5 Professionals Moonlighting as River Guides
No one escapes a river season unchanged. Whether a guide works summers during college, for a few years after graduation, or they call it their career for decades; the seasons worked are formative. Whatever the reason one is called away from the river, it’s never easy to say goodbye. Too much learning, growth, and joy are fostered at the eddy’s edge. Some guides, though, refuse to say goodbye: they live and work a frontcountry job, but choose to sojourn back to the river every summer.
Below are some of the stories of people whose love of and attachment to the river is so strong; whose connection to the river community is so important, they balance two careers in order to prioritize a pilgrimage to spring runoff.
Bill Burkdoll has been an electrician since he was 21 years old and he’s been at it for several decades. He’s now Lead Electrician at a reputable solar company in California’s Sonoma County. He’s also a river guide.
Growing up, Bill’s family voyaged to the river every year. He always wanted to be a guide, and “as the big 40th birthday ke[pt] getting closer, I decided I better do it soon.” Now, in the summer months, he works at his solar company during the week and guides American River rafting trips on the weekends. Although it is sometimes exhausting to manage the six and seven-day workweeks, Bill says that “the weekends working the river offer the adventure and fun to recharge my batteries to take on my ‘real’ job.” For Bill, “boating is a way to get out there and be completely present in the moment. While you’re out there all that matters is your boat and your pod. It’s a great way to forget about the other stresses in life.”
The people and culture are also part of what keeps Bill coming back. His co-workers at OARS American River Outpost are an eclectic group of inviting, fun, and all-around good people to be around, he says. Just as Bill knew he wanted to be a guide after family rafting trips, he knows that he’s done his job “when the children on [his] boat talk about being a river guide when they grow up.”
To the Northeast, David Dennis balances Arabic translation for the Air Force Reserves with river guiding. After transitioning out of a full-time active-duty position in the Air Force, David’s unique position in the Reserves allows him some flexibility in the work he takes on and the arrangement of his schedule. This leaves time for guiding rafting trips in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument on the Green and Yampa Rivers.
David listens to Arabic podcasts on the way to put-ins and carries Arabic books in his ammo can. He loves translating because it’s always new and continues to challenge him. That lifelong learning element is also what keeps him excited about guiding. But what David says he looks forward to the most “is the people I get to work with, and the guests we get to take down the river.” The Vernal crew brings joy to the hard work of guiding.
David can empathize with the grind of a standard workweek, “I sit at a desk in front of a computer 40 hours a week, I have a commute, I deal with lots of red-tape. I think it makes me not only appreciate the time I get to spend on the river but also [understand] where a lot of our guests are coming from as well.” He recognizes that vacation days are a precious commodity, and “I want to make sure that [guests] get everything they can out of their few days on the river.”
Balancing the two careers can be challenging, and the timeline doesn’t always work out in David’s favor, which helps him remember what a “gift it is for lots of people to spend time in places surrounded, not by the chaos of our digital lives, but by the rich tapestry of natural rhythms and cycles we get to drop back into on the river.”
Northwest of Vernal, Zachary Mullnix spends his non-river days looking down at the Willamette River from the 15th floor of an office building. As time has passed, Zachary’s seasons on the Rogue River have gone from elongated full-time work to shorter summer stints that he balances with his career as a financial advisor.
Like Bill and David, part of what keeps him coming back to the river is the people. “I want to stay in touch with the community I have come to love,” he says, “Although my guided trips are few in numbers, they are special. I have learned much from my years as a raft guide. In fact, it has had the largest impact on my life.”
He writes, “Frequently at home when I floss my teeth at night, I think of moments back on the water. Picture the sun finally slipping behind the canyon walls at the end of a hot summer day. Feel the steady, dry, calm upstream winds, rustling my overgrown bright red beard. Regularly I would brush my teeth at the stern of my boat, balancing precariously. In these moments I wasn’t looking at a mirror but downstream at one of the best views of my life; my raft fastened to a shore so remote that only adventurous people get to see. It is these moments I still yearn for.”
At two ends of the Continental Divide, Camilo Montaño teaches Culinary Arts and Life Skills at a Title I school in New Mexico and spends his summers rowing on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho. His 20 years of river guiding have fostered a relationship with the environment that he wants to pass on to his students. That is why he founded and runs the Highland Adventure Club, which is the most diverse club at his school.
When it comes to river guiding, Camilo says, “It’s a part of who I am.” The boating season is formative, partly because of the connections forged both on the water and in the boathouse. “I can’t give up the relationships. I can’t imagine my life without them. I need them to be who I am,” he said.
Summers on the water are an anchor for Camilo; a reset. He enjoys sharing his industry knowledge with his students and helping connect young people to the environment. He aims to expand the Highland Adventure Club into a full blown outdoor education program so that his students and their community can also explore wild spaces and, like him, experience the ways that the outdoors and rivers can be a personal anchor.
Also up in Idaho, Seneca Kristjonsdottir both guides Idaho’s rivers and produces a print publication called The Thalweg. The publication was born of dual desires: to both celebrate the artists and storytellers who live with the land, and to connect the guiding community in the offseason.
The publication is deliberately only available in print. Seneca and her co-creator, Dory, want to foster the type of community they experienced growing up. Read-alouds and storytelling were staples with their families. The portability of the magazine means the stories and art get shared and consumed in the places they rightly should: the mountain’s ridge and the river’s edge.
River guiding offers an intense sense of community, but the nature of seasonal work means that the sense of community can sometimes feel transient until the seasons change again. The Thalweg is aimed at sustaining that sense of connection and family through the offseason. Seneca says that spending time on the water makes her feel “alive, inspired, connected, and in love with the world around [her].” Most guides feel that way, and The Thalweg is the perfect offseason extension of the community we experience on the water.
It’s because of the ways the river makes us feel that Zachary’s sentiment rings so true when he says, “My desire to follow rivers will never leave me…I will always find something to float.”
I can attest to this: it’s just not possible to fully extricate oneself from the entity that has shaped and molded and creatively given to us so. The river and it’s community offers us too much to cut ties completely. No matter how tenuous the balance between two careers can be, holding tight to the river is a necessity.
No one escapes unchanged: we remain wonderfully altered by our time out there. We keep going back and we wouldn’t have it any other way.