The River Permit Lottery Part II: The Other One


It’s all over but the crying…

The last of your permit applications come back with a “sorry to inform you but you did not win” notification. It’s February, the world is frozen, devoid of hope. You stare at your computer screen. Your glacial dial-up Internet connection means that cancellations (the prize of the quick) are impossible. You have two options: you can wring your hands in despair or you can put them to work applying for the Other Lottery.

While The Other Lottery is not an official lottery, there are no tickets or random number drawings, there is an element of chance and you can win something—that “something” being a spot on someone else’s multiday river trip.

All the Other Lottery requires is access to an Internet multiday river trip forum on which you can solicit a trip and troll posts from people offering open spots. And with the help of a few simple rules, you can win the Other Lottery with a frequency that will make you wonder why you even bother playing the odds in the actual lottery.

Warning: Don’t stop playing the actual lottery (see Rule #8).

Rule #1 Don’t Start Too Early. You are desperate but you don’t want to appear that way. Everybody believes they have friends, and in the rosy afterglow of winning some coveted permit, everybody believes their friends are “in.” But, inevitably, some of them will be “out” as the launch date approaches, which might make a spot for you. I recommend waiting about a month from your preferred date to begin any serious solicitation campaign. This sends the message that you’re thinking about boating, but that isn’t all you think about. It also says you’re laid back, but not like last-minute laid back.

Warning: In the same vein that you shouldn’t start looking too early, red flags should pop up when you spot a post for an opening that’s many months away from the actual launch date. This person may not have any friends and there could be a reason for that. They may want some money up front (I wouldn’t send them any). Or, they may just be anticipating a certain amount of flakiness. In any case, a lot of miscommunication can happen over a few months.

Of course, ignore these risks at your own peril—I certainly have. This resulted in one of the finest disasters of my life (see Dirtbag Diaries Episode #93 “A Slosh in the Bucket.”)

Rule #2 Sell Your Best Self Ask yourself, why should anybody invite you? Do you have a lot of group gear? Do you have a large raft with some space for gear or people? A motor to push through some still water? List your willingness to contribute gear. But also list your willingness to contribute anything. Remember, they’re inviting you, not just your gear. Can you cook? How about row? Can you save somebody in an emergency? List your skills. But only if you actually have them. A friend of mine is going on an Other Lottery Grand Canyon trip with someone who has informed the group how excited he is to bring his guitar that he’s just learning how to play. Just don’t.

Rule #3 Be Flexible with Dates It should go without saying that you don’t get to pick your dates in this Other Lottery, so you have to be flexible. You could put dates that would work for you on your post, but this will reduce your chances of getting an invite to about… zero. And as for posts looking for additional boaters, by their very nature, they are often last-minute offers. Also, think outside the peak season. Spring and fall can be great times to boat. My wife and I are teachers so we have about three months of flexibility. If you aren’t a teacher and you’re really serious about getting on a trip, you might consider quitting your job or becoming the boss.

Rule #4 Be Flexible with Trip Styles This rule spans a few topics. Only participate in this Other Lottery if you can scrap your conception of an ideal trip. If you can’t, the Other Lottery is not a good option for you. This will not be your trip. You need to set your expectation at “being on a river.” Beyond even the standard group variations of kitchen duties and morning launch times, in order to win the Other Lottery with some frequency, you need to be okay with the “norms” of the group, even if they aren’t very normal. I’ve been on trips where praying before meals was expected, and I’ve been on trips that have ended early because the booze ran out. I’ve boated with families and I’ve boated with criminals—I’ve enjoyed them all.

Rule #5 More is not necessarily Merrier Again, remember, this is not your trip and so you should not ask to invite all of your friends. In my experience, a +1 is not usually a problem, especially if that +1 is a spouse or partner. Certainly, never ask for more guests than your own boat can hold. Family trips are the exception to this rule. When people look for other families to join them, what they are really looking for is more kids. Children’s enjoyment of a river trip is often in proportion to the number of other kids along. Go ahead, invite the neighbor kids. This won’t be a problem.

Rule #6 Words Matter This is more of an advanced technique (you may not be ready for this). While it’s true that beggars can’t be choosers, you can improve your odds for a certain type of river trip by choosing your words carefully. If I’m begging a family trip, I mention I’m a teacher. If I’m looking for a more mature trip, I leave that out. Without going into a line-by-line explication of Internet posts, I would generally say that the subtext of people’s words matters more than the surface meaning. In river terms the unseen, underwater features, create the visible ones. Avoid people who can’t read irony, these people probably can’t read rivers either. (Okay, that wasn’t fair.) At any rate, camp conversations may be dry. Join at your own risk.

Rule #7 The More You Play the Other Lottery the More You Win You win the Other Lottery by getting on a river trip when you struck out on your actual lottery permit applications, but you also win by meeting new people who love what you love. And these people will often show you some love next permit season if they happen to pick up a permit. Consider it a win-win-win situation.

Rule #8 Don’t Stop Applying to the Actual Lottery While it’s true that the actually lottery is probably a tax for people who are bad at math, your application fee does some good. Like it or not, the river lottery permit system protects our rivers, and your fees go into making sure that system remains solvent. Besides concrete boat launches and public bathrooms aren’t so bad. So keep donating. Just don’t expect to win.