What It Takes to be a River Guide
“What do you do for work?” is the age-old question that every guide struggles to fully answer. Saying “River Guide” usually elicits a response like “Oh, that must be fun!” And it is fun. What is better than floating some of the world’s greatest whitewater among a crew of your best friends? But being a river guide isn’t all muscles and glory. Raft guiding is much more than just rowing a boat down a river; it is a thousand different jobs combined into one: a storyteller, a chef, a medic, a historian, a kid wrangler . . . the list goes on. One could say river guides are “renaissance men,” but that just seems too prim and proper. Our jobs are messy but wonderful, exciting but monotonous, fast paced but full of roadblocks, and way less glamorous than most people think. When I signed up to be a river guide, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Here’s some things about the job that I never expected, but have learned along the way.
- Patience. And then some more. From a busy congested boat ramp to the inevitable truck issues, waiting is a part of the job. Good thing we are always stocked up on cold beer and great stories to help the time pass.
2. Guts. River guiding takes a lot of them. We all go through big anxiety-inducing firsts: first big drop, first big swim, first step out of training to rowing guests on your own. Yes, even guides get nervous, but we’re experts at faking it until we make it.
3. Late nights and early mornings. You have no choice to be an “early bird” or a “night owl”. If you’re a guide, then you’re automatically both. Loading boats in the dark, staying up late telling stories, and then waking up at 4:30AM to make coffee is all a part of the job.
4. You become a Professional Inventory Clerk. River guides may not be renowned for their math skills, but we seem to spend a lot of time adding-up gear. A multi-day trip requires a lot of equipment, which means counting silverware, napkins, tents, chairs, sleeping pads, toilet paper, etc. And once you think you have it all packed, counting again. After forgetting the coffee or toilet paper once, you quickly learn to check the massive packing list . . . multiple times.
5. You become a tetris master. You learn how to strategically fit everything in the trailer, and then fit everything on the boats . . . and then back on to the trailer.
6. You (almost) get used to managing poop. Cleaning the groover is a rite of passage that every guide must undertake. A visit to the groover cleaning shed can be just as exhilarating as the rapids themselves: will all of the waste easily dislodge from the vault? Will the disposal hose stay on? Will the gasket seals on the lid stay tight? Unfortunately, there is a time (or many times) in every guide’s life where the groover splashes back at them. But the groover builds character, and, eventually, you don’t even notice the smell of the groover vaults wafting in the back of the gearboat.
7. One day of the month, your home becomes a laundromat, and your poor washing machine fills up with sand. When you’re running back-to-back trips, any time at home instantly becomes dedicated to getting yourself and your things really clean, not just “river” clean (which is an equally respectable standard among river guides).
8. Grime. Everywhere. It’s no secret that river guides are stinky and dirty. Unfortunately this stereotype is true. You’re bound to get mystery black grime on every part of your body. After a season on the river, all of your clothes get a shade darker, and those grease stains won’t ever come out.
9. You learn your personal superpower. Not the one you asked for, but the one everyone else recognizes you for. Whether you’re the spotter, the sniffer, the taster, the knot untangler, the fish fryer, the tall one, or the tiny hand bearer, tasks will be thrust before you. Who are you to deny your power, after all, you are the chosen one.
10. Your crew becomes family. After months on the water together, navigating rapids, managing camp, and sharing meals, you can’t help but to rely on one another for support. You quickly get to know one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks and develop a relationship that extends far beyond the river.
At the risk of sounding vain, guides are some of the most multi-talented people that I know. One thing you can always count on while guiding is to expect the unexpected: from huge camp crushing storms to a surprise food allergy. But guides have the wide range of skills to make the best out of any extraordinary situation, and move on like it was part of the original plan. The guides that I know continually surprise and amaze me. Just when I think I know everything about my co-workers, they pull another trick out of the bag, whether they are a musician, a welder, a carpenter, a baker, a poet, a painter, an activist, the list goes on. I guess what I am saying is, the guides I know are not just river-runners, they are a melting pot of merit and skill, and I feel so lucky to work among them. I feel so lucky to be one . . . even when I get stuck with groover duty.