Guides lead trips down some of the most ferocious rivers in the world,
using their expertise to guide people through treacherous waters. Rafting
is popular in almost every part of the world, but many people believe North
America has some of the world's best rivers for rafting -- and some of the
Claudia Vanwijk was a top whitewater kayaker for 10 years before she started
guiding. "That's why it's my career as well. That's why I've made a business
out of it. In general, that's how people get into rafting as a career -- they
kayak or canoe whitewater as a hobby, as a sport," she says.
Rafting guides do more than just lead rafts down a river. Before the trips
start, they may be responsible for packing paddles, life vests, rafts, food,
water and emergency supplies. They also train new paddlers and other guides,
register visitors and drive buses to river launching sites.
On longer trips, some guides are responsible for cooking meals, setting
up camp, cleaning and helping visitors with whatever they need. And at some
companies, guides also take turns as unofficial trip photographer, capturing
moments the visitors will cherish long after the trip ends.
Guide Bob Meister says that each guide contributes a unique skill to camp
life. If you don't think you've got anything to add to the mix, think again.
"There's a couple new crewmembers this year, but everybody picks up a job,"
Meister says. "Like, somebody will be the meat person, cook the steaks and
chicken and so forth. And if you don't have any expertise, then you set the
table and you learn how to do something. You're taught."
Guides may encounter clients who, after bravely embarking on the adventure,
develop an intense fear of the rapids. In cases like this, a guide must be
prepared to counsel people through their fear. Strong communication skills
and a tactful manner are essential in these situations.
"You wouldn't go into this work if you weren't a people person," says Vanwijk.
"And even if things aren't going well for you personally, that's nobody else's
Rafting season typically runs from mid-May to September. Most guides are
part-time workers, including many young college students. Rafting trips may
last from two hours to a week.
"A lot of people work on ski slopes in the winter," says Meister. "It's
mostly a young person's job."
A small percentage of guides earn full-time livings in the field. Those
who do are often company owners. They may do double duty during slower seasons
to help mail out catalogs, market new trips, maintain and repair equipment
and train new employees. Some owners simply enjoy a winter's rest and live
off the fruits of the rafting season.
Most of a seasonal guide's work is outdoors and trips take place in all
kinds of weather. That can mean working in a wetsuit in the cooler weather
and paddling in a rainstorm in summer. A standard rule of thumb in the guiding
world is to remain positive through thick and thin.
If you own a rafting business, you'll find yourself in an office during
the off-season. During the winter months, a company owner will likely spend
time in the office, making plans for the next big season.
Most guides are trained in lifesaving techniques and advanced swimming.
Physical strength is important -- guides sometimes have to pull a stranded
boater out of the water or hoist a raft onto shore.
During slow parts of a trip, guides become experts on the environment or
local history, telling stories to keep the rafters interested.
But the most crucial part of a guide's job comes when whitewater hits.
Rapids are rated by a Roman numeral class system from I to VI. Most casual
rafting trips avoid class V rapids as they pose great danger to the inexperienced.
Class VI means impassable and in many places it's against the law to run these
Vanwijk says that taking people into rapids that they could never experience
on their own is a total thrill, even for the guide. "Every day you get comments
like, 'This was the most exciting day of my life,'" Vanwijk says.
A river may become so familiar to a guide that it begins to take on its
own personality. Meister says he's guided one river about 300 times! Many
rafting guides have even given rapids colorful nicknames -- Fluffy Bunny Rabbit,
Eat Rocks, Dead Man's Curve, Mutilator, the Gauntlet and so on.