The Re-signification of Risk in Marketing Whitewater:

 Ritual Initiation and the Mythology of River Culture

in  CASE STUDIES IN SPORT COMMUNICATION. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing. Eds.  R. Brown and D. O’Rourke  (2003).


Elliot Gaines

Wright State University



            This study explores the culture and communication strategies of a whitewater rafting business based on the divergent experiences of novice rafters and professional guides. While activities such as whitewater rafting can be dangerous, marketing strategies appeal to family recreation.  This study demonstrates how the risks inherent in rafting are resignified as safe-yet-adventurous in order to sustain the popularity of the commercial sport.  At the same time, stories about adventures and significant events constitute a mythology of the river and the cultural identity of guides. The binary opposition of adventure/safety is integral to the knowledge and expertise of the guide--a world apart from the inexperienced first time rafter.



            At the 1964 Worlds Fair in Flushing Meadows New York, the automated amusement park style rides sponsored by industrial giants like GM, Ford, and General Electric, seemed to be saying that in the future the successful evolution of industry and technology would provide so much affluence and free time that many people would actually work at jobs doing things usually considered play.  Leisure time entertainment, recreation, and sports have indeed become big business and a significant factor in American and world cultures.  Considering the importance of outdoor sport industry, this study examines sport communication through the semiotic construction of cultural identity among whitewater rafting professionals. The purpose of this study is to demonstrate how the nature of risk in whitewater rafting is translated through the cultural strata of the business. I examine the historicity of the whitewater industry and trace the expression of the experience from adventure to commercial product.


Birth Of The Industry

            Around the same time as the 1964 Worlds Fair, whitewater rafting came into being a commercial recreational sport.  Sports are generally signified by physical activities, sometimes organized  as games or competitions, but always requiring certain skills, physical and mental, as well as such character building qualities as teamwork, integrity and determination.  Sport is generally regarded as leisure, " . . . activities which are an end in themselves, a sort of physical art for art's sake, governed by specific rules, increasingly irreducible to any functional necessity, and inserted into a specific calendar" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 359).  Looking at the "whole range of sporting activities and entertainments . . . . as a supply intended to meet a social demand," Bourdieu examines the social history of sport in order to " . . . lay the real foundations of the legitimacy of a social science of sport as a distinct scientific object (which is not at all self-evident)" (1991, p. 357-9). 

            Beyond the limits of games and competition, this study considers "sport" in a context of the physical embodiment of participation in whitewater rafting and the social conditions that define a very specific culture located in southern West Virginia.  The cultural identity of these outdoor recreation professionals is constituted by the embodied experience of specific activities performed simply for their own pleasure and challenge while structured in relationship with customers or guests that necessarily live outside the ethos of river life.  Leisure studies and sports communication, building upon this notion of production and consumption of sport, must explore " . . . the constitution of the field and its esoteric culture" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 359).  In a remote location in the economically isolated state of West Virginia, the New River attracts in excess of 120,000 tourists each year--nearly half the number of visitors to all rivers in the state (Leatherman, 1998, p. 6-7).   Much to the chagrin of many outdoor recreation professionals, the social conditions that enable the existence of their culture depend on the commercial success of the business.

            Understanding a phenomenon such as an outdoor recreational business involves the study of many dimensions of culture and communication.  A great body of scholarship addressing media and cultural studies has been produced "where semiotics provided the tools to demystify the ideological, verbal and visual signifying processes that are brought into modern consumer society through glossy magazine advertisements and aggressive TV commercials" (Shroder, 1991, p. 178).  My strategy here is to apply these tools to the culture of outdoor recreation professionals engaged in whitewater rafting. 

            The people involved in providing the services necessary for the operation of sports and recreational businesses need special skills and expertise specific to their particular activity in order to provide for the safety and enjoyment of participants.  The lifestyle associated with many people dedicated to such activities constitutes its own culture.  Not motivated by common American desires for material comforts and financial security, outdoor recreation devotees privilege their freedom to do what they love.  In the words of one whitewater professional, "a bad day on the river is better than a good day at the office" (Krueger, 1998). 

            This study focuses on the semiotic structures of communication that distinguish the culture of whitewater rafting professionals and their relationship with commercial customers that pay to share in the experience of the river.  As sport communication research, semiotics, phenomenology, and ethnography imbricate as methods to examine the identity of whitewater rafters.  Lanigan suggests that phenomenology is ". . . a good description of the human world of perception, that locates a human world of expression" (1997, p. 382).  Identity is inscribed in the bodies of participants, the sport itself as a product, and various levels of communication and ritual distinct to whitewater rafting.




            As a commercial business that has only existed for 30 years, West Virginia attracts almost 250,000 people annually to its rivers compared to 200 in 1968 (Leatherman, 1998, p. 6-7).  Considering how recently the business was invented, the semiotic structure of whitewater rafting as a sports product and the cultural identity of its participants raises interesting questions.  Observing that sports functions as spectacle, entertainment, and activity, Bourdieu raises the following questions:

If such a model is adopted, . . . is there an area of production endowed with its own logic and its own history, in which "sports products" are generated . . .  and "what are the social conditions of possibility of appropriation of the various 'sports products' that are thus produced? (1991, p. 357).

Addressing these questions in the context of whitewater rafting, one must examine the history and nature of the activity that define it as a sport, the communication structure of marketing, and the cultural distinctions between production and consumption of the sports product. 

            As depicted in films like The River Wild starring Meryl Streep (Hanson, 1994), the connotation of whitewater rafting is an adventurous sporting activity not for the faint of heart.  Marketing strategies shift the context of meaning in promotional literature that states there is "a trip for everyone" (Cook, 1998, p. 24).  During the 1990s, the fastest growing market was for families and children (Leatherman 1998, p. 7).

            Jerry Cook, president of ACE Whitewater and Adventure Center asserts that rafting is the only commercial sport where people who probably don't know each other have to work together as a team (1998).  Rafting is a sport, not because of competition, but by virtue of cooperation and teamwork.  The guide has to communicate with people of various levels of experience on the river, or more often, no experience, in order to navigate the raft safely through the rapids.  According to Hyde, the New River is almost ideal

  . . . for commercial rafting in that the trip takes a day, with the first rapids being moderately difficult--ideal for learning paddling techniques early on.  As the river enters the gorge with rugged mountains on either side, the river is restricted, and the gradient becomes steeper, creating numerous difficult rapids.  By mid-trip, rafters are in the big stuff, and everyone is wet, yelling and paddling like mad (Hyde, 1991, p. 77). 

Participants may include variable ages, race, class, gender, and physical ability and conditioning.  A great effort goes into giving commands for the crew to paddle the raft while the guide navigates--a boat must move faster than the current in order to steer.  At the same time, the guide must "entertain" the customers with local history, river stories, and conversation while floating through the flat water.  As a trainee at Ace Whitewater, I had to learn the names of the creeks that feed the river, the old towns, and landmarks, be certified in first aid and CPR, in addition to learning safety procedures and mastering raft navigational skills.

            Some people really don't understand the hazards of the river and assume it must be safe or it would not be marketed to the general public.  According to senior guide Jack Lund who has more than 15 years of experience guiding, many of the guests simply do not belong on the river and they risk great harm through ignorance (1998).  Before going on the river, every rafter gets to hear a talk about certain hazards and procedures.  This “safety talk” is a by-product of the culture, the result of legal requirements designed to suggest the worst case scenario of what could happen on a rafting trip (Cook, 1998).  Class V rafting is defined as hazardous.  Rafting companies, in compliance with insurance companies and state laws, deliver ritual safety talks and use release forms that articulate the hazards of participation and explicitly designate responsibility with the participant and not the company.  So, the growth of rafting business depends on guests attracted to an adventure vacation, but many people dismiss the liability forms and safety talks as routine formalities as if it were "all part of the show."  Indeed, advances in equipment and technology, guide training and experience, and safety regulation have made rafting possible for more people.              Whitewater rafting will mean different things to different people.  Between the first-time rafter and the experienced adventurer, the real concerns for having a safe and pleasant experience  on the river  will depend individual experience and the interpretation of the available information embedded in the literature, insurance forms, and saftey talks.  To better understand the potential for meaning, we must examine the phenomena in a context of the semiotic organizational structure of the culture.



            Jerry Cook, as the president of ACE Whitewater and Adventure Center, acts as a creative leader and represents a designated role in a secondary semiotic field (Askegaard, 1991, p. 15-20).  As the history of a culture is expressed, certain "emblems" serve to symbolically identify the culture (Askegaard, 1991, p. 16).  In this case, Cook's early experiences as a guide serve as an emblem signifying identity within the culture.  As an entrepreneur who has helped to develop the rafting business, he enters a secondary semiotic field extending his cultural identity through a prospective view of the future of commercial outdoor recreation.  Semiotically, a leader is a dynamic position that extends across a time line from the past into the future demanding a broad vision of his field.  Historically situated within the ethos of river culture, he must understand the limits of the appeal of outdoor adventure to others outside the culture. 

            Askegaard diagrams cultural identity on vertical and horizontal axis (1991, 15).  The horizontal axis denotes time with the past to the left and the future to the right (1991, 12-15).  The past, or retrospective suggests stability, while to the right, the future or prospective suggests change.  The lower vertical axis holds the individual and "coalescence" of the cultural community (Askegaard 1991, 12-15).  The upper vertical designates interaction with others outside the immediate culture. 

            This model has been adapted in figure 1 to demonstrate how the identity of rafting culture is structured with society.  The horizontal axis is a time-line beginning on the left with 1964 and the invention or idea of commercial whitewater rafting.  The future advances to the right past the present time.  The top of the vertical line holds an oval that includes all the people in the world who are not specifically involved in river culture.  As we cross the horizontal time-line, another oval encompasses the river culture.  At the intersection where the two cultures overlap, first time rafters are on the outer perimeter of the river culture circle.  Return rafters are located deeper into the river culture.  Adventurous rafters advance even further into the lower circle--closer to the heart of the culture.  Weekend warriors, part time guides with regular jobs, are again deeper into the structure.  The guides live at the heart of the culture. 

            As explained earlier, a business leader is situated along the intersection of the two cultures.  The leader's identity begins in the past as an adventurer or river enthusiast.  Moving toward the future, the leader is an entrepreneur with a vision of sustaining river culture through commercial growth and development.


fig.1. How the identity of river culture is structured with society.

Celebrated Events And Ritual Initiation Move Rafters Deeper Into The Extremes Of River Culture



Figure 1  diagrammatically represents marketing and the mythology of river culture.  The entrepreneur moves across the time-line into the future with strategies for articulating the implication of a safe adventure product.  Participants intersect deeper into river cultural as they gain experience.

            The entrepreneur brings the ontology of rafting into focus as a business.  Thus, the leader looks to the future of the culture as a business while also sitting in the upper circle where river culture interacts with the general society. Cook expresses a retrospective history in his vision of the future since he has been involved in the development of the outdoor adventure industry for 26 years.  Along the way he has acquired the emblems of river culture through enactment of the rituals and initiations that are essential to the cultural identity.  Conceiving promotional materials, Cook suggests that video and catalog information needs to be organized according to popular interest rather than some categorical logic.  People tend to look for action and appeal rather than practicalities until they are ready to buy (Cook 1998).  Thus, his vision must interpolate others so that they can visualize themselves enjoying whitewater rafting.

            Staff meetings are conducted at ACE Adventure Center to discuss the business, policy and strategy, to air grievances between employees and management, and to enjoy a social evening of pizza, beer, and talk,  Lee Fuqua, a manager and partner at ACE, publishes a newsletter to help organize information and the meeting.  The following chart published in the newsletter, July 10, 1998 was used to discuss specific innovations in product availability (Fuqua, 1998):



Fuqua, another outdoor recreation entrepreneur, demonstrates concern for employee satisfaction.  He understands the impact employee satisfaction has on the enjoyment guests experience.  According to Mark Nadler this exemplifies " . . . that the people selling the product are still engaged in a lifestyle manner with the product" (1998). A guide's commitment to the lifestyle and adventure of rafting can seem extreme to guests but it also enhances the experience. The guide embodies the culture and serves as the ritual initiator for the whitewater rafting experience.  Thus, the success of the outdoor recreation business is strongly dependent on employee satisfaction.  The guides simply would not be there if they didn't love what they do.




            Whitewater rafting is distinct from what we would ordinarily think of as a sport.  The people attracted to becoming guides like the spontaneity and challenges of competing with nature.  They want to know the river and be able to maneuver through its force.  Thus the cultural identity of experienced rafters is embodied in practice and understood as an acknowledgment of a particular concept of reality and beliefs.  Accordingly, Berger and Luckman endeavor "to define 'reality' as a quality appertaining to phenomena that we recognize as having a being independent of our own volition ('we cannot wish them away'), and to define 'knowledge' as the certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics" (1967, p. 1).  So, like in any culture, whitewater rafting guides find (the hazards and rewards of) their lifestyle in concert with the world as they know it.

            I came to this study because, after several experiences on the river, I liked rafting and had questions about the communicative processes of river navigation, the knowledge of the guides, and the nature of the business.  During the summer of 1998, I officially began to train as a whitewater rafting guide on the New River in West Virginia.  As a participant observer, I became friends with my co-researchers.  I camped out in a tent in a mountainous, forested area shared by other guides and visitors, and usually spent five hours each day on the river.  My awareness of rafting came from my occasional participation as a tourist over about a ten year period.  In 1997, I got to know some guides who got me interested in the sport and in the culture.  At that time I asked several guides where they expected to be in five years.  The response was generally limited to, "I'll probably be back here next season."  Having evaded the question, I would persist with, "what will you do when the season is over?"  Not surprisingly, most people responded that they worked in another recreational industry such as skiing or went to some place like Costa Rica to guide whitewater in the winter.  Most of the people were in their 20s.  Those approaching 30 tended to have questions and concerns about their future, but most maintained that whatever happened they wanted to continue making their living in outdoor recreation.  Survivors in their 40s and 50s generally were entrepreneurs in the recreational business, had worked their way into the management, or had alternative seasonal careers.

            Living and working daily at the river, I began to adapt to the perceptions and practices of river culture.  Like the habitus of any co-culture such as corporations, ethnic groups, or institutions, outdoor recreation professionals construct cultural patterns of behavior and beliefs.  Habitus is a phenomenological concept addressing the preconscious generation and organization of practices and representations (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 480).  Considering the discursive elements that code the everyday lives of professional rafting people, the habitus provides the "principles which generate and organize practices and representations . . . embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history . . . the active presence of the whole past of which it is a product" (Bourdieu, 1993, p. 483).  As I began to experience my river training, my experience was a ritual re-enactment of the habitus of the guides instructing me.

            My participation in this research involved training to be a whitewater rafting guide at ACE Adventure Center in Minden, West Virginia.  As a participant-observer, I had to bracket my many preconceptions about the project.  In the context of the culture of outdoor recreation professionals, I was a beginner in my late 40s, I had a career as an academic professional, and as I began training I was out of shape and over weight.  Considering the nature of whitewater rafting, my lack of skill and experience, my poor physical conditioning, and the guides' responsibilities for the safety of others, I began a careful process of observing the ontology and phenomenology of perception I experienced as a trainee.  The balance of the data emerged through daily observations and interviews.  As I lived with, observed, and recorded the words of my co-researchers,  I endevored to follow Orbe’s co-cultural theory and “present specific communicative behaviors as described from the standpoint(s) of co-cultural group members” (1998, p. 14). The notion of sport communication as a discipline fed my perceptions of daily activities on the river, of the people, and of the unique geographic conditions provided by the New and Gauley Rivers in West Virginia.  The development of rafting as a commercial sport is directly connected to these conditions.



            The history and mythology of rafting is tied to early native Americans and river explorers.  As was suggested to me by the 1964 Worlds Fair, the invention of rafting as a sport emerged through the kind of technological development and economic conditions that allowed for leisure time activity.  The military and some adventurous souls had tried wooden boats on the rivers, but it was the development of vulcanized neoprene technology during W.W.II that first made it possible to build rafts durable enough for whitewater (Cook, 1998).  Commercial rafting began around 1963 in Pennsylvania on the Youghiogheny River when Karl Kreuger and Lance Martin first started taking people out on whitewater adventure trips and began Wilderness Voyagers.  By 1964, one of their associates, Jon Dragan came to the New River in Fayette County West Virginia and eventually started Wildwater Expeditions (Kreuger, 1998; Cook 1998; Leatherman, 1998, p. 7).  As the company names suggest, whitewater rafting was promoted as an adventurous activity.  Before the interstate highway system came to West Virginia, even getting to the remote, mountainous area near the river was a challenge.  Movies like "Deliverance" in the early 70s and more recently, "River Wild" with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon, helped to bring rafting into popular awareness (Cook, 1998, interview).

            The rafting companies were generally started by whitewater enthusiasts.  For example, Ernie Kincaid, founder of ACE Whitewater and Adventure Center was an avid kayaker who wanted to be on the river and capture the beauty and excitement of the sport through photography (Cook, 1998).  Jerry Cook, who had started a whitewater rafting company in 1973 in Tennessee and later joined Kincaid at ACE, had a diverse background in outdoor recreation.  Noting the economic limits of his business, he sold 5 raft companies in Tennessee and North Carolina in 1986 and started looking at a map of the country to see where he could have a company that could run a more diverse program of outdoor recreational activities.  His vision was to expand the outdoor adventure business concept to include rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, caving, horseback riding and over-night camping (Cook, 1998).

            The industry developed by trial and error as equipment and knowledge of river navigation advanced.  A revolutionary change came with the development of self-bailing boats in the early 1980s (Burgess, 1998).  Before self-bailing boats, solid bottom "bucket boats" had to be bailed out often because they would fill up in the rapids and become too heavy to maneuver.  The floor would sink and control was minimized by the weight of the water.  Guests and guides would bail the rafts tossing out 5 gallon buckets of water that weigh 40 pounds each (Burgess, 1998).  Self-bailing boats have inflated floors laced to the side tubes allowing water to drain. These evolved in style and function into today's self bailing rafts that enable the sport to be both safer and adventurous (Cook, 1998).  Differences in designs, size, and shape offer different qualities of rides with various river conditions.   The first self-bailing rafts were not designed just right, but manufacturers worked with guides' suggestions to improve the boats (Burgess, 1998).  Eventually the design was improved to provide a safer and more exciting ride.  Surfing, or maneuvering the raft upstream into re-circulating water below a rapid, was difficult or impossible before self-bailing rafts, but is now a big part of the sport (Wanty, 1998).  In the early years, anyone could become a guide with just minimum experience.  Over time, guides shared knowledge and experience of the rivers, significant locations were identified and named, and each rapid developed a collective history.  Oral narratives "celebrating noteworthy exploits" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 359), embodied in specific rapids named to commemorate an event, stories told to the guests, and other events that circulate among guides, construct a mythology of river culture that grows with every commercial trip. 




            Whitewater rafting guides value their culture and lifestyle that affords them a way to make a meager living by spending time doing what they love.  Knowledge of whitewater rafting, as a recreational activity, is located in the body of the participant.  Cultural identity is thus an embodied phenomenon reinforced through experiences manifest as emblems and symbols.  Physical participation marked by certain shared experiences creates communication structures "by which the intersubjective commonsense world is constructed" (Berger and Luckmann 1967, 20).  These experiences are culturally inclusive emblems of the ritual initiation through chance events that predictably occur over time while engaging in whitewater rafting.  For example, there are about 22 rapids on the Lower New River, and falling out of the raft at any particular rapid will emerge as a shared experience.  These shared experiences evoke a historical perspective of past events and river conditions celebrated in the building of a cultural mythology of river adventure.

            The training of whitewater guides is by no means standardized, yet the nature of the river, the rocks, hydraulics, waves, etc., provide opportunities for similar, memorable experiences to happen under particular water conditions and predictable locations.  Guides recognize that accidents and injuries are inevitably part of the experience.  So when a guest has such an experience, guides see it as a normal possibility when going on the river, an initiation, and in a sense, a value-added dimension of the adventure. 

            In the early days through the 1970s, a single trip down the river and one could become a guide the next day (Burgess 1998).  Presently each trainee must have at least ten trips supervised by another guide as one of the minimum state requirements.  Despite the processes initiated by individual companies, guides acknowledge that most learning really begins after officially becoming a guide. Learning how to read water takes time and experienced guides make a point to never follow another raft.  Inexperienced guides tend to learn the "hard way" about reading water because obstacles and hazards are presented differently as river conditions vary greatly from day to day.  Without doubt, the most significant learning occurs through mistakes and surprises that produce memorable events that constitute an embodied initiation.  Ritual initiation occurs in many ways.  One such example is when an experienced guide notices a new guide following him and intentionally leads the new guide through a hazard beyond the ability of the novice.  Learning to read the river broadens the phenomenological field of perception and is ascertained over time with careful observation and experience. Guides share a lexicon of river conditions beyond the perception of the uninitiated.  The coalescence of the cultural identity of outdoor recreation professionals is built upon a semantic field articulating a history of shared events, experience, knowledge, and mythology. 

            Despite the exclusivity of river culture, the economic conditions of outdoor recreation professionals imply the necessity of interaction with others.  Many guides feel they compromise their enthusiasm for rafting by being a guide.  Among themselves, some guides cynically refer to guests as "tourons," a mixture of tourist and moron.  An inside joke is to address a guest as "Sport," which stands for a "Stupid Person On a Raft Trip."  Despite the beauty and adventure of the river, the repetition of the relationships with guests, telling river stories and answering the same questions day after day becomes as difficult as repetition at any job.  Yet, when a guest falls out of the raft in a rapid and has a radical experience in the river, guides recognize the episode as a bonding event that brings the guest deeper into the river culture.

            Consider the outdoor recreation professionals (ORPs) and their clients, or guest participants, in rafting and other commercial activities as a structured relationship.  The semantic field of the ORP constructs an insulated society where coalescence is a by-product of lifestyle, activities, initiation rituals, and emblems that signify cultural identity (Askegaard, 1991, p. 22).  The consumer paradigm is understood by the purchase of a particular product/service.  Some guides recognize that this is, in fact, the business end of their occupation and the relationship constructed by company communications.  The last thing a trip leader generally says to the patrons on the return bus ride after a rafting trip is to thank the guests for going on the river because, "otherwise we'd all have to get real jobs!" (Wanty, 1998).  This is taken as a joke, but to some extent all the guides know this to be true while some tend to resent the commercialization and commodification of their lifestyle in outdoor recreation.

            The semantic field of the coalescence within the culture of river professionals weighs the semiotic construction of individual identity against the semiotic reading of those outside the culture (consumers and society).  Manifest through interaction with consumers as outsiders relating to the experience of the river, the recreation professional may or may not privilege the customers' perceptions of the purchased service.  Referring back to figure 1, participants with more significant experience coalescence deeper into river culture.

            During a safety orientation, a trip leader will explain that each raft guide will be "reading" the crew's ability to follow instructions and work together as a team.  That ability would then determine whether the guide will choose the safest route through each rapid or the most exciting and challenging ride.  Some guides will pro-actively make adjustments in seating to control the distribution of power in the raft while other guides simply adjust their own strategies based on what they observe about the crew.  The guide must recognize if the client is an active participant, responsible for his own success, enjoyment, and safety, or if he is terrified.  Perhaps the trip is perceived as an amusement park ride.  This raises the safety/adventure dichotomy and is potentially a direct assault upon the cultural identity of a guide as it denies the expertise of the guide and the power of the river.  The guide understands the satisfaction of mastering technique, navigating safely, and appreciates the chance elements and potential hazards of the river.

            Regarding the chance qualities of the river, two deaths occurred on the New River during the Spring of 1998 when I was training.  A lone kayaker died in "Meat Grinder," a treacherous under-cut rock below a Class V rapid, and a fisherman who was not wearing a "personal flotation device," lost his footing and was swallowed up by an eddy.  His body was discovered two days later.  While neither incident was directly connected with a commercial rafting trip, both events contributed to an appreciation of the power of the river and the mythology of river culture.

            Ultimately, if coalescence, the semantic field, and a strong cultural identity were privileged over the quality of the interaction with customers, the river culture would tend to be isolated.  In the case of commercial outdoor recreation, this is an impossibility.  Individual ORPs must adjust their attitude in order to preserve their own identity--that is, to maintain the viability of the business that insures their employability.  Some clients perceive rafting as an amusement park ride, and expect the guide to take full responsibility. Some guests come physically fit and prepared to engage in outdoor adventure.  The reality is that rafters come in various groups of mixed classifications, skills, abilities, readiness, and willingness.  They may be young, old, experienced, inexperienced, confident or fearful.  A good balance between the river professional and the product consumer, a mutual respect for the expertise of the guide and the individuality of each paying customer sustains the fun and adventure of whitewater rafting.



            There are substantial differences between the professional raft guide and the novice consumer.  The embodied identity of the guide accesses a phenomenological field present in the river that lays beyond the perception of the uninitiated.  When I began training to be a guide, I was aware that I could not see what I was being told to observe.  All I could see was flat water and whitewater.  Trainers would identify significant points along the way that remained invisible.  Eventually I began to read signifiers that distinguished differences embedded in what were once just flat water and whitewater to my senses.  Understanding that a "hydraulic" is whitewater that can be a "keeper" that holds a raft against the current or holds a person underwater, and how it is different from a "curler," or a "haystack," allows the guide to make quick decisions about how to maneuver the raft (Hyde 1991,77).  In the same way, it is essential to know how to follow a "tongue" into a rapid or use the upstream current of an "eddy" to control a raft, or understand what the swirling current of an "eddy wall" can do to a raft.

            As the water level changes day to day, reading water reveals subtle changes essential to successful navigation, but even the experienced will be fooled at times.  A key difference between a guide and a guest who falls out of the raft in a rapid is that the guide knows when he is in trouble and probably knows what to do.  So the same incident that makes the novice panic may be experienced as exhilaration by the knowing guide swept away by the powerful river currents.

            There are many places on the river where falling out is to be seriously avoided.  An incident on July 1, 1998, during my training, illustrates the importance of reading water and of understanding river culture.  The New River was running at a brisk five feet above normal, a swift and challenging level.  I was in a raft with Jack, a senior guide who was training me.  Our crew consisted of a family: mom, dad, and two sisters about 18 and 20 years of age.  We came to the "Keeny Brothers," a series of three consecutive class V rapids that require preparation and skill.  A raft needs to set-up before each rapid as they appear quickly one after the other.  At the bottom of "Middle Keeny" is a collection of jagged undercut rocks called ""Meat Grinder"" that has killed people.  An undercut is a situation where a strong current pulls water under the rocks.  In fact, as mentioned before, a kayaker had died and was found stuck under "Meat Grinder" some weeks earlier. 

            As we entered "Upper Keeny," Jack tried to cut behind "Whale Rock," which is the ordinary line to take.  The current was strong at five feet.  We lacked paddle power from the crew and cut close to the rock.  Behind "Whale Rock" was an "eddy wall" where the swift downstream river current meets the upstream water of the eddy, forming a wave that threw everyone out of the raft.  It happened so suddenly that only experience helped me to keep my wits about me.  One generally comes up in the water right next to the raft.  I came up to the surface and knew what happened, and looked for the raft.  It was just in reach and I could see Jack scrambling to get back in.  I could also see the sisters floundering as I swam for the raft.  Then, suddenly I was pulled under water, and I realized someone was trying to use me as a floatation device!  I pushed myself free and swam hard since I had drifted further away from the raft in just a second or two.  Having just taken the course in First Aid/ CPR, I did not hesitate to follow rule #1: Get yourself out of harms way before you try to help anyone else. 

            I made it back to the raft and saw Jack's paddle and pulled it out of the water.  You must have a paddle to navigate.  Then I pulled both sisters aboard.  Jack had already grabbed a paddle and was trying to control the raft as we dropped into "Middle Keeny," a huge, rocky, crashing wave train.  I turned to paddle and saw that the sisters had mom in tow.  The sisters were without paddles, but they should have been able to get mom into the raft while Jack and I struggled to get control and prevent another, possibly worse, crash into the "Meat Grinder."  Mom continued to hang on, but didn't do what was necessary to get into the raft.  She was acting as a sea anchor and making it impossible for us to navigate away from "Meat Grinder."  Jack screamed at her to get in.  She said she couldn't.  Then he glared and hollered, eyes bulging, "Get in or die!"  She was back in the boat in seconds.

            I was paddling hard for the eddy on river left.  Then I realized Jack was yelling at me to paddle to river right.  When I looked up, there was "Meat Grinder" just a few feet away and coming fast.  We just managed to get around the rocks, dropping between them and out of harms way.  No one runs the narrow slot through the jagged rocks behind "Meat Grinder," but we had no choice at the time. 

            Meanwhile, dad was heading right for "Meat Grinder."  He was overwhelmed by the force of the river and apparently didn't see the raft and turned the wrong way.  He was sucked down in a whirlpool, came up and swam to river left as he had been instructed, but gave up just short of reaching the still water of the eddy.  Just in time, Shane, another guide in our group who was waiting and watching for safety in the eddy, scooped him out of the water.  All of this probably took about one minute.  No one was hurt, we lost one paddle, and we managed the rest of the trip very conservatively. 

            In a strange way, I felt elated that everything was all right, and that I had responded well under the conditions.  Through events like this, shared experiences become the knowledge and emblems of cultural identity, and a new guide learns every rock and rapid in the river.

            Guides know sections of the river intimately and accept the dangers with humor and respect.  For example, an event occurred on the Gauley River, July 10, 1998.  A guide trainee fell and out swam "Hawaii Five-0," a section of the "Lost Paddle" rapid.  I told two guides, each with more than ten years of experience on the river, about the incident.  They had not witnessed the event but responded with eloquent profanity and colloquialisms:

Woow hooow, he ha, that's funny!  Bad place to swim because after "Five-0," its shallow and "Six Pack" is coming quickly, baby!  (laugh)  If you end up going right beside "Six Pack," its nasty shallow and undercut over there.  Go left of "Six Pack."  If you don't make the swim away from the rocks on the bank, that's nasty.  And then you're going into the third drop!  If you ain't bearing right as you drop it, you're sunk.  You're libel to be gone!  If somebody don't bag your ass, you're goin' to fuckin' "Tumble Home" baby!

            “Tumble Home" is the shittiest drop on the "Lost Paddle" run.  Its nasty.  Its rocky.  Its not forgiving at all.  You'll go deep, deeeep!  Its tight in there.  Its very tight.  There's a fine line between not getting stuck, and getting stuck for a minute, or a second, and getting stuck.  If people ain't giving you the two or three strokes you need to get away from the right bank, and then "back-right," or "all-back," you're screwed baby!  You're going up on the rock.  You're going to drop.  People are going to swim.  And, there's a hydraulic right there! (Burgess 1998; Wanty 1998).

The water moves so swiftly through this section of the river that it only takes about 30 seconds.  If you are in the water, this can be a very long, heart pounding 30 seconds.  This kind of description reveals an intimate level of embodied knowledge emblematic of cultural identity.




            The structures of communication among West Virginia's whitewater rafting professionals are representative of sport communication in general.  Sports are highly organized, socially constructed, institutionalized ritual activities.  As a sport, whitewater rafting fits a category of "man against nature" that has emerged in a market of adventure activity products.  Rafting skills are not generally appreciated through spectatorship or competition.  The sport functions through cooperative participation.  While people with no skills can participate, the popularity of rafting depends on a specific quality of embodied knowledge.  The relationship between guests and the guides is built upon the the assumed risks and the binary opposition of adventure and saftey.  The mythology of river culture assumes that a guide must be an expert in order to maintain the enjoyment and safety of participation.   The notion of rafting as a safe-yet-adventurous experience has enormous appeal for the outdoor sports market.  Nature provides an element of chance and a need for spontaneous interaction that even challenges the "experts."

            Layers of institutional structures support the technology, facilities, safety regulation and marketing that maintains the commercial viability of whitewater rafting.  The commercial appeal of rafting as a product builds on a post-industrial economy steeped in a classical alienation from the product of labor.  The entrepreneur represents whitewater rafting as a tangible experience, an adventure with calculated risks that further enhance the appeal.  Participants know the product of their labor as it is inscribed in their flesh.

            Like a cowboy of the “Old West,” the cultural identity of rafting guides is embodied in their everyday lives.  People within a culture assume others recognize the same phenomena that are distinct to their way of seeing the world.  The skills of rafting are developed simultaneously with the phenomenological field of perception.  Just as the "accomplished surfer makes himself part of the wave" (Simon, 1998), the rafter's knowledge is embodied in spontaneous interaction with the river. 

            A semiotic phenomenological study underscores the popular appeal of all sports.  The expression of organized social ritual performance lives in the body.  Participation is corporeal, intersubjective, spatial and temporal.  Spectatorship takes on the same caliber of experience so that the "sports fan" adopts the identity of the object.  Ritual organization of events unfold at a prescribed time and place.  Risk is re-signified through initiation to river culture, and market appeal is enhanced and perpetuated through the re-telling of the adventures.  Performance is embodied for the participant and the intersubjectivity of the spectator.  The passion for sport manifests through a quality of reality and a shared knowledge that possesses "specific characteristics" that define a sports event or activity (Berger and Luckman 1967, 1). Sport communication can incorporate understandings of semiotic structures of cultural identity in developing diverse perspectives and communication strategies for commercial or recreational purposes.




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