The Highs and Lows of Seasonal Guiding
As a river guide, I get asked three questions the most.
- Where’s the groover?
- How deep is the river?
- What do you do in the winter?
Answering the first question is simple. Take a left, duck past the rock outcrop, and you’ll see the hand wash station set up. I answer the second question didactically, using our natural classroom for a lesson on channel geometry and stream mechanics.
The third question is the hardest. What do we do in the off-season? Of course, this varies for every guide. Some of us teach, some of us ski, some of us go to school, some of us build boats, some of us travel, some of us run businesses, some of us do a little bit of everything to check the days off until we are back on the water.
Most all of us miss the river.
This longing comes in different iterations depending on the distance elapsed from the previous season and the distance remaining until the forthcoming one. My late-October version of missing the river entails embracing how my hands are slowly creaking back into position and that I can starfish on my bed while I sleep. My holiday-time version of missing the river is full of reminiscing about summer whitewater tales, all while snow drifts down, yearning to melt into streamflow.
Then the year turns.
I start counting the days until I’m back on the water. I perseverate about Snow Water Equivalents, and eagerly fill out my schedule request. I try to shake off winter rust.
For me, the gap between the holidays and the beginning of the commercial boating season in April is the most challenging. The darkness is long, the air chills me, and I wonder if I am enough. I miss my rivers and my friends, my places and my guests. I yearn to reconnect with my people, for the simple joys and exhaustions of sitting on my boat after hours of pushing into the fray. I crave the excruciating complexity and tranquility of moving water against a background of canyons and valleys and sky.
Within the river community, the challenge of seasonal transitions is pervasive. Perhaps reflective of dominant society, the elephants in the room of depression, seasonal affective disorder, substance abuse, and suicide loom. We go from being fully embodied in a whitewater microcosm to disparate realities. Coping can be challenging through the dark months.
If boating has taught me anything, it has taught me to take care of my pards. This spirit of collaboration and resiliency is perhaps at its best with two nonprofit organizations that aim to support the guiding community: The Whale Foundation in Arizona and The Redside Foundation in Idaho. Though both born from the hollow space of guide suicide, they channeled this pain into supporting us through helplines, counseling, scholarships, events, advocacy, and more.
Most of all, they remind us someone has our back.
As much as guests ask us what we do in the winter, we ask ourselves the same question. Should I go back to school? Should I start a business? Should I travel? Should this be my last season?
Being a river guide is not a typical career, and integrating our bi-seasonal characteristics with the rhythm of the wider world around us is not a typical experience. Progression through guiding as a career is anything but linear. No single story can encompass all of our realities.
So, what do I do in the winter? I rest. I breathe. I heal. I work. I learn. I wait for the river.