Social but Distanced
This past summer as COVID-19 travel restrictions began to ease up, we asked Portland-based writer Adam Edwards and photographer Kenny Hamlett to join us for a 4-day Rogue River rafting trip to explore why wilderness experiences like rafting trips are more important than ever.
“PB&J, please!” the little one yells. Blackberry paste is smeared under his eyes and across his mouth, partially from foraging and partially from a wildling game the children have been playing.
“But where is your mask, my friend?” the OARS guide asks, the practiced drawl of a river guide softly challenging the childish enthusiasm accosting him.
It’s the end of July in Oregon’s Rogue River canyon. The sun beats down on us as the children run around searching for blackberries and small rocks to jump off of. Small groups of adults have found comfortable ledges above the river. In a shaded alcove near a small creek, the river guides have set up an umbrella, hand-wash station, and are serving lunch at a private riverside DIY cabana.
Without the masks and the frequent queries of, “Did you wash your hands?” the scene would be no different than any other river trip.
Actually, being “social but distant” was much easier on the river.
There’s a saying that goes, getting there is the most stressful and dangerous part of any river trip. Due to bad traffic coming out of Portland, my friend Kenny and I found ourselves arriving at the Galice Resort late for our pre-trip meeting. The staff at Galice were friendly and accommodating, helping us find our rooms, guides, and a nice outdoor seat at their restaurant. But having spent the majority of my time the last months in small groups of people, suddenly being at the bustling put-in for the Rogue was mildly disconcerting.
The following morning my anxieties slightly subsided. The care OARS, and the guides themselves, put into keeping people comfortable while traveling with strangers was amazing. While many of the families on the trip were from out of state, each had been observing the company’s requested quarantine prior to the trip. Beyond that, each group’s personal gear was color-coded and only touched by the guests themselves. Gone were the firelines of gear from the trips I’d been on in the past.
At the put-in, we separated into specific guest groups and listened to our pre-trip talk. It was a strange feeling to be on a multi-day rafting trip with a group of strangers. At the same time, the undercurrent of excitement and impending relaxation were also too strong to ignore. Each raft and inflatable kayak was assigned to a family or travel group. We were being asked to trust one another, and respect boundaries.
In camp, families and friends chose to self isolate to an extent. The real measurable change was watching how everyone cordoned off with their travel cohorts in stadium-like seating the first night, but came together into a group-wide semi-circle by the last night. Whether time in the wilderness had created that shift or people had become comfortable enough with their space to
navigate it a bit more loosely, conversations flowed freely and distance was just right to feel safe.
Each night our lead guide, Nicole, would detail the next day’s itinerary and rapids, giving enough clues to excite, but leaving plenty to the imagination. From there, we’d pass the evenings in small groups, talking about the strangeness of the coming school year for the kids, the protests in our nation against police violence, and marveling at the setting sun as it cast reds and pinks
in the sky. River trips have a way of opening people up. Very little is taboo as long as you remember you’re going to see that person in the groover line or at breakfast in the morning.
Each morning brought the coffee call at 7 a.m. and breakfast shortly after that. A quick mask and temperature check preceded fresh fruit, hearty bacon, and french toast. Then we’d shove off to enjoy the splashy, fun whitewater, and beautiful scenery.
The pace of life on a multi-day rafting trip is different than anything else. While there is structure, the delight of being on the river seems to make time pass more slowly. Beyond the put-in, you rarely see other groups outside of your own. Each trip moves independently at their own pace, bonding together over a shared adventure. Nothing breaks down barriers faster than sharing a single bathroom with multiple people and rafting through formidable whitewater.
Why a river trip in 2020? Some say it takes three days for people’s walls to come down on overnight trips. Now? It took only 4 to 6 hours for our group to connect and for folks to discuss the stark and pressing realities we are faced with outside of the canyon walls. They did so willingly because it was on their minds, and it matters. But how the conversations unfolded and the space we were in made all the difference. For a few days we were able to think, relax, and play with only one stream of information. One pathway. That seemed to make the difference in allowing us all to enjoy the moment and journey together.
This story appears in our 2021 Adventures Catalog. Request your copy below and start planning your next adventure!