Living the Dream: How Four Guides Found Their Way to the River

9 Min. Read

The term “guide” often comes with a lot of assumptions, some of which are true. Yes, we are a funny lot of people who absolutely love our jobs and revel in what we get to do, but many of the preconceived notions people may have about who we are and where we came from are wrong (like how we were all raised outdoors, and sprouted from the earth fully-equipped with the skills required to be a guide). And while some guides were literally born into the world of rivers, most found their way to this special career in their own unique ways.

Sabrina Stein

Some guides grew up near rivers, but whitewater rafting was foreign. “Fishing for catfish with trout bait, eating cheddar cheese and salami with mulberries growing along the sandy beaches, and swimming in the dark black waters with goggles and friends,” is how Sabrina Stein, an OARS Idaho guide, describes growing up along the Snake River in Idaho. Sabrina didn’t fully experience river trips until her freshman year of college when she went on a Gates of Lodore rafting trip with OARS as part of her Outdoor Education and Leadership class at the University of Utah.

On that trip, she says, “I met my first river guide, Smiles, who taught me how to hold a guide stick and let me bump around some flatwater. The idea that I could be a river guide was planted!”

“Smiles tearing up at the take-out after just four days of rafting together, the pressurized relationships we’d all just formed too beautiful to break,” is a moment she still remembers.

Similarly, Chris McIver, who originally hails from the south of Boston, didn’t grow up around rivers. He’s now a 17-year veteran guide with 15 seasons on the Arkansas River and two with OARS Dinosaur in Vernal. His first experience with whitewater was a day trip on the Penobscot River in Maine, which he followed up with an Outward Bound semester in the Southwest where he got to float Desolation, Grey and Cataract Canyons. During this time, McIver experienced something that changed his life.

“One of my instructors noticed I was bored on the kayaks so he called me up and put me on oars on a gear boat. I haven’t been the same since,” he shares. “The next summer I signed up for guide school and the rest is history.”

OARS Idaho guide, Sarah Mallory, recalls her “outdoors experience was pert near non-existent.”

Sarah Mallory

“I grew up on farms…so really, my first taste of flowing water, whitewater, day boating, overnight boating, really any sort of river time, was during my training trip for OARS on the Main Salmon River at the end of May in 2016,” she says. According to Sarah, her path to the river was not something she really anticipated. While doing an internship in Colorado, she met another OARS Idaho guide, Seneca, who helped plant the initial seed.

“As an Ohian born and raised, I knew practically nothing about whitewater rafting, let alone-multi-day guiding. But there was something in me that just knew, KNEW, I would love it and possibly even be good at it,” she recalls. “Can’t say I ever, in my wildest dreams, saw myself becoming a career guide, but plans are made to be broken, after all!”

Bec Kates, who is a seasoned guide for OARS Oregon on the Rogue River, Grand Canyon Youth and another outfitter in Grand Canyon, first got their taste of whitewater at Prescott College during a U.S./Mexico border studies class. The course included an experiential/hands-on component in Big Bend National Park where they whitewater canoed the Rio Grande for two weeks.

Bec shares, “This was my first real time on a river and in whitewater. I remember my first day on the water I was in a tandem canoe with a close friend, we were uncontrollably rocking our hips side-to-side, shaking the boat, shrieking and laughing as we made our way down the river. It felt like we were lambs trying to walk for the first time in our life. This day is when I fell in love with rivers.” After this experience, one of Bec’s friends suggested that they should try river guiding.

“It had never even crossed my mind to guide before, but I didn’t want to spend my summer at my parent’s house so I signed up for [a] guide school, still unknowing of what river guiding truly entailed,” Bec recalls.

The job of a river guide can seem foreign to those who have a 9-to-5 gig, and as many guides will agree, guiding is almost never what their preconceived notions led them to believe either.

Chris McIver

According to McIver, guiding was not only what he thought it would be, but better. “I thought I’d do it for a season or two and then move on,” he says. “But I loved it so much I pretty much made a career out of it…making some of the best friends I’ve ever had, learning a lot about life and people, and gaining many experiences and stories I’d never gotten any other way.”

Sarah concurs, “I had zero expectations or ideas of what guiding would look like going into that first summer.”

“I am now going into my sixth year of guiding and working as a river guide continues to surprise me in different ways each and every year,” she continues. “For me, it continues to be challenging, fulfilling, and my absolute most happy place.”

Though guiding is an incredible job that cultivates a unique community and bonds, it’s a field that also has its challenges. The outdoor world has historically been very white and very male.

Bec says they had a challenging time their first season. “I had no idea what guiding would be like when I walked through the doors…there were 15 guides going through training, all roughly my age,” recounts Bec. “Immediately, I realized there were only two other people who weren’t boys.”

“After a few days, I started creating the perception that I needed to be ‘one of the boys,’ thick-skinned and physically stronger…it felt ‘old school,’” Bec continues. “I questioned if river guiding [was] something I wanted to continue, not because of the actual work or being on the water, but because of the culture I was a part of.”

Bec Kates

Sabrina acknowledges that though guiding is more fun than she had initially anticipated, it’s challenging in ways she had not foreseen. “There is the toll it puts on my body and the lack of personal time and space,” she says. “There are also the complex impacts a commercial industry has within modern capitalism, cis-hetero-white supremacy, and colonialism that demand continued critical action and thought.”

Despite their initial setbacks and struggles, however, both Sabrina and Bec dug further into the guiding world after they were able to find the right company and right group of people to learn and progress with.

As Sabrina touches on, guiding is both physically and mentally laborious. The work days are long and filled with heavy lifting—I often make the joke that when it truly comes down to it, guides are just professional movers. But they are also filled with quiet mornings by the river drinking coffee, hearing the splash of oars hitting the water as you travel downstream, and eating dinner listening to the stories of other people’s lives as they share their knowledge and beliefs.

Guiding is different for everyone. There are no guarantees that it will be the perfect fit for you, but if there’s any doubt about whether or not you should try it simply because you have no previous river experience, then there is a very simple answer: It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’re interested in working as a river guide you should try it. River guides are professional chefs, geology nerds, passionate story spinners, and so much more. The foundations of being a good guide are found in good people, not in the hard skills; those can be learned.

OARS Guide School Training

For those seriously considering a career in guiding, here are some insider tips and advice for new river guides…

“I found it helpful to find a mentor who shared similar risk management approaches and could show me the ropes in a gentle, non-judgmental way. Also, rafting with people who are not cis males helped me learn the possibility within myself to excel at this job. When my body struggles to perform in the exact same ways as another guide’s body, I adapt within my own abilities to reach the same outcome, instead of experiencing failure. This requires patience, self-compassion and creativity. Bring your whole authentic self to guiding…” ~Sabrina

“I went into training with a lot of outdoor experience and thought I knew a thing or two. I learned real quick to just shut up and listen. It made me into a life-long learner. Have fun, learn all you can, and enjoy being outside. I have a lot of friends who remember guiding as some of the best times of their lives. I’m not quite ready to put that behind me yet.” ~Chris

“The mental block in learning something new is big. Remember that it is ok to be bad at something when you are new to it, and that nobody else really cares too much if you aren’t great at the ‘basic skills’ right away. But your fellow guides and clients do care if you are a joy to work with, eager to learn and improve, and that you’re just being yourself – that you’re not trying to be something you aren’t. Also know that when you are learning the basics of guiding, everyone and their brothers are going to want to help you, teach you, and over-explain everything to you. That is ok. Just nod your head. Retain what you can, and leave the rest behind.” ~Sarah

“I didn’t have the best time my first season of river guiding. I thought I needed to put up with misogyny and sexism because they were teaching me how to boat. I dealt with it because I didn’t know of other companies that would teach me. I wish someone had told me that there are so many other opportunities to learn at companies that value and would care about me. I left [my first company] to discover communities across the West that had inclusion and equity in their mission statements. As a first-year guide, it can feel like your options are extremely limited but they aren’t, don’t settle.” ~Bec

Photos: Sabrina Stein; Sarah Mallory – PC: Kim Cross; Chris McIver; Bec Kates; OARS Guide School training

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