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Chicago Tribune 2002

Classical rafting
An adventure in music, with a river on the side
Story and photos by Alan Solomon
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 25, 2002

GREEN RIVER, Utah – Imagine, if you can and if you will, the audience at a symphony concert. Picture their age, what they’re wearing, how they’re groomed.

Now, imagine them sweaty. Imagine them with squirt guns. Imagine them on the sandy bank of a river between canyon walls in the early evening, listening to great music played by musicians wearing T-shirts, shorts and sandals.

This was the Classical Music White-Water Raft Trip.

The brochure sent out by Bill Dvorak’s Rafting & Kayaking Expeditions calls this offering “The Classical Music River Journey.”

Say that out loud: Flows like Debussy, doesn’t it?

But here’s what we’re really talking about: Seven nights of wilderness camping in Utah’s beautiful Desolation and Gray Canyons. Pretty fine dining. Tents and primitive, um, facilities. There’s no getting around that.

Eight days on rafts and inflatable kayaks on the Green River, with low water leaving much of it flat or lightly riffling, but some rapids approaching Class III on the hysteria charts (i.e., difficult but not life-threatening, unless you do something really stupid).

And along on the trip: four musicians—one of them a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, another a cellist who performed at Barbra Streisand’s latest wedding—playing tunes by the likes of Mozart and Bartok.

Sandstone and sunsets and Stravinsky, plus crepes suzette for dessert.
Not your usual adventure.

“It’s a strange mix—classical music and wilderness camping,” said Dvorak, a distant relative (“some sort of fifth cousin”) of the composer. “A lot of classical music aficionados are not wilderness campers. To them, a Motel 6 would be a wilderness experience—so it’s kind of hard to market.”

There were, nonetheless, 22 of us on this journey, enough to fill five oar-powered rafts. Six were staff, including Dvorak and wife Jaci, three guides/boatpeople and a young Englishwoman with the catch-all job title of “logistics”; the classical quartet—the classic two violinists, violist and cellist; and the rest of us, 12 guests in all, men and women, most in their 40s and 50s—all music lovers and, it turned out, all rafters of varying experience.

Included were a couple of ringers, pals of Dvorak with ties to the industry: Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society, a trade group and consulting firm; and lawyer Jim Pearson, the society’s chairman when he isn’t ski instructing, dive instructing and generally counseling.

Both would make valuable contributions to the journey: Mallett, rowing one of the rafts, would manage to flip one of them, which not only added excitement to the week but, given the drought-stricken river’s low water level, was almost impossible; and Pearson would bring enough first-rate single-malt Scotch to make the rest of us forget he was a lawyer.

No one contributed more to the success of all this than the musicians, and we’ll get to that.

The journey began on the Green River at Sand Wash, a onetime ferry site. Access was by small plane and bad road. Lisa Kruer, a river ranger, briefed us on what we were about to experience: canyons, cowboy history (Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and their Wild Bunch roamed here, their roamings in part abetted by cooperative, well-compensated ranchers happy to supply fresh horses), Indian graffiti and landscapes little changed from the time of John Wesley Powell’s pioneering 1869 float trip.

“The only wildlife that isn’t here that was here when Powell explored the Green,” she said, “is the grizzly bear and wolves.”

Before we’d leave the river 84 miles later, we would see great blue herons, a golden eagle, mule deer, bighorn sheep, a beaver, the usual (but not that many) bugs, two wild turkeys, ducks, bats, lizards, frogs, a couple of non-poisonous snakes, one scorpion, one toad, hoofprints of wild horses, paw prints of a black bear and tracks of a mountain lion.

There would be hikes to homesteader ranches and a moonshine still, to Indian petroglyphs and pictographs, to streams of cool, clear water ready to drink.

There would be a hailstorm the first night in camp—hail the size of Milk Duds—and a cloudburst on the last night.

There would be rafting for most of us—oars powered by Dvorak, his guides, Mallett and the occasional volunteer—and kayaking for some, in one- and two-person inflatables.

There would be heat. Temperatures in the canyons easily exceeded 100 degrees; water fights (squirt guns, then buckets) and occasional swimming stops kept things tolerable.

With the Green grudgingly navigable, what in wetter times would be successions of thrilling rapids—dozens in all—would be reduced to maybe five or six that made the heart quicken.

Which in the larger picture didn’t seem to matter much.

Here’s why—and this part of the story began around 20 years ago, when a hike into a canyon led to a man playing a harmonica in what was a natural amphitheater.

“The acoustics were just phenomenal in there,” Dvorak recalled. “One of the guys on the trip was a violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he said, ‘This would be a great place to play music.’ ”

Our first campsite on this trip was at a cottonwood-cooled bank called Rock House Bottom. The hailstorm had been just a late-afternoon blip; the morning was brilliant. After breakfast, the non-players hiked into the very canyon where Dvorak had found the harmonica player—and that’s where we found our string quartet, which had set out early to set up.

Barry Socher, violin. Los Angeles Philharmonic, founding member Armadillo String Quartet, concertmaster for three regional orchestras. “I play for a living,” he said one day, grinning. “I play, and once in a while someone sends me a check.”

John Morrice, violin. Assistant concertmaster of the Fresno Philharmonic, teacher and bandmaster of six bands and orchestras from junior high through junior college. Once played violin with The Who. That’s right. “I’m not just stringing you along… ”

Shawn Mann, viola. Los Angeles Opera, freelance. At 32, youngest of the group, the only musician doing this for the first time and the only one who brought his primary instrument. Knows all the viola jokes (“What’s the difference between a viola and a violin? None. Violinists’ heads are bigger.”), plus some great trombonist jokes.

Harry Gilbert, cello. Freelance, composer, plays a little mandolin. The one who played cello at the Streisand party, Marvin Hamlisch conducting, “but I never saw the bride.” A very good story you won’t read here.

None are paid for this, except for the free ride.

“There’s no other way I can tie all the elements of my life together so well,” explained Gilbert, who has done this for seven straight years—twice this year. “The combination of nature and the music is unbeatable.”

There they sat, on metal folding chairs, in that natural amphitheater, surrounded by absolute magnificence—and there, for us, they played “Summer,” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” And somewhere in the Vivaldi, seamlessly, came just a little bit of Gershwin. It was “Summertime”—Socher had slipped it into his arrangement—and on this warm summer morning in the desert, it brought chills…

Every day, sometimes in the morning after breakfast, in a grove or on a beach, sometimes in the evening before dinner, sometimes both, there would be a concert. Maybe an hour, give or take. Mendelssohn, Haydn. Mancini. One hot evening: “Sleigh Ride.” And also, there was Jim Ito.

He was not part of the string quartet—he’d paid out of his pocket to be here—but he was no less a part of the magic. A Los Angeles florist and landscape architect, this was his fourth time on this journey.

At the first campground, when the storm had passed and the air had turned still, he had taken his two recorders—those flute things—and found his own canyon wall and, alone, he played. Some melodies I didn’t recognize. One I did: “Stardust.”

On the raft, he would play as we slid between resonant canyon walls—sometimes two recorders at once, the soprano and tenor recorders making their own harmony. He brings them everywhere.

“I’ve gone all around the world looking for churches and walls and cliffs that work,” he said. “A lot of the Renaissance churches in Italy, they’re designed to envelop you in the sound. In some

of them, you can play to the echo.”

One afternoon, on a raft, with Harry Gilbert pounding out the percussion on the rubber, Ito—on a recorder—played all of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
One evening, playing a guitar (he also brought a guitar) and joined by Gilbert on mandolin, Jim Ito sang “Cielito Lindo,” in Spanish. Some of us joined in the chorus. That was on Mexican Night. Margaritas, quesadillas, chicken fajitas, sopapillas and more margaritas. There would also be New Orleans night (blackened swordfish, bananas Foster), French night (boeuf bourguignon and those crepes) and other good nights.

“You know the most dangerous thing about white-water boating?” posed Mallett. “The real dangers are gaining weight from the food—the food is outstanding—and skin cancer. All boatmen get skin cancer. I’ve got big chucks out of my back, more on my face… ”

About half the journey floated through Desolation Canyon, whose walls become great rock cathedrals and castles, the colors easing gradually from a mustard brown to stripes of all shades to Monument Valley red.

Then it changed. Past McPherson Ranch—Butch Cassidy and Jim McPherson were pals—the red rock faded, and Gray Canyon matched its name.

Some of the Gray Canyon rapids, even with the water low, offered a bit of challenge. It was at Three Fords Rapid that Mallett, an experienced boatman, nonetheless flipped his raft. (“We were futzing around and I wasn’t paying attention,” he said. Except for a few bumps, no one was hurt.) Ten miles farther, at Coal Creek Rapid, a rock caught Mallett’s raft and held on until he got help.

At the camps, we would talk about canyons and rivers and rapids. The Dolores, the middle fork of the Salmon, the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, the Rogue. The Colorado.
“The Grand Canyon—I mean, all these are magic places, but that one is especially so,” said Socher. “Every side canyon is another paradise.”

“It’s not overrated,” added Mallett. “It’s just overwhelming.”

And over post-dinner refreshments we would spot satellites gliding among the stars—the international space station did or didn’t buzz our camps multiple times—and there would be the stars themselves. There is nothing like the starry sky of a desert wilderness, unless it’s the glow of canyon walls on a moonlit night.

But with all that, it was the music and the musicians that made this different. Talk of conductors, good and bad and terrible. Of hauling instruments in a trunk down rapids. (“I know one time I had $300,000 in there,” said Bill Dvorak.) Of the economics of being a classical musician, of weddings and bar mitzvahs and of favorite music-stand partners and of orchestral politics.

Questions—questions like, What does a concertmaster actually do? (Partial answer: Plots the bowings, so the strings’ bows go in the same direction at the same time.)

More viola jokes: “What’s the difference between a violin and a viola?” “The viola burns longer.”

A French-horn joke that won’t make the paper.

Barry Socher, esteemed Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist, doing Elmer Fudd singing Wagner: “Ki-ill the wabbit… Ki-ill the wabbit… ” And the music. The music.

“I love Haydn,” said John Morrice, “but Dvorak, ‘American String Quartet.’ The second movement, it’s just like a river trip. “It starts with a beautiful, flowing melody, and you have all sorts of little variations with it. Gorgeous. We’ll probably play it.” They did. The music was glorious. Then we went back on the river.
They had become the same.


“Classical Music Journeys” from Bill Dvorak Rafting and Kayaking Expeditions take place in June (Dolores River, Colorado/Utah, four- and seven-day trips) and late July-early August (Green River, Utah, eight days). Dolores prices range from $997 per person for the short trip to $1,775 ($1,600 for kids through age 12) for the longer one; the Green River journey is priced at $1,745. Prices are for 2004 prices and schedules are subject to change.

The Dolores’ waters are typically clear and cold, the run cuts through some forested stretches, and the rapids can exceed Class IV (“very difficult”) when the flow is right; the Green River, warmer and carrying more sediment (but fine for swimming), runs through remote, eye-popping desert canyons most of the way, with rapids up to Class III (“difficult”). Both offer side-hikes to Indian petroglyphs and pioneer structures, and both rivers’ conditions are subject to nature’s whims.

Rafts or inflatable single and double kayaks (your choice; or you can switch from one conveyance to another), all meals and most beverages (including wine) on the river, music, guides and some local transportation. Most special dietary needs can be accommodated.

Your tent, sleeping bag and associated personal camping gear (some of which can be rented at nominal cost); air fare and, on the Green, transfers to the put-in sight; car shuttle to takeout points, if needed; most alcoholic beverages beyond wine; tips (optional); and lodging and meals at arrival and departure points when not on the river.

Dvorak offer non-musical raft trips on the Green and Dolores Rivers at substantially lower prices. Sample: A six-day Dvorak trip down the Green (same route but two days shorter than the musical version, with somewhat less-elegant dining) was priced at $872, $788 for kids 12 & Under

For information on Bill Dvorak’s Rafting & Kayaking Expeditions, call the company at 800-824-3795 or check on the Web.