Whitewater guides-in-training were on the Spokane River in the first two weeks of March, long before pleasant weather would greet rafters soaking themselves through raging rapids.
They were on a mission – or two.
“Safety is Mission No. 1,” said Loran Kerrigan, spokeswoman for Peak 7 Adventures, a Spokane-based nonprofit group. “We’re taking young people into outdoor experiences that can be life-changing. But it’s safety first.”
The second objective is treating underprivileged and at-risk youths to a thrill they’ve never had. The clientele ranges from youths of low-income families to street kids and drug and alcohol addicts completing rehabilitation.
Like the leaders Peak 7 trains for climbing, backpacking and snowshoeing excursions, the whitewater guides are led by certified instructors and drilled in skills, first aid and people management. The skills will be employed on the Spokane, Wenatchee and Grande Ronde Rivers.
“Our guides also enjoy seeing others have a good time,” said Ryan Kerrigan, Loran’s husband and the executive director and co-founder of Peak 7. “It’s a prerequisite.”
The Kerrigans both have Clemson University degrees in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, but the organization is equally built on their faith-based approach. Peak 7 refers to the great outdoors as God’s creation.
“Our staff’s made up of Christians, but we’re not Bible thumpers with the people we work with,” Loran said. “We’re not trying to convert anyone.”
“We’re non-denominational,” Ryan said. “The emphasis is offering experiences that give meaning to life.”
He grew up in Ecuador and Kenya, one of five sons born to a nurse and military surgeon who devoted much of their lives to mission medical work in impoverished settings.
“Dad got things done with what he had,” he said. “As a boy I can remember being asked to hold back the clamps during a surgery.”
At the same time, Kerrigan was nurturing an innate longing for the outdoors. “I was climbing mountains at the age of 11 and 12,” he said, noting that he advanced to become a certified instructor for raft and kayak guides, among his other outdoor accomplishments. “I love the adrenaline rush of outdoor sports. It’s a powerful tool.”
When the software company Ryan was working for in 2005 relocated from Spokane to Seattle, the Kerrigan’s decided to follow their dreams.
“I had a $35,000 a year job and that gave Ryan enough freedom to work for no salary for two years to help get Peak 7 going,” Loran said. “A lot of people jumped in to help.”
After serving 137 kids in 2006, the annual number of kids introduced to outdoor adventures has steadily grown to 3,091 in 2013 and a grand total of more than 13,000 youths, Peak 7 annual reports say.
With branch offices in Seattle and Portland, operating the programs at current levels and staffing requires about $40,000 a month, and little of it comes from the clients.
Since most of the targeted youth population can’t afford the cost, Peak 7 relies on individual donations, corporate contributions and fundraising events to subsidize the trips.
The local community has had seven years to see what the group is about and it apparently likes what it sees.
“We raised $80,000 in our first-ever fundraising banquet (on March 6),” said Loran, the group’s fundraising coordinator. “It was an incredible show of support.”
She also generates money from big events such as the Dirty Dash, Color Me Rad and the Ski to Sea race near Bellingham by organizing her large pool of helpers to volunteer their services to the events.
Peak 7 has worked with about 50 groups that work with youths at various levels, such as the Teen Challenge arm of the Spokane Men’s Center and the Tamarack Center adolescent psychiatric treatment facility.
“We’ve had snowshoeing trips in winter and we’ll be rafting well into June,” Ryan said. “The summer backpacking and climbing trips make an especially big impact, getting kids into another environment, say to Mount Baker, in a credited course. We work in a Wilderness First Responder and Rescue course.”
In fall, as many of the seasonal guides head back to colleges all over the country, Peak 7 retreats to its local pool of about two dozen guides for float trips down the Little Spokane River, weekend hiking treks to Upper Priest Lake and rock climbing at local crags.
“Then in late fall we take a break to regroup, review the season, and ask everybody what we can do to improve,” Ryan Kerrigan said.
He chose the name Peak 7 to combine the goals of high achievement and the seven days of the Creation. “I made up the word ‘Adventures,’ ” he joked. “But seriously, there are a lot of peaks and valleys in life and on a trip. Our goal on a backpacking trip is to bring the kids through their emotional valleys to a peak.
“At the end of the trips, the kids are given an evaluation form. We asked them to be honest and tell us how they felt and what could be improved.
“Nobody likes the pain of a hard hiking trip, but at the end they give glowing reports. That’s a big incentive to us, hearing that from a Crosswalk kid – homeless, from a terrible family situation. At the very least we give them a fun day and let them know we care and ‘You matter.’ ”
But before they focus the spotlight on the kids, the emphasis has been on polishing the safety skills of a few new Peak 7 guides.
Last weekend, after two weeks of training, the student guides were allowed to invite friends and family to be guinea pigs for their first attempt at piloting “clients” down the river.
They checked everyone for well-fitted lifejackets under the watchful eye of the guide instructors.
Trainee Sara Morrill gave the group of two-dozen rafters the pre-float safety lecture and demonstrated some skills.
“If someone falls out of the raft in a rapid, you may have to pull them back in,” she said.
By coaching a volunteer swimmer to kick his feet up to the surface, she leaned over the raft and grabbed his lifejacket shoulder straps. In one smooth movement, she pulled, straightened her back and leaned back with all her body weight to slide the much heavier man up into the raft like a seal skimming onto an ice floe.
“Do you feel safe going with her?” said one of her friends to another in the crowd of pretend clients.