Eight things to know about being a first year river guide

What’s the difference between a mutual fund and raft guide?
A mutual fund will eventually mature and make money.

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Around the early 1970s the sport of whitewater rafting really started to take off as a leisure activity, sending flocks of thrill seekers to states like Idaho, California and Colorado to ride down some of the world’s most iconic rivers. While it’s becoming more popular each year, many people I’ve talked to still have no idea what it’s about, much less have considered it as a job.

I became a river guide just five months ago, and I’m going to break the notion right now that we’re just some goofy individuals who spend all day playing in the river (well actually, I guess we are). But you might be surprised to know we’re also teachers, engineers, business people and writers who just don’t particularly want to sit behind a desk our whole lives. While I’ve had a handful of valuable gigs since college that have taken me all over the country,  I can honestly say I’ve never made so many connections, worked with so many disparate people, had my patience tested so much, questioned my sanity so often or been so freaking cold as I have as a river guide.

So in case you’re thinking about becoming a guide yourself, here are just a few things from a first year guide’s point of view you should probably know:


1.) Simple commands can be rocket science

Forward. Backward. Stop. When we give you a paddle and go over our commands, these three are pretty much it. Much to your surprise, I’m not just blowing air and your paddle isn’t just for show. I understand it can be confusing when “forward” means putting your paddle FORWARD in the water and pulling it alongside the boat to get us moving FORWARD, but don’t worry, we sit in the boat on land and demonstrate what each looks like. We even have you sit in the boat to practice, in case you’re still unsure. Any questions?
No, “stop” does not mean bring the boat to a standstill in the middle of the rapids, it means stop paddling. Any more questions? Cool, so you’ve all got it and there’s nothing to worry about.

So why are you two paddling backward when everyone else is paddling forward? Guess we’re going through this rapid sideways—hope you know how to swim.

That’s funny, I could have sworn I repeatedly yelled the command “stop,” so why didn’t you? Weren’t you the guy who asked me the question about stopping? Brace yourselves, we’re smashing into this bank.

I’m glad you finally got the concept of the stop command, except now I haven’t called it and you’re resting your paddle in your lap. See that giant rock?
I guess you can’t since we’re STUCK ON IT.

Make no mistake, if this is you, your guide will remember you.

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2.) Every trip will be your favorite trip

If you couldn’t read the sarcasm in that line, it’s there.
It’s like going to grandma’s house—all smiles but deep down knowing there’s a possibility she’s serving liver and onions for dinner again. Those are the days you spend the whole trip searching for a way to make anyone crack a smile, little Johnny keeps throwing his paddle and won’t shut up and you secretly try to flip the boat just to make it more exciting for yourself. Those are also the days when you’ve got a stack of personal problems, but while you want to throw a tantrum and give up paddling yourself, your boat will never know it. A good guide masters the happy face through rain, wind, your never-ending story and your absolute failure at paddling because, as long as the worst trips think they are the best, the guides have done their job.

And while you dread liver and onion days, remember you’re still going to grandma’s house, and grandma’s house never goes for long without PIE. Those are the days everyone’s laughing at your corny jokes, they’re interested in the fake facts you tell them, they’re reminding you how awesome your life is, and you feel like you’ve all just really connected.

So while anyone with practice can raft, it’s the ability to put others’ experiences first that makes someone a guide. You’re an entertainer, a master of disguise, and you love liver and onions the same way you love pie.

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3.) Just because you can guide the river does not mean you can control it 

As flattered as I am that you think I’m a river god who can lift and carry a sixteen-foot, 190 pound raft by myself, steer and propel said raft around class III rapids in high water while magically shifting rocks out of our way….I cannot.
Yes, I’ve learned to read the river, read my paddlers, and read other factors that could turn a great trip into a disaster, but that does not necessarily mean everything will go smoothly. The river is a true God-made force of nature that sometimes likes to do exactly what we think it won’t. Sometimes it finds humor in throwing a wave just right so it flips our boat, or knocks you out of it, or traps us against a rock. Sometimes the water level decides to drop overnight, and we have no way of knowing exactly which rocks are appearing until we are on the water with you.

So if you decide to throw in back paddles when I call forward, or stop before I say to, or just decide not to paddle at all, please remember when we are stuck or upside down or swimming through rapids, that there is only so much I can do.

We can’t always guarantee a smooth, event-free ride, but I guarantee we’ll always equip you with the knowledge you need for either case.

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4.) There’s no such thing as six-pack abs, just six-packs of beer

I remember someone telling me I’d get a strong, toned body while being a raft guide— specifically that I’d have an excellent chance to get washboard abs. Undoubtedly my body became stronger, maybe even more toned, but the abs thing was a far fetched reality. Here’s a couple of reasons why:

–We’ll tell you to use your core muscles when paddling so your arms don’t tire out, but pretty sure I never once tried that myself. It’s all about the arms, bro.

–In our company, when you screw up, you buy the other guides beer. Screwing up means throwing customers out of your boat, throwing yourself out of your boat, getting pulled by another guide out of your boat, etc. For each swimmer you have, it’s a six-pack.

–There’s always a party after work. Our random Monday and Wednesday nights are your Friday and Saturday nights. With our schedule there is no schedule, so there’s no set time for a party.
When you’ve had a rough day at work, your buddy may buy you a beer. Party time.
When you’ve had a crazy day at work, your boss may buy you a beer. Party time.
When you’ve had a great day at work, you buy yourself a beer. Party time.

This is also a large reason why we’re always broke.

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5.) When you’re not on the river, you’re on the river 

In the beginning I could never understand why, on days off, raft guides went back out to raft. In the beginning, two trips a day (sometimes seven days a week) was more than my fill of the cold Colorado. But as I reluctantly gave up the hopes of staying dry for just one day and followed my coworkers on beer-filled, four-hour, boat-carnage floats, I began to understand why these were essential. Taking out so many people for so many days, each time secretly stressing that this could be the trip something goes wrong and $%!* hits the fan….it wears on you. And if you’re not careful, you can start to forget the joy of the river and your job. Taking out our own boats lets us be the crazy, water-loving people we are without the fear of drowning little ol‘ granny or having to stick to a time schedule.
On warmer days we’ll even take inner tubes and stand-up paddle boards through the rapids—the more carnage the better, and actually the better raft guides we become.

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6.) Ah, the value of a tip

As much as we love rafting, it is still a job. Taking you on the river is only one part of work that we do; the rest—pumping boats, rigging boats, stacking boats, cleaning wetsuits, organizing the boathouse, etc.—you do not see. Entertaining two (and for some companies three) trips a day and trying to remember if I’ve already said that corny joke, doing backflips into the water for your amusement, answering the same questions I’ve answered 200 times….its gets pretty tiring. And while we do these things because we want to, because we want you to have the best experience possible, there’s nothing better to show us we’re appreciated than a tip.
I’ll be honest and speak for a majority of raft guides: we don’t get paid enough. While we’re not here for the money and are extremely grateful for the experience and adventure, money is always nice. And later on after a long day of work and all we want is a triple-decker cheeseburger, we’re going to remember you as we pay for that cheeseburger with your gracious gift. We’ll remember, again, that we made your day. Then our day is made, and we’ll tip the cheeseburger waitress to make her day, and then gosh there’s just smiles all around.


7.) You’ll get thick skin. And lots of callouses

And life-vest tans that look like sport bra tans. And weird criss-cross Chaco sandals tans. T-shirt tans and watch tans. Tan lines to tell stories about.

You’ll face stress daily, danger minimally, embarrassment occasionally and crude jokes frequently. You’ll never be able to escape the boathouse gossip or hide any mistakes you made on the river. Especially not from your boss.

You’ll have a friend group you can’t get away from and can’t get enough of, and a last minute schedule that will drive any friends outside of work crazy. You’ll have a closet full of corny jokes that you should probably never tell, and you’ll learn very quickly what a pity laugh sounds like. You’ll ask your guests to always listen to you, knowing full well they should never trust anything you say outside of paddle commands. You’ll learn the river is wonderful, terrifying, peaceful, unforgiving and completely unpredictable, and navigating the rapids is very similar to playing chess.
There is no graceful way to climb into a boat, wetsuits are a pain in the a$$, and there is such a thing as boat butt (if you don’t know, look it up).

Being a guide will test you, challenge you and maybe even change you in ways no other job could, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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8.) You’ll never look at a “real” job the same

“Good luck getting far with that one,” I’ve heard said about this job, but I’m guessing those people have never had a fun job in their life. As I mentioned earlier, for all the connections I’ve made, friends I have, skills I’ve added and experiences I’ve gained, I wonder if I would’ve ever come this far working any other job. I wonder if I would have had the same memories that will undoubtedly stick with me to my last days. I wonder if someone sitting at a desk loves their job the way I do, or if they get the same kind of fulfillment that I do at the end of the day.

There are a lot of jobs, a lot of dreams and a lot of ways to get there. If you’re not a people person, are a strict scheduler, are afraid of water or weather or don’t feel like you can take a few months away from the stressed out, demanding and conventional career structure society had placed on us, this probably isn’t the job for you.

But if you love to live and live to be happy, if a good day for you is making someone else smile, if you can make any glass half-empty into a glass half-full and you’re ok with getting paid to go on daily adventures, welcome to my world.

I’m far from rich, but I’ve never been happier.

Here’s a short video of some rafting highlights from the season:

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Venture on….

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