-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
nyone who has ever floated down a river can appreciate the serene joy, majestic beauty, and white-knuckled excitement that grabbed hold of David Ricke '91. A few years ago, the 28-year-old left his position as a salesman for the family business to pursue his dream of being a river raft guide. He's already logged more than a hundred trips professionally, traveling over 1,200 miles and putting in over 400 hours, not to mention the countless trips he's made for fun. Dave has floated down such scenic views as the Arkansas River in Colorado; the Gallatin and Missouri Rivers in Montana; Snake River Canyon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and the Nenna River Gorge in Arkansas.
Those currents seem a long way from Sugar Creek, where Dave used to raft on not-so-warm spring and autumn days while at Wabash.
Through his outdoor experiences, Dave has found two forms of happiness: by communing with nature (often in the forms of rafting, hiking, telemark skiing, canoeing, or just being outdoors) and through meditation.
"If I'm getting enough of those two things, nothing else matters," he confesses while sipping coffee in the Snorting Elk pub.
The bar is connected to the privately owned Alpine Inn on Washington State's Crystal Mountain. Dave's been working as a cook in the Inn's kitchen for the winter. The ski season is winding down, and he's preparing to head up north to Alaska for the summer. There, he and his girlfriend, Kirsten Amann, will spend the summer as raftguides at the bald eagle preserve along the Chilkat River in Denali National Park. They will guide day trips of three-and-a-half to four hours through the preserve that hosts about 400 resident eagles.
"In January," Dave relates, "about 1,500 to 4,000 eagles come to feast on the unfrozen river with an early winter salmon spawning season."
"I love rafting," Dave confesses without coaxing. "It's more of a journey than a destination."
Indeed, that journey has taken Ricke far from when he first set foot on Wabash's campus ten years ago. "Tricky," as he's still known from his days at Wabash, barely resembles the football jock from Muncie North. His clothes hang from his skinny frame (he actually weighs less than he did as a rhyne). A face full of whiskers now shadows his steady smile. His long hair and ponytail are darker than the bushy blond high school mop that used to jut out from his freshman pot.
But if his outward appearance has changed, so has his outlook on life. Wabash instilled him with a thirst for knowledge, especially from Professor Steve Webb's Existentialism class.
"Hell can be other people," he observes, paraphrasing from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit,"and that's what I like about nature. I can get away from people."
But don't draw the conclusion that Dave is antisocial.
"I'm no hermit," he explains, "but I don't mind being by myself. I can thrive in nature, but I haven't cut myself off from society... I enjoy the creature comforts, but I don't feel tied to them."
When in Alaska, Dave and Kirsten will give up the creature comforts of a dorm room in the Alpine Inn for a tent pitched along the riverbank. They'll return to cooking their meals over a camp stove as they did in Arizona last summer.
With the absence of television, Dave is prone to voluminous reading of naturalist authors like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir and books such as The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Melman. Though raised as a Catholic, Dave has turned more toward the teachings of Taoism to apply to his life.
Over a refill of his coffee, Dave tells the story of being on Class V rapids (VI being the most intense) along the Gauley River in West Virginia. When caught in the recirculating waters of what raft guides call a "hydraulic," he managed to escape the Charybdis-like undertow by "being a willow instead of an oak."
"I know I'm working with the Tao when I'm working on the river," he states. "I never fight the river."