Change is afloat |

Change is afloat

Derek Franz
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

As I learned how to kayak on the river when I was 15, the ‘yakers I looked up to passed on to me a half-serious contempt for rafters.

Much like the skiing/snowboarding culture, in the paddling community there are plenty of classic jokes about the rafting/kayaking rift. Kayakers are “cling-ons” – hanging out on the raft, which has the food and drinks and, on overnight trips, the kayakers’ gear – until it suits their fancy to ditch the group and go their own way. Rafters, on the other hand, are portrayed as porcine party people who are more like tourists along for the ride, too incompetent to paddle their own boats.

Rafters are often seen toasting beers and (perhaps rightfully) jeering their kayaking compadres, who ignore them and go off to find “play waves” to surf. (On overnight trips, a smart ‘yaker will surf until dark and float down to camp to find his tent erect and his dinner cooked; really sly ones evade dish duty as well and then push off early in the morning to find more play waves; such actions are often done under the guise of being a “safety boater,” who will pluck swimmers out of the river when they drunkenly fall out of the raft.)

Honestly, I’ve come to find there is truth to both sides of the argument. However, the proud opinion I held so long of myself as a kayaker – a captain of his own, beholden to none – is beginning to change.

I’ve known plenty of kayakers, myself included, who were often too proud to sit on some silly raft. My kayaking mentor, who once made a living long ago as a raft guide, even disparaged “rubber people.”

Yet, he, too, now owns an inflatable canoe as well as a “ducky,” which is an inflatable kayak. He told me he couldn’t believe it either.

What made the difference for him was the fact that it’s easier (and cheaper) to fly a deflated raft out of the Alaska bush than an 11-foot hardshell boat. Yet the fact remains, he went over to the rubber side.

More recently, my friend Craig has been enticed to become a rafter as well. He paddled it through the Grand Canyon last summer after about four months of learning the oars.

When we arranged to raft last Sunday, he said I could kayak if I wanted but I declined that offer. I preferred to sit on the raft and be social. When I was 17, I never had to consider any other option other than my hardshell because I was so tough and had to prove it.

However, in many ways, I’ve discovered that rafting is tougher. A good rafter not only understands the intricacies of the river, but every in and out on the boat as well.

She knows where each strap goes and what connects to what and how much the boat weighs with its ever-changing payload. That change in mass means a change in velocity: how long it will take to get the raft from A to B. Misjudging the latter could result in getting flipped in a hole or caught in a strainer, which is a tangle of brush or driftwood.

Further, a good rafter knows how to get along with people and work with them as a team. This last point might be the most difficult to master.

As the six of us paddled Craig’s raft – unofficially christened Erline – down the Roaring Fork last weekend, I realized I had a lot more to learn about rafting.

(The back story on the name is when Craig took his raft down the Grand, he had to put black tape over the Timberline Tours logo, so river rangers would not associate him with a commercial tour. When we rolled the raft out of storage a week ago, part of the tape had come off, revealing “Erline.” About that time, Craig remarked he hadn’t named his boat yet and our friend quickly pointed out that it had pretty much named itself, much to Craig’s dislike.)

Even more after this latest float, I realized that I wanted to have my own raft someday – a captain beholden to his friends.

I think it’s the same in life, too – the most challenging thing to master is how you relate to others. When it gets down to it, we’re all on the river together.

– “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Glenwood Springs. He can be reached at

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