry as I taught new staff how to swim effectively in whitewater. I was warm. I was comfortable. I looked like I knew what I was doing.

There were good reasons I replaced ol’ faithful: too many consecutive river days resulted in an irritating itch. The faded fabric’s pores, rife with sun-dried urine, caused an odor that ripened when wet despite years of valiant laundering attempts. I even tried a cocktail of every home cleaning product I could get my hands on—the only result was a rash.

But my blue and pink polygon suit was never tossed to the curb.

Somewhere in the depths of a Rubbermaid storage bin, I hoard this relic of paddling days gone by. It gets pulled from retirement from time to time to enrobe a rightfully self-conscious first-time paddler friend; more often I just flip past it as I reach for my replacements. But like listening to any old song, seeing it there takes me back to another place and time.

I’ve never paddled as many days in a year as I did those first few summers. They were endless river days. Nights were spent under the stars on shore, around a campfire surrounded by friends with a similar lack of responsibility and urge to play. I fell asleep to the roar of rushing water. More than a piece of gear, it’s a memory of the places and people who helped shape the person I’ve become. And that is something you don’t throw away.

Emma Drudge is the editor of Rapid magazine. She looks forward to letters from readers who still rock these suits. 

This article on hoarding old gear was published in the Spring 2015 issue of Rapid magazine.This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here.


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