Dante zuniga-west

Surviving River Guide School: Part 2

Instructor Aimee Goglia runs down the list of gear that must be in each boat

It is 8 o’clock in the morning and I am standing outside the River House, dressed in full river-guide regalia — base layer of Under Armor, fleece, wetsuit, dry top, wool socks and river shoes — I feel amphibian.

Inside, lead guide Aimee Goglia and co-coordinator Collette Ramirez-Maddock greet me. It is Ramirez-Maddock’s birthday and I am unaware of this until one of the other prospective guides asks her what she intends to do to celebrate.

“Run some rapids,” Ramirez-Maddock says. “Flip some rafts.”

The guides-in-training start to trickle in, as does instructor Salmon Stoich-Norgaard. With all in attendance Goglia goes over the agenda for the day, which consists of us becoming acquainted with the load-up process, putting in at Island Park boat ramp, floating down the Willamette River and back to the River House. While that sounds simple enough, there is a world of things that must occur before the rafts touch the water. A huge part of being a guide is preparation and this is what we are drilled on, first thing.

Learning the layout of the River House storage garage, carefully maneuvering the large awkward rafts and frames around neatly stacked kayaking and sailing equipment, dragging the trailer out and locating the correct gear is only part of the process that must become second nature. A guide must not only be responsible for his/her own personal gear, but also properly stock the rafts with what is needed for the safety of a rafting group. Having extra everything is standard — extra paddles, extra oars, extra life jackets, extra tie-down straps, air pump, z-drag kit, rescue rope, repair kit, dry bags, first aid kit — you need enough gear to have back-up plans for your back-up plan. Then you have to carefully load it all into the rafts, for transport. Next there’s the tie down, which is an exercise in knot tying.

Students learn and re-learn essential knot tying techniques

Knots are an invaluable tool of the river-guide trade. Mastering them is a must. The trucker’s hitch, the single bowline, the water knot, the daisy chain, the figure 8 and the prusik are just a few of the knots that a guide must be able to tie. As we cinch down the 12-foot high stack of river rafts to make sure they remain on the trailer for the drive down to the boat dock, Goglia, Ramirez-Maddock and Stoich-Norgaard put on a knot-tying clinic. Some of the prospective guides have previous knot-tying chops, earned from their professions as sailors or arborists. Others fumble and learn. We are showed how to tie a knot, then these knots are untied and the instructors sit back to let us have at it.

“All of these knots are in your guide school manual,” Stoich-Norgaard says. “But you’ll never learn how to be a river guide from reading a manual.”

After all of us have a go at tying knots, learning and failing hands-on, our instructors inspect the tie-down job and adjust our amateur mistakes.

“Don’t worry,” Goglia says. “You’re going to be doing this a few times everyday, plenty of practice for you.”

After double and triple checks on the rafts, the trailer and the equipment, we pile into the bus and head for Island Park boat ramp.

Load out is just as complicated as load in. This is because public boat ramps can be busy places full of other folks looking to get on the water quickly. For this reason it is necessary to have all the rafts and equipment out as quickly and efficiently as possible so as to facilitate getting the trailer out of the way and clearing the boat ramp. This is explained to us by Goglia while Stoich-Norgaard backs the trailer up and Ramirez-Maddock hops out to spot him.

“Alright,” Goglia says. “The clock is ticking.”

Loading out on the Willamete

She is timing us, to see how quickly we can get all the rafts, gear, and personal items out and into a staging area. It is a process that we will grow accustomed to doing fast but this first time is a mad dash. In a blur of paddles, dry bags, lunches and rafts, the staging area is set. The river is running in front of us, and I can’t wait to get on the rafts. But there are more matters of safety to review first.

A good river guide can make clients feel safe before the rafts meet the water. While it may seem rudimentary, the safety talk given before putting clients onto the rafts is one of the most important parts of a river guide’s duty. There’s a lot to go over: life-jacket checks, managing liquid and solid waste, self-rescuing, what to do if you fall out of the boat, how to swim through a rapid, remembering not to disturb or bring home any of the wildlife, indentifying hazards in the river ahead of time, indentifying poison oak, throw-bag use and hand signals. Above all, a guide must reinforce that the river is a great place to have fun but also a powerful force of nature. Over the course of river guide school, each of us will be asked to successfully give a safety talk to the group. After Goglia’s demonstrative talk, the time finally comes for us to board the rafts and shove off. I end up in Stoich-Norgaard’s paddle raft, with three other students. There is another paddle raft full of students and an oar boat as well.

Instructor Salmon Stoich-Norgaard standing in the tripod position

After getting us into the raft, showing us where and how to sit, Stoich-Norgaard demonstrates paddling techniques. The most simple of these techniques is how to hold the t-grip of the paddle at all times so as not to accidentally knock out your fellow rafters, the more complex techniques range from simultaneous forward and backwards paddle strokes executed by either side at a moment’s notice. This type of paddling can spin the boat sharply and the more proficient the paddlers are, the more leeway the guide has to go for it and catch big rapids. River guiding, like most things in life, is about good communication. A guide must be able to command the paddlers in an effective and confident manner under somewhat stressful situations.

“Okay, who wants to try guiding first?” Stoich-Norgaard asks.

I speak up and the guide paddle is handed to me.

Surviving River Guide School: Part 1

River Guides in training gathering for a safety talk

Eugene is a city blessed with easy access to two beautiful rivers. Most people who live here visit those waterways seasonally, for recreation and relaxation. But some folks call these rivers their workplace.

For this type of specialized employee, on-the-job training is out of the question because there is simply too much at stake. Welcome to river guide school.

Each April, the River House Outdoor Program (RHOP) hosts its annual river guide school on the waters of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers. The school, which traditionally pulls its students from a select group of City of Eugene Recreation Services staffers, is designed to test the physical and mental skills of Eugene’s prospective river guides.

“I am inspired by the enthusiasm of these prospective guides, and look forward to what this week of guide school holds,” head coordinator Aimee Goglia says.

Guiding groups of people through whitewater rapids isn’t for everyone. Which is why often times, river guides are rare commodity in high demand.

“It takes someone with the river in their blood,” river guide and RHOP guide school graduate Josh Lutje says. “Someone who can flow with the water rather than fight against it.”

That’s sound advice from a veteran river guide. But if you’ve ever stood on the banks of the McKenzie and peered into the rapids, you know that going with the flow in some of those waters is easier said than done.

It was my love of river fishing, outdoor expeditions and a proclivity to chase exciting stories that compelled me to toss my hat in the ring for an opportunity to enroll with RHOP’s guide school. Ever hear that old saying “careful what you wish for?”

The following is the first in a 3-part series of articles documenting river guide school in Eugene. It’s one man’s account of whitewater rafting and what it takes to become a guide in the city of the arts and outdoors.

river house
Prospective river guides suit up

River House is a dynamic place to meet up for anything but this is especially true in terms of an orientation meeting for prospective river guides. That’s because the River House building borders the Willamette River. A guide-in-training can step right outside and be greeted by the sights and sounds of the rushing water they will soon be navigating, that is if said person can brave the chilly spring evening weather. I cannot, and having just come back from a wet and unsuccessful bow hunt, the soft couches, chips and popcorn decorating the meeting space seem to really need my attention.

“Welcome everyone,” Goglia greets us. “Glad you could all make it.”

As Goglia says this to the handful of people sitting around me, I imagine her saying these same words at the bottom of a nasty set of rapids. I think about the ways someone could not make it through a nasty set of rapids. Then I very purposely stop thinking about that. I comfort myself with the understanding that Goglia has been river guiding for 19 years, and is still in one piece.

The initial stages of guide school begin like any other program: Hello, my name is “insert name” and what brings me to the program is “insert reason.” While there is usually nothing more boring than this part of an orientation meeting, that is not the case here. I am actually very interested in knowing these folks’ names and what their reasons for being here are because I will soon be shoulder-to-shoulder with them in a raft careening through raging rapids and some of the decisions they make could seriously effect my life. So what they say and who they are matters more to me than it would if we were just office buddies on some routine staff retreat designed to bring us closer together through sensitivity training and mild-mannered trust-building exercises.

rhop-raftingI spend a great deal of time in nature and have a healthy respect for its power. These are two specific traits I search for in the faces of those around me now. The meet-and-greet section ends and we jump right into river talk. Co-Coordinator Salmon Stroich-Norgaard asks us to form into pairs and compete against each other to see who can organize the correct progression of the International Whitewater Scale. Just reading over the scale is sobering, particularly as we get to the end. It looks like this:

Class 1: Easy. From Moving flat water to small waves. Passages clear.

Class 2: Moderate. Larger Waves, bends in the river. Passages generally clear. Little or no maneuvering.

Class 3: Difficult. Waves high, numerous, irregular. Obstacles, maneuvering necessary. Passages may be narrow or obscured. Scouting recommended.

Class 4: Very difficult. Steep drops with powerful, irregular waves and boiling (white eddies). Requires precise maneuvering due to restricted passages. Scouting mandatory.

Class 5: Extremely difficult. Long, violent rapids. Big drops, heavily obstructed. Steep gradient requires considerable study although may be difficult to do so. Often with “must make” maneuvers. Few, if any alternate routes.

Class 6: High risk to life. Considered unrunnable by most. We go over hand signals to be used on the river, and diagrams of how to enter and exit rapids.

We take a break; cover more river terminology and then head to a separate building where we are fitted for gear and equipment. And just like that, the orientation portion is complete. I am told to meet back at the River House on Sunday, five days later, ready for the water.

The woods are warming up, the turkeys are out and somewhere in the coastal range there is a Spring black bear with my name on it. There’s no doubt that I will spend the next five days before my  guide school journey somewhere in the outdoors. But while I’m in the woods, the river will live in my mind. Eddy lines, whitewater classifications, ferrying technique and hand signals are thoughts that will flow through me as I mentally prepare myself for the process that is to come.

But there is only one thought coursing through me as I leave the River House and climb into my jeep with a bag of gear, a folder full of homework and belly full of popcorn … “Sunday can’t come soon enough.”


Backwoods Bait Gathering

A backwoods bait trap

Although using live bait to catch fish is frowned upon in some circles, it is an old-school, highly effective way to get fish on the hook and to the dinner plate. Sure, you could go to the bait shop, and anyplace from Bi-Mart to hole-in-the-wall gas stations will have a tin of worms or some equivalent that you can purchase.

But here’s a quick tip that can help you harvest creepy-crawlies right from your own backyard: Get your hands on an empty coffee can. If you can’t find a coffee can, a Mason jar will do. Pick a shady spot that looks like a good place to hang out if you’re a bug. Bury your jar or coffee can in the ground up to the lip. Place a handful of grass in the bottom of the receptacle. Now put a small piece of board over the buried container with just enough room for the critters to slip under it.

Congratulations, you now have yourself a backwoods bug trap. For best results, set your trap the night before your fishing adventure, and check it in the morning before you get out on the water.

Happy April, Oregon. It’s trout season. Get out there and keep those lines tight.

Late Season Cross-Country Skiing for First-Timers


IMG_6685Spring is officially here and the season openers are fast approaching for Oregon’s outdoorsy types. Soon bear hunters will be in the woods, gobbler guns will be loaded, and fresh-caught trout will be what’s for dinner … soon, but not quite yet. While you’re waiting for the excruciating countdown to finally end, there’s still time to get in a last-minute trip to the snow.
Although snow season in Oregon is usually in the month of December, a late March trip into the great white expanse is the perfect time for a newbie to dive into the action. No one will be out there, and you will have the woods all to yourself.

Crash Courses and Packed Powder:
Before this adventure into snowy wooded back roads near Willamette Pass, the extent of my knowledge on cross-country skiing could be summed up with one word: Bond. James Bond. Remember the 1981 classic 007 film For Your Eyes Only? You know, the one where actor John Wyman plays the part of a burly East German biathlon champ who loses his cookies and comes after Roger Moore (Bond) in a relentlessly homicidal cross-country ski chase. That scene is the stuff of legends and it’s pretty much all I knew about the pastime of cross-country skiing. I thought it would be an easy-going no-sweat type of thing where I’d glide across the snow and enjoy beautiful scenery as it blew by me. This was not the case.

After renting the necessary gear from the friendly folks at Willamette Pass Resort, I set out with a group of Eugeneans ready for day in the snow. I was determined to learn how to cross-country ski or just fall a lot. It was a sunny afternoon and the Gold Lake trailhead off of Highway 58 was covered with a nice packed powder. Snapping into the skis and starting up the road was a fish-out-of-water experience that soon lead to a trial-by-fire system of learning. I spent a great deal of time up-close and personal with the snow pack, and became privy to many helpful tips from the skiers who maneuvered their way around me on the their way up the road. Cross-country skiing leaves the skier plenty of room to adapt, it is not like downhill skiing where your skis are firmly on the snow at all times. You have the freedom to be very mobile. A quick mention of things you should and shouldn’t do could save the first-time cross-country skier a lot of time:

  1. Don’t try to jog. Lean forward, throw your arms out in front of you and let that momentum carry you.
  2. Pause between your steps to get a good glide on. This will save energy.
  3. Bend your knees … seriously… bend them, it really helps.
  4. Do not be afraid to fall. You are going to fall down a lot. Deal with it.


Snow Legs:
Once you get your snow legs and learn the basics of maneuvering with cross-country skis, a quick way to begin testing your abilities is to go off the beaten path. Stay away from big icy logs or thick patches of trees, but find little bunny hills you can ski down and practice your downhill technique. This will help you become more comfortable with the changes in elevation you can encounter when taking a long cross-country ski journey. Also, try pushing off of the edges of your skis, similar to the way one would ice-skate. This helps facilitate some nice gliding action that will save you tons of energy.

Cross-country skiing is a full-body workout, dress in layers and be prepared to strip down. If you’re headed on a longer trek, make sure to pack a lunch. If you’re skiing the right way, you’re going to be sweating, burning calories, and expending a great deal of energy.

At Your Own Risk Extras
I’m not advocating the use of alcohol during your first cross-country ski trip. Booze and cold weather do and do not mix. It’s nice to have a hot drink in the cold weather sometimes, so long as you know what you’re doing. In the late season, when you don’t have to worry about getting so cold that you freeze to death by accident, it can get chilly out there during the moments you stand still long enough to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Below are a couple cold-weather drink suggestions that are sure to make lunchtime or the trek back far more comfortable.

  1. Hot Spiced Wine: Slow boil water, cinnamon and cloves in a pot for 5 minutes. Add wine. Slice up some oranges and toss them in the mix also. Now keep it at low heat for 40 minutes. Strain it, put it in a thermos, and you’re good to go.
  2. Meade: Fermented honey. It was good enough for the Norsemen, and they knew how to stay warm in cold places.
  3. Whiskey: When all else fails, you can’t go wrong with this in your pack.

Please (cross-country) ski responsibly. Now get out on the snow and go for it, and don’t forget to stop and smell the pine trees.


Scouting for Spring Bear

Scouting for spring bear
Scouting for spring bear

If you were timely enough to score a first-come, first-serve spring bear tag this year then there’s only one thing on your mind these days: Ursus Americanus, a.k.a. black bear.

Oregon is the place to be if you’re a bear hunter because it is where approximately 30,000 bears inhabit 40,000 square miles of territory. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) issues 4,000 tags for the SW spring bear hunt. ODFW intends for the hunt to help maintain black bear populations in southern Oregon. The SW spring bear season opens on Monday, April 1.

There are plenty of bear in southern Oregon but don’t let the numbers fool you. If you plan to have a successful bear hunt this year you can’t spend these last couple weeks before the season opener sitting on your couch. Put down the Dorritos, dig your hiking boots out of the closet, make peace with your significant other and get in the woods. You aren’t going to cross paths with Yogi by accident (that only happens when you’re deer hunting). You have to get out and scout.

Into the Wild:  To fill a SW spring bear tag you have to hunt in southwest Oregon, which is where we went to scout. It was me, native Oregonian Jake Norton and a truck full of camping gear. The goal was simple: traverse a series of notoriously remote backwoods roads that snaked through prime bear country, set up camp, and start looking for bear sign.

For the hunter accustomed to stalking fall bear in northwestern game units, southwest Oregon presents an entirely different landscape. It is dry, red-colored earth spreads out beneath fir trees, and there is wide-open space for miles. This is perfect for bear hunting because a great deal of a bear hunter’s time in the woods is spent behind the “binos,” glassing far-away slopes for black dots. Eventually one of those black dots moves, and you realize it’s a bear… that’s when the fun starts. But there would be no such fun on this adventure. It was a reconnaissance mission through and through. By the time we got to the mouth of the trail system we would be scouting in, it was early afternoon and we were greeted with a friendly sign that let us know just how deep in the bush we were venturing.

a sign

Boots on the Ground:
Traveling on forest service roads deep into no man’s land is a bumpy, unpredictable experience. After making our way around fallen trees and boulders, careful not to pop a tire or hit a log, we came to a closed gate. From there it was packs on the back and boots on the ground. We were met with the challenge of snow, which pretty much cut our chances of finding bears or bear sign in half. Oregon’s spring bears aren’t usually very active until the snow begins to melt and their food sources thaw out.

Slightly discouraged, we cut across a ravine to another series of old logging roads and set up camp. We spent the fast-approaching evening consulting our maps. We planned for the morning and cooked a delicious fireside meal that consisted of turkey chili, more turkey chili and some cheese tortellini from a military MRE (meal ready-to-eat) pack. When morning came we started climbing. For the record, this is the part where I discovered that Norton is part mountain goat. Keeping up with him was a humbling experience, and I am far from out of shape.


The best place to look for bear early in the season is on south-facing slopes where the snow melts first. We crested a ridge and glassed slopes for hours using powerful binoculars and a spotting scope. The snow told stories. Animal tracks crisscrossed and faded. Norton and I followed coyote tracks to where some unfortunate chipmunk or squirrel made its last stand. We found old bear tracks, and tons of deer sign. But no bear.
Walking the ridgeline and dropping into another drainage, we found an old mine. I clambered up to peer inside, hoping to find bear sign. What I discovered was the wooden carcass of a dilapidated mining cart. Our trek back to camp would have been disappointing if it weren’t for the fact that we were still surrounded by an absolutely breathtaking expanse of white-capped wilderness. The bear weren’t out yet and we’d have to try again in a week or so.

The Things They Didn’t Carry: The drive back was as pleasant as it could be considering that we had to return to civilization. We ran down a checklist of things that would make a long hunt in that country easier.

  1.  Moleskin: because blisters are real and boots can be unforgiving.
  2.  Diaper ointment: when the weather warms up, poison oak will run rampant. Sure, you should learn to identify poison oak and stay away from it, but just in case… this stuff helps.
  3.  Wind checker: you should always have one of these with you, even on a scouting trip. Knowing which way the wind is blowing and what time of day it is blowing that way can be the difference between tag soup and a big bear. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and you must heed this at all times. Your local rod-and-rifle store should carry wind checkers, but if you want to go DIY you can get a squeeze bottle and fill it with some unscented talcum powder.

The most important thing to carry with you into the field is fierce determination. Mother Nature doesn’t give up one of her own without dishing something back in return. If you want to hunt black bear in southwestern Oregon, you will need patience and persistence. Get out there to scout. Keep watching those slopes.

In-Town Hook-Ups: Fishing Alton Baker Canoe Canal

The author with rainbow trout from Alton Baker Canoe Canal.
Photo by Cevinah Chotard

This spring, you don’t have to hike miles into the wilderness or paddle your way into a high-alpine honey hole to make good trout fishing happen. You don’t even have to wait for spring to officially start. Catching nice-sized rainbow trout, in town, is as easy as taking a walk in the park—Alton Baker Park, to be exact.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has kicked off its 2013 stocking schedule and the Alton Baker canoe canal, located in downtown Eugene, right behind Autzen stadium, is now teeming with tasty trout just waited to be caught. ODFW trout-stocking lingo breaks fish into four different sizes: “Legals” are 8-inch pan-sized trout, “Larger” means the trout is 12-inches, “Pounders” are 14-inches and “Trophy” trout are 16-inches long. As of February 4, this year, the canal has already been stocked twice with a combined 3,200 “legals” and 400 “larger” trout.

So let’s say you don’t have time to sneak off into the wild or take the boat out this spring, thanks to ODFW, you don’t have to. A nine-to-fiver with an Oregon fishing license can fish on his/her lunch break and make it back to the office without disturbing that busy schedule. Just make sure to pack a cooler, and maybe an extra pair of shoes. At Alton Baker, what landlocked fishermen refer to as solid bank access, local birds call the bathroom … so watch where you step. Keep those lines tight, and get out there now.

Here are a few first-timer tips for eager anglers looking to hook-up.

  1. Spin to Win: #2 Blue Fox spinners work pretty well in the murky canoe canal water. Silver works best but it never hurts to go with gold. Cast so you can retrieve over the area where you think the fish are. If you are fishing in one of the narrow portions of the canal, cast your lure diagonally upstream across the current.
  2. No Set Trippin’: “Larger” trout in the canal can strike a spinner pretty aggressively. Make sure you set the hook. Don’t trip this part up. A sharp tug right after the bite is all that’s needed. The last thing you want to see is that big fish jump, spit your hook out and swim away.
  3. Bird Watching: Anglers aren’t the only ones out to catch dinner. If you are having trouble locating where the fish are in the canal, watch some of the aquatic life that feeds on them. Take it easy and let the cranes and other waterfowl do the scouting for you.
  4. Taste the Rainbow: The best part about catching trout, is eating them. There are few backwoods delicacies as rich and wonderful as smoked trout. But if you’re fishing in the canoe canal, you’re probably pretty close to home, so you can really do it up right. Here’s how— Gut and clean your fish, then cut the heads and tails off. Next, soak them over night in a large container filled with red wine, soy sauce, and just a touch of brown sugar. After the 24-hour marinade, pull out the BBQ grill. Place just a few coals in the bottom, let them get white-hot then cover them with a heap of hickory chips. Toss your fish on the grill, cover it up and let those puppies smoke. It will take an hour or so but when they’re all done, the meat will come right off of bone and you’ll want to head back to the canal.

For more information on the ODFW stocking schedule at Alton Baker Canoe Canal go to:www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/fishing/trout_stocking_schedules/2013/Southwest.pdf