Who wouldn’t love a guide with chops like this?
If you’ve ever rafted the New or Gauley rivers with ACE Whitewater, you might’ve been lucky enough to a have guy named “Devo” at the helm.
Does that name sound familiar? Other than from the 80’s punk-pop band with black turtlenecks and flower-pot hats? Both the rock group and the raft guide gleaned their name from the same source: the idea of the “devolution of society.” (As one writer put it, when it takes more than two hands to list the number of celebrities who won their fame from leaked sex-tapes, our culture might have stopped evolving and started heading in the opposite direction.)
But enough of that. Devo (a.k.a. Brian Yates) is a veteran raft guide, tall and lanky, with a pair of little round glasses fit for a Russian revolutionary, and a set of sideburns you could use to insulate a standard wall space.
Like dice, diamonds, and crushed rock (take your pick) most West Virginians (and most raft guides) have a lot of facets. Husband, father of a cute, fun little girl named Abigail, Devo has a Groucho Marx-like sense of humor, and makes his home up on a ridge overlooking miles of view like something from a dairy advertisement. He spends most of his work time out in his self-built welding shop, making everything from fence caps to Mad Max style truck bumpers to a 10-foot replica of the New River Gorge Bridge for the local visitor center’s welcome sign.
Like all guides, he’s full of (among other fillers) stories. Our favorite so far?
Devo was hired to guide a group of 6th grade campers on a 4 day river trip. He and the other guides would only have to drive the boats and furnish their own sleeping gear, according to the camp counselors. Everything else would be provided.
“Well, it wasn’t. Not only did they not bring food, but I’d just quit smoking, and that morning my girlfriend dumped me.”
Sounds like a country song, which are usually kind of funny, as long as you’re not in one.
“The food they brought was for 6th graders. We call it the starvation trip now.”
Breakfast was a little coffee cup of granola, with maybe some powdered milk. Lunch, a bagel with a smear of peanut butter. Dinner, mac & cheese. The idea was, the kids would gain leadership experience by planning the meals themselves. Also, they were in a mindset of, “We’re camping, so we have to travel light,” not realizing that with rafts, the only thing you really have to skimp on is the kitchen sink, and honestly you could probably find a space for that if you really thought you’d need it.
To make it worse, the kids all had a mess kit to eat out of.
“We approached the counselors and said, you know, where’s our cup and silverware?” The answer? “Ohhhhh, I guess we should’ve told you.” So we had to wait for the sixth graders to get done eating, then sidle up and, you know: Hey Billy. Psst. Can I borrow your cup and plate?”
So, by the end of the fourth day, there is Devo. Grumpy, starving, chewing Copenhagen and wishing it was a cigarette, and his ex-girlfriend is on the river a couple beaches upstream, so he’s just feeling bad in many ways, sitting there on a corner of jump rock, saying, “All right kids, do your thing.”
Well, one little girl wouldn’t jump. She was terrified. Even the camp counselor couldn’t talk her off the rock. And there’s the takeout, a couple hundred yards away, with a bus to take him to salvation.
His initial impulse was to holler, “Okay, kids, fun’s over, everyone back to your duckies, let’s go, we’re going home!”
But he ignored that, and dug deep.
“I said to myself, son, you’ve got two choices. One of them, everyone hates you. The other, everyone loves you. Step up. Do the right thing.”
And he did. He sweet-talked her off the rock. Even when the twenty-something female role-model counselor couldn’t do it.
He’s seen enough jump rock drama to know what works.
“Loud words of encouragement don’t help. So I chopped the problem in half. I went up there and stood next to her and looked down. I asked her, what are you afraid of? No answer. Are you afraid you’ll get hurt? No. Do you think you’ll drown? No. Hm.”
He looked down. “It’s pretty scary up here, isn’t it?”
Okay, lets go down where it’s not so scary.”
So they left the 15-foot ledge and climbed down to only four feet above the water.
“Can you jump from here?”
“I think so.”
“Want to hold hands and jump?”
“Can we count to 5?”
They did, and did.
And the little girl loved it. Enough that when he asked if she wanted to go again, she said she did. This time they only counted to three before they jumped. Then they climbed a little higher and tried again. And again. Pretty soon, they’d climbed back to the very highest part of jump rock, counted 3, held hands, and jumped.
But Devo wasn’t finished. He’d gone this far. He wanted the little girl to feel the pride of doing it herself. So he asked her if she’d like to climb back up alone and do it one last time.
She did. That little sixth grade girl, so terrified, had jumped off the very highest part of jump rock by herself.
It was an incredibly enriching life experience. Probably for the little girl, yes, but definitely for Devo.
Of course, it didn’t change that he was still starving, cranky, nicotene-deprived, and sad about his ex-relationship. So, he let the part of him he’d knuckled under out, and hollered, “Okay, let’s go, back to your duckies, now!”
After the trip all the raft guides went to Mabel’s (a local favorite) for “the greasiest, sausagey-ist, bacony-ist food we could find.”
But at the time, the camp counselor gave him a look of incredulous wonder, like, “How did you do that?”
And to Devo, it was all in a day’s work.
By Tom Gerencer