by Matt Cresto
photography by Jen Newman

His days of leading alumni rafting trips have ended for living La Verne legend Roland "Ort" Ortmayer, but the tradition stays afloat through Rugere Departe, Ort's long-time lead guide. / photo by Jen Newman

His days of leading alumni rafting trips have ended for living La Verne legend Roland “Ort” Ortmayer, but the tradition stays afloat through Rugere Departe, Ort’s long-time lead guide. / photo by Jen Newman

Time has brought more than just two friends together. Their association has created a bond that resulted in a cherished tradition, enjoyed by University of La Verne alumni. Rugere Departe, ’74 ULV alumnus, has taken the reigns of the La Verne alumni rafting trip from his professor and friend Roland “Ort” Ortmayer.

Ort, the man known nationally for his unique football coaching style, launched a summer class in the ’70s that evolved in the ’80s into a looked-forward-to summer experience for up to 150 alumni. The experience continues to this day. Traditionally, the white-water trip centers in western Montana and eastern Idaho. Camping, challenging the white water and reuniting with old friends highlight the trip, which is free and open to all.

“It is a chance to do something unusual,” says Departe, referring to those who spend two weeks with him. “I teach new skills on the trip to those who want to learn more.”

Ort, who led college backpacking and river wilderness trips since the early ’50s, upon the death of his wife Corni in ’94, passed the leadership authority to a man he trusted and who he knew would maintain the trip’s philosophy. And to date, Rugere Departe has kept the tradition alive and well.

Departe was a student on the first white-water trip Ort led in the late ’70s, a trip open to the entire student body of the College. Since those heady days of building rafts from plywood and inner tubes and floating the spring runoff of the Salt, Verde and Colorado Rivers, Departe has been loyal to Ort, while excelling in kayaking and rafting skills. When Ort inaugurated “When Lewis and Clark Met the Mountains,”a 400-level history/physical science class, Departe volunteered as lead guide, hauling up to 15 kayaks in a trailer behind his then new Toyota pickup. Since, he has not missed one summer.

In 1980, Ort, who always believed in inclusiveness, answered the call of ULV alumni when he opened the outdoor experience to all who found a way to Montana for two weeks. Montana, for Ortmayer, was the natural place to hold this white-water experience. It was home for him; he grew up there; he was the first person to float some of its rivers; his two daughters lived there; and he owned a small cabin near Bozeman.

At times, Departe was joined by ULV alumnus (’77) Tim Morrison. Both excelled in their guide skills. Morrison entered the competitive racing circuit and was nationally ranked in the world of kayaking. Departe, highly skilled himself, elected to dedicate his skills to serving as Ortmayer’s lead guide and helping him stay afloat, so to speak, since Ort openly said that he did not know how to swim.

Departe and Ortmayer spent hours together on the rapids, leading huge flotillas of up to 150 people-in every imaginable white water river vessel-down rivers in mass. Departe was always the leader, and Ort would bring up the rear. “One of his strong points is good decision making,” says Ort. “He is the expert, and I have the confidence in him to pick a safe route.”

They have become close friends, and, in a sense, Departe has become an “adopted son” to Ort. They each enjoy what the other has to offer. Another plus: Departe is a “MacGyver” of sorts. “He is always fixing something,” says Ort-mayer. “If it needs fixing, chances are he would find what it needs.”

Departe has plenty of experience with machines. For 20 years, he has taught mathematics and computer classes at Boys Republic in Chino. It is an experience he cherishes as much as the trips up north. “It is a great feeling to see the change in the students,” he says.

He has also seen a change in the people who journey to Montana. Stacy Bowles, Ort’s granddaughter, was not even a year old when she braved the waters for the first time. Now, she attends ULV and participates in the rafting adventures.”It is all about people having fun,” says Bowles. “I love to hear all the stories around the camp fire.”

Those stories were left to Ortmayer. Rugere was the leader by example and not so much in voice, recalls Ort. His keen river skills have come in handy countless times. One story: On a group trip to Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, Departe spotted a rough area, full of cross-cutting rapids. Ort was not one to back down from a challenge, but the rough rapids capsized his kayak. “He had a suspicion I was going to be in trouble,” says Ort, of Departe who has a keen sense of predicting danger. “Ort’s kayaking skills were never any good, but he could go anywhere,” says Departe. “I could just tell he was going to tip, and he just blew it.” “The first thing I heard as I came up was, ‘Can I help you Ort?’ and I just said ‘Yes,'” says Ort.

Rugere has set his mark on the people of the trip. They know that he is the man in charge. “It is about teamwork and responsible people on the trip,” says Jean Bjerke, ULV vice president of University Relations, whose husband Randy has been on the alumni trips since they first started. “Nobody goes on the water until Rugere says so.”

Many of the participants on the trip could vacation any where in the world they want. But they keep coming back to the trip for tradition. Marty and Chuck Myers have been on the trip for the last 13 years and still enjoy every bit of it like it was the first time. “The challenge of the rivers brings us back,” says Marty. “Rugere keeps it together, and the people add to the scene and river fun.”

People come in from all over the globe to attend the annual trip. Transportation and camping necessities may be their only expenses. The rides on the water are free.

Ray Keelan heard about the trip from his wife Lynda. Ray is from Ireland and appreciates the scenery as well as the fun. “I am sorry I didn’t hear about it sooner,” says Ray. “It is a great group of people who know what has to be done, and it is great for the kids.” He, along with other participants, has great respect for what Departe has brought to the trip. “He reads the water like a map,” says Ray. “Everyone wants to follow Rugere. He will not point you wrong.”