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Are you ready for row-it-yourself whitewater?

Are you ready for row-it-yourself whitewater?

Your grip on the paddle tightens as the distant rumble of whitewater grows louder. Suddenly, the river is flowing much faster, and your heart is hammering as you hit the first rapid. A few quick strokes and you're sliding down a tongue of green water, then bouncing through playful waves to a calmer stretch ahead, the reward at the end of another successfully run rapid.

Paddle-rafting has long been a popular option on dozens of Western rivers for those seeking some involvement; on these trips, a team of four to six boaters perches on the raft's outer tubes, paddling in response to directions from a guide at the stern. We've reported such outings in Sunset for years.

But there's a special challenge when you alone are in control of the craft, following the guide's boat into the rapids but responsible for finding your own pathway through them. When you're fully in charge like this, even small waves and gentle class 2 drop-offs take on challenging proportions, and the occasional rowser-dowser becomes all the more exhilarating.

"More and more people want to participate; they don't want to be coddled,' says a Eugene outfitter. Many of her clients are first-time river runners. Others have been on guide-rowed trips and are seeking more excitement, personal challenge, and involvement.

They don't have to look far: the opportunities to join guided do-it-yourself river trips are growing every year.

You-row trips cost about the same as guide-rowed trips. With more complex logistics, trips on remote Idaho rivers tend to be a little more expensive. Expect to pay about $70 to $90 a day on multi-day trips ($90 to $120 in Idaho), about $50 to $70 for one day.

How much participation do you want?

The variety of outfitters currently offering these trips lets you choose between a fully catered vacation (you paddle or row, but the guides do all the land chores) or a more fully participatory trip (you help with cooking and with such tasks as setting up camp and inflating the boats). Most people seem to prefer to pitch in, at least part of the time; you may even pick up a few tips on Dutch-oven cooking.

Most outfitters of these trips welcome everyone from sturdy teen-agers to gray-beards who may or may not be strong swimmers. You'll have the most fun if you're in fairly good shape, feel comfortable around water, have a well-developed sense of adventure--and a good sense of humor.

What about children? The best advice is to leave those younger than 7 at home. From age 8 to about 14, children can usually ride in a guide's boat--though most 12- and 13-year-olds can handle an inflatable kayak. Young people age 14 or older can generally manage their own "sportyak' or raft, at least part of the time. Ask your outfitter about specific age restrictions.

Those who have taken participatory river trips find them different from guide-rowed outings in many ways. You're bound to learn some river-running and river-reading skills. With so much to learn, clients tend to get to know each other, and their guides, better; the trip feels more like an expedition. And some veteran do-it-yourselfers say they learned as mcuh about themselves on the trip as they did about the river.

A choice of inflatable kayak, "sportyak,' or you-row raft

Inflatable kayaks are the easiest to learn in and the most forgiving. These aren't the Eskimo-type kayaks with full skirting to keep out water; they're more like stubby canoes with inflatable sides.

Then there are sportyaks, hard-sided and slightly more challenging cousins to the inflatable kayaks, powered by a pair of small oars.

At the top end of the spectrum are you-row rafts, where clients are literally in the guide's seat, rowing their own midsize raft through the rapids. Such trips were pioneered in Oregon nearly two decades ago and have spread slowly; a recent change in Idaho's outfitter regulations has made client-rowed rafts an option on that state's exciting and remote wilderness rivers.

For more details on all three options, see the box below.

Other factors to consider before you sign on

First, do you just want to dip a toe into river-running or are you ready to jump in? Most river-trip outfitters now bring along at least one inflatable kayak and perhaps a paddle-raft on their trips (few offer sportyaks or oar rafts as an option). That way, if some members of your family prefer to ride with the guide but you want to paddle your own craft, everyone gets the vacation he or she wants. But you're not likely to get as much instruction on this kind of mixed-craft trip.

If you really want to learn something about river-running, sign up for a specialized trip, where everyone is in the same type of craft. The guides on this kind of trip are usually good teachers as well as experienced river-runners. The drills and the challenges are the same for all, so it's often safer, too.

After you decide which craft you'd like to try and the number of days you want to be out, think about the geography and class of whitewater you want to take on (see map on facing page).

How safe are these trips?

Despite the hazards that exist on all rivers, the outfitting industry has an excellent safety record. Do-it-yourself trips are no exception--in part because of the standard precautions these outfitters take. Rivers are carefully chosen to provide some thrills with a minimum of risks. Lifejackets are provided for everyone; on a few rivers, wetsuits are also required.

The lead guide's boat is always first through the rapids. Clients' boats follow, and a "sweep' boat completes the procession. Most guides complete their boat-maneuvering instructions with a word on what to do in case of an upset.

But you need to take an active part in safety precautions, too. Begin by being honest with yourself about whether this kind of trip is for you. Always wear your lifejacket--even in calm water. Be conscientious about following the chosen route and maintaining the proper distance from the boat ahead while running rapids. If your guide asks you to walk around or let a stronger rower take on a particularly tricky rapid, don't challenge him or her. And should you flip, follow your guide's instructions, not your own impulses.

Rating the rivers, choosing an outfitter

Rivers are rated class 1 (gentle riffles) to class 6 (unrunnable except by some experts).

You might be more comfortable starting out on a gentler, mainly class 2 river such as the Owens, where you'll need to do some maneuvering to get around rocks and through waves and drops but you may not encounter any fierce rapids or dramatic drops. But many first-timers decide to go for the glory and sign up to run a consistently class 3 river like the Rogue.

We list 35 outfitters starting on page 73; most are already well into their spring season, so get in touch with them right away if you're interested.

Photo: First Rogue rapid nearly knocks her inflatable kayak into a tailstand; she recovered to finish the rapid wet but upright

Photo: Day begins with a dry-land lesson on boat maneuvering from guide-instructor. They'll soon be paddling inflatable kayaks down the frothing Kern

Photo: After three days' rowing, he's negotiating this Deschutes River rapid with some confidence--and quickly developing skills. Passenger is navigator and splash guard

Photo: You-row trip ends with one final task: raft deflation. There were plenty of volunteers
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1986
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