A rafting story

I think I got that abbreviation right.  That would be the ‘End Of The Season Get Together and Bash’ which last I checked remains an ongoing event.  The working title for the first one, though, was ‘First Annual Hog Roast and Cucumber Fry’.  We never actually fried any cucumbers but I threw that in there as a sop to the vegetarians.

The first event was back in 1977.  There were the three rafting outfitters on the Chattooga and there was something of a cultural divergence developing.  The Nantahala Outdoor Center attracts these startlingly high-functioning people.  If you had an Olympic bronze medal in kayak slalom and a masters degree in outdoor recreation, you could get a job at the NOC as a waitress.  They were commonly racists, i.e. people who race.  WildWater tended toward bright-eyed college-student types.  More charitably, this would be people destined to be productive members of society.  And then there was Southeastern Expeditions, where Claude Terry had pretty much cornered the market on stoner-hippy-oddball raft guides.  After a stint at the NOC in ‘75, go figure, I had settled in at Southeastern.  

A few words about Southeastern Expeditions at the time.  Owner Claude Terry had scored a really nice piece of property about a mile from the river with frontage on Hwy 76.  There was still a sign for the property’s previous incarnation; the Whispering Pines Country Music Park.  It was commonly just referred to as ‘The Pines’.  There was a humble little building down on the road that was serving as a kitchen/dining room.  It is now the retail part of the operation.  Housing for raft guides was scattered around the property, almost exclusively guide-owned tents.  Facilities consisted of a five-hole co-ed outhouse inherited from Whispering Pines.  Southeastern Expeditions guides have always been known as ‘the Five Hole Gang’.  There was also a communal shower of more recent construction.  If you were looking for a common defining characteristic for a Southeastern guide, it would have to be a lack of bashfulness.  Guys reading will know from whence I speak when I note how annoying a passel of women can be when they get together.  I learned at The Pines that, surprisingly, they are just as annoying when they’re naked.  I started showering in the middle of the night.

I had a bunch of different things going on at the time.  I was driving a school bus for a kids camp and shoeing a few horses.  On weekends I’d guide a couple raft trips for the paltry 25-bucks-a-trip wage of the era.  During the week I kept Southeastern’s vehicles running.  The best part of the job was that several times a week somebody would mire  a truck in the mud at a put-in and walk out to report their plight.  I’d hike in and drive the vehicles out.  There was some luck and a trick involved, but I batted 1000 at it for the season.  And I had a few other irons in the fire, none of which were making me rich.  But I was living in tents at Southeastern and on my sister’s property, so living expenses were not high.  I was busy and happy, but not overtasked and had time on my hands.

Raw competitiveness wasn’t so much a thing in the 70’s, so the standoffishness between the staff at the three rafting companies could be attributed to the cultural gaps.  I figured what we needed was a party to lubricate relationships.  Preferably with alcohol.  I divvied it up so: Southeastern would provide a hog, WildWater would cook it, and NOC would bring a keg.  There was immediate buy-in.  I don’t remember paying much attention to side dishes, but all the outfitters had awesome cooks (shoutout to Southeastern’s Mars Skipper here), and they all apparently bailed me out on that point.

Providing the hog became the last remaining hurdle.  It’s hard to convey what shoestring operations the Chattooga outfitters were at the time.  I mentioned the skimpy guide wages.  Claude Terry had started Southeastern with a couple rafts and a discarded phone company van (which was still serving as guest housing).  The NOC crowd was still carping about Payson Kennedy making them dig a hole for a septic tank because there wasn’t money in the budget to rent a backhoe.  So coming up with money for the pig wasn’t the trivial matter of passing the hat and everyone anteing up.

I remember John Hicks being around that year, waiting for Claude to realize that he needed a responsible adult running the place.  In the meantime we had Muskrat for head guide.  I’m sure there is a story behind the moniker, but I never heard it.  Muskrat’s given name was Scott Fitzgerald Pendergrast the third.  But just Muskrat for short.  To be fair, Muskrat was doing a decent enough job running the place (but see ‘Quaalude Falls’ for my assessment of the level of decision making required). And like 50 or so other people, he gets bonus points for hiring me.  But he was definitely following a different drummer.  Like a progressive jazz drummer.  Muskrat was kind of scruffy around the edges, and on any given evening he might or might not decide to wear clothes to dinner.  [Note from the future: I ran into Muskrat 30+ years later at Claude’s retiring EOTSGTAB.  Not like he was wearing khakis and a button down shirt, but he was pretty civilized looking.  He was then managing real estate transactions for a government entity.  And he was just Scott, but I think he still answered to Muskrat.  If you find yourself across the table from him at a real estate negotiation, you should find out.]

NOC and Wildwater were in South Carolina, but Southeastern was in Rabun County on the Georgia side of the Chattooga.  In the 70s Rabun County was beginning the change from a textile/sawmilling/moonshining economy to a tourist economy, and the transition was a little frictional.  Add to these changes the local feelings, which we’ll understate as disappointment, when they saw how they were depicted in the locally filmed ‘Deliverance’.  So rafters and outsiders in general could be unpopular in the area.  A year or two earlier Eric Esche had been showered with confetti in his bunk when a high-powered rifle round fired from a pickup outside The Pines shredded his shelf of science fiction.  And so it was no great surprise that Muskrat’s VW Beetle with its Atlanta plates picked up a few close-range shotgun rounds when he left it parked at a trailhead.

This digression is relevant in that I negotiated with Muskrat that I would fix his car for him if he would buy a hog.  I imagine the car wasn’t running or the few perforations wouldn’t have bothered Muskrat.  The technology of the era, particularly on a Beetle, was actually decipherable and I was able to render it mobile again.  These were the happy years on the river, before the long-term drought, where paddlers cavorted in the runoff from 100” of rain a year.  Which explains the mushrooms growing in the car’s floor mats.  These went away when the car dried out, but this probably remained a car you didn’t want to spill a drink in.  

I was no genius with bodywork and paint, but I knew a guy in Tiger who was.  Uncharacteristically, Muskrat’s VW was tricked out with chrome rims and steering wheel.  The paint guy was a Beetle aficionado and I traded him the chrome parts for the body work and trading back some plain-Jane parts.  I didn’t ask Muskrat about the trade but he didn’t seem to care when it came back.  

Armed with the handful of cash Muskrat had promised, I set out to actually procure the hog.  I heard about a guy just down the road from The Pines who had hogs.  Knowing-a-guy and hearing-about-a-guy were the Google of the pre-internet era.  Cash exchanged hands and I left with the hog in the back of my pickup.  The hog rooted out the screens in my camper top and otherwise rendered the truck bed unsuitable for sleeping for some time.

On the day before the party, Buzz Williams from WildWater showed up with a minor entourage.  Buzz dispatched the hog with a .45 pistol, which was something of an anomalous possession for a raft guide.  His crew got a fire going and boiled a drum of water.  They field dressed the hog and scalded the hair off.  The vegetarians amongst us were pretty unhappy about the whole process.  In later years this was all vastly simplified to purchasing a butchered side of meat.  The WildWater guys got a low fire going and settled in for a 24hr siege of slow-cooking.  

NOC brought their promised keg, and the staff from all the outfitters showed up for the party.  I had invited some non-hostile locals and they also showed up for a total crowd somewhere around fifty or a hundred.  Food was eaten and beer was consumed.  Eventually things wound down long after dark, and people drifted off, generally in pairs.  All in all, it was a great end of the season get together and bash.