How Safe is an Adventure Vacation?
Choosing the Right Adventure Vacation
Finding the Right Outfitter for Your Vacation Adventure
Whitewater Rafting Dam Releases Draw Thousands to Lehigh River Trips in Pennsylvania
Whitewater Rafting Trips -
How Safe is an Adventure Vacation?
The idea of going on a whitewater rafting trip sometimes conjures up images of Burt Reynolds in the movie “Deliverance,” or Meryl Streep in “The River Wild.” Concerns about rafts flipping over, or of falling out of the raft, dog many would-be rafters and keep them on dry land, while millions of others enjoy this increasingly popular adventure vacation trip every year. What are the real risks in whitewater rafting? And the real safety statistics? You might just be surprised.
Consider, for example, the Lehigh River in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania … one of the most popular whitewater destinations in America. Guided whitewater rafting trips were introduced there in 1975, by an outfit named Whitewater Challengers. Today, four professional whitewater outfitters offer daily rafting trips on more than 25 miles of whitewater rapids in the Lehigh Gorge State Park. Over nearly four decades, professional whitewater rafting outfitters have hosted over 4 million rafting visitors on more than 30 million miles of guided whitewater rafting trips (the equivalent of going to the moon and back, 55 times!), racking up an impeccable safety record in the process.
In spite of the angst a lot of folks have about signing up for what some people still call an “extreme” sport, the truth is, a whitewater rafting trip down the Lehigh River is statistically safer than getting into your car and driving there. And that’s not to say that whitewater rafting isn’t screaming fun and full of excitement. It is. But there are real reasons for the river’s safety record, and the infrequency of even minor injuries. Those reasons include:
- These are guided whitewater rafting trips. Professional whitewater rafting guides are with you all day. They know the river; they know the hazards; they know the best route through the whitewater; they know how to help you avoid mistakes; and they know what to do if it looks like things might start to go wrong. For example, at Whitewater Challengers, guides receive training in swift water rescue, Red Cross first aid (standard and advanced) and CPR. In addition, they accumulate thousands of hours on the river, becoming familiar with every section of whitewater at each of dozens of different water levels. This is really important, because two trips down the exact same section of river at different water levels can offer dramatically different levels of excitement, and dramatically different challenges.
- You’re in a whitewater raft, not a canoe. Try this sport in a whitewater canoe or whitewater kayak, and it’s a whole different ball game. Professional whitewater rafts are designed with two things in mind: Not tipping over; and not puncturing. A properly constructed commercial-grade whitewater raft will bounce off most boulders, and keep a steady course in remarkably turbulent water. In most places, you can float through the whitewater rapids forwards, backwards or even sideways, and it’s all just part of the fun. Do that in a canoe, a kayak, or a flimsy swimming pool raft, and the results can be disappointing, to say the least. You can be pretty confident that if you’re on a commercially guided whitewater rafting trip, you’re riding the river in the safety of a commercial-grade whitewater raft.
- You’re wearing a whitewater PFD (personal flotation device). It’s surprising how many people who take the do-it-yourself approach to whitewater rafting either fail to use the right kind of raft, or fail to wear a PFD. On commercially guided whitewater rafting trips, wearing a PFD isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. And if you unbuckle the straps, the first rafting guide who notices it will be gently reminding you that you’re putting yourself at risk in a way that just “isn’t acceptable.”
- Teaching and training are part of the drill. A guided whitewater rafting trip begins with what’s called the “Safety Talk.” This is when your rafting guide goes over all the basics: how to properly sit in the raft; how to hold your paddle; how to splash your friends safely; how to help steer the raft; how to float through whitewater if you happen to fall into the river; and most importantly, how to avoid falling in. There’s also information about rescue techniques that are used in the event you do find yourself in the river. Most safety talks are also sprinkled with time-tested river humor, and a dose of interesting information about the history, the geology, the flora and fauna of the river and its surroundings.
- There’s medical training and supplies at the ready. In the unlikely event something does go wrong, whitewater rafting guides are trained in first aid, CPR and swiftwater rescue, they have with them first aid supplies if needed, and they are supported by a network of land-based Lehigh Gorge State Park officials who can help effect a rapid evacuation if needed. The quick response capabilities associated with guided whitewater rafting trips are something the “do-it-yourselfers” rarely enjoy.
With upwards of a hundred thousand people a year going whitewater rafting on the Lehigh River alone, and millions more on hundreds of professionally outfitted whitewater rivers around the world, it’s maybe time to stop thinking of this as an “extreme” sport, especially since a large percentage of those rafters are school groups, boy and girl scout troops, church youth groups, and families with young children. The statistics tell the story. With the right gear, the right instruction, and the right supervision, your time spent on a whitewater rafting trip can be the safest part of your day.
Guided Whitewater Rafting Trips –
Choosing the Right Adventure Vacation
Your friends finally took a guided whitewater rafting trip and told you what a blast they had. And now you’re ready to take the plunge. You’ve got one big decision to make before doing anything else. And that’s figuring out the level of whitewater adventure that appeals to you. Think of this as your personal “adventure quotient.” For some folks, it’s all about maximizing the thrills and spills. For others, it’s more about floating, splashing, swimming, and playing on the rapids with family and friends, or finding a special family-bonding adventure that would be just as much fun for the adults as for the kids.
Figuring out your “adventure quotient” isn’t all that hard. One whitewater outfitter in Pennsylvania even offers an “Adventure Profile Quiz” on their website. It’s an insightful set of questions about your hobbies, your personality, your physical conditioning and interests, that can help point you in the right direction.
Fortunately, there are whitewater rafting trips that fit every level of interest and experience. Another good starting point for picking your first whitewater rafting trip is to get familiar with the international rating system for whitewater rapids. This is easier than it sounds. All whitewater is divided into 6 levels of excitement and challenge. Class I whitewater is the easiest. Class VI whitewater is, well … think Niagara Falls!
Here are the 6 categories of whitewater rapids, simply defined:
Class I – Easy whitewater with small waves, clear passages and no serious obstacles.
Class II – Whitewater rapids, moderately exciting, with clear passages.
Class III – Numerous exhilarating waves, high, and irregular. Frequent rocks and eddies. Whitewater rapids have clear, though narrow passages, requiring careful maneuvering.
Class IV – Long whitewater rapids with big drops and numerous obstacles. Powerful and precise maneuvering required.
Class V – Maximum intensity whitewater. Extremely long complicated rapids with very steep gradient requiring strong and precise paddling and expertise in maneuvering. The absolute limits of navigability.
Class VI – Unrunnable. Just like it says – Don’t even think about it!
When thinking about these classifications, be sure to consider the extent of your whitewater experience. Assuming you’re a first-timer, it’s important to remember that a Class I whitewater rafting trip might be most appropriate if you were doing this on your own, but even as a beginner, you can reasonably participate on a rafting trip having up to Class IV whitewater, if you’re going with a guided whitewater rafting outfitter. Class V whitewater rafting trips are extremely challenging, and most whitewater outfitters won’t agree to take you on a Class V whitewater rafting trip unless you’ve gotten some previous experience on at least a Class IV whitewater trip.
For example, if you live in the mid-Atlantic region, you have a great choice of whitewater rafting trips ranging from Class I all the way up to Class V, from as little as an hour, to just a few hours away. Whitewater Challengers offers Class I, Class II and Class III whitewater rafting trips on the Lehigh River in northeastern Pennsylvania, and on the Salmon River in New York’s Adirondacks region. You can find Class IV and sometimes Class V whitewater on their Hudson River and Black River rafting adventures in New York.
If you live in the mid-West or plains states, your choices are a little more limited, unless you’re willing to travel a bit farther (either east or west) to find the kinds of mountain ranges that provide the kind of gradient needed for whitewater rafting rivers. Of course, if you live anywhere from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, you’re probably surrounded by mountains, and a real diversity of whitewater rafting opportunities that, again, span the range from Class I up to Class V whitewater.
Once you’ve developed a feel for the level of whitewater you are comfortable with, it’s time to think about the other members of your party — especially the kids. How young is the youngest person in your family or group? An easy way to compare outfitters’ guided whitewater rafting trips is by checking their rafting trips’ minimum age requirements, even if there are no children in your group. This will give you good insight into the outfitters’ sense of the particular physical and emotional maturity appropriate for each of their whitewater rafting trips.
And finally, think about the scenery as well as the whitewater. There’s more to a whitewater rafting trip than just being splashed by big roller coaster waves all day. In between the rapids, there’s time to swim, relax, sunbathe, and soak up your surroundings. Some whitewater rafting trips run through urban areas; others through forested mountains; and still others through steep rocky canyons. You’ll want to consider your preferences here, before deciding on your first whitewater rafting adventure vacation.
By paying attention to the class of whitewater, the minimum age and experience requirements, the type of scenery and surroundings, and your own personal “adventure quotient,” you’ve got a great chance of picking the perfect whitewater rafting adventure vacation … on your first time out! So go for it. As one rafting outfitter claims on their website, “It’s the most fun you’ll have all year!”
Whitewater Rafting Trips —
Finding the Right Outfitter for Your Vacation Adventure
If you’ve decided this is the year to finally get your feet wet on a guided whitewater rafting trip, and you’re a little bewildered by the prospect of choosing the right whitewater rafting outfitter for your adventure vacation, here are a few ideas that’ll help you make a good choice.
First, be assured that not all whitewater rafting outfitters are created equal. Skiers have their favorite ski slopes, and whitewater rafting enthusiasts have their favorite outfitters, and for a variety of different reasons. So if you want to compare outfitters, your first step should be to define your criteria in order of importance. My list would include these five areas: safety, experience, diversity of trips, dedication to guest service, and facilities/amenities.
For obvious reasons, safety should be at the top of your list. You might feel awkward or embarrassed to ask about safety, but don’t be. An experienced whitewater rafting outfitter with a great safety record will be happy to hear the question, and eager to answer it. If there’s even a moment’s hesitation, you should take note. Be sure you’re comparing apples to apples, though. The safety record of a whitewater rafting outfitter who hosts a hundred rafting guests a year without any injuries, is different from the safety record of an outfitter who serves 50,000 rafting guests a year without incident.
Also, be sure to take this into account: The safest whitewater outfitter on the planet cannot protect their rafting guests from self-inflicted accidents or injuries. I’ve worked at Whitewater Challengers (Lehigh River, northeastern Pennsylvania) for 37 years now, and virtually every bandaid we apply is the result of some form of inappropriate misbehavior … like diving out of a raft, standing up at the wrong times, trying to splash a friend by using your paddle, or just rough-housing in general. These are all things we address in the pre-trip Safety Talk, but not everyone takes our advice to heart. Following the simplest safety guidelines can eliminate virtually all the bumps and bruises that occur during the course of the year.
Hot on the heels of safety, you should ask any outfitter to talk to you about their experience. Are they new to the whitewater outfitting business, or were they the pioneers and leaders of their industry … or somewhere in between? If I go rock climbing, or skydiving, or even adventure trekking, I like to know I’m going with the most experienced outfitter possible. I’m proud to be affiliated with a rafting company that’s been outfitting guided whitewater rafting trips for more than three decades, and can still point to a spotless safety record. Taking more than a million and a half guests down the river safely says something really important about our emphasis on guide training and guest service. And that’s something you should care about when choosing your whitewater rafting outfitter.
Why is diversity of trips important? Mainly, because whitewater rafting, like skiing, isn’t a one-size-fits-all sport. Outfitters generally have a love for what they do, and a genuine desire to share their uniquely exciting and beautiful world with their guests, but at the end of the day, they are also business people, which means that when you call them, they like to make the sale. If a whitewater rafting outfitter offers only one trip, you can be pretty sure you’ll be encouraged to sign on for that trip, even though it might not be ideal for you and your party. On the other hand, if the whitewater outfitter offers dozens of different rafting trip options on a number of different rivers, your chances of settling on the ideal rafting trip on the perfect stretch of whitewater (based on the ages, experience and preferences of your group) are tremendously enhanced. Plus, if you have a great experience with that outfitter, you can look forward to going back again and again, enjoying the same great service, but on an exciting new trip each time. It’s simple. Would you rather ski at a ski area with just one slope, or at a resort with dozens of different trails and a range of different challenges?
And then there’s the matter of commitment to excellent guest service. This is what separates the good rafting outfitters from the great ones. Have you ever gone skiing at a place where no one seemed to care; and the next day, visited a resort where everyone smiled, greeted you warmly, and attended cheerily to your every need? What a world of difference. And when it comes to whitewater rafting, that kind of quality service and attentiveness is ten times more important. Remember, on a ski slope, you are mostly on your own, 95% of the day. But on a guided rafting trip, you’re accompanied by the outfitter’s guides all day. Their commitment not only to your safety, but to your enjoyment of the whole experience, is critical. Every whitewater rafting outfitter will tell you that guest service is important to them, but the really successful ones practice what they preach. It’s not easy to figure this one out in advance, but you’ll know it when you see and experience it. Talk to friends. Ask for recommendations. Pay attention to how you’re treated when you call the rafting outfitter with questions. These are all clues to how committed they are to the quality of your experience. Our motto and mission at Whitewater Challengers is that your day with us will be “the most fun you’ll have all year.” That’s setting the bar awfully high, but it helps remind us that from the time you first call us, until we’re waving good-bye at the end of your day, every step of the way should be easy, fun, and satisfying for you. And if it’s not, we want desperately to know about it, so we can be better tomorrow than we are today.
Finally, you’ll want to ask about the rafting outfitter’s facilities and amenities. Do you want to choose a bare-bones rafting outfitter with portable toilets? Or a full-service resort where activities can include rafting, ZipLining, kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, scavenger hunts, sand volleyball, DJ/dances and movies … and facilities include full buffet meal services, overnight camping, bunkhouse and tent rentals, and fully stocked retail and rental shops? This is the kind of choice you can make on just about every river served by whitewater rafting outfitters. Some invest heavily in their facilities. Others don’t. Surprisingly, though, the difference in rafting trip prices is often only a dollar or two. And in some instances, the lower rafting price might be available at the full-service rafting resort (thanks to their higher volume and more satisfied customer base). But either way, the larger outfitter is most often able to provide you not only the greatest flexibility in trip choice, but also the superior facilities and amenities that you should expect from a professional whitewater tour outfitter..
So do a little homework. Ask the right questions. Select your whitewater rafting outfitter of choice. And get ready for the most fun you’ll have all year!
Whitewater Rafting Trips —
Whitewater Rafting Dam Releases Draw Thousands to Lehigh River Trips in Pennsylvania
It’s a new day for whitewater rafting enthusiasts on dozens of popular whitewater rivers around the country, thanks to the introduction of scheduled whitewater rafting dam releases provided by agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers. And nowhere has the impact of new whitewater dam releases been more dramatic than at the Lehigh River Gorge in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Only a couple hours from about 25 million potential vacationers living in NY, NJ, CT, DE and PA, the Lehigh River has all the feel of a pristine, western-style wilderness whitewater river as it rushes through an isolated mountain gorge in the Poconos, known as Lehigh Gorge State Park. Over three million visitors have enjoyed the fun-filled rapids of the Lehigh since 1975, when Whitewater Challengers first introduced guided whitewater rafting trips on the river as a part of its broader repertoire of family adventure-vacations. But in the past few years, annual visitation to the Lehigh River has nearly doubled thanks to a series of new summertime whitewater rafting releases from the Francis Walter Dam.
“This is a really big deal,” says Whitewater Challengers president and co-founder Ken Powley. “For nearly three decades, our guests had to choose between great whitewater coupled with colder weather (spring and fall trips) or smaller rapids coupled with warmer summertime weather. That’s a tough choice. But now, with these new summertime whitewater rafting releases, we’ve got great water and great weather at the same time. There aren’t a lot of mountain whitewater streams that can boast this kind of perfect combination.”
The new summertime whitewater rafting dam release program at the Lehigh River is the outcome of a several-year process that included collaboration between the US Army Corps of Engineers, the PA Bureau of State Parks and the PA Fish & Boat Commission. Recommendations were also submitted by stakeholders like the licensed whitewater rafting outfitters, private whitewater paddling clubs, and fishing and environmental groups. And individuals were invited to offer comments and recommendations at public hearings.
The result is a flow management plan that includes whitewater releases for rafting, kayaking and canoeing, along with water quality releases to enhance downstream fishing opportunities. According to Powley, the Francis Walter Dam was, for many years, on the receiving end of considerable criticism from environmental and conservation groups for its alleged disruption of the natural flow of the river. Now, a lot of that criticism has been mitigated, since the dam is providing better and more consistent flows than Mother Nature ever could.
For anglers, there is the prospect of developing at the Lehigh River a world-class cold water fishery. And for vacationers and whitewater rafting enthusiasts, there are fabulous whitewater boating opportunities at a time of year when the river was often too shallow to run. For the whitewater vacation industry, this is a real shot in the arm. “It’s a lot like having fresh powder at your favorite ski slope every weekend,” says Powley.
And the result? “The Lehigh River has become an incredibly popular destination for family vacations, and a great alternative to that summertime trip to the beach. There’s an interesting shift that’s taken place over the past 15 or 20 years. In the 1970’s and 80’s, whitewater rafting was usually thought of as an ‘extreme sport’ best suited for the ‘go crazy’ crowd. Today, it’s mainly families, youth groups, and regular nine-to-fivers who go whitewater rafting.”
In part, that’s due to the guided aspect of Whitewater Challengers rafting adventures. It’s also the result of a really impeccable safety record spanning more than three decades, and more than 16 million miles of guided whitewater rafting trips. (If you lined up, end-to-end, all the river miles traveled by Challengers’ rafting guests since 1975, it would stretch from the earth to the moon … and back again … more than 32 times!) “Safety is at the center of everything we do here,” says Powley. “And the result of that has been very rewarding.”
Whitewater Challengers is licensed and regulated by the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks, which sets extensive safety standards for the whitewater rafting operation. But as Powley is fond of pointing out, Challengers rafting guides are trained well beyond the state’s mandated standards. The outfitter adds that in a recent safety survey of recreation activities, guided whitewater rafting trips ranked extremely high on the safety list, above many sports and activities generally regarded as mainstream and “safe.”
“Statistically, the most hazardous part of your rafting day is probably the one or two hour drive to get there,” says David Brown, executive director of America Outdoors, the national association representing licensed rafting outfitters and adventure travel companies. “If you’re OK with driving on the highway, then you should be OK with a guided rafting trip down a whitewater river,” he continues. “That’s not to say that rafting is an unexciting adventure. It’s just that the statistics at the Lehigh speak volumes about the outfitters’ safety record there.”
The shift from the “go crazy” crowd to families and kids over the past 20 years isn’t all that surprising to Powley. “This is ‘soft’ adventure,” he explains. “It’s the feel of the wild and the great outdoors, coupled with the assurance that in the end, there are pros along with you who can help out if needed. There’s even an easier section of the river where kids as young as five can go along. What we love about rafting the Lehigh is that it’s a barrel of fun that just about anybody can enjoy. For the real whitewater die-hards, there are always our high-adventure trips on the Upper Hudson River Gorge and the Black River Canyon, in upstate New York. Those rafting trips can still be enjoyed by first-timers, but they’re definitely for folks with a higher “adventure quotient.”
You can take your own “adventure quotient quiz” where you can also ask for a free adventure vacations catalog, get information and recommendations about specific rafting trips, learn more about environmentally-friendly “go-green” vacations, or reserve your own family whitewater rafting trip online. For an extended adventure vacation in the Poconos, ask about programs that include biking and hiking trips, overnight camping and meals. Or enjoy the nearby luxury of a heated hotel swimming pool, sauna, gourmet restaurant and posh accommodations at night.
“This is a close-to-home day-trip or vacation getaway that features fresh air, clear sparkling mountain water, friendly guides, and the thrill of discovering something that the whole family can team-up to do together,” says Powley. “It’s not the bugs, the sand and the salt you get at the beach,” he adds. “But for that, we have no regrets!”
For more information, contact:Ken Powley, President Adventure Center at Whitewater Challengers PO Box 8 White Haven, PA 18661 800-443-8554 KPowley@aol.com