Tom Gagnon

Tom Gagnon rigs his boat upon returning to service as a river rafting guide after an extended “vacation.”

Approaching me were five beautiful women, in their 20s and 30s, and gosh darn I had to social distance. It turned out they were all married anyway, but they decided to ditch their husbands and do a one-day rafting adventure. I was their guide.

Long story, but river rafting is something I accidentally got into in Colorado, in 1986. I did this for 17 years through college and far beyond, and mostly on the same 11-mile stretch of the Colorado River north of Vail, Pumphouse to Ranch del Río. I took a 15-year “vacation” in Rock Springs, Wyoming, which is another story. This year, because of the coronavirus, none of the companies down there trained any new guides, because they were mistakenly under the impression that they would not be allowed to open.

About June 1, however, Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis gave the OK to open, but with a lot of restrictions, such as having fewer people in each boat. Typically, what had been crews of eight or 10 people was reduced in half. Preparations for a rafting season usually take three months, but this year everything had to be completed in, well, one day.

A couple of shell-shocked sounding raft-company owners started calling guides from yesteryear. I had been away from rowing a boat for about 15 years, and honestly didn’t know if I could still do it. The physical exertion in rafting is a lot harder than it looks. I’ve done several hard-labor jobs, so I can say with authority that rowing a boat down a river with only intermittent rapids, and with long flattish sections and against the wind is one of the most physically demanding jobs around; … I am now 58.

Never intentionally, of course, a raft can become a bit of a psychological laboratory. I sit up high in the back on a frame with 11-foot-long oars, and each passenger has a paddle. This is called an oar boat with paddle assist. I give a smooth and safe ride while trying to be both informative and entertaining, and I have a great view.

Four of the women wore hemp-string necklaces and wrist and ankle bands, dirty cut-off jeans and tattered T-shirts. To me they looked hot and fun in a hippy sort of way. Sally (not her real name), however, was dressed in a silk suit of some sort, and wore wide gold looking wristbands and gold chains. Whenever someone said something clever and funny, everyone laughed and giggled but Sally would say, “What?”

All the same, through the rapids they were an excellent and strong team. Because people are always interested, in the flatter water I have invariably discussed environmental issues relative to rivers everywhere, such as the origins of the green slime growing on some of the rocks. This growth consumes oxygen in the water, and this can kill fish. On my section of the Colorado River the problem is not too bad, yet, but back in the ‘80s there was none of this. Here it’s a new thing and it is largely caused by chemical fertilizers, upstream, to green-up lawns and golf courses. Mansplaining all this, four of the women gave knowing facial expressions of understanding and concern, and contributed their knowledge to a good conversation. Sally often said, “What?”

Toward the end of the trip I led my crew on a short hike up a canyon to see some dinosaur tracks. All of the women really liked seeing the tracks, but four of them, including Sally, soon turned around and headed back to the boat. The one remaining lady wanted to linger another minute to just gaze at the tracks. I hung back with her and we got to talking. I apologized for possibly having been a little too environmental and political for everyone on the boat, but she said, “Oh, don’t worry, you’re in good company. There’s only one Trumpster among us.” I said, “Sally?” Cracking up, she said, “What gave that away?” I said, “Her outfit, and her sort of cluelessness.” We laughed on down the trail.

Now, just after the election of 2020, I’m greatly relieved that shortly our country will no longer be misled by a Sally-type. Still, it is appalling that Trump got some 70 million votes. After four years of Trump, I would have thought he might be good for a third of that, but he has had a surprisingly strong showing, and that’s concerning. If this world is to continue to support life, we all have to have some basic environmental knowledge, and the ability to humbly learn and change.

Tom Gagnon, Rock Springs

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