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September 27, 2012

Interview: Rafting with Inner City Outings

BillRogue2Sierra Club's Inner City Outings is made up of 52 groups across the country that connect 14,000 kids with outdoors experiences. Bill Weinberg, who has been an Inner City Outings rafting guide for 25 years, took some time to answer questions about his experience.

How did you first hear about ICO?

I had been a volunteer with Sierra Club Service Trips when we were invited to scout trips on the Klamath and Salmon rivers in Northern California. The river rangers took us on four days of rafting to scout work locations. I ended up leading these trips for three years in the early 1980s. After several folks I was working with got involved with ICO rafting I finally applied and made the switch from Service Trips.

Before ICO, did you have any experience with kids?

No, and it was the part of volunteering with ICO that scared me the most. However, I thought it would be good experience for when, or if, I became a father.

Sierra Club Inner City Outings

What are kids' reactions when they raft for the first time?

There were years when I did not prepare them to face the fear they'd naturally feel. Those trips were more stressful than they needed to be. Now, however, when I conduct a pre-trip meeting with the group, I make a point of telling them that before the trip, it's perfectly natural to feel scared -- I feel that way, too. However, that by the end of the trip they'll feel excited and proud to have done something even though they were at first afraid.

I tell them that being afraid is not always a good reason to avoid doing something. As a result, most participants go through that progression: apprehension, courage, exhilaration, and then accomplishment.

Sierra Club Inner City Outings

What's the most rewarding part of being an ICO leader?

When we manage to connect with someone who seems on a path to despair and show them another way. One of the biggest payoffs for me has been that handful of participants who've applied to go through our training classes and became apprentice guides. Their success as a guide has given them the confidence to go on to rewarding careers: nurse, firefighter, business leader, event planner. I treasure knowing that I'm part of an organization that truly can change people's lives.

Describe your most memorable ICO experience.

Oh man, I've got so many stories! They kind of accumulate after 25 years.

In March of 1990, our first trip of the season, we'd gathered an exceptionally experienced core group of guides, along with some apprentices and two guests. In an excess of enthusiasm, we diverted the trip to the North Fork of the American River. We got a late start, arriving just as Outdoors Unlimited (OU), the outfitter, was launching. Over an hour later we set off. The first big rapid is Chamberlain Falls, usually a seven-foot drop. That day a four-foot tall rock blocked the river. Oops! The river was really low!

Sierra Club Inner City Outings

Our raft wrapped on it and the next raft wrapped on us. We dragged the following three rafts over the two stuck ones and then got ourselves loose. The trip turned into a very technical day, full of narrow channels and hard work. At one point our most experienced guide inexplicably wrapped his raft on a big rock with clear channels on either side, and it took the better part of an hour and the scare of a broken leg to get it off.

We "lined" the two major rapids, Bogus Thunder and Staircase, floating the rafts while tied to long ropes front and back. We got to the first take-out at dusk, and lucky for us OU had waited, because we'd parked our cars three miles downstream at the lower takeout. We drivers got our keys, piled into the OU truck and drove off. The rest took about 35 minutes to carry all of the gear up to the road. Then they sat in the dark March night, rapidly cooling. They talked about how cold they were and how long the shuttle would take. It took them a long time to realize that they were sitting on the emergency bag, full of warm, dry clothes. The big take-home lesson was that hypothermia really does make you stupid.

At one point, lining the rafts through Staircase, I apologized to one of our guests for the long, hard trip. She replied that she was having a great day! So did I.

Your favorite outdoor place?

Floating down the South Fork of the American River on that one, magical spring weekend when the hills are covered with golden-yellow wildflowers.

Sierra Club Inner City Outings

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