The Raft Guiding Physicist.

by Chip Sanders

I’ve heard raft guides called a lot of names since I joined the community two years ago: dirtbag, scumbag, beater, WALLACE, hippie, etc. I take pride — or a swim beer — in being called any of these names, but I’ve noticed something subtle about raft guides that most people don’t see. Raft guides are the most badass, underpaid, and unappreciated professional physicists I’ve ever met.

I know. Stay with me. “Professional physicists? Y’all just have fun all day at work, hang out in the woods, smoke pot, and cry on Facebook about liberal hippie stuff!” I’ve heard it all, and I can understand that stereotype coming from a normal experience and perspective. However, I wouldn’t consider my perspective normal.

They say when you find the place where your strengths fit something you love, you’ve found your passion. I spent the better part of 25 years as an athlete, picking up a B.S. in Physics along the way. When the world brought me to whitewater, I saw guides (who later became my friends) and coworkers display an incredible combination of athleticism and intellect to control the laws of physics. It’s hard to describe the awe I feel every time I see a 120-pound guide romp the Five Falls with a six-load of offensive lineman. (Looking at you Mari!) I’m beyond fortunate to witness this just about every trip I work on Section IV of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, and my first two years have given me tremendous respect for everyone in this industry.

What we do to give guests a good time is hard. Beyond hard. Some days with some crews it actually feels impossible. When you boil it down, rafting is quantifiable, measurable physics. Our daily journey is a dangerous dance down the river fighting against the laws of classical mechanics and applying our knowledge of how things move. We attempt to manage and control the delivery of kinetic energy to our people and rafts. Every second challenges us to figure out the forces we must overcome to deliver an exhilarating and safe experience for ourselves and our guests. We are bodies in motion pushing rubber, and bodies in motion on a river being acted upon by a complex and dynamic sum of forces. Our goal is to channel those forces into downstream momentum while keeping our raft upright.

We are bodies in motion pushing rubber, and bodies in motion on a river being acted upon by a complex and dynamic sum of forces.”

What are we up against? Only the fundamental and eternal Laws of Nature! Friction: The drag that allows our boats to track with the current, that slows or stops us when we scrape over or (more likely for me) pin on a rock, and that keeps our feet stuck to rocks as we move quickly along the banks to set safety. Gravity: the force that sends us plummeting over the notch at Bull Sluice, acting on every water molecule at once pulling its flow downward through the path of least resistance guiding our way, and that turns our raft over when too much mass shifts to one side. Collisions: in bouncing off rocks to create dramatic shifts in our momentum’s direction, when Gary sticks his paddle out to push off a rock and it sends his T-grip in a very specific direction (always toward Linda’s nose). The complexity of our job cannot be understated when you consider that every one of those forces can potentially be acting simultaneously on our rafts!

Rob and I parked on Lizards Lounge

So what is it that we do to manage these ever-changing forces as we move downstream? We have to use our training and the tools available to manage the chaos unfolding around us. Our paddles are levers that we constantly use to adjust our angles, shifting that bottom hand fulcrum almost subconsciously to dictate how strong or delicate we need the adjustment to be. Those angles and adjustments can be a matter of life or death on a Class V river.

Rescue scenarios require even more knowledge of these forces that govern our world. Thrown-rope rescues require an understanding of projectile motion to hit your target, as well as how to apply centripetal force to create a pendulum with just the right arm-length of rope to swing swimmers into the eddy we want. Don’t even get me started on how complex unpinning a raft can be. Pinned boats require us to analyze the forces sticking the raft, then shift or unload people to relieve the force of friction. If that doesn’t work, it becomes an engineering problem: How do we make a complicated rope-and-pulley system with limited resources to gain a mechanical advantage that we can apply at the correct angle to compensate for how far “Freddy First Year” drove his crew up onto Pyramid Rock.

From the moment we start strapping rafts onto the bus, we become scientists. Every second has a problem that needs solving. Every rapid has its own variables that we must take into account to lead us to a clean line. We analyze the situations before us, apply knowledge gained through experimentation, and execute hundreds of times per trip. We’re rockstars when we pull off a great trip and we should know that, but success should never give us a false sense of control over the river. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten in this sport was to “be a proud, humble badass.” The example I thought of was Bruce Lee who once said said, “Knowledge gives you power, but character, respect.” What we do is dangerous and difficult and requires a tremendous amount of respect. We must always strive to further our knowledge so that we have the power to lay down stomping lines. But we must have the strength of character to know our limits and respect the dangers of dancing with the awesome physical forces of nature.

Bruce Lee who once said said, “Knowledge gives you power, but character, respect.”

Respect is a big word in our community. We respect our land, respect our rivers, respect our lives, and respect one another. We even give respect to the few guests each summer who don’t have the character to be respectful to us in return! So the next time you think about raft guides, don’t disrespect them by assuming they’re just bums living out of a van by the river. Some of them may in fact live in their van, but if you want to make a more likely assumption, make it a positive one. Assume they’re hardcore, hard working, helpful physicists who prefer to live life on the edge.

EDITOR’S DESK: And buy em beer! Chip is a former pro soccer player from Thomasville, GA, starting his third year as a guide alongside Associate Editor Taz Riggs on the Chattooga River. Find him on Instagram@csanders89

or in the back of aSoutheastern Expeditions raftthis summer!

Photo credits: Amanda Sue Gladys/Chloe Gladys, Southeastern Expeditions

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    Editor-in-Chief "Chicago" Mike Toughill is co-founder of Dirt Bag Paddlers and former Peshtigo River Manager at Kosir's Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. He's been Wallacing since 2003.

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