The Art of Reading the Rapids

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By Tegan Burkhard | Photography by Emily Brashier

 

“When you’re pulling someone back into the boat, I want you to grab them by their shoulder straps, not their arms, legs or hair!” Trip Lead and Senior Raft Guide Anthony Lopez projects into the gathered crowd. “Those things disconnect. Shoulder straps. And then you look them in the eye and say, ‘Everything’s going to be ok.’ And then you dunk ‘em.”

This is just one of many hilarious takes on crucial safety instructions Lopez relays to participants before turning them loose on the the intense waters of Oklahoma City’s Riversport Rapids. As they take in Lopez’ words, the crowd of 3 to 80 people give him their full attention, awaiting an explanation for his suggestion that they dunk someone in the water.

“Guys, this is a PFD! It’s buoyant!” Lopez explains. “If you push someone down, they’re going to bounce, so you’re going to push them down. Depending on how much you like them, wait for the bubbles. Pull them up, lay back on your back. Fall back to the boat and, ‘Ta da!’ You’re both in the boat! Now, one side effect of this technique is you will be extremely tangled up at the end of it. Please try to disconnect as quickly as possible. It’s just polite.”

By the end of the 15-minute safety talk, more likely than not, participants are likely to remember most of the serious tips Lopez delivered in such an unconventional manner, using unique phrases like “stranger danger buckle” and “vim and vigor” to hold their attention. Once guests hit the rapids, they will appreciate Lopez’ practiced art of safety speeches.

“I have to stand up there, and I have to be engaging and I usually try to add humor because this is a serious, serious thing that they’re choosing to go on,” Lopez says.

As soon as the safety talk comes to a close, and Lopez’s chosen audience participant has verified that he did indeed hit all the points on the clipboard, Lopez splits up the groups using his practiced intuition. After factoring in levels of nerves and confidence, as well as simple numbers, Lopez organizes the big group into smaller factions of six, which he matches with each available raft guides. From there, each group will suit up in preparation for their impending adrenaline rush.

Each participant will grab a life vest and securely fasten their helmets before picking up their paddles and dragging their boat into the water. Once everyone has hopped into the boat, raft guides like Lopez will pump up the participants with a boat talk while also practicing the four basic rafting commands before the first rapid appears.

“Forward! Two forward!” Lopez yells, equipping the rafters to propel the boat forward with two forward paddle strokes. To change direction of the boat, Lopez may shout, “Two backward!” to move the boat in reverse with two backward paddle strokes. But before they embark on the first lap around the Riversport Rapid track, rafters will share their fears, excitements and life stories with their raft guides like Lopez as they paddle along the short-lived still waters.

Once their boat reaches the conveyor belt, they will put their paddles up and sit back, as their boat tilts backward to climb up the belt. Once the boat evens out at the top, rafters quickly mentally prepare for the adventure to come. As they approach the swift Wet Denim rapid, Lopez will read the water and give paddling commands in the hopes of launching the raft boat past the looming series of rapids. Best case scenario, the raft rocks and passes over the wave of rapids. Worst case scenario, Lopez will shout, “High side! High side! High side!” to command the rafters to move from the low side of the tilting raft to the high side to even it out before it flips.

“It’s a challenge. This is real, serious rapids,” Lopez says. “What I like to say is our river is fake but our rapids are real, and the swims out here are rough swims and are serious business.”

Lopez may also shout, “Get down!” when he needs rafters to squat down as low as they can and place their paddles up in the air to lower the center of gravity. This way, the raft has better odds of riding out a wonky wave, or Lopez can grant his rafters the chance of having a little fun riding the wave longer.

“Everything’s physics, so if you lower your center of gravity, you get held more by rapids and it’s just significantly easier to surf,” Lopez says.

Since 2017 marks the second season of the Riversport Rapids, Lopez expects to introduce his love of whitewater rafting to many inexperienced participants. At the end of the first lap, Lopez and his raft will assess and regroup before taking to the rapids for a second time.

“The first time when you go down it’s just breaking through a situation which is unfamiliar…and that is one of the reasons we’re here,” Lopez says, “to provide adrenaline rush and provide that breaking of barriers and to get outside of your comfort zone.”

For some, each lap instills a greater sense of confidence. For others, nerves may set in, but Lopez and the other guides will be quick to reassure them so by the end of their hour-long time on the water, they will leave with a great story and a great new experience behind them.

“What I like to say if you fall out of your boat is, ‘Don’t give up on life.’ You’re still going down the river. You’re still on a rafting adventure,” Lopez says. “It’s not the end of the world. We’re going to get you back, and you’re going to have a fun time.”

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