Chapter 3: The Blank Spaces on the Map

You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice; Life as a Whitewater Raft Guide

“This must be an ideal job–just floating down the river all day,” says someone in my raft as we paddle down the final calm stretch before the take-out.  I hesitate.  “It’s a pretty good one,” I say carefully, “most of the time.”  I follow up with a funny anecdote about previous trip where I had to do more work than average because of something crazy that happened on the river, or the less than average critical thinking skills of the people in my boat.  I’m hoping this boat doesn’t neglect to tip me because they think I’m on perpetual vacation.  If someone makes that observation, we’ve probably had a relatively smooth trip down the river; we haven’t gotten stuck on rocks, no one has fallen out of the raft, I haven’t made any dazzling rescues, and we probably kept up a lively conversation in the boat.

13508825_10208326575356306_4704756979992868186_nWhat they don’t know is that my back muscles are seizing up a bit because it’s hard to steer a full boat of American-sized people.  I’ve spent the entire trip over-exaggerating angles to avoid rocks because the right side paddles more weakly than some 8-year-olds I’ve had in my raft.  It’s my 11th trip down the same stretch of river that week, and I’m socially drained, and I know that as soon as I say goodbye to these strangers, I’ll be introducing myself to another group, who may or may not be pleasant people.

But regardless, I consider it to be a good trip.  I’m still energized because we hit one of the most difficult rapids in the river perfectly.  Grandma in the boat has been laughing the whole way down, and she’s stoked that she completed a bucket list item, even though it took her a while to build up the courage.  Also, they’re from Ohio, and people from Ohio rarely fail to tip, so hopefully I’ll have something more to put in my new-pair-of-cowboy-boots fund.

A lot more goes into raft guiding than guests see, and sometimes I wish I could tell them the complexities, but I’m going to settle for posting it on the internet instead.

  • Raft guiding is a job. It can be fun, and we’re all here because we like the outdoors and talking to people, to some extent, but it’s still a job we have to show up to IMG_4969consistently every day, even if we don’t feel like it.  We’re paid for it because we possess knowledge and skills the majority of the population does not have.  There’s parts we dislike, and parts we love, but it’s not always the carefree playtime it looks like, and burnout is a real thing.
  • We nerd out about rivers all the time.  Get a group of raft guides together, and I guarantee no matter where the conversation starts, rivers will probably come up in some capacity.  You’ll hear about the time that raft got “recirced in that monster hole” or how some dumb guest “threw strokes” and made the raft miss a stellar “hit.”  Guides watch “river carnage” videos for fun, ooh-ing every time a raft flips spectacularly.  Some guides spend all their free time kayaking or rafting other rivers.  We use river lingo in everyday conversations, asking who’s going to “TL” the outing to the bowling alley, or classifying sudden bus turns or brakings like rapids (we have a bus driver who occasionally gives us a class V ride from start to finish).
  • We occasionally lie on the river.  We’ll never lie about anything that would compromise your safety or fun, but when we consistently get the same question about what we plan to do in the winter or where we come from, it can add some entertainment for us to get creative.  Or like the time I told my boat one of the other guides keeps a hamster in his (impressive) beard–I have to admit that was (probably) untrue.
  • You’ve got to bring some of the fun with you.  By “fun,” I don’t mean alcohol, although that would probably be welcome, too.  What I mean is, it can be frustrating when people come in with an ambivalent attitude.  We’ll do what we can to pump you up, but some people can’t be swayed to smile or talk in sentences of more than one word, and that can make for an awkward trip down the river.  We feed off your energy and build on your jokes and good mood.  If someone stands up with whoops and smiles when the river manager is assigning groups to guides, that’s the group we all want because they’re out here to have a good time.  And we want you to have a good time!
  • Your raft guide can always tip you over, but you can never over-tip your raft guide.  Raft guides can often be the best tippers at restaurants and other tourist attractions because we know how it feels like Christmas when you get a little more than expected–and how discouraging it can be when you don’t get anything.  A journalist observed of Gary Johnson that “he tips well, a telltale difference between men who are careful with money and cheap bastards,” which I think is accurate, at least in the U.S.  A general rule of thumb on my river is to tip $5/person (for a 1.5-2 hour trip), and anything over that is extra appreciation.
  • teambuildingWe’re judging your paddling skills.  On the only rafting trip I took before I took this job and started training, I wondered if the (attractive) raft guide was impressed by my strong paddling, or if he even noticed.  I can now guarantee that yes, he noticed, and yes, he was probably happy about it.  The more power we have in the paddlers, the easier it is to make the fun hits, and the less physical and mental labor we have to do.  Nothing is more disappointing than when you have and apparently strong, young dude who ends up being a lazy “lily-dipper.”  Except maybe when you have a whole group of them.
  • We get socially drained.  I’m one of the most extroverted people I know–I genuinely like almost all people.  However, I spend most of my off days alone or with two or three of my favorite coworkers, because being cheerful and meeting new grouppeople all day every day is exhausting.  Especially when you get three adults in a row who ask you if the river runs in a circle or if we’re going to paddle upstream to get back to the outpost.  Or when people are constantly talking over you or gawking at a boat that just dumped out swimmers when you’re trying to call out strokes to avoid crashing into a rock.  A family at church asked me if they could take me out to brunch after Mass a couple of weeks ago, and I had to consider it, not because I had other potential plans, but because I needed to evaluate if I currently had the social capacity to talk to new people.
  • If you’re especially memorable–for good or bad reasons–I’ll talk about you to later boats, give you a special entry in my river log, and probably remember you for a very long time.  I’m talking to you, full boat of adults who believed me when I said the chain link fencing grows naturally on the cliff face by the highway, kid I accidentally pulled into the river with me when a wave washed me off the back of the boat, grandma who advised me to sew another guide’s pant-legs shut after he silently paddled up behind me and pushed me off the raft, and corrections officer who screamed like a girl all the way through the first big rapid.


Like any other job, this one has its ups and downs, and as much as I like to complain, it was hands-down the right decision to work as a raft guide.  I wouldn’t trade my raft guide muscles, wild river, or raft guide community for all the air-conditioning and income stability in the world.



9 thoughts on “You Can’t Step in the Same River Twice; Life as a Whitewater Raft Guide

  1. NICE ARTICLE As owner of Cantrell Rafting in West Virginia the most valuable asset in this company is the /guide staff that takes on the challenge of each day and group. Not only making it a life experience but bringing them back safe and happy… Thank you to each and every guide and driver cook , cleaning staff and alll the folks that make the day better . richie cantell

  2. Having a horse between your legs is as close to heaven as one can get without actually dying. Rafting comes in just below that.

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