Job Spotlight: Lucas Brown, raft guide and operations manager at Whitewater Express in Columbus-Phenix City

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 19, 2013 

  • Name: Lucas Brown

    Age: 25

    Hometown: Cave Spring, Ga., near Rome

    Residence: Moving from McDonough, Ga., to Columbus this week

    Education: 2006 graduate of Cedartown High School, Cedartown, Ga.; received bachelor’s degree in business administration, majors in finance and economics, from University of Georgia, 2010

    Family: Single; brother, Zachary, 21, and his parents, mother, Teresa Huckaby, a middle school teacher in Cedartown, Ga., and father, Mike Brown, who lives in Vale, Colo.

    Leisure time: Visits dad in the winter to snow ski; exercises a lot; likes to do anything outside

Lucas Brown views his job as a raft guide on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus as somewhat unique, considering the watery playground hasn't officially opened yet. That occurs this Saturday.

"It's turned into something great for me. I'm building Chattahoochee rafting down here," said Brown, 25, who also happens to be operations manager with Whitewater Express in Columbus and Phenix City.

The Cave Spring, Ga., native and University of Georgia grad, who is moving to Columbus this week, has been kayaking for a dozen years, his father encouraging him to check out the sport while in middle school.

But he picked up rafting while going to college, working the Ocoee River that flows from southeast Tennessee to Georgia and the Nantahala River in western North Carolina.

Later this week, he and a crew of about 20 other guides will launch what has been dubbed the longest urban whitewater course in the world at 2.5 miles, one that culminates with a high-flow Class 4 rapid nicknamed "Cutbait."

The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Brown recently about his job, his rafting experiences and what folks jumping into a rubber raft in Columbus this summer and fall might expect. This interview is edited for length and clarity.

What do you like about your job?

I like rafting because you're able to put people on the water who otherwise wouldn't be able to experience big whitewater like we have out there. You're able to take them and put them in that scenario where it's an adrenaline rush and a blast, and it's really safe, too.

Some customers are experienced and some are not?

We take all varieties. We take somebody who's never once been in whitewater and then we take Class 5 kayakers, and everybody loves it. We assume they don't know anything about rafting and do a safety briefing before we get started and go over a lot of important stuff.

So what is a typical day going to be like for you and the other guides?

We're going to do five trips a day. We'll do three what we call the 'classic' trips, which are 800 cubic feet per second, the lower water flow. We'll run every two hours. We'll begin at 9:30, then 11:30 and 1:30.

Then the high-water trips are 3:30 and 5:30; they're two hours long. The high-water trips we'll run on the Georgia side at the wave shaper. There's a little spot where you can surf in the raft just like surfing on a surfboard and ride on the wave.

Then we'll get out on the middle island and scout Cutbait. Part of that is the guide thinking about what his customers can handle, because it is a big Class 4 rapid. It's a massive rapid and if the guide feels comfortable and the customers want to go through Cutbait on the second run, we'll run it with them. If not, we'll run the wave shaper again. The wave shaper is a blast.

So you give folks an option?

Yeah, because Cutbait's intimidating. If you're just sitting on the bank and look at it, it looks scary. It really does. But it's an incredibly safe Class 4 rapid. If you do the right things, there's nothing to be scared of.

Your adrenaline must begin to surge at times?

My adrenaline gets flowing when I'm in a real rescue situation, like if somebody's actually in a bad spot on the river. That's when I kind of get a rush. Although rafting Cutbait -- I've done it 40 times -- I still get a rush, a tingle.

What's a common scenario for rafters getting in trouble?

It depends on where you are on the river. But with Cutbait, the most common scenario is you get to the bottom of the hole and your raft flips over. At the bottom of the hole it's a swift current, but it's like swimming into a lake. So you are under water for a few seconds. If you're not used to that, it's a weird feeling. It can be scary. But it actually is a really safe thing.

Oh, yeah, our mayor (Teresa Tomlinson) got tossed out at Cutbait, didn't she?

My boss at the Ocoee is the one that flipped her out. He's one of the best river guides in the Southeast and he flipped her out ... That was not intentional. In big water like this, you can do something right 90 percent of the time. But the way this water is, there's no 100 percent.

You'll be going on the high-water trips. Just managing the operation isn't enough?

You can't work in this industry and be off the water. We have people that started out as a river guide and then got into management with Whitewater Express, and just totally removed themselves from the river, sending trips out and doing reservations, that type of stuff. But I'm not that guy. I love my job and I'm nevergoing to be off the water.

Had you been to Columbus before this?

I had not. But I've been very impressed by the town and everybody that's here. They're a bunch of good people and everybody's really excited and supportive of us.

What's the toughest aspect of your job?

It's learning to be comfortable in a situation that the majority of people would not be comfortable in, such as flipping a raft in a Class 4 rapid. Things go wrong no matter how good of a guide you are, and it's learning to control that situation.

Is that cool attitude easy to master?

It just takes a certain personality type, I would say. You can't be afraid. You're in charge of six lives in your raft at all times, and you do everything you can to make sure those people are OK. That applies to a lot of extreme sports. It's all about just staying calm and doing what you know you can do.

Have you had experience on really big whitewater rivers, such as the Gauley in West Virginia?

I've never done the Gauley. I've done Clear Creek out in Colorado, which has got some big Class 4 stuff. But I trained on the Ocoee. That's where I learned to guide, and Nantahala, which is like Class 2, small and cold. But the Ocoee is a great river. It's a perfect river to learn to river guide because it's a solid Class 3 river, which is big, big rapids. But it's not all that dangerous.

Is there any comparison at all to the Chattahoochee course?

It's just different. The Ocoee has no rapids like we have right out here, zero. The upper Ocoee that had the Olympics in 1996, isn't a fifth of that (points toward Cutbait). It's pretty surprising.

But the upper part of this course is more tame?

It is. But that's great because it allows you to learn the people, learn what they can and can't do, how well they're going to listen to you, how well they're going to paddle and listen to your commands.

How fast does the water get?

It kind of varies. It's always at 800 cubic feet per second for the classic trips in the morning. And then the high water will either be at 9,000 or 13,000, depending on how many turbines they turn on.

Have you ever been in a dangerous situation as a guide?

I've had some stuff happen on the Ocoee, that I was like: 'Oh, I'm in a tight spot here.' But I've actually never had a customer get a serious injury. I say that knowing I don't want to ever have it happen. I've seen some bad stuff happen, though. But they weren't my people, they weren't my company, and it was out of my control.

I've heard the No. 1 warning is don't try to stand up if you fall out of the raft?

Right. Foot entrapment is the most dangerous thing in any whitewater, whether you're walking across the river or you're kayaking Class 5 somewhere and your foot happens to get caught. If that does happen, you've got to get their ankle out of the crack. You've got to do it quick.

Foot entrapment is when you try to stand up and your foot gets stuck and you have all of this water coming at you and it pushes you down and you can't get up. You've got tons and tons of water pressure pushing you down. So you have to get to them and get their foot out.

Do you train for that?

We don't do foot entrapment removal training per se. But we do a lot of swimming and getting comfortable in the water, and learning how to react to a situation. A lot of the kayak instructors learn about foot entrapment removal. I go over how you would do it. All it is taking somebody's ankle and pulling it out of a crack. But I've never seen a foot entrapment happen.

So rafting is a safe sport or activity overall, because you don't hear of many fatalities?

Like big kayaking and rafting, fatalities are really rare. In some extreme sports, like snowboarding, you have some deaths every year. In kayaking, people die, but it's pretty rare when you stay within your limitations.

Finally, where did your fellow guides come from?

A lot of people just showed interest. We got a lot of Auburn students, Columbus State students, a couple of Alabama people coming down from Tuscaloosa. A lot of them are just from the area.

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