Great weekend hanging out with my brother and friends in West Virginia. The weekend prompted me to think a bit about the decline and fall of the rafting industry, or, perhaps more accurately, the mergerization of the outdoor industry. Companies like Ace and Class VI have been moving away from their focus on rafting and working on capturing the most tourist dollars they can by keeping their customers on site.
They don’t do this by locking the parking lot. Instead, they offer clients, who have come a long way at a decent expenditure of money in paying for gas, opportunities for outdoor activities on their property, or with subcontractors. They run programs like horseback riding and mt. biking, of course, but they also do other things like canopy tours in the big trees in the Gorge (not old growth, but still massive) and fine dining. They have made some significant capital investments in these projects, of course, but for the most part they have been successful, as the industry has shrunk from 32 companies at its prime to 3 or 4 (I couldn’t actually figure out the exact count, although I’m sure the Park Service could).
The old-timer in me wants to whine and moan about the loss, and I definitely miss my old company (MRT RIP), but those good old days include bucket boats, guides not performing at their peak, whimsical and often hysterical management decisions, and companies that didn’t necessarily human life in the ways that one might expect (See Rivers, West Virginia whitewater rafting outfitters).
I never understood this reputation until I guided out west. A river manager who I applied for a job to (and ended up working for a bunch) said, upon looking at my application, “so, you worked in West Virginia, where they like to hurt people.” I nervously laughed, thinking this was some insult to the good people of the state, but he then explained to me that West Virginia guides tended to want their customers to have bad swims so that they could laugh at them, and while that had never been my leifmotif, or that of anyone who I hung out with, but I was never a full timer, always a weekend warrior who at best worked all the days of a vacation from my corporate gig, and I had witnessed some people not react as vociferously as I might have liked to try to rescue people in bad situations. This attitude was strictly a New or Lower Gauley one, but still, it was potentially damaging, and something that made me uncomfortable.
So, the move to a more corporate world (if we define corporate as being bound by rules and regulations) might not salve the anarchist in the raft guide/rock climber/adrenaline junkie soul, and might not be somehow true to what we perceive as the essential spirit of the wilderness, but it more accurately captures the American relationship with nature – a brief, glorious time of Edward Abbeyish immersion, one that perhaps glorified both the wilderness and the boys (and the movement was horribly male at its inception) who played in it but that now mimics our desire to inhabit the ghosts of those who came before, avoiding the physical labor and danger but whooping it up when the ‘fun’ comes.
Perhaps I’m more bitter than I originally thought.