The Myth Of The Line
Any discussion about the river will inevitably evoke the most common river term “the line”. Ever since my early days as a guide the "line" is most often described as the path a boat takes through a rapid. This term has survived in the river so long that it has become an ubiquitous phrase used the world over. I accept that there are some situations where this phrase may be applicable. When rafting company has enacted policies for less experienced to help avoid injury to their guests they may dictate a line through certain rapids. This is a policy choice by rafting companies, which I do not personally agree with. Another scenario where this phrase applies is on incredibly technical rapids where the water only goes one place. The steepest drop in Pit Falls on the Pit River, CA is one example. In that drop there is a “line” simply because the boat has no other place it could go.
Why I Reject The "Line" Principal
An important principal I learned studying linguistics is that the words you use define your reality. When you run harder rapids it seems natural to pick out your most preferred route through a rapid and call it “the line”. The problem with this is that the “line” you defined is entirely subjective. Your line is subject to your perceptions and how you feel about that rapid based on your experience at that time. You may take what you feel is the “safe line” when that may not at all be the empirically safe line.
Some guides may judge one line as great fun for their commercial guests since it adds an element of excitement while other guides may deem that line as reckless and dangerous. The point of taking a “line” is seemingly to follow the best route through a rapid, but the subjective nature of a line means the “best line” could be anything. I have had guides mock me for selecting a line that they felt was dangerous despite the fact that they took another line and flipped. Was that luck or better lines?
The Danger of Lines
Unfortunately there is no real empirical standard on why a guide selects a line since lines are so subjective. A guide can take a terrible line consistently and pull it off, while another guide takes a conservative and seemingly safer line only to flip and swim people consistently. Thus psychologically you end up putting yourself into a difficult place and it puts your boating partners in a dangerous place as well.
When you are focused on making the line you are focused on setting your crew to task on a specific course. The unspoken danger is that in a situation on the river Adrenalin and stress intersect to form a perfect storm which focuses your mind on singular tasks. The task you select when you opt to follow the line is just the most dangerous. Guides often make horrendous mistakes trying to make the “line” because it creates a singular focus in your mind. That focus on the line becomes an all-consuming drive when the adrenaline hits. It is no longer about reading and running or avoiding potential obstacles. The further off line you are the higher the stress level, and the higher the stress level the less clearly you will think. It is a vicious cycle.
The Option Principal
A lot of people have argued to me that it is like driving, you wouldn’t drive in the ditch or in oncoming traffic, so why would you run something other than the line. My response to this is that guiding, especially on tougher rivers, is an art. When I was a child watching Bob Ross and he made a mistake, that mistake was a happy tree or a bird exploring the skies. My point is that Bob Ross didn’t paint in the lines and he mad beautiful works of art. He thought in a way that was outside the lines and we must too if we are going to be good boaters.
My solution to this is the option principal. Every rapid has options. Some good, some bad, some will kill you. The river is not a static environment flows change, rocks move, wood moves, other boaters have trouble, and a myriad of other reasons pop up in a canyon. If the river is a dynamic world why would you rely on a static model of navigation? Superior boaters see rapids as a series of options that all weave together into a dynamic view of how to guide. They do not let their minds get stuck in one set of options.
Changing your mind takes work, but it will open your world. If you end up in a bad place then there are always options to help you get through. Left, right, or center; boof a drop, or deliberately surf a small hole to avoid a bigger one, these are all options that are viable in the right situation. Even portaging and hiking out are options that should never be off the table. The bottom line is as soon as you open your mind to the world of options on the river you can begin turning that pocket eddy that won’t let you go into a happy bird.
Never forget as a raft there are many options available to you. expanding your mind to accept new possibilities will only help move you along the road to being a better boater.