All Forward: Guiding Through a Pandemic

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A few years ago, Steve Markle, who heads up sales and marketing for OARS, and I were working on copy for our first annual boathouse tour, a series of gatherings at OARS boathouses around the American West with an aim to bring people together around our common love for the great outdoors. Looking back, I realize how fortunate we were in that time, as a series of close-knit gatherings feels so far out of reach at this moment.

Lees Ferry; photo: Emily Nuchols

In my first draft of a letter for Steve, I signed off with “Onward.” The following day, he had crossed that out and replaced it with, “All forward.” I smiled. And I can’t help but remember that as we head into another week of uncertainty. All forward, indeed.

All forward. That’s what a river guide commands her crew as their raft plunges into a rapid. With every paddle digging in—and a confident leader steering in the stern—forward momentum drives the boat through turbulence to safety.

Photo: NW Rafting Co.

I’ve found myself adopting Steve’s sign-off a lot these days, when we as a global community find ourselves facing no less of a challenge and dire consequences. As the coronavirus ravages countries around the world, we all face uncharted territory. The majority of us are in limbo; some in a slow reopening, some still in quarantine under stay-at-home orders. This week, deaths in the United States topped 76,000 with new reports showing that deaths are projected to hit 3,000 people per day by June. Three thousand people are projected to die—every single day.

Those numbers are so staggering, I’m not even sure what to do with them. And we’re nowhere near out of the woods yet. In the last two months, more than 33 million Americans have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment. Businesses have shuttered, some may never reopen. The outdoorsy among us are figuring out how to scratch the itch of adventure in our backyards, on city sidewalks, rolling solo and physically distant. And we know that we’re privileged to even count that as one of our problems in the face of this novel threat that we’re still trying to wrap our minds around.

Yampa River; photo: Emily Nuchols

Even as some states slowly experiment with reopening and relaxing restrictions, people are staring down a barrel of unprecedented uncertainty with no end in sight. To keep each other safe, we’ll have no big dinner parties as we turn the corner into summer, no group camping trips to the desert, no weddings with family and friends smashed onto the dance floor, no in-person church services, or gatherings like our boathouse tour.

It means I haven’t hugged a human in more than two months and I spend at least a part of every day dreaming about how good it will feel to safely do so again. It also means for the first time in decades, outfitters haven’t launched their boats on rivers across the West this season, reining in their operations at the time when they would normally be charging full speed ahead.

Yampa River; photo: Emily Nuchols

It’s surreal, heartbreaking, and uncertain. Our guides, our outdoor community and rural recreation gateway communities are being hit hard. In the face of an unrivaled threat, never has it been more vital to work together, even while the crisis we’re in calls for us to be physically distant. The decisions we make in the next year will define our nation and our future. The decisions we make today and every day moving forward will decide if some people will live or die. Will we passively ride along and take what comes our way, or will we listen to that voice in the back of the raft?

I think you know the answer to that. The other day, I asked my friend Zach Collier, the owner and outfitter of Northwest Rafting Company, how he was feeling about the season ahead.

“I am weirdly energized and excited. There is a good chance we have a somewhat normal season, which would, of course, be great. There is also a chance this is an incredibly complicated and challenging season full of unique trips and complicated logistics. That gets me excited too,” he said. “One of the guides I work with told me ‘Your brain is built for this season.’ The challenge of taking our guests on ‘out of the box’ trips, keeping our guides gainfully employed, and keeping the business afloat is like running a complex river with no beta.”

The Rogue River, photo: NW Rafting Co.

Leave it to Zach, who has a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford, to treat this as an exciting equation to solve. His company is launching some new trips this season that embrace the distance, like inflatable kayak trips on the Upper Middle Fork of the Salmon and virtual rafting instruction, and he’s working with others in the community to raise money to keep guides working. Zach plans to use the proceeds to hire guides to write articles about river safety, conservation, and natural history, and emphasized that he hopes to support guides outside of his own company with these funds as well.

As anyone on a river trip knows, every person has a role to play. And it’s no different today. We are the guides. We are the leaders that will bring us through this crisis. So let’s do what we would as we come upon some big, consequential whitewater. Let’s haul out, scout the rapid, gather our teams (virtually in this case), and make a plan for how we make it through safely. Every single one of us is vital. And the only way through is together.

Scouting the Rogue River; photo: Emily Nuchols

As NRS ambassador, Emerald LaFortune wrote on Instagram, “We’re doers, we’re helpers, we’re guides… Look around the town you’re in. Who needs a hand? How can you help in a way that is safe and fits into the big picture? Just like guiding, this isn’t always a hero move. We’re working as a team.”

Anyone who has been on a river trip knows that a bit of misadventure always leads to the best adventure, and so much of the experience is in those perfect moments when we’re all working together as a team. And then there are those times when we’re facing some real consequences. It’s then that we look to our guides. We heed their call through the adrenaline in that last second of calm before dropping into a surging rapid. We cheer each other on once we’re on the other side. And in the moments when it feels like total chaos, when a boat has flipped and we’ve got people to rescue, that guide’s voice always rings steady to make sure we make it through safely. Don’t panic. Listen for it.

“How we get through it will depend on our preparation before we enter and our poise as we go through it,” Zach said. His years of guiding have prepared him for a time just like this.

Well, here we are friends. We all have that critical role to play, and for the time being, it means sticking close to home. It means protecting our family, friends, neighbors and ourselves by keeping some distance for now.

So when we hear our guide’s voice say, “all forward,” will we go all in?

Hells Canyon on the Snake River; photo: Emily Nuchols

What we need now, more than ever, are a few good guides to bring willing partners together in shared purpose. This is our mission. To read the current, to steer the boat, to inspire helping—freshly washed—hands into action.

Who is the voice? Well, that voice just might be you if you listen. Thank you for guiding us through this. We’ll be back on the river before you know it.

All forward.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Emily Nuchols is a writer, river advocate and the founder of Under Solen Media, a Portland, Oregon-based creative company with a cause. She has also been known to throw one hell of a party and wholeheartedly believes that celebration is at the core of great work—and that we can save the world one party at a time.