I have talked to many private boaters over the years who have little exposure to the process commercial rafting companies use to plan and execute whitewater rafting trips for paying customers. I’ve interviewed a veteran raft guide of Idaho’s rivers to give those private boaters a window into the commercial process. Since you are currently on Central Idaho River Shuttles’ website, I think you may be my targeted demographic. Let me introduce you to the expert…
Steve Wassmuth has been a commercial whitewater rafting guide since the summer of 1983. Since then, he has worked countless trips for over a dozen companies based in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. For the last 10 to 15 years, Steve has mostly freelanced for many companies dealing with last minute guide cancellation or injury, or by special request from returning guests. How did I get such a knowledgeable pro to sit down with me? He’s my Pa…
Once you’ve been scheduled to guide a trip down the river, when does the actual preparation start at the warehouse?
“It depends on which river you are going to guide. For example, there’s a a Main Salmon trip launching tomorrow from Corn Creek. You know, it’s an eight hour drive over there (from Grangeville, ID). So they packed yesterday, all the gear and the food. So they drive today, unload the boats, some of the gear, and launch tomorrow. On commercial trips you pack the day before the trip, or even two days before, depending on where you’re going. So for the Lower Salmon, since it’s only a 30 minute drive to the put-in, you can pack everything the day before and just drive to Pine Bar on the morning of the launch.”
When you arrive to the warehouse to get everything together for your trip, what is the first thing you’ll do?
“Usually when you get to the warehouse the guides are split up and designated to be in charge of two main categories. Someone(s) will do food and someone(s) else will gather gear. On the gear side, you check to see how many guests are on the trip and what their interests are. Whether its inflatable kayaking, SUPs (stand up paddleboards), or rafting. Check how many people have rentals for tents, pads, sleeping bags… you check all that out. Then there is a master gear list that you’ll have for every trip. Usually a couple guides pull all that, marking off the list as they go. Then they’ll have a meeting afterward, rechecking everything off the list to minimize error.”
Do most customers rent the gear?
“It depends. If they’re driving, driving to the put-in or to the warehouse, a lot of times they’ll bring their own stuff. But if they’re flying from the east coast, or internationally, they’ll usually rent so they don’t have to check these bigger items through the airport and lug it all around everywhere. So you’re looking at all of that to make sure the guests have everything requested.”
BONUS PRO TIP #1!!!
“The ice that we use lasts about twice as long as the ice you’ll get at the store generally. We make our own which just consists of putting water into a freezer and making solid blocks. A lot of blocks that you buy at the market, they’ll freeze water down to a certain temperature and turn it into an airy slush. Then they’ll compact it and freeze it the rest of the way into a block, but it’s all full of air at that point so it doesn’t last near as long.”
What does preparing all the food at the warehouse look like?
“On the food side of trip prep, you’re looking for how many people are on the trip, food allergies, and special dietary restrictions like vegetarian, vegan, low carb, gluten free. So you go off a list that takes into account how many people are on the trip. It will tell you how many of each Common Item and Special Items you’ll need. Special Items such are things like lasagna noodles, cornbread and cakes mixes, and steaks, because you only use those things once. These calculations need to be fairly precise because you’re limited on space, weight, and waste.”
“Common Items are those that you’ll end up using for multiple meals: heads of lettuce, bagels, eggs, loaves of bread, etc. They’ll all be listed at the end of the food list because they’ll go on every trip. Only the amount changes depending on how many guests are on the trip. You’ll always want to have plenty though because that’s what the customer pays for. You’re always trying to guess with that. Talking with the other guides you might say, ‘We had four dozen eggs left last trip. Should we bring less this time, or was there a unique factor on the last trip that might not happen on this one?’”
Do you have a system for organizing all the food for transport in the rafts?
“Depending on how many coolers you have, a lot of times you’ll have a ‘fruits and vegetable’ cooler and a ‘meats and dairy’ cooler… if you’re only bringing two coolers along. You might also have a third cooler just for ice.”
“Its all layered as you’re planning to use it. If you’re having steaks the last night, then they’ll all be down at the very bottom so you don’t have to touch them until needed. You try to have all the dairy products in a certain place, eggs in another, and so on.”
“Every time you open a cooler on a hot day, cold air escapes, and hot air enters. Organizing everything beforehand in the warehouse ensures that you won’t have to keep that cooler lid open a second longer than you have to. For example, a guide will have a list of ingredients for that night’s dinner. If the cooler is packed right, before even opening the lid, he’ll know exactly where to grab and spend less time looking and moving food to get to the ingredients needed.”
BONUS PRO TIP #2!!!
“If you’re packing romaine lettuce in the produce bag from the store, it will go bad and wilt fairly quickly. Get the lettuce and a paper towel wet. Wrap the lettuce with the paper towel, place it back in the plastic produce bag, and it will be fresh much longer. Plan to use cabbage later in the trip than lettuce because cabbage has a much longer shelf life. Wrap egg cartons with duct tape otherwise the carton will fall apart in the cooler and break your eggs.”
You’ve worked for lots of different whitewater rafting outfitters in Idaho over the years. What’s one aspect where you’ve noticed that packing/preparing procedures are different between companies?
“Drink coolers… I’ve done trips for a company where they fill up a huge cooler full of drinks and crushed ice. All the drinks are touching the ice, and it burns up the ice pretty fast. So they’re good for the first couple of days, but if you don’t have something to replace the ice, then you’ve got a 150 quart cooler of warm drinks that no one is going to want.”
“Other companies will have like 20 drinks in a cooler where they’ll have a block of ice wrapped in cardboard or foam. This way the drinks aren’t contacting the ice. This cooler will be packed each morning (the coldest part of the day) with drinks that you think the customers will want that day. They don’t have to be cold the whole trip. They just have to be cold the day that people want to use them. That’s seems to work better than having a huge cooler that people are keeping open for a long time, digging through everything to find what they want.”
BONUS PRO TIP #3!!!
“Its good to have a drink cooler on the beach at camp so that people aren’t climbing from boat to boat and leaving cooler lids open while they search for what they want.”
Have there been any trips that stand out to you as being difficult to pack for: whether it was special accommodations, opposing customer needs, etc?
“Probably the most interesting trip to pack for was a Kosher trip we did. We all put a lot of research into what we needed. Separate flatware, utensils, and cooking surfaces were needed for meat preparation and serving. That was one of the most difficult. We tried to make sure we had everything needed. These people were on vacation too though, so they saw us making the effort and really appreciated everything we did, even if we made a mistake or two.”
“Generally people are just amazed at what can be prepared on the river and variety of foods that are offered. They’re surprised and fascinated when they look at the loaded boats each morning and say, ‘I’ve been watching you load these boats for the last four days, and I still can’t figure out where you put everything.’ You just make use of every little space you have on the rafts.”
Can you think of any kind of bizarre requests you’ve had to prepare around?
“We had a guest on this last trip that I was on. For dinner each night, this 12 year old girl, wanted a specific type of chicken patty. A brand name chicken patty warmed, not cooked… not fried… but warmed, with two dollops of peanut butter, cut into four equal quarters, and served with buttered bread. That’s the only thing she’d had as an evening meal for the last nine years.”
“Her breakfast was the same way… Two strawberries, sliced, and a piece of bread. One morning we offered her an omelet. She asked what an omelet was. She was twelve years old and had never heard of it. We told her what it was and she said, ‘I don’t think my mom would think I would like that.’”
“Her sister would go through the lunch line for her and say, ‘She wouldn’t like this… wouldn’t like this… wouldn’t like this.’ and her sister usually didn’t even know what the food was. So sometimes, at the warehouse, things like that are hard to plan for when you’re gathering the food you think you’ll need.”
“A different trip had to have buffalo burgers, instead of the steaks we usually serve. Another guest wouldn’t eat anything that flew. Gluten free diets were non-existent when I first started guiding trips in the early 80’s, but we’ve had to learn what people can and can’t have for these dietary preferences. So you’re dealing with a lot of things like that while planning the menu for a trip.”
“I’ve had customers that have been on the South Beach Diet. So when we’d camp on the south side of the river, we’d make chocolate cake and all these treats that they wouldn’t be able to have, but it would all be gone by the time morning came around. They couldn’t eat anything until it was dark and everyone else was in bed. But once you couldn’t see it, anything goes! So we would call that our South Beach Diet.”