Wisdom from River Guides

3 Min. Read

Over the past few years I’ve done eight river trips on our grand western rivers: the Colorado, Green, and Salmon. The shortest trip was 6 days and the longest was 28 days. By the end of each I was physically tired yet also refreshed and renewed, at peace in a deep way I seldom feel in the rush of “normal” life in Sacramento. How did this happen?

Wisdom from River Guides

Life has a deliberate rhythm and flow on the river. We focus on the tasks at hand with fewer distractions than at home. Call it river time. Sunlight sets the hours of sleep and waking. The daily pace follows our needs for food, water, pee breaks. Doing basic tasks takes longer. Once on the river, the moving water demands our full attention, especially in the rapids. On each trip, river time seeped into me and reset my internal clock. It changed my focus so much that I needed days to transition back to the front country.

The valuable insights and lessons I’ve learned on the river linger long after I return home. River guides have readily and generously shared key skills of their craft with me. These practices can also be applied in other spheres of life. With a little imagination, they work in many situations. Here are some of the things I’ve learned…

1) Face your danger.

The position used by river guides when rowing is face-forward, not backwards as in a traditional rowboat. This enables them to see oncoming rapids and obstacles, anticipate shifting currents, position the boat correctly, and maneuver as needed.

Wisdom from River Guides

2) Lean in.

When rowing through large waves of whitewater, river guides say to lean into these waves, never away. Shifting weight towards a wave, although counter-intuitive, helps the boat stay upright and ride over it. If that’s not enough, it may be necessary to “high side” – climb up onto the rising side of the boat to keep it from flipping.

3) Point positive.

When a person is swept out of a boat in a rapid, help them reach safety by telling them where to go, not what to avoid. Pointing at a danger (such as a rock, whirlpool, or strainer) will focus their attention on it. They will unconsciously orient their body towards it and the river will carry them into it. Instead, give clear positive directions, such as to swim towards the boat or to shore, or to ride the rapid feet first to downstream safety.

Lessons I've Learned on River Trips

4) Paddle through.

Kayaks are less stable than boats or rafts. For this reason, when in a rapid, having your paddle in the water provides another point of contact with the river and increases your stability. Kayakers are told to paddle continuously through a rapid to stay upright. Don’t just hold your paddle. Keep paddling to get through, no matter what waves come at you.

5) The river I’m on now.

River guide Amber Shannon told me she is often asked which is her favorite river. After some thought she found the best answer: “The river I’m on now.”

I will take these valuable lessons with me into the world – facing my dangers, leaning into challenges, pointing positive when advising others, and paddling through turbulence wherever I can. And I will not forget the most important river is the one I’m on now.

Photos: Jillian Lukiwski; Justin Bailie; James Kaiser

Kitty Williamson

Kitty Williamson took her first white water rafting trip after retirement and loved it so much she's been doing it ever since. She became a trip leader with Inspiring Connections Outdoors, a Sierra Club program for underserved children and youth, and takes them hiking, camping, snowshoeing & rafting in the Sierra Nevada. 

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