First-time Rafter Turned American River Top Guide

Dana Dickinson grew up with the American River, one of California’s most popular rafting rivers, practically in her backyard. Yet, when she showed up for OARS whitewater guide school in 2015, she was a first-time rafter.

“Before I went to guide school, I never went rafting before,” says Dana. “I didn’t even know how to hold on to a paddle, sit in the boat, or do anything.”

OARS American River guide Dana Dickinson

“I just wanted to try something new, so I gave it a shot,” she continues.

After six seasons with OARS, Dana has not only become a core part of our busy American River Outpost crew, she’s worked her way up to a Trip Leader, and most recently, was honored as one of the company’s Top Guides of 2019.

“She always shows up with a giant smile and great attitude,” says Jess Wallstrom, OARS American River Regional Manager.

“Dana has become the go-to Trip Leader for challenging, large trips where managing 50-200 people is just another day for her.”

We caught up with Dana to find out more about her intro to whitewater rafting, what she loves most about her job, and some of the highlights of rafting trips on the American River.

Meet OARS California Rafting Guide Dana Dickinson

OARS American River Outpost guide Dana Dickinson

What was guide school like for you with no rafting experience at all?

It was challenging. I definitely figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t know a lot, but it was a really good experience. I was really terrible at first, but when you’re really bad, you just get better fast because there’s nowhere else to go.

What was your first season with OARS like after being hired out of guide school?

I was the last guide schooler to get checked off [to take guests on my own], so there would be moments of frustration and I would feel bad for myself at times. But I think it was a good thing it took me so long to get checked off, because I learned so much more. I got a lot of interaction with a lot of senior guides who helped me a lot.

When did you feel like you had what it takes to be a good guide?

I would say returning for my second season. I was nervous that I would be a little rusty, but everything came together and it just felt good. There was no particular “aha” moment. I just remember getting in the boat one day and being like, “Okay, I got this.”

What do you love most about your job?

Honestly, the thing I love most is working with my fellow guides and the camaraderie and bonds you form, especially the Middle Fork American crew. It’s pretty small, so we have a tight friendship because of that.

Middle Fork American River Rafting

What’s your favorite stretch of the American River to guide on?

The Middle Fork of the American River is my favorite section to work on, because it’s a really remote canyon. You feel like you can hide out there. I’ve trip led a few of the overnight trips on the Middle Fork and there’s a lot of stuff to see in that canyon that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. It’s a dam-released river, so if you stopped to do everything that you possibly could in one day, you would run out of water.

What are some of the highlights of those 2-day Middle Fork American rafting trips?

You can go to Dardanelle, which is a little flat canyon, and Canyon Creek, a hike at the end of the day. Then something else that is pretty cool that I don’t get to do very often is scout Tunnel Chute. When you scout Tunnel Chute, you get to see other boats go down the infamous rapid, and it gives you a different perspective.

You’re known as the queen of the J-stroke. Tell me about that.

People call me Downstream Dana, because I’m very fast. I’m probably the fastest river guide on the water, and they credit it to the J-stroke, which is a guide stroke where you aren’t relying on your guests. This stroke propels you forward, and then you rudder that momentum that you just created with your paddle stroke. Sometimes I have to slow down and wait for everybody else.

Raft flip on the Middle Fork American river

Have you had any mishaps on the river that you can laugh about now?

My second year as a river guide, I flipped in a Class II rapid in front of Chris Moore, the Angels Camp manager. It was on the Mokelumne River and a lot of people after that trip were like, “Oh, the mighty Moke got you.” I was so embarrassed. I just hit sideways, I guess. Everyone went over, but the people in my boat were thrilled about it.

There were a lot of new challenges this season because of COVID. How was it guiding American River rafting trips during a pandemic?

All things considered, it was a really good season. I think as far as what OARS did, we tried to be responsible and follow all the regulations that we could, while still getting people out there on the water. People were really appreciative that we were open.

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