Reading the River

Photo by Kitty Leaken

Photo by Kitty Leaken

Images of Lewis and Clark circa 1805 come to mind, shooting the Dalles Class V rapids of the Columbia River in dugout canoes. Interestingly, they’re always looking ahead with wide-eyed intensity. That they survived is testament to the boat handling skills of their “principle waterman” Peter Crusat, and to sheer luck. For them, a river was a means of transportation and rapids were something to be endured. Nonetheless, when they reached calm water at the end of the run, after wiping the sweat and spray off his brow, Meriwether likely turned to William and exclaimed, “Man, that was a hoot!”

Fast forward 210 years and we have Russell Dobson, owner of Santa Fe Rafting, offering trips on our beloved Rios Grande and Chama, in rapids ranging from (mild) Class I to (wild) Class IV. He takes full advantage of inflated rafts that, unlike dugout canoes, bail themselves and usually bounce off things like rocks. Yeah, bouncing off things like rocks is good.

Seriously though, what does it take to be a guide? What does it take to safely navigate whitewater? The boats and safety equipment certainly have improved since the days of Lewis and Clark, but the power—the wildness of swift moving water—remains the same. Recently I spoke with Russell and one of his long-time guides, Jimmy Josh Wagner, and got some answers.

It’s a brisk spring morning, clear and windy. We meet at Santa Fe Rafting’s office on Cerrillos Road. Russell, the founder, has operated the business since 1987. “I’ve been a boater all my life,” he says in his gravely voice, “from canoeing to kayaking to rafting. I’ve always had a love for the water and the excitement it brings and the destinations it takes you [to]. Different places, different rivers, it’s all real interesting.” Russell has rafted in New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Mexico and Guatemala. “There’re just tons of places to go down the river.”

Photographs from his nearly 30 years of rafting cover the walls in the office. In the foreground of one image, a boater who’s obviously having a great time sits in a raft wearing a big smile. Russell chuckles and points out, “I’m the one in the kayak back there, the old veteran guide.” On what it takes to be a guide, Russell says, “You got get along well with people, you got to be a good interpreter, tell people about the geology and the history of the area, and the flora and fauna. And you got to know first aid and CPR, it’s required for all guides. If you want to be a trip leader, you got to take a swift water rescue course.” Russell, a big guy who I suspect could pluck you out of the water without much difficulty if need be, continues, “You must love being on the water, getting out there.” He pauses, laughs and adds, “Swimming’s a good quality.”

RAFTING_13_klFor those who’d like to guide, Santa Fe Rafting puts on a week-long River Guide School the end of April every year. “We’ll take guide students that want to learn how to raft and show them how to read the river,” says Russell. “We have a company manual that talks about all that, the different rapids and how to ride a boat if it’s upside down and practicing that kind of thing.” The school also covers “how to paddle in different water conditions, how to rig a boat, how to blow up a boat”—Homeland Security need not worry, we’re talking air—“and what’s required to bring on each trip. At the end of the week, they usually have a pretty good grasp of how to bring the boat down the river because they do several runs a day to train.”

But what does it take to be the captain of RAFTING_19_klthe ship? “Jimmy Josh,” says Russell, “why don’t you tell him what it takes to guide a boat.” Jimmy Josh, an athletic and outgoing guy who has a background in forestry and wild land firefighting, has been river guiding 14 years. He says, “It takes being able to read the water, being able to work perfectly with your crew as being one entity.” It takes “a lot of confidence, because you know what you got to get through, and [you have to] project that confidence to make your people feel they can get through, too. You actually got to be one with the river, work with the current, not fight it, and it makes it feel like you’re part of that river, you’re part of the crew. So you get that synchronicity. The river’s always changing, it’s a natural flow river, so rapids change every day. Every time you’re on the river, it’s a complete different experience.” Jimmy Josh has an obvious passion for being on the water. “The river is an amazing thing, you got to respect it, and once you start respecting it and working with the river”—he lowers his voice—“it’s kinda like home.”

Russell interjects, “It’s like tying your shoes in the morning.”

RAFTING_09_klI ask Russell what it means to be a swift water rescue technician and again he defers to Jimmy Josh. “Swift water is a training class where you actually learn how to swim and navigate with your own personal body through Class IIIs, IVs and Vs, safely.” Apparently only strong swimmers need apply.

“They are the rapids that are extremely dangerous, that are going to really hurt somebody. We also practice live bait.” A person wearing a PFD (personal floatation device) is tethered with a rope, enters the rapids and acts, for example, as though his foot is stuck in the rocks. Jimmy Josh explains, “You swim out, you rescue that person, then you hold that rope and you just kind of pendulum into shore. It teaches you how to save people’s lives in extremely dangerous rapids. And swift water is definitely the thing you need for running the Taos Box as a river guide, because the water up there is really fast.”

The Taos Box section of the Rio Grande contains Class IV rapids. These are serious business, defined on Santa Fe Rafting’s website as: “Advanced. Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure … risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills.”

In short, everyone has their hands full. “You want to be the safest that you can be out there,” says Jimmy Josh. “So all this training, like swift water, teaches us to be safer and you know if something does arise, where somebody gets stuck in a rapid or you are asked to swim a rapid, you can save that person’s life or assist them to save their life.”

Jimmy Josh says he approaches a rapid “with a little bit of thrill and excitement, because there’s always that one chance, you know one out of a hundred, a thousand, that you’re not going to make it through without the boat flipping or something like that. Making it through, especially, like, the big holes, the big waves, stuff like that, they’re always fun, and once you actually get through that rapid upright, or you just hit it so perfect that the whole boat gets wet and everybody’s excited that you made it through, there’s a really good feeling of accomplishment. It’s mostly following the water lines coming in, the current lines, following the tongue of the river into those rapids and knowing where the rocks are to dodge.”

Camaraderie comes with teamwork and Jimmy Josh’s enthusiasm for it is clear. “Knowing how your crew’s going to handle through it and approaching it with the best line you got and, you know, crossing your fingers and smilin’!” We all laugh in acknowledgement that there’s still that element of luck.

RAFTING_03_kl“It’s a great experience,” he says. “Every day you get a new team and that team is going to get you through the river. It depends on how you train them and there are times you got really great teams—a sense of humor, a sense of adventure—and then you got the teams that just want to take it easy. You know, you just kind of adapt to that and it’s a really good feeling at the end of the day. Everybody had a really good time and it gives you satisfaction in your job.”

These days, we shoot river rapids for the fun of it, but the job of river guide has stayed the same, requiring commitment, a lot of training and hard work. For people like Russell and Jimmy Josh, a love of being on the water is the starting point. From there, it’s a matter of choosing to share their passion for the intensity of navigating swift moving water with others. That’s a cool thing to do.


Story by Gordon Bunker

Photos by Kitty Leaken


Santa Fe Rafting is located at 1000 Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe. 888.988.4914 or 505.988.4914.

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