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Shooting the Siberian Rapids to Promote Peace : Activism: A former philosophy student uses white-water rafting trips to build a sense of teamwork between Soviet and U.S. adventurers.

November 10, 1989|ANGUS PHILLIPS | THE WASHINGTON POST

When Jib Ellison finished his philosophy thesis at Reed College in Portland, Ore., last year, he had the sort of grand idea about changing the world common to fresh-faced college grads.

But he went right out and did something about it, and it worked. These days his life moves at a dizzying pace as he flies from New York to Moscow to Siberia to Colorado to Zambia, and his plan to improve humanity's lot is advancing faster than even he might have hoped.

As founder and principal officer of the nonprofit, California-based Project RAFT (Russians and Americans for Teamwork), Ellison and a staff of six have run international rafting adventures for Soviet-American crews of paddlers on big white water.

Most of the trips are on rampaging mountain streams in Siberia that had never been run by foreigners before Ellison helped pioneer them three years ago.

A raft guide for 12 years, he holds the idea of using white water trips to teach strangers from the two superpowers to "work together, communicate under stress, become teammates for survival and then go home and talk about it," in hopes that the lessons they learn will "keep us from blowing each other up 10 or 15 years down the road."

Already Ellison and his Project RAFT colleagues have been featured in an hour special on ABC-TV, and though they're still close to penniless ("We're in no danger of losing our nonprofit status," he said), they're having a good time in the name of international peace and understanding, and getting bigger all the time.

"What we're doing is not an abstraction," Ellison said recently after leading a playful band of 25 U.S. and Soviet students on a 5-mile run down the Potomac River. "We're not some foundation that sits around and writes a paper about teamwork. This is teamwork."

"And we'll need it," said his youth-exchange coordinator, Russian-speaking Harvard graduate Jayne Williams, "when we take this bunch down the Grand Canyon. . . ."

The story of Project RAFT is a tale of almost unbelievably lucky timing. Ellison hatched the idea a couple of years ago, just as Soviet leaders decided to open their country to sporting, cultural and business exchanges.

Even so, when he described his rafting proposal to international adventure-travel agencies, "They said, 'We've been trying that for 15 years. No way.'

"But my vision was different," said Ellison. "I didn't want to go over and conquer Siberia in rafts. I just wanted to use the rivers to meet people and work together."

Nonetheless, his pleas for a river-borne "youth exchange" fell largely on deaf ears until winter, 1987-88, when Alexei Khokhlov, the head of a Soviet youth group, happened to pass through San Francisco. Ellison heard he was in town and "crashed a reception to meet him and give him the proposal."

"After about 15 minutes," Ellison said, "he told me, 'We don't do this in Russia, but I like the light in your eyes. We will do it.' "

Skids thus greased, Ellison organized the first youth exchange last summer, taking 17 U.S. college students to run the cold, raging Katun River in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, sharing boats with a similar-sized group of Soviet students.

The charge for each U.S. participant was $3,000, which covered the two weeks there and this summer's two weeks on the Colorado. Soviet participants were sponsored in a like amount under their nation's government Peace Fund.

Ellison didn't know what to expect in the way of U.S. applicants but was inundated.

"It was harder for me to get into the program than it was to get into college," said Tasha Ciancutti of San Francisco.

The Soviets, likewise, had no shortage. "You have to understand that in Siberia, just meeting a foreigner is still a big deal," Ellison said.

The voyage down the thundering rapids went off without a hitch, and this year Project RAFT expanded to eight ventures, including several "citizen diplomacy" trips for U.S. adventurers of all ages, who will pay considerably more--$3,950 apiece--to spend two weeks on the Katun or other big rivers in Siberia.

"We lose money on the youth-exchange programs," said Ellison, "but the citizen diplomacy trips help make it up."

In Ellison's view, that's fair because the youth-exchange programs are the heart of his mission. "That's where you have the most potential for honest-to-God value," he said.

"It's not just excitement. It's overcoming obstacles, working together to do a trip. The result is camaraderie and friendship, and who needs that more than the United States and the Soviet Union?"

Plenty of both was in evidence on the Potomac, as veterans of the first youth-exchange on the Katun reconvened in Washington for the U.S. half of their venture.

Delighted American squeals greeted Soviet arrivals as they trudged in from the homes of host families to renew acquaintances. One Soviet visitor, spying Great Falls for the first time, pronounced it "beautiful."

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