They refer to the rapid as the “S-bends”, the largest of the three relatively benign rapids on the slow-moving Skagit River. Snaking left and right, then repeating, it resembles a skier’s line in fresh powder, a fairly simple line that requires a little foresight and knowing where to point your raft. These were two things I lacked when I was the first one offered The Stick in raft guide training in 2011; I took us down backwards.
In my defense, paddling from the back of the boat is a little counter intuitive, but that didn’t matter to my instructor. 3 minutes of turn practice in the eddy at the put-in should have been sufficient, and like the first penguin pushed off the iceberg, I was placed in the driver’s seat, leader of the green guides, focus of ire.
From his spot sitting in the middle of the raft the instructor pointed left, so I paddled to position the boat, only to have it swing the opposite direction. The finger jabbed the air to the left again, hard. I pulled on the paddle harder, and spun us completely around–we bounced over the waves, bucking, the sound of rushing water pierced only by the growl from the middle of the boat “What are you doing, river guide?”. His accent on the “d” the way a cartoon character says “patooey”. The rest of the boat was silent, and I offered up, simply, that I’d gotten confused. “Paddle forward,” came the reply. The discussion was over.
And thus I spent my first day on the river with Kenny, a man capable of instilling the same fear in me–a grown-ass man–as my little league coach who would take breaks from screaming at us for striking out to make us run laps for missing catches. Quiet and somewhat unassuming, I hadn’t realized at first that he was our instructor. He spoke unhurriedly, and assessed us from behind dark, thick aviator eyeglasses, the bottoms of which poked out from from beneath the rim of his Navy baseball cap. The lectures were simple, the instructions sparse and direct, and the silent hang time you’d be left in after asking a question, near unbearable.
For six weeks, on three different rivers, trainees would spend weekend days with Kenny and Mike, then regroup at night, lick our wounds, and find a place to sleep in the woods. We’d commiserate over our screw-ups on the water, reassure each other in times of doubt, and pep-talk the group in the morning as we crawled out of tents and pulled on frozen wetsuits at 6am. Because you were expected at meetup geared up and “having had” (breakfast).
As the weeks passed and we moved from the Skagit to the Nisqually and finally to the Wenatchee River, we learned to endure the criticism and embrace the fear as an inevitable part of the learning process. There was never a day without a screw-up, never a run without Kenny laying into us, and never a moment that we felt at ease. Advice was given with the tongue-in-cheek title of “river guide” or “new guy”. “Hey, new guy–you gonna run into those rocks?” “Hey river guide! You forget how to tie a bowline?!” When I almost sent the boat into a log jam: “Bryan! Don’t knock a hole in that boat! Or you’re…you’re gonna…owe me a foot rub!” He didn’t need to be clever; the clipped annunciation as he searched for the right words was ominous enough. Congratulations consisted of a “Good”. Such triumphs were quickly eclipsed by the fear of screwing up the next line.
We came to learn the rules. Point to the inside of the bend. Guide from one side only. Look for rattlesnakes before you go to take a leak. Mumbling was unacceptable and making the mistake of sprinkling speech with fillers like “um” or “like” resulted in push-ups, 10 per infraction (we learned to avoid similes). No stupid hats or outfits–you’re a river guide, not a clown. If you want to goof around, do it on something that don’t kill you and your crew.
Over time, some of us became more assertive, questioning directives and making our cases for how we would approach a problem differently. It felt like petting a wolf; Kenny seemed amused that we were becoming more independent, but still made it clear that he had teeth and liked the look of our forearm. Halfway through the training he and Mike announced that we’d no longer be rotating on stick time–we’d have to take it from each other: the weeding out process had begun. Actively making the choice to risk being reprimanded is something I think everyone should have to do at some point in life, which I say now that it’s over.
Our home river, the Wenatchee, is the most popular in the state because it has big water, good sun, and relatively few obstructions, making it somewhat safe. But it can kill like any other river and deserves respect. Kenny instilled in us clean lines and a hefty serving of humility. When guides screw up, they flip boats, lose clients, kill people. Flipping, which every paddler thinks they want to do with their guide, was something he forbade, but it does happen, and so we drilled for it.
On a 50-degree day in April we pulled into the eddy behind Rodeo hole, looped the bow line around the left D-ring of the boat, and flipped into the 35-degree water of the Wenatchee River. According to Kenny, it should have taken 90 seconds to flip a raft back and recover a crew–it took us close to 5 minutes. Despite having wetsuits, the water wicked away heat immediately, and after three minutes my hands weren’t clenching well as I helped pull the rope and right the 14-foot Avon. Breathing hard we sat in the boat as Kenny and Mike paddled over.
“Again,” said Kenny, point at the boat “Matt this time. Go.”
Already exhausted, I didn’t bother to keep my head above water this time, which was a mistake as the icecream headache exploded across my scalp, forcing me to the surface under the overturned raft. I found my way out and again we made our way to the upstream side of the raft, affixed the line to the D-ring, got Matt up on top, and waited as he flipped the boat back. In the raft everyone shivered; I tried in vain to blow into my hands to get the feeling back; Adam was white and convulsing violently. Kenny paddled over.
We’d already been in the water for almost 10 minutes. The protests came at once:
“We need a few minutes!” Someone yelled.
“People are too cold!”
Kenny stared at us unblinkingly. “Do it.” he repeated ominously “Again.” And there was nothing to argue.
A third time the boat went over, a third time into the water. We held on to each other; the rescue seemed to be going in slow motion. My arms were heavy and I couldn’t use my hands enough to pull the rope or get myself into the boat. Adam was shaking violently; we all were. Someone–I think it was Neils–helped me climb back into the boat. Reassembled, we paddled to shore and unloaded where Kenny and Mike were standing.
“Flipping the boat,” Kenny said “is not fun. Don’t do it. Clients will ask you to. They will think it’s going to be fun. It isn’t. You’re the guide; you keep them safe. Don’t. Do. It. Understand?”
“Who’s cold?” We all raised our hands, expecting a surprise thermos of hot cocoa in reward for the day’s hard-learned lesson. Instead, Kenny stretched his arm out and pointed to the top of a hill several football fields away. “Leave your PFDs on. Go. Run.”
There was no coddling with Kenny, which was good because there was no coddling when it came to the river. He despised sloppy guiding and careless clowns. The gimmick guides of some of the other companies that would bounce past us through rapids were met with a jutted chin and a slow shake of the head. “You’re going to see the other guide training companies come out here this week,” Kenny had said on weekend 5 “watch them. Look at their lines and their screw ups. Watch them hit the wall by Boar’s Head. See how much more you know than them. And keep your mouths shut.”
Compared to 5 weeks of stern, tough training the other groups looked like kids on rented pool toys. Laughing and paddling out of sync, they bumped into rocks, fell off lines, and lost paddlers into eddies. Any feeling of superiority we had was stamped out by the fact that we were still learning, still screwing up, and still getting yelled at. But we began to take pride in our membership to Team Kenny. The tough lessons and the hard days were making us into stronger guides. It didn’t lessen the anxiety, but it made it easier to deal with.
While the teaching remained rigid and inflexible, our interaction with Kenny became less intimidating. Mike and Cynthia, the other instructors, had always been approachable, but talking to Kenny required brushing past the gruffness. After slipping “like” and “uh” into a question about a rapid and being told to drop for 20 I snapped back “yeah, whatever-answer the question first,” to which Kenny unclipped his river knife and handed it to me, handle first (so he could claim self-defense when he killed me). He’d rarely laugh unsarcastically, but his joking had increased.
Toward the end of training he camped with us out in Chiwaukum creek campground, a no-facilities plot of woods that requires no fees, which means a high population of boaters. We’d built a fire when he walked up “White man fire,” he’d said “Indian fires are small…you huddle around them. White man…big fire.” And he polished off his beer, asked to try mine, and walked away with it. He always had a profound statement chambered. When Tucker had claimed to remember the line on a rapid during instruction, Kenny reminded him that “you can’t fill a cup that’s already full.” I can’t say that having a Native American instructor teach you a river that he was first to run while dispensing profound quotes didn’t inspire a little awe in me; it added to the mystique of what we were doing. Until we realized these were all movie quotes; I’m sure he was laughing his ass off the whole time.
On the last day of training we were largely left alone. Kenny, Mike, and Cynthia floated up ahead and left us on our raft, giving us the first opportunity to experiment with the boat and really feel what it would be like to command a crew. We pushed each other out, took off and made people swim after us when they got out to take a leak, and practiced trying to surf the boat on a wave. The day was lighthearted (or maybe just not unnerving) but we all knew what was coming at the end: the final flip drill. We approached Rock ‘n Roll rapid and punched into the eddy at the bottom. Kenny paddled up. “Last one,” he said “who’s going?” We were silent. No one in the boat moved, eyes darted around to see who was going to take it on. “I’ll do it,” said Matt, one of the most experienced in the class, and began making his way to the back of the boat; this would be an easy job with Matt in command. “No,” said Kenny, and he looked up and pointed at me “Bryan.”
“Yes sir,” I said, feigning certainty, and began to crawl into position. I’d called Kenny “sir” in the first weeks half-ironically to comment on his teaching style. The irony didn’t fit, but the title did, and I’d continued it since. My fear of the man had decreased but my respect for him had grown immensely, and more that getting a job as a guide, or proving to myself that I could command a boat, I wanted his approval. I wanted to be assessed with all his knowledge and all his experience and to be told I was good enough–to know that I, without flash, costumes, or clever jokes, had what it took to be a real river guide in his eyes. When I broke the paralysis that had hold of me and flipped the boat, I wanted nothing more that to execute a perfect recovery.
It was an absolute shit show. I directed everyone to the upstream side of the boat, but some people didn’t hear. When I hooked the bowline behind the D-ring and threw it over to the other side I didn’t make it and had to float back around and rethrow. Once I was on top I couldn’t flip the boat until I got everyone to one side, and I had to wrap the rope around my hand (a serious no-no that no one else caught) because it was too cold to grip it. We paddled to shore just above the dam, fully recovered, in a little over two minutes. As we began to derig the boat I walked away from the group to stare at the mountains: my throat was sore from yelling and I was furious with myself. I’d completely screwed the rescue, had gone over time, and was still breathing like I’d run a sprint. I clenched and unclenched my stiff fingers and realized that Kenny had been standing a few feet from me.
“Well?” He asked.
“Fucking terrible,” I cursed–my first time in front of him–between breaths “people were on the wrong side of the boat…I messed up the throw…I went over time…it was…really hard.”
“Yep, always is,” he said, looking me straight in the face “Good job.” And then he shook my hand.
We didn’t see Kenny much after training. I started guiding with Wildwater and began running recreationally with Neils and Adam. We joked about our militant class and Kenny became something of a myth for us; one of the original river guides, somewhere out beyond the bed, maneuvering through rivers, revealing himself only when he chose to. We’d hear stories that he’d been on the river one day, but we’d missed him, or we’d hear that he would be showing up for a certain weekend and we’d never see him. We’d shout a throaty “Hey, river guide!” when playfully greeting each other. But we continued to run the river the way he taught us, and still do. Keeping him in mind was a reminder of how little we knew and how quickly things could go wrong. We may not have seen him much, but there was a comfort in knowing that he was out there like a protective force, though the protection he gave was really the training he instilled in us.
Kenny passed away on Wednesday February 27, 2013. I’d received a message that he’d had a stroke that paralyzed half of his body on Saturday and was in intensive care. We’d all hoped for a recovery, but at 3am Wednesday morning he moved on.
It’s a strange thing to miss someone you never really knew that well but respected so much. The slim chance of seeing him on the river was like seeing a mountain lion in the wild; you know they’re around and you’re a little bit afraid of them–but the possibility of bumping into a legend like that is pretty thrilling.
Last year when the other rivers had died I drove to Naches, WA with Neils to learn to guide the Tietan. Naches was home to one of three major wildfires in the state at the time, and we cruised the swift-moving water under plumes of smoke and helicopters hauling enormous vats of water to douse cliff faces. As we walked up to our cars for water after a run, Lance, another boater, called to us “hey, Kenny’s here!” We hadn’t seen him in over a year, and when I came down the hillside I broke into a wide grin and walked up to my teacher. “Hello, sir!” I said, reaching out and shaking his hand “it’s great to see you!”
“Good to see you too,” he replied “it’s great to see you out here!” And he gave smile to Neils and me. We talked river for a while and then we had to get back to work, but I felt, in the smallest part of me, that he was a little bit proud of us. That maybe through his rigorous training and take-no-bullshit attitude he’d crafted from two guys a pair of river guides who were competent enough to run a river the way he’d taught us. At least that’s what I’d like to think, and that’s what keeps me running safe–the feeling that he’s still out there on the river, watching, warning. And that for as long as I guide, on any river, I will always be working for his approval.