Sep 24, 2020
7 mins read
(The original working title for this story was 'California Dreamy'. But I came across an ammo box sticker years ago at Bumbershoot that I couldn't pass up. And it has long been my favorite sticker - along with Porkins Lives, of course. Due to the walking on water reference, I thought it more fitting.
Two things - when you become a river guide, bumper stickers are no longer bumper stickers but ammo box stickers, and because of the protagonist of this tale, Orion River Rafting, my Washington state river outfit, began using oarlocks versus whatever archaic contrivance we had been using previously. Hallelujah!)
By the end of his time working for us, he wasn’t known as Randy “McBackRub” for nothing.
But, in the beginning, a few of us swear we witnessed him walking on water.
It started on the Skykomish River on a dreary western Washington day early in the spring. Temperatures hovered around nut-clenching and penis-shriveling. Of course, the ambient temperature was one thing, the water in the river was recent snow melt.
On the bright side - it wasn’t raining. At least not yet.
Our river guests that day were a UW fraternity and, though the river was high and the weather was less than ideal, Scott, Mark and I figured the show must go on. We were each veteran guides with plenty of high water experience. But, first, we needed to rendezvous with a California guide who called me out of the blue to see if he could tag along.
The three of us loitered in the company van at the launch site shooting the breeze in anticipation of meeting this guy from the ‘other’ sunshine state. We heard a knock on the sliding door of the van and, upon opening it, we eyed a guy wearing a cowboy hat, plaid flannel shirt, canvas shorts and flip flops. Of course, he also sported a mountain man beard. He was tan and fit and everything about him screamed California.
Scott and Mark immediately suspected we were dealing with a yahoo. A yahoo, in river parlance, is someone who does not take safety seriously.
If not a yahoo, a Californian too vain for his own good.
They refused to cut him slack. I held my tongue but Scott and Mark could not restrain themselves from making snide comments. While the three of us were dressed to make a run at the South Pole, Randy McCafferty* was dressed for tropical climes. Luckily, he brought neoprene but it was a shorty wetsuit suitable for not-particularly-foul-weather conditions.
Needless to say, his lack of understanding of the appropriate gear both baffled us and made us dubious of his supposed skills and ballyhooed experience.
After he and I chatted one another up, he boldly asked if he could row the safety boat which was to be entrusted to me that day. (The safety boat is rowed with oars so as to be effective and efficient during a river rescue. It is lightly loaded and, on this river, we placed it downstream of the major rapids to facilitate in any rescue operations required of swimmers and rafts.) The Skykomish was running somewhere within the vicinity of burly and unpleasant. Even under the best of circumstances, I rarely allow anyone to be in charge of my fate on - what I consider - serious white water.
But, for some inexplicable reason, I capitulated. No doubt begrudgingly. It was as if he had used a “Vulcan mind meld” on me.
We launched on the South Fork of the Skykomish and after an uneventful, predominantly dry, definitely smooth ride, the four of us were standing on boulders on the right bank of an angry-looking section of river appropriately enough called Boulder Drop.
Three hundred yards or so of mesmerizing currents, exploding waves and intimidating hydraulics. Three hundred yards requiring several decisions, a few maneuvers and poor odds that nothing will go awry. Especially for non-self-bailing paddle rafts.
Especially at what, in the industry, we like to call “pushy” water levels.
Another outfitter, the owner of Northern Wilderness River Riders at the time, and someone who had run Boulder Drop frequently, had once told me that he’d guess out of 100 times down that rapid, he’d had clean runs about 5 times. Not that he’d always had disasters, mind you, but he’d come close to disasters repeatedly. And, of course, there had been the occasional mishap.
Randy seemed undaunted. He was eager to dip his oars in Boulder Drop’s waters and experience the chaos firsthand.
I don’t remember his exact demeanor as we looked down upon what was - at the time - the nastiest bit of white water any of us ever wanted to voluntarily boat, but I am guessing it fell within the range of giddy to sublime. He reminded me of a determined rodeo cowboy preparing himself to take on the wildest stallion or the orneriest bull, or an ancient yoga master reciting the Bhagavadgita while doing a headstand on a sandstone pinnacle. In other words, even though this was his first gander at Boulder Drop, his pulse rate was rock steady.
Meanwhile, Scott and Mark put on a their best swagger. Beneath the bravado? I could only hazard a guess. In those days, a run through this rapid with novice paddlers, even if they were young and eager, in a boat likely to weigh half a ton part way through the minefield of obstacles, was a crap shoot at best.
I queried Randy about his markers and route, found his response to be reassuring and steeled myself for what was surely one of the first times I ever dropped into this stretch of hellish white water without being in control.
Long story short - he made it look effortless.
In two shakes of a lamb’s tail (okay - how about. . . faster than I could tie a double fisherman's knot?) he was tucking the raft into a bit of calm water on the left bank downstream of the cascade. I couldn’t have been more impressed. We bobbed in the river’s intermittent pulse awaiting two paddle rafts filled to the brim with youthful college students who themselves were brimming with vim and vigor.
Mark’s paddle boat led. We watched his raft plunge over a steep chute, get swallowed, recycled, flipped and then all we saw were seven bobbing hockey helmets.
Scott’s plunge produced the same result.
And - suddenly - we had, what we call in the industry, a “yard sale”. Boats, paddles, water bottles, bobbing hockey helmets attached to flailing bodies - all choosing varying routes through the remainder of the rapid. Needless to say, my adrenalin spiked. I grabbed every throw bag available.
Randy, on the other hand, could have been standing in line at the bank. He patiently waited as if he were at a crosswalk.
As the first two swimmers approached, he rowed out, rescued them, then returned to the eddy. He darted back out to grab the next several. I threw throw bags to expedite the process. On the next pass we scooped up a few of the stragglers, ferried to the opposite bank and collected the rest.
With fourteen of us in the safety boat, Randy rowed into the main current and we began retrieving the detritus of a double flip - paddles and boats in particular - en route to our scheduled lunch stop a quarter mile downstream. Scott and Mark, like the well-trained guides they were, swam to save themselves.
Somewhere, somehow in that quarter mile journey everyone was reunited with their crews and gear.
When we landed for lunch, it was clear a few of our guests were a tad shell-shocked. Most verged on hypothermia.
Once more, the white water cowboy from SoCal came to the rescue. While Mark, Scott and I handed out extra clothing and got to work on lunch, he built a campfire, acted like everyone had just won a huge payout at Vegas and made sure no one was left to brood about their circumstances. It wasn’t genuine, but it was an Oscar-worthy performance, and it was precisely the response the frat boys required.
Randy made it seem as if it was just another day at the office. That everyone had a story for the ages.
As time went by, Randy wore out his welcome, especially with the back rubs and all; however, on that day, we’re pretty sure he walked on water.
*Name has been changed.