HARPERS FERRY – First daughters Malia and Sasha Obama traded the White House for some whitewater on a recent Saturday.
As President Barack Obama headed to Charlotte, N.C., to test the political waters as the Democratic National Convention gave his re-election bid its official kickoff, his daughters spent the day in Harpers Ferry.
River Riders guides Charlie Evans and Matt Hardester arrived at work Sept. 1 ready to ferry a high-profile client, but unaware just who would be making the trip down the Potomac and Shenandoah – until they walked into River Riders’ headquarters at 408 Alstadts Hill Road and caught sight of the Obama daughters.
“We already knew we’d be leading someone important that day,” explained Evans, a 22-year-old Bunker Hill resident. “Three Secret Service agents had come in on Thursday to get information and to find out whether we’d be willing to submit to background checks.”
Evans and Hardester – who already had undergone background checks as raft guides – got the all-clear from the Secret Service and headed off to spend the day giving 14-year-old Malia and Sasha, 11, and several of their friends the same fun rafting trip that draws thousands of locals and out-of-towners to River Riders each year.
The Harpers Ferry trip came on the last weekend of summer break for the Obama girls, who attend Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington. The private pre K-12 Quaker school – where Chelsea Clinton, Amy Carter and the offspring of Presidents Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt studied when their fathers were in the White House – began the 2012-13 school year on Sept. 4.
“They just wanted to have fun – as normal an experience as possible,” explained Hardester, 23, a native of Deep Creek Lake, Md., who has worked at River Riders for five years.
But the trip was out-of-the-ordinary for Hardester and Evans. With Sasha and three friends in Hardester’s boat and Malia and four friends in Evans’, the rafts’ other passengers were Secret Service agents – with two other rafts, each carrying Secret Service agents, following behind.
Though the agents changed from dark suits into casual wear at River Riders, they made the trip armed and wearing their trademark shades and sober expressions.
“All our rafting trips involve joking around – as guides, we tell jokes to get everyone to feel comfortable,” Hardester said. “We told all the cheesy jokes we always tell and we got a reaction from the Obama girls and their friends, but it was hard to get the Secret Service dudes to laugh.
“They brought their own crickets.”
The raft guides describe Malia and Sasha as polite but initially reserved during the three-hour tour. “They definitely had fun,” Hardester said. “You could tell they felt more and more comfortable as the trip went on. They splashed each other and they’d scream when we’d hit rocks. When we had a juice break, everyone got in and swam and floated around in the current.”
While a burst of whitewater did pop a Secret Service agent out of his raft at one point during the voyage, things went swimmingly for the Obamas and their friends. “They didn’t have any problem,” Evans said.
Did the Obama girls have such good time that they’ll come back to River Riders? Hardester said he suggested the first daughters check out River Riders’ newest features, the zipline course that opened last year and the Aerial Adventure Park that debuted in May.
“Being so close to D.C., we get people here from the British Embassy, from India, Switzerland, Russia,” Hardester said. “Political people from D.C. are a large part of our clientele, but getting to take the presidents’ daughters rafting – it’s still surreal to think about it.”
Seeing the security required simply to spend an afternoon out with friends gave both guides a new perspective on how different the Obama daughters’ lives are from a typical young person’s.
Said Hardester: “It just feels really good to know we helped them have this fun experience.”