River Conditions

WhiteWater Voyages Media Articles

March 23, 1977
News Herald, Santa Rosa, California

Rafter, Writer William McGinnis Succeeds Where Robust Men Fail

By by Gulon M. Kovner

Change the "quiet desperation" Thoreau applied to most men's lives to quiet determination for William McGinnis.

Four years ago, he decided to write a book about whitewater rafting, a sport he had pursued for nine years. McGinnis shot his lanky body up in a trailer at Dillon Beach and labored 10 hours a day, seven days a week for one year.

"I lived and ate that book completely," he says. McGinnis developed the habit of gathering little writing pads about him so one would always be within reach when choice phrases popped into his brain.

The pad next his pillow was used heavily. "I trained myself to wake up just long enough to write down an idea and go back to sleep without becoming fully conscious," he says.

In July 1975, Quadrangle Press released his 361-page book Whitewater Rafting. Reviewers for Bay Area newspapers hailed the book with phrases that made them sound like strangers to wild river running, but devotees of free flowing English language.

What's refreshing about both Bill McGinnis and his book is a vocal style that is pleasing to the it. You can talk to McGinnis for hours and never hear the they'd cliches -- like "burned out," a "fired up" and "far out" -- that clutter the conversation of most river runners.

Lots of rafters, including some who work as professional Whitewater guides, own McGinnis' book. And even those who criticize certain technical points agree it describes a safe, perhaps overly cautious approach to a beautiful sport.

At 28, William Guinness has also succeeded where a good number of robust young men have failed -- establishing a small river company that survives in a drought and the competitive outdoor recreation market of the Bay area. He thinks his success is no mystery, the product of confidence and dogged effort.

"I never thought about it, I just did it," he says.

Near the end of his book-writing chore, McGinnis was compiling one of several appendixes: a list of outfitters who offer commercial river trips to the public. Spontaneously, he decided to list a company of his own.

So was hatched Whitewater Voyages -- River Exploration Ltd., now entering its third year is the sole economic support of William McGinnis' existence. (He expects some money from the book soon since its sales paid off the publishers $4000 advance around the middle of last year).

As California's second drought threatens to demolish some small outfitters and dent big ones like the American River Touring Association (which has already closed its Sierra River operation this season), McGinnis expects Whitewater Voyages to flourish.

Small size and flexibility, not to mention creativity, are McGinnis' advantages. Operated from his house in El Cerrito -- where booking office, rafting gear and living quarters jostle for space -- the company has its owner as the only full-time employee. All river trips begin and end at McGinnis' house.

Started in 1975 after the book was completed, Whitewater Voyages began with about $3000 worth of gear, no vehicle and $500 cash. The company's first major chore was to attract bookings, so McGinnis commissioned the first of three annual brochures. It describes trips on California, Oregon, Texas, British Columbia and Mexican rivers next to this quote from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

"We said there wasn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable in a raft."

McGinnis says the brochure was made economically feasible because the designer, typesetter and printer all wanted to go on a river trip.

Even now -- going into the 1977 season with $20,000 worth of equipment, including a van, 14 rafts and four rowing frames -- he still operates the company as much as possible on a barter economy.

"It's still impossible for me to carry on as if I have money," he says happily.

Some people who have worked for McGinnis say he can hold onto a dollar like a turbulent reversal. But they enjoy working his trips, which have been known to include a stop at Disneyland on the way to the Rio Grande.

Unlike big outfitters with fixed operations, McGinnis plans Whitewater Voyages' itinerary each year - with a flair. In addition to Western rivers like the American, Merced, Carson, Klamath and Owyhee, he cooks up exotica like a 36-day camping and river trip through Europe, Scandanavia and the Soviet Union scheduled for 1978 for a mere $1,300 plus air fare.

A river running and cultural exploration of Mainland China, originally planned for last year, has been "in limbo" since the death of Cho En-Jai. And McGinnis scored a big publicity coup last year by advertising one Rio Grande trip as a search for the mysterious "Big Bird."

The payoff for each imaginative scheduling is that if the drought continues to dry up Western Rivers, McGinnis says he could survive on a few major expeditions in foreign countries.

Writing the book has predictably put McGinnis on display in the river-running community, a rather close, gossipy group.

"All I have to do is get my boat hung up on a rock and the news spreads up and down the river," he says. "I'm a little bit chagrined and a little bit flattered." Sometimes the news gets distorted. "People have come back and told me I flipped on a river that I haven't been on in months."

Not all these reports are mistaken, McGinnis admits, owing to his penchant for trying new tricks amid roaring rapids. The practice has its penalties: "I've made mistakes that no one has made before or since," he says somberly.

That's not to say I'm not a top-notch boatman," he adds, laughing at the blatant immodesty.

McGinnis believes in mistakes. The image of expert river running lustily rowing through heavy water without taking on so much as a bucketful of water is not only a myth, he says, but "not even a goal worth striving for." If you never make mistakes, how do you expect to learn anything, he reasons.

Don't get the idea McGinnis operates by caprice, or by the "if it was meant to happen, it'll happen" philosophy. Whimsical pragmatism is his style, never sheer whim.

Take the book born of sheer desire to write. McGinnis wrote the proposal for it while completing his Master's degree in English at San Francisco State. He was, at the time, serving alternative duty as a Conscientious Objector to the draft by working at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a "rundown social agency."

Then, in October 1978, with his degree and the publisher's advance in hand, McGinnis secluded himself in the trailer at Dillon Beach. Today, his writing career continues with a lucrative commission to write an article for Rolling Stone's slick new magazine Outside.

In addition, McGinnis has two new books underway including a novel about "death and intense events" befalling a small group running the Rio Grande. He filled several notebooks with impressions of that river and the people he was with on a trip last year, but the book will have to exceed reality since the most serious accident he's seen in 12 years of running rivers is a cut finger that required two stitches.

McGinnis' other book-in-the-works is "A personal response to rivers," something of an aquatic equivalent to Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.

"I'm a lot more interested in my career as a writer than my career as a river runner," McGinnis says, adding with characteristic equanimity: "I don't see why I should have to choose."





© 1977 News Herald.

 

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