“A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself. -Laura Gilpin
Those of us working on the river every day feel this magic power better than anyone. Sometimes it doesn't matter how many times you’ve run a rapid; the river has other plans. The mysterious nature of the river has given rise to various superstitions. Here are a few river rat superstitions you would be wise to abide by.
The W Word
Wind (We didn’t say it, we wrote it, so no bad luck) Don’t say the word wind on the river. It could be the clearest, calmest day, and an upstream blast comes out of nowhere at the mention of the W-word. You could have a tailwind, and if you bring it up, the breeze will suddenly shift.
Every river seems to have a special rock you have to splash, kiss, or touch as you go by. For example, you have to kiss Tiger Wall, a sandstone rock wall on the Yampa River, for safe passage in Warm Springs Rapid.
Day stretches have special rocks as well. The South Fork of the Payette in Idaho has a plaque in a rock by the river. Guides will have their guests splash the rock as they pass for good luck. The Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River has a must-splash rock wall; a tradition started as an attempt to wash away spray paint. It worked. The spray paint is gone, but the ritual remains.
In the past, boat Captains would touch or kiss Vulcan’s Anvil, a basalt outcropping on the Colorado River, for success in Lava Falls Rapid. However, the rock formation is sacred to the Grand Canyon’s Associated Tribes, and they have requested that river runners not touch or climb on it. A better, more respectful practice would be to pour a little alcohol out as you go by.
She’s Always Listening (River Karma)
Raft guides have a saying, “The river is always listening.” In other words, if you start getting cocky, bragging about your skills, or claiming you’re not worried about such-and-such rapid, the river will hear you. And she will put you in your place.
Likewise, if you disrespect the river by littering, you will eventually pay the price. Being humble and respectful and following river etiquette is the best policy on the water. You might be the best kayaker in the world or the strongest paddler, but the river is stronger. Respect her or suffer the consequences.
Thank the River God
Not only is it important to respect the river, but you should also pray for a clean run and thank them after you make it. The river gods are hard to appease. Guides and private boaters have many pre and post-trip rituals to pacify them.
Some guides always put their right river shoe on first. Some swear pushing off with your left foot is bad luck. And some always put a fresh chew in before running rapids. Whatever it takes to keep everyone in the raft.
Clean Teeth, Clean Lines
We suspect this one came around as a way to get raft guides to practice basic hygiene. If so, it was effective. Otherwise, smelly river rats can be seen brushing AND flossing their teeth on the days they run big rapids.
Or maybe it’s an extension of the “Clean Boats, Clean lines” mantra. This refers to ensuring your boat is nicely rigged, has no twisted straps or entanglement hazards, and is dirt-free. Wherever it came from, it’s good for dental health and keeping your raft upright.
Brand New River Gear
The river finds it funny to grab people wearing brand-new rafting gear. If you just got a new PFD or waist throw bag, you should jump in the river before you launch. Your new river gear has a swim in its near future. Get it out of the way while you can. Or rub some dirt on new things, so the river thinks it’s used gear.
Some guides take a dunk before every run. Or at least a splash in the face. This way, if you do swim, you’re prepared for the water temperatures.
Bow First on the Trailer
Some guides are especially particular about how their rafts are loaded on the trailer. Bow first, no matter what. We all know guides who will take a stack apart to reload their raft. They figure that if you load your boat backward, you will go through the rapids backward. Although, backward is better than sideways every time.
So are Superstitions Real?
Maybe superstitions are real because we make them real. If you’re overly confident on the river, you’re not paying enough attention to the risks, and complacency gets you into trouble.
Or you forget to thank the river gods and worry about that instead of focusing on the task before you. Your anxiety, and not some supernatural force, messes you up.
Of course, the wind, the water, and the way hydraulics surge are outside our power. In such an unpredictable environment, a little luck goes a long way. From the Rogue River to the Middle Fork, and everywhere in between, keep the superstitions and rituals alive.
What are your river superstitions? Let us know in the comments! And share this with your river crew.
By: Megan Young McPartland