The Utility of Fear in Whitewater River Running

While Whitewater Rafting has a reputation for cheap beer drinking, smelly guides, and loose unadaulterated fun, there is a more subtle, more personal reason why many people seek out winding waters of our pacific northwest rivers; the peaceful serenity of being in the flow.


The Guiding Profession; full of weirdos


Whitewater River Guides are their own breed, they live by their own code, seeming to understand each other while the public presses on, keeping up with technology and the changing times. River guides seem to live in an endless moment that either cares not for the things of the world, or is directly rejecting them. Guiding whitewater is one of the few occupations where you are actually encouraged by your employer to lose your focus of time, and simply be present with the people who are joining you.


In the early days of river running the Grand Canyon was set center stage (well, it still is) in the industry. Large wooden dories and huge powered inflatable crafts would charge down this magnificent river. The people that often controlled these trips were a different breed altogether than even the people of their time. There were absolutely no cell or satellite phones for them to call for help. In those days, if you started a river trip, you were completely and unavoidably committed.




Today we almost always have a way out of the river corridor, either through some pre-planned evacuation route which will take us to the nearest road, or by using a cell phone or (on multi-day expeditions) satellite phone to call in the authority of the medi-vac helicopter. Technology seems to have provided for us a decent buffer from the elements, and from the worry of what we call overexposure.


The classic alpinist, and first man to ever climb Mount Everest solo and without oxygen, Reinhold Messner, talked candidly about ethics of river running, and used the term exposure. Messner used the term in not exactly the same way as medical professionals would use it; to explain the exposure to the elements. Rather, Messner described exposure as a conglomerate of feared aspects of your ascent or route. If you were highly exposed, you were, in essence, more vulnerable as a human being, and Messner was keen on explaining the reason for why he climbed; it wasn’t about accomplishment or triumph, it was about overcoming something obscure, something that we otherwise don’t have a platform to discover. It almost seemed that by adding exposure to our lives we were able to reach in and communicate with a deeper part of ourselves.


The Value of Fear


These days we see the world in a paradox of social personalities. Either people are completely dedicated to keeping themselves safe (the majority), or they are exhibitionists, adrenaline junkies, if you will, who want nothing more than to scare themselves nearly to death by doing something that seems too extreme to be reasonable. Why people do these things is a study for another blog or debate, but nonetheless we can see industries develop around these two extremes; our industry, quite obviously, is centered more around the latter, while quietly being catered to the former.


Fear is, essentially, nervous discomfort. In our line of work it’s typically a psychological sense of moving in a way that is convergent with their own survival. There is a certain nonsensicalness involved in such actions. When someone is travelling down a river filled with water barely above freezing, surrounded by people they don’t know, doing a sport that they learned in a video and a 30 minute safety talk, there is almost undoubtedly some aspect of the mind that rejects the entire scene and experience. Fear is a natural reaction to getting closer to something that you believe could kill you. There’s a place for fear in our lives, and it’s unavoidable. Sometimes, it seems, whitewater is used as a medium for people to overcome their fear, because through the sport you have an opportunity to deal with it directly, and because you are in a raft going down a river… essentially you do not have the ability to stop the adventure once it starts, you are literally along for the ride. There’s just absolutely no doubt that people overcome fear while on the river. The question that must be probed deeper is; why would people want to overcome fear in the first place, if it is fear that is keeping them “safe”. The answer has to be a more spiritual one.


Fear seems to have a counter influence in our lives aside from keeping us safe. Fear can dominate our lives, it can imprison us in our otherwise free existence. Fear can become irrational when we live in a way that does not challenge us, or in a way which remains so repetitive to become somewhat emotionally stagnant or disattached from the passions of our otherwise wild hearts. Whitewater offers us a chance to explore fear, to analyze it, to understand it in a vacuum of sorts, where very little else is going on other than fear. It presents us an opportunity to grow as people.


Fear may not be a part of every experience for everyone that goes on the river, but it’s a part of whitewater rafting for a lot of people. Fear connects us to our own vitality; a very simple reminder that we are alive, and want to be. There is tremendous value in that. While thousands of people will flock to our website, then to our rafts, and occasionally into the river, we see an evolution of individual people… a positive and personal evolution. We see people show up, sick of their lives at their jobs, or in the city doing whatever they are doing… and then we see them leave, almost glowing, knowing that they went somewhere with complete strangers, into a place where others have perished, and they came out alive. Sometimes we just need a reminder; a subtle nudge that snaps us back into the reality where we are living a life of consequence and meaning, and it is up to us to discover that meaning. The river is nothing more than a catalyst. It is a provider of opportunities to facilitate these small but necessary transformations.

Guides like Brandon Steele see their jobs as a service to the public not merely to protect and keep people safe from fear and danger, but to allow people to have their own personal experiences with it, while unavoidably acknowledging its presence while on the river.

Guides like Brandon Steele see their jobs as a service to the public not merely to protect and keep people safe from fear and danger, but to allow people to have their own personal experiences with it, while unavoidably acknowledging its presence while on the river.