Rafting toward understanding - Marinites team with Soviets on the river
Imagine being in a raft, rushing down a river amidst the wild foam of white water. While you’re working your oar, you glance at the person next to you who is also plowing an oar through the water.
You know that you must have teamwork, or you might find yourself overturned and fighting for your life.
This is not the time for politics.
This is not the time for philosophical differences.
That’s why Project RAFT is off to such a rousing success.
Those letters stand for Russians and Americans For Teamwork. The program was created establish river rafting exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Lifespring Foundation, which has corporate headquarters in San Rafael, is one of the main sponsors. More than 500 volunteers participated in raising more than $20,000 across the nation to support RAFT’s first youth exchange.
A group of 19 Americans, including Marin County college students Brian Green of Mill Valley and Natasha Ciancutti of Novato, were involved in that exchange that found them oar to oar with citizens of the Soviet Union. Together, they rafted down the Katun River in south central Siberia, about 150 miles north of the Mongolian border, last August.
“We came back with a great understanding of the people,” Green, a freshman at U.C. Santa Cruz, said. “On the river there were no differences between us … just this common goal of survival on the river. Everyone worked together and we were all willing to put in the extra effort and to go out of our way to help each other.”
The Siberian raft trip was near Barnaul, one of the five largest cities of Siberia, which, said Gentry. “is about half the size of Fresno.” But the countryside was majestic, he said, “a combination of Montana and the Alps.”
Jib Ellison, former Mill Valley man and recent graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, is executive director for Project RAFT. After the trip he received a letter from Jack Matlock, U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, in which Matlock wrote:
“Not only are you building a spirit of cooperation between the young people of the U.S. and USSR, but you are doing it in an area of the USSR which rarely has contact with Americans. For the people of Barnaul you are indeed a ‘citizen diplomat.’”
The exchange, with this county taking a turn to host the Soviets, is already under way. A five-member team of Soviets came to the United States as an advance scouting group to check out the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. The 19 Soviets who were involved with the rafting trip on the Katun River will come to the U.S. for a 21-day excursion on the Colorado, joining with the 19 Americans who were their friends on the Katun.
The Soviets were guests at a reception hosted by the Lifespring Foundation Thursday in San Rafael.
The Soviet guests were chief river guide Misha Kolchevnikov and his wife, Svets, river guides Kostya Krechetov and Zenya Stepanove, and interpreter Lyudraila Sharverdova.
The Soviets were impressed by the Grand Canyon.
“It was an amazing canyon and the nature was gorgeous.” Sveta Kolchevnikov said through interpreter Shaverdova. “It was very clean. For the Russians it is a good lesson on how to protect the environment.”
And meeting the people during the trip for the Grand Canyon to San Rafael was also a positive experience for Kolchevnikov.
“The people were nice, friendly and warm,” she said. “We were excited to meet the kids in Flagstaff and Grant’s Pass. And it was interesting to meet our friends again, the people who had gone to Siberia. Yes, meeting the people was the most exciting and most pleasant thing.”
Green said he is excited with the prospect of seeing his new friends again next year when they float the Colorado. He said being together for so much time during the Siberian river trip made them all very close.
“We were living with them on the river for nine days,” he said. “All that time we were completely mixed together. We ate together, worked together, live together.”
And the got to learn a little of each other’s language.
“I learned how to count to 21 in Russian by playing Ping Pong” he said. I learned how to ask where things were … to say ‘please’, ‘thank you,’ and ‘Can I take you picture?”
“I’m very excited about next year when the Soviets will be coming here. It will be very special for them. From where they come from, very few get to see the United States.
Project RAFT is an ongoing program and its organizers are hoping it continues for years to come, with new exchange youths getting a chance each year.
“We look for projects, long term projects that are innovative, things that hadn’t been done before,” said Ray Ingrasci, director of corporate affairs for Lifespring. “Each year we do a project in the area of peace. I thought this was a heck of a great thing.”
Chris Gentry, an Outward Bound instructor and key member of the Project RAFT trip to Siberia, and Ingrasci both pointed out that Russia and the United States might always be at risk, politically. But things are quite different when you combine the risks between people themselves.
“It’s group coordination,” Gentry said, “You allow the participants to go into risk with each other.”
The result is teamwork for group survival.
“What got tested was being together for 24 hours a day,” Ingrasci said. “That’s when your personal safety and personal values are at risk.”
Candace Hanley, executive director of the Lifespring Foundation, and her daughter Cassie, a Marin Catholic student, were part of the rafting adventure in Siberia.
“People came out of their homes to welcome you,” Handley said about the residents of the small villages in Siberia. “They give you honey, or things to drink. You can see that family and friendship are very important to them.”
And indeed, they had made new friends.
Rafting Heals a Rift as Spirit of Detente Goes for a White-Water Rapids Ride
“You’re on a raft, shooting down white-water rapids,” Mike Grant says, “and you’re at risk together. Whether you speak the same language, whether you agree with each other, whether you even like each other, you’ve got to work together or you’re all going over the side. It’s the perfect setting, a microcosm of our fragile planet.”
Grant, 28, of Pleasant Hill in Northern California, is project director for Project RAFT (Russians and Americans for Teamwork), and a member of the California team, one of seven 10-member American squads that next month will attack the Chuya River in Siberia.
The river is “100 miles north of the China-Mongolia border. Glacier-fed rivers barreling through the Altai Mountains. Unbelievably beautiful,” Grant says, “like a pristine Switzerland.”
Less than two years old, RAFT has been sponsoring youth exchanges with the Soviets in white-water-rafting get-togethers. The Soviets, in turn, are invited to float down the Grand Canyon this summer.
The exchanges–mixing nationalities on raft crews–is nothing short of “exhilarating,” says Grant, who’s made five trips: “After the run, you camp out. You gather firewood together, cook, wash the dishes, bathe together. You’ve already built up trust, on the rafts.
“The setting is so conducive. The conversation flows as naturally as the river. We discuss, and sure, we argue. . . . We stress our freedoms, they attack our profit motive. ‘Evil Empire’ vs. ‘Grasping Capitalists.’ Sometimes we work our way through the differences. Sometimes we hit walls. The key is, we’re addressing the problems.”
All well and good, but suppose you’re bopping down a raging rapid and don’t speak Russian and have an urgent need to holler, “Igor! The rock!”?
“Oh, it definitely occurs,” Grant says, “but we’ve worked out our own Esperanto, a sort of hybrid. Like, Americans yell ‘Forward paddle’ and the Soviet equivalent is something that sounds like ‘Peery-ote’? What we all holler is ‘Fote!’ Hey, whatever works.”
Shooting the Siberian Rapids to Promote Peace: Activism:
A former philosophy student uses white-water rafting trips to build a sense of teamwork between Soviet & U.S. adventurers
hen Jib Ellison finished his philosophy thesis at Reed College in Portland, Ore., last year, he had the sort of grand idea about changing the world common to fresh-faced college grads.
But he went right out and did something about it, and it worked. These days his life moves at a dizzying pace as he flies from New York to Moscow to Siberia to Colorado to Zambia, and his plan to improve humanity’s lot is advancing faster than even he might have hoped.
As founder and principal officer of the nonprofit, California-based Project RAFT (Russians and Americans for Teamwork), Ellison and a staff of six have run international rafting adventures for Soviet-American crews of paddlers on big white water.
Most of the trips are on rampaging mountain streams in Siberia that had never been run by foreigners before Ellison helped pioneer them three years ago.
A raft guide for 12 years, he holds the idea of using white water trips to teach strangers from the two superpowers to “work together, communicate under stress, become teammates for survival and then go home and talk about it,” in hopes that the lessons they learn will “keep us from blowing each other up 10 or 15 years down the road.”
Already Ellison and his Project RAFT colleagues have been featured in an hour special on ABC-TV, and though they’re still close to penniless (“We’re in no danger of losing our nonprofit status,” he said), they’re having a good time in the name of international peace and understanding, and getting bigger all the time.
“What we’re doing is not an abstraction,” Ellison said recently after leading a playful band of 25 U.S. and Soviet students on a 5-mile run down the Potomac River. “We’re not some foundation that sits around and writes a paper about teamwork. This is teamwork.”
“And we’ll need it,” said his youth-exchange coordinator, Russian-speaking Harvard graduate Jayne Williams, “when we take this bunch down the Grand Canyon. . . .”
The story of Project RAFT is a tale of almost unbelievably lucky timing. Ellison hatched the idea a couple of years ago, just as Soviet leaders decided to open their country to sporting, cultural and business exchanges.
Even so, when he described his rafting proposal to international adventure-travel agencies, “They said, ‘We’ve been trying that for 15 years. No way.’
“But my vision was different,” said Ellison. “I didn’t want to go over and conquer Siberia in rafts. I just wanted to use the rivers to meet people and work together.”
Nonetheless, his pleas for a river-borne “youth exchange” fell largely on deaf ears until winter, 1987-88, when Alexei Khokhlov, the head of a Soviet youth group, happened to pass through San Francisco. Ellison heard he was in town and “crashed a reception to meet him and give him the proposal.”
“After about 15 minutes,” Ellison said, “he told me, ‘We don’t do this in Russia, but I like the light in your eyes. We will do it.’ ”
Skids thus greased, Ellison organized the first youth exchange last summer, taking 17 U.S. college students to run the cold, raging Katun River in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, sharing boats with a similar-sized group of Soviet students.
The charge for each U.S. participant was $3,000, which covered the two weeks there and this summer’s two weeks on the Colorado. Soviet participants were sponsored in a like amount under their nation’s government Peace Fund.
Ellison didn’t know what to expect in the way of U.S. applicants but was inundated.
“It was harder for me to get into the program than it was to get into college,” said Tasha Ciancutti of San Francisco.
The Soviets, likewise, had no shortage. “You have to understand that in Siberia, just meeting a foreigner is still a big deal,” Ellison said.
The voyage down the thundering rapids went off without a hitch, and this year Project RAFT expanded to eight ventures, including several “citizen diplomacy” trips for U.S. adventurers of all ages, who will pay considerably more–$3,950 apiece–to spend two weeks on the Katun or other big rivers in Siberia.
“We lose money on the youth-exchange programs,” said Ellison, “but the citizen diplomacy trips help make it up.”
In Ellison’s view, that’s fair because the youth-exchange programs are the heart of his mission. “That’s where you have the most potential for honest-to-God value,” he said.
“It’s not just excitement. It’s overcoming obstacles, working together to do a trip. The result is camaraderie and friendship, and who needs that more than the United States and the Soviet Union?”
Plenty of both was in evidence on the Potomac, as veterans of the first youth-exchange on the Katun reconvened in Washington for the U.S. half of their venture.
Delighted American squeals greeted Soviet arrivals as they trudged in from the homes of host families to renew acquaintances. One Soviet visitor, spying Great Falls for the first time, pronounced it “beautiful.”
Down through the S-Turn Rapids and Wet-Bottom Chute the bicultural rafts plunged, and as each challenge passed, the crews raised their paddles simultaneously in a well-practiced salute and gave a cheer.
Ellison is already looking toward the next step: trilateral exchanges, where U.S. and Soviet youths head together to a third country and join local youths on a river-oriented adventure.
“I spent two years in Zambia guiding on the Zambezi River,” said Ellison. “That country is just a pawn in this huge, sophisticated, global game. In places like that, it will take a concerted effort between our countries to help answer problems with the environment, global economy and the developing world.
“These things can only be solved if the United States and the Soviet Union stop spending a billion dollars a day defending themselves against each other and start getting together to solve world problems.
“Anyone with half a mind can look 50 years into the future,” said Ellison, “and see it’s scary out there.”