What Makes a Good River Guide Great?

3 Min. Read
What Makes a Good River Guide Great?

The conversation goes as such…

“I just got back from this amazing rafting trip in (fill in the blank state/country) on the (fill in the blank river). The guides were so great, they totally made my trip.”

I swear I’m not saying this because I’m a river guide.

River guides are the ones who provide safe passage through whitewater rapids. They make you laugh and they feed you food you could’ve never imagined cooking while camping. But what makes a good guide great? I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some awesome people over the years who have taught me a thing or two about being a river guide. Here’s what I’ve learned from them about what makes a good guide great.

Great River Guides

1. Experience

Most people choose to be a river guide as a summer gig, heading back to school in the fall and then transitioning out of the job in a few years. Many of OARS guides have made it their lifelong profession, working in the field for 10, 15, even 30 years. Roger Dale, one of the most experienced guides in the Grand Canyon, has done more than 150 trips down the Colorado River. He knows the intricacies of the Canyon in ways that most will never know. His depth of knowledge from time spent and trips run makes him excel at his job.

2. Musical

I’m not talking about my ukulele rendition of John Prine’s, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian,” though it is one of my favorites to play around the campfire. Musical talent is so appreciated on the river, as the campfire provides the best setting for live music. Whether it’s playing the harmonica, singing, or strumming the guitar, music is a key component to making a trip fantastic. Consider yourself lucky if someday you get to enjoy the music from Katrina Cornell, Niels Jewitt or Eli Helvey. These guides, with their voices and instruments, make trips unforgettable.

River guide musician

3. Excellent Storytelling

The art of storytelling is a craft that’s mastered over years of practice. But at the core, you have to have a good story. I’ve been completely enthralled sitting around the campfire, listening to Nick Grimes tell the tale of the fire on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, hanging on to his every word. Oftentimes these stories are about past trips or folklore of the river canyon itself, and they help to further connect us to these areas. Check out my post about what makes river guides the best storytellers here.

4. A Little Bit Crazy

Guides have a very serious job. We want to share the river rafting experience with our guests in a safe and enjoyable manner. The best guides balance this responsibility with, well, what’s best described as a flair of eccentric behavior. Steve Kenney is known to have loads of fun on the river, often bringing costumes and sometimes even hula hoops. Rondo Buecheler also comes to mind for his hilarious sense of humor. As he enters each rapid on the Colorado River he will yell out, “Dories!” to which all of his passengers reply, “Ho!” This could be the best way I can think of to enter a rapid.

river costumes

5. An Extensive Tool Kit

I’m not talking about a box with wrenches and screwdrivers. Great guides have solutions for almost all issues, be it gear, guest or guide related. Kate Wollney, the Queen of the Rogue River in Oregon, is one of the best problem solvers around. She never gets frazzled or overwhelmed in the slightest. She attends to each snafu like it was part of the original plan, and keeps moving forward with the trip.

Has a river guide made your trip unforgettable in some way?  Share your story below.

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