Everyone’s got their belief systems and rituals. Some of them are scientifically proven and some are not, but we hold these beliefs and perform these rituals anyway.
Last week, KRO announced that the Army Corps of Engineers plans to steadily release water into the Lower Kern throughout this year, making for an awesome summer of rafting. On the heals of that announcement, I was reminded of a story about rituals and river flows on the Kern. This story was taken from the book, “Halfway to Halfway”. It’s a compilation of true stories about river people, collected and written by two rafting outfitters, Dick Linford and Bob Volpert.
Author Mary Papale with husband, Bob Volpert, and sons Skip, Matt, and Will.
Burning of the Underwear by: Mary Papale
2005 was a dry warm winter, not good for ski resorts or promising for whitewater rafting companies that rely on snowmelt for summer water. The underwear thing started as part of an email that my husband, Bob Volpert, sent our Idaho crew.
“The snowpack in Idaho has deteriorated and is only 58% of average. Chip carroll told me that facing a smilier water shortage on the Kern River last year, the staff set various pieces of underwear on fire as a sacrifice to the Rain Gods. Look what happened in Southern California. They ended up with plenty of water and had a great season. I’m heading to Idaho next week and will be amassing garments for a similar ceremony. Look in the direction of Salmon for signs of smoke followed by significant rainfall.”
Bob and I send lots of emails to the crew. They usually have to do with scheduling, or training, or menu suggestions or sales. Seldom do members of the crew respond but this one struck a responsive chord and we began to hear from them.
Julie Guthrie, one of our long time Idaho guides, took the idea to heart and excitedly emailed the crew a few weeks later. “I burned my underwear and it has snowed 2 feet since! Everyone get our there and burn your underwear!”
Joe Lellek wrote, “While my underwear supply is about as low as the Idaho snowpack this year, I’ll be sure to light a few items. I have a good feeling about this idea. Good luck. Have fun in Salmon and make sure you keep a fire extinguisher close by.”
From Steve Cutright, “Hey, anything might help.”
And finally from Drew Parker, “You are a visionary and a true leader. May the rain gods honor the sacrifice.”
It was the type of hoopla that I try to ignore. However, the idea spread among the crew, and as more of them burned their underwear the snow piled up. What had looked like a drought year turned into a season with plenty of water.
I immediately forgot about the “B.O.T.U.” (Burning of the Underwear) thing. And then in May of 2009 I was sitting at camp on the banks of the Forks of the Kern River during a three-day guide-training run. The Forks is an intense Class V river that I had only run once before, way back in 1982. Since I spend the whitewater season in Idaho, it is logistically difficult for me to get to Southern California and the Kern. However this year I had the incentive of joining my now grown son, Will, who was spending the season on the Kern as the operations manager. It was Will’s first time rowing the Forks and he had his mom and his girlfriend, Dana, in the front of his oar boat. Talk about pressure!
That evening we had a warming campfire. Some good stories and jokes were told and people felt relaxed. There were hours to go until we had to confront the big rapids again. Suddenly a young lady popped up, and with the bright eyes and smile that you only have in your twenties she twirled a colorful pair of underwear on a stick above the fire. A flame caught a corner and the underwear quickly ignited and burned. “It’s time to burn the underwear, “ said another young guide and she dashed off to get hers. Several other guides nudged each other and took off, returning with underwear of varying colors and shapes. I sat there watching this phenomenon and realized that our rafting company culture now included routine “Burning of the underwear” moments.
I searched for a guide historian who could help me understand how this underwear burning ritual began. I was given the names of two guides to contact: Creatch and Firestarter. (Firestarter received his guiding name after taking a Tom Brown Wilderness Survival Class where he learned to make fire from friction using primitive methods, including the bow drill and hand drill.)
According to Creatch, it all began on a 2004 Forks training trip. After several low water years, guides were trying to figure out what would appease the gods of big water. The female guides decided that burning bras and panties would be just the thing. With great ceremony, flourish and dancing around the bonfire, they burned their underwear. This pleased the big water deities, as 2005 was a huge year. “On the 2005 Forks training trip, a few of us remembered what had worked the year before and again incinerated our garments. Lo and behold we had back-to-back big water years, something that had never occurred before. This cemented the belief that flaming underwear was important to guide (and river-god) happiness, but when 2006 produced plenty of water the ceremony was forgotten.”
Creatch paused to sip a storytelling beverage and then continued with the historical narrative. “So was do you think happened in 2007 after no ceremony the year before? Of course – Low water. Arggh! How could we have forgotten? The gods were not pleased. So naturally on the training trip that year, many of us were prepared for the ceremony. We were all reminded of the importance of such activities by a friendly toll, disguised as river guide Tyson McMullen, who jumped out of the bushes and burned his G-string on the spot as an example to all. Next thing you know, all kinds of underwear is on fire, and we had big water for everyone!”
Firestarter’s version is simpler. He recollected that another company’s guides burned their t-shirts one night on a training trip. The following spring they mentioned it on another trip and suddenly the women on our crew were burning their panties. That season there was high water long into summer and a new tradition began.
My third exposure to the Burning of the uNderwear ritual occurred this fall on the Colorado River after safe and successful runs through Lava Falls by all in our group. At camp that night, we celebrated staying upright in the legendary rapid. It was a fun evening, made even more fun by the palpable feeling of relief of being downstream of the biggest rapid on the river. Suddenly in the middle of the party someone yelled “Bob is burning his underwear!” I looked at the campfire and there was my husband, holding a stick over the fire. Dangling from the stick were his flaming VCD’s. Good friend Mary Wright distinctly recollects me saying, “I hope that’s one of his old pair.” The conflagration was quickly reduced to a few charred embers. The inferno was the cause of much merriment, more dancing, more tequila, and more singing. The words to popular songs were loudly mangled by all. Fourteen-year-old Duncan Swersey wanted to burn his underwear too but his mother wouldn’t let him. He also was not allowed near the tequila.
When the snow piled up that winter i asked Bob the symbolism behind his “B.O.T.U.” moment. Was it to commemorate the upright runs through Lava Falls by all in our group or was it to bring on the winter snow? Bob replied, “it just seemed like a good thing to do.”
Kelley is a Colorado native who learned to boat on the mighty Deschutes River in Central Oregon. She backpacked and rafted throughout the West for many years until she and a Texas hippie fell in love with each other while rafting on the Kern River. They now call Kernville home along with their new son, Finley Kern.