ULV floaters raft northern rivers
Posted Sept. 18, 2008
Jennifer Kitzmann
LV Life Editor

More than 65 University of La Verne alumni and friends launched a flotilla of rafts and inflatables on four swift rivers in Montana and Idaho this summer, continuing an event started by Roland “Ort” Ortmayer, professor emeritus of physical education, 29 years ago.

Jean Bjerke, vice president of University Relations, and a steadfast trip participant, along with husband Randy, said the turbulent water was fun and exciting.

“Sometimes the rapids have great names like ‘Bone Crusher’ on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, or ‘Cold Storage’ on the Lochsa River,” Bjerke said. “A few people bounced out of their boats in the Bone Crusher.”

Traveling in individual family groups but sharing equipment, the ULV group spent two weeks on the northern rivers.

The ULV Floaters first rafted for two days on the Blackfoot River, east of Missoula, Mont. They then traveled to the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River near Glacier National Park, where they floated for four days. Next, the ULV group drove to the Lochsa River in Idaho for three days of floating. The trip ended on the North Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho after four days of rafting.

Ortmayer started the experience for the alumni. He coached football, basketball, baseball, track and field and featured novelty sports such as climbing, throwing and archery in his activity classes at ULV for 43 years. Ortmayer Stadium is named in his honor.

But it was water sports that were his passion. Ortmayer was born in Montana in 1917, a state with perfect rivers for fishing and water sports. His early water recreation career started as a fishing guide at “Eagle’s” in West Yellowstone, Mont. Ort quickly found he could do more on Montana’s rivers than fish. He is credited with being the first person to recreationally raft several of Montana’s famous rivers, including the Yellow­stone, Gallatin and Madison. Ort brought his river enthusiasm to La Verne shortly after he joined the teaching staff. He was known for his Easter week hiking trips, which evolved to floating trips. At first, students constructed their own rafts for these trips on rivers in Arizona, including the Salt. The gear became more sophisticated, and soon Ort added a kayaking class to his activity class portfolio. He then began teaching a month-long summer course, titled, “When Lewis and Clark Met the Mountains.”

Ort invited students to explore the historic path of Lewis and Clark through Montana and Idaho. They kayaked the rivers that Lewis and Clark explored and stopped at every historic road sign. It followed that ULV’s alumni asked Ort for a parallel experience. Thus was born the annual Float trip to Montana and Idaho, which follows Ort’s most loved river pathways.

When Ort retired, Rugere DePartee, Ort’s main river guide and faithful assistant, continued the alumni trip to the present. Departee, a 1974 ULV alumnus, has recently been joined by Mike Riggs, a physical education teacher at Ramona Middle School in La Verne. Riggs, a 1985 ULV alumnus, has assumed co-leadership of the annual experience.

Along with the athletic experience from being on the rivers came Ort’s philosophy. Alumni Floaters stand for much more than participating in a sport, but also teach each other and help everyone, experienced or not, to come together to overcome life’s most difficult tasks, such as learning to raft in formidable rapids in the Rocky Mountains.

“I just want those who are involved to know what Ort’s philosophy was behind the alumni,” Riggs said. “Ort’s belief is for those who can to help those who can't, so that those who can't become those who can.”

In recognizing Ort’s inspiration for his coaching techniques, the sport not only challenges the body, but also challenges the mind in order to overcome other difficult tasks in life.

DePartee, a teacher at Boys' Republic in the Chino Unified School District, assumed trip leadership from Ort in 1996.

“Rugere has been rafting with Ort ever since the alumni started,” Riggs said

DePartee was the 2007 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award for Service of Alma Mater for his leadership of the alumni float trips.

Each year, the schedule of directions and details is distributed to a large mailing list. The trip itinerary is also posted on the ULV Web site in the University Advancement site. But DePartee and Riggs, in keeping with Ort’s philosophy, do not require reservations. “We were not sure how many people would show this year,” Riggs said.

First-timers and seasoned veterans alike find the alumni trip a good way to learn how to captain watercraft.

“There were 65 people or so on the trip this year, from age 3 to probably around 80 or at least their late ‘70s,” Bjerke said. At one point in the trip, more than 25 children took part.

There are many things to do in preparing for a floaters trip, especially when traveling out of state.

“Getting all the rafts to the put-in, shuttling vehicles, trailers to pick up the people, gear and rafts at the take-out is quite a production,” Bjerke said.

Each person or family is responsible for his or her own camping equipment, food and kayaks. Individuals must bring their own life jackets, which is a must before hitting the rapids.

Bjerke said that there is normally room in some of the bigger rafts for people who may be new to the group or who do not own their own personal equipment.

“Some people have extra inflatable kayaks they loan to some of those who may be new and want to try the sport,” Bjerke said.

Although people are on their own in the campground, the alumni create a wonderful experience in getting everyone together with activities, such as gathering around the campfire in the evening, ice cream socials and potluck dinners.

Everyone volunteers for certain jobs in the camps, and the trip is free.

“No one pays for or gets paid for anything other than their own personal costs to get there, for food or camping fees. So everyone is responsible for helping out and making it all work,” Bjerke said.

Rafting safely and effectively requires a bit of training before tackling the river rapids. Special paddle techniques and team coordination skills are required to be able to keep control of the raft in a fast-running, ever-changing river.

“Instruction in paddling techniques, safety and rescue techniques happens before we go on the rivers,” Riggs said.

For safety reasons, no one is allowed to kayak on his or her own or leave the group. A group consensus mandates that it is important to take safety seriously. Several individuals act as river guides, in addition to DePartee and Riggs.

“Respect the water, and follow what the leaders tell you to do,” Bjerke said.

Paul Alvarez, movement and sports science department chairman, who was a member of this year’s trip and several in the past, said that there have been a number of mishaps and close calls, but no one has ever been in any serious danger.

“This year, we assisted another group who went down a less safe channel and lost their raft. Fortunately, they only suffered minor injuries and Rugere ferried them to shore where local medical personnel were waiting,” Alvarez said.

Normally, the leaders, DePartee and Riggs, scout the rivers in advance and then brief the floaters on river conditions. They will usually travel in front, guiding the others into the rapid and helping anyone who may lose control or get in trouble.

Bjerke said that anything on a river can be dangerous, and that safety is very important.

While rafting the river, floaters also discover times when the water becomes more serene so they can sightsee and look at wildlife.

“Sometimes, people just play in the water or have water fights for fun or float in their life jackets,” Bjerke said.

“It is important to come with the attitude that this is a wonderful experience to have with a group that shares a connection with La Verne and the values instilled in them through being associated with La Verne,” she said.

Jennifer Kitzmann can be contacted at jennifer.kitzmann@laverne.edu.

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