Why Raft? Why Kayak? Why Jet Boat? Why SUP? Why Drift?
There is a lot of talk in the industry about running more extreme whitewater, pushing the proverbial envelope, and running sections of river that have previously gone uncharted and unknown. We are in the golden age of whitewater river running, and as rafters, especially commercial rafters, we hold a very unique place in the spectrum of knowledge because it is often companies like ours which the public speaks with first. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of people have asked me what kind of boat they should buy (not kidding), and it's a difficult answer, so I have decided to partake in a writing to investigate this conundrum properly. First, the vast majority of people are running whitewater rivers not as private boaters, but with a trained and professional guide; statistically this is the case because most private whitewater boaters run several rivers each year. At this time commercial outfitting is the #1 way that people are being exposed to whitewater river running for the first time; thus, we have a large responsibility to those people not to muck it up and ruin it for them (which is easy to do, let me tell you). I would like to explain a few consequences of the split that has formed between private and commercial boating, the split between kayaking and rafting, the split between jet boating and.... well jet boating and everything, and what it may mean to our industry moving forward.
Kayaking vs. Rafting
Like most people in my position I grew up on rivers and many of my best friends were kayakers. I have watched the sport develop into something I never thought it would be. It's amazing, and quite frankly kayaking looks like the dominant sport as far as running rivers that are more extreme. Kayaking, by nature, forms a different persona and a different attitude towards the river than does rafting, hard boating (drift boats/dories), inflatable kayaking, canoeing, or running catarafts (cat boating). Lets just get this out of the way. To put it succinctly, kayakers hold the ethical high ground when it comes to boating morality for a few reasons.
Reason #1: Kayaks do not require as big of a vehicle, they take less resources to build, and in general, unless misused, are one of the more environmentally friendly boating activities. Sure, you need a spray skirt, a good helmet, paddle, and you need a roof rack on your car, but what I have seen more than anything is that kayakers are (besides being poor) carpooling to the rivers in smaller vehicles. I can't tell you how many Subaru Outbacks we see at the boat launch. You'll see 2 or 3 smaller cars parked at the boat launch and 7 or 8 kayakers will pop out, stretching their arms and legs, with their drysuits dangling, with the sleeves tied around their wastes. I'm telling you, I've seen it so many times there's no mistaking the trend. Kayakers travel in groups, make good friends with each other, and do so in a way that is vastly more efficient than rafting.
Now I would like to clarify, on my own behalf and that of our company, that when we pick up 20-30 people and load them into an uber-efficient people transporter, aka a school bus, and we use guides to take these people down the river, we are being pretty darned efficient too, but we're talking about private boaters at the moment. More on commercial boating later on in this writing.
Reason #2: Kayaks (along with canoes and SUP boards) provide a more intimate relationship with the water. Quite frankly, learning to kayak on legitimate class 2 or 3 whitewater can be a truly spiritual and life changing experience. I've seen it! I tell you, I've seen bloody noses, I've seen gashed up oozing wounds, and I've seen numerous youngsters rescued from the river vomiting up copious amounts of water. There is no doubt that if you truly want to know the river and you don't want the default level of precaution and often unnecessary buffering from your whitewater experience, find yourself a buddy who is an exceptionally good kayaker. On a side note, if you are not a kayaker and some of your friends are, it may really surprise you how good they actually are; kayakers, well some kayakers, are quiet about their exploits and perhaps due to the rivers influence tend to be fairly laid back and calm about things. Anyway, have a really good kayaker take you down some class 2 water and get worked/chundered/maytagged/recirculated in a hole and you will either A) find Jesus B) reconfirm your belief in Jesus or perhaps C) condemn the very thought of Jesus because you cannot believe that in a world where such suffering exists that any god would allow such undue hardship. The point is that the river will dish out more of its spectacular nectar if you go right in, and quite frankly a raft buffers you from that nectar to a degree that brings most of us comfort, but for others its actually quite boring. Moving on.
Jet Boating < Rafting < Kayaking
When I guided Hells Canyon we were running trips nearby Lewiston, Idaho, which was one of the most popular Jet Boat manufacturing locations in the country, and still is. We had to contend and share the river with jet boaters constantly, they raged up and down the river, occasionally hitting rocks and sinking, and more often than anything just being noisy and obnoxious. Being that many of my friends were jet boat captains I always had an indifferent stance to the activity, but many of my rafting companions spoke quite ill of jet boating and at times condemned it completely. I find that the comparison between rafting and kayaking is very similar to that of jet boating and rafting. In this comparison, of course, the rafts would become the jet boats, per se, and the kayaks become the rafts.
There are relationships and intimate connections with the river that happen in various ways, and I am by no means discounting the magic of a single moment while a human being peers off into the sunset as it glistens off the flapping wings of a bald eagle while it clutches a small jack salmon in its talons; certainly this magnificent scene is available to you regardless of your section of watercraft, but the way in which we come across this matters to some, and so the investigation does have consequence. After all, if everyone ran jet boats we would get quite sick of listening to their growl as opposed to the chirping of the canyon wren. At the same time, if rafters tried to take first descents down Palouse Falls like some kayakers do, then no one would want to go because the body counts would be astronomical, not to mention how many poorly skilled rafters already pin their boats up against rocks and are unable to recover them, I can only imagine what the river would look like littered with 10-20 pinned rafts each time we went down. Alas, my point here friends is that rafting is not as ethically viable for the private boater as is kayaking, and jet boating is less ethically viable in most scenarios than is rafting... Of course, you could take it a step further and compare the river board or the now crazed SUP board, but lets stick with the fundamentals lest we lose track of the argument completely.
River "hard" Boats (Dories and Driftboats)
A dying breed to be sure, but the oldest and most legendary river guides where I come from all ran a dory. Clancy Reese has now become a larger legend than he was even while he was alive, and Hemingway himself recognized the allure and majesty of rowing a wooden boat into the ocean, so thus we have transported the nostalgic romance to that of whitewater river running. Those boats are designed quite similar to the same ones I saw while working out of Bar Harbor Maine. Large upswept bows that are capable of busting through significant surf and then on into open waters, these boats are deserving of their reputation for being beautiful, and the captains who operate them deserve their reputation as being... well, as being pure straight up badasses.
There are few things as fine as running a drift boat or a dory through big whitewater. As a drift boat fishing guide and former guide for Oars Dories, I have had this experience many times. I'm going to confess something to you right now, that is probably not going to help my career; I don't like fishing for other people. I love fishing on my own, but when it comes to taking others I just really despise the activity and honestly think it's against the fundamental laws of human hunter & gatherer tradition. I mean, can you imagine a small tribal village living in the forests, where the members of said tribe went to hunt and forage for food hiring out others to do their searching for them? How embarrassing. There is no way that would happen. If a hunter was so poor at his primary and completely life sustaining skill of hunting that he had to go to the better hunter in the village and trade things in order to be able to acquire food; that's just flat wrong I don't care who you are. I'm no expert (I do have a minor in anthropology) but guiding other people down the river in order to catch fish for them so that they can then claim that THEY caught said fish, the whole concept is outright absurd, and I still cannot fathom how we don't wise up to the madness and put a stop to it.
I have to confess that for all the years I guided fishing trips, the thing I enjoyed the most was the scenery, (sometimes) the company, and most of all the way that those boats slice through the water. "Hard Boats" have a sleekness and an artistic flare about that that the thud and brute force of a raft simply cannot recreate. They are beautiful, and if I were to design an afterlife it would be one where I could eternally ride a river in a wooden dory constructed of the finest (albeit sustainable) hardwoods, and would run every rapid I could like that, all day, all year, on into eternity. That is how I would picture a brilliant life after death, but it's not available to me now, so I run rafts. Don't get me wrong, I love rafting... but....
I raft, have rafted, and will continue to raft, for many of my days here on earth as a human. I love it. It is the perfect way to take other people down the river. When it comes to choosing an aspect of our sport for yourself, I think you should hire us to take you rafting down dangerous stretches of river, and I think that you should make a decision for yourself that best fits your needs. That being said, I think the first step is not to run some big section of whitewater (unless thats your thing), I think you should get an open canoe, and go out on a lake, and spend some time out there. If you want more after that, give us a call and we'll take you down the Sauk. If you have run that with us and you still want more, well then I think it may be time for you to invest in a kayak and get your proverbial and literal feet wet in a personal sport which allows you some margin of error and will not completely drain your bank account in the way that rafting will.
Furthermore, when selecting the craft that best suits your needs, consider if you plan on taking other people with you. If you are, you would need a tandem kayak. 99% of the time when people are new to kayaking they will break up as a result of trying to learn how to kayak this way. Get yourself a kayak first and then work your way up. If you truly need to take your family with you, don't. After all, you won't have the necessary skills to get them down the river safely, so there is hardly a way for you to justify taking loved ones to meet their demise with you for the sake of convenience, bonding, or social solidarity.
Happy boating friends, and remember that when choosing a personal watercraft, consider that its not about going big, its about spending time outdoors. I would have a good ol' time running around Lake Whatcom in my little 8 foot jon boat. In fact, to be honest, I was out there for a sunset last weekend; it was marvelous. Water holds magic wherever it is, so please find a section that is suitable for your skill level, and always wear the appropriate PFD and follow all proper safety precautions and regulations.