Chicken Lines

I wrote this for a friend’s magazine a few years ago. It was posted under a alias after a fellow employee told me that it was perhaps a little too honest for the Powers-That-Be. As I read it now… I remember my mindspace the week it was written: immersed in the dog kennel, yet yearning to have my writing published. I wanted to share the rafting experience while doing so in a manner suitable for an adventure magazine. This trip brought a bit of pain but did not bear significant danger myself or my guests. It was also written after my first season. It would not be until my third season that a trip put me face-to-face with a truly life-threatening situation. Story to come soon.

The flood of thoughts rises, recedes, and cascades again as I sit here attempting to pinpoint what exactly it means to be a river guide. A minute passes and I manage to clear away the thoughts, as thick as a congested highway and realize that a simple story will do.

I wake at first light to the rhythmic beating of cicadas outside the mosquito net walls of my plywood bungalow. A smile forms on my face as I listen to the bird song attempting to overcome the cicada choir. Another day of work—floating down the whitewater of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River - is this even work? Can this job be put it in the same category of work that contains law clerk and line cook?

A check of my watch tells me I have less than an hour before morning chores. Grabbing the rafters, I lower myself to the bare plywood floor from my perch on the upper bunk and head down the dirt trail between the other bungalows. I’m rushing toward the raft barn with my yoga mat, doubling as my sleeping pad, tucked under one arm. I climb to the roof of the bus beside the barn and begin to stretch out. Before long, my sweat starts to bead under the sunrise of the Sumter National Forest and I’m primed for another day in paradise.

he Chattooga Outpost is a family. Living here is to have thirty brothers and sisters and an Uncle Charlie, Scotty, and Dave. Every morning the guides stumble into the cookhouse, sleepy from the bonfire and stump game the previous night, on a direct path to the coffee pot before easing into a well-worn sofa in the Coffee Corner. For the uninitiated, stump game involves a waist-high tree stump, nails, and a hammer. The Coffee Corner is where we wake up and badger each other, talk about the weather forecast, the water level, and always hope for rain upriver in North Carolina to bring on the water. Surrounding us are old poster-size photographs of high water action from the 70’s and 80’s, a foosball table, and a wall-sized topographic map of the river. 

Today, seven of us are taking summer camp kids down Section III. I am eager as ever, having just finished my pod training a week earlier, and especially so to guide the Bull. Bull sluice at mid-water is a Class IV with a narrow A-line—deviate a foot and you’ll flip your raft or go flying out the back in a last ditch attempt to spare your guests a deep swim under Decapitation Rock—or go for the B-line and be boring. A successful or failed A-line is sure to win the guide a decent tip. This is the only photo rapid on the Section III trip, so it pays to style, not to mention river rats are notoriously competitive and daring.

I am already picturing my raft inching as close to the notch as possible, the point of no return, to get my raft as vertical as possible for the picture. For the most epic shot:  ignore the chicken lines (the safety rope along the raft’s tube) in favor of standing up in the back of the raft to absorb the drop and kick, paddle in the water, guiding the whole way.

This is the first trip that I truly despise one of my guests. He is the camp director and he is sitting in the front left corner of the raft. I have an unobstructed view of his face every time he turns his head to the right.  His face is often in this position because he spends most of his energy yelling at the boys to paddle harder. “Why can’t you kids paddle together? Wilson! Stop paddling like a girl! Paddle harder boys!” This isn’t encouragement. He’s just being a school-yard bully.

For forty minutes, Counselor Biff Tannen incessantly berates the boys in my raft, the boys in his summer camp. I am fuming inside and I catch myself scheming of how I can embarrass him instead of reading the water. He starts up again as we approach our first Class II rapid, Eight Ball. It’s an easy enough dog leg to the right with a zig-zag approach of low water and a few shit rocks poking their heads up. I’m going conservative and figure I’ll use the light raft to bump over a few of the rocks since the kids have trouble creating any sort of speed until Dick starts screaming for more power. I give in to the side of me that yearns to go big or go home and decide to go left of the rock for the prettier line and hopefully  give the boys confidence early in the trip. But we get hung up. We’re stuck in water a handful of inches deep.

Biff petulantly blames the boys for our lack of momentum. I angrily kick off the rock, lose my footing and fall on my chest, bouncing down on the outer tube. My left arm shoots into the water and I jam my middle finger into the riverbed—I hear and feel a dull pop–I slowly withdraw my hand from the water, keeping it out of sight of the guests so I can examine it. My finger is bent 90 degrees back at the knuckle. My face is expressionless. I grab the finger with the index and thumb of my right hand, pull out and down, and correct the finger to its mostly straight position. I sit back up in the raft, stick my paddle in the water and yell “All Forward!”

Forty minutes into our four-hour trip, all the guides and rafts pull over for the Troll Bridge. (We flip the rafts over, clip them together, and rock them around as the kids try to run across. They love it.) Our trip leader asks me if I want her to buddy tape my finger and we agree I could have another guide take my raft down the Bull and Woodall Shoals if I need it. Not for a second do I entertain that idea—these are my kids and I am taking them down the river. It’s just a finger. Counselor Biff sees the duct-taped finger and I tell him what happened. For the rest of the trip he keeps quiet save for asking if there is any way he can help.

I take the B-line at the Bull to spare my finger. Our run through Woodall is near perfect, though I jam my finger a couple times on my T-grip from banging my paddle off rocks. At the end of the run, my finger aches mightily, is severely swollen, and is stiff as a nail. Not a straight nail though.

Eight months later my finger is still bent.

River guiding is a true test of character: its dangers humble – its responsibilities wisen - and its challenges make you feel like a rock star.

The month leading up to the finger trip, I had unknowingly allowed my ego to tower. I thought I was hot shit; a first year guide on the infamous Chattooga River, cutting my teeth on the Bull and Five Falls. Then, in an instant, a few worn-smooth river rocks shattered that image and sent me tumbling back to sea-level. After this humbling, I began my real growth on the river.

The river places the guide in dual roles of teacher and rescuer. Often, guests are far outside their comfort zone–they are nervous, afraid, excited, hesitant, gung-ho, and wholly ignorant of the dangers swirling around them. The guide is aware of each known strainer, sieve, hole, and death on the river from fool’s errands or freak accidents. This knowledge hovers near the walls of our long-term memory as the raft floats downriver and someone in my raft inevitably petitions for a tally of every death on the river.

Our minds will always drift to the stories of fellow river guide’s close calls while we hold safety rope down in the Five Falls, before shaking our head clear of the clutter as the rafts queuing upstream begin to pass through. The guests look to their guide as a model of confident experience when one falls out or a bad paddle stroke capsizes the raft. We stand as a lighthouse of calm strength and pull our guests back in one by one.

I am begrudgingly thankful for Counselor Dick. Likewise, I am thankful for the rock that broke my finger. Without these necessarily painful lessons, my rock star self-image would have prevented me from properly respecting the river. It would have kept me from being the barrier between safety and danger for my guests. It would have kept me from becoming a river guide.