What Private Boaters Can Learn From Professional River Guides
Before I went to guide school I was a competent, yet tentative, Class III boater. I’ve since attended a whitewater boating festival, found a mentor and am in the midst of breaking the Class IV glass ceiling. I attribute all of this to breakthroughs at guide school. I’m now hooked on the benefits of professional training and plan to have two whitewater rafting courses on my calendar every season until, God forbid, I stop boating.
Back to School: The Benefits of Taking a Whitewater Rafting Course
1) Safety is no accident
The triangle of death, no loops bigger than a fist or foot, pros and cons of chicken lines and how/where to secure a river knife on your personal flotation device are just a few of the safety concepts I learned from guide school. And I am ashamed to admit that, until this whitewater rafting course, I had never practiced pulling a passenger into a raft after a swim. Learning, discussing and experiencing safety practices and scenarios first-hand, under the watchful eye of commercial river guides, helped build my confidence as a boater.
Even if you aren’t taking a whitewater rescue-specific rafting course, swiftwater safety best practices are infused in all guide schools and rowing clinics. You’ll be absorbing safety practices no matter what type of course you take.
2) Rig to flip
Whether you’re launching on a flatwater day trip, multi-day trip with boat loads of gear, or a high-water trip with big, pushy water, there are limitless ways to rig, and varying opinions on how to do it right. Hearing a cross section of what professional guides think and learning what tactics commercial companies use will help you make educated choices in how to rig your raft. Weight distribution, best practices for lashing down equipment, and strategies for managing the would-be junk show stacked on your stern, are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rigging insights gained during whitewater rafting courses.
3) Address trial by fire bad habits
A common way boaters learn to row, myself included, is by jumping straight into the pilot seat with little to no instruction, guns blazing, going for broke. We all have to start somewhere. But I can see that as a maverick, self-taught boater, I wasn’t navigating with honed skill. Luck just happened to be on my side.
It’s important to be humble and admit our blind spots and bad habits so we can improve. Hearing feedback from seasoned pros helped me clean up some of my sloppy-Joe (or Jane) bad habits and polish the silver. No more shipping oars across my waist. No more clotheslining on my downstream oar. No more pulling over pushing. And, now I take more care to stay out of the crossfire of the oars. These are a few technique touch ups I got from guide school.
4) Lost in translation
Hydraulics, holes and currents, OH MY! Busting a lateral, bridging and eddy hopping. There is a mountain of vocabulary and nomenclature in rafting. Learning the language and river lingo didn’t come naturally to me. I tend to feel and observe aspects of the river more than I put them into words. Taking a whitewater rafting course helped me get on the same page with other boaters when it comes to naming features and communicating about them. Before guide school, I had difficulty understanding what my paddle comrades were referencing while scouting rapids. Everyone would be jumping in to voice the line they were planning to take and noting markers and I would get totally lost in the conversation. Learning the right terminology helps heaps.
5) Cultivate a crew
River friends are the best kind of friends—especially when they are scattered across the nation on the banks of all your favorite rivers. Attending a whitewater rafting course can really grow your inner circle of paddle homies. During my guide school experience, I met folks from the Kern, Illinois, and Trinity Rivers, as well as Bulgaria and more. Spending time on the water, training and learning together really solidified these friendships and fast-forwarded our experiential bonding.
My favorite people at guide school were a pair of college students. Nearly two decades younger than me, they took me under their wing and taught me a ton, in particular how to drill holes in Vans for a flashy pair of self-bailing river shoes. Their youthfulness and approach to guiding inspired and motivated me. #rivernetworking
6) Feed the masochist inside
My fondest memories of guide school are unexpectedly swimming stacked black-hole hydraulics, getting pummeled out of the pilot seat by poltergeists in my oars, catapulting out of the raft on horizon line drops. Not to mention, embarrassing myself in front of strangers, friends and professional commercial guides alike. If cherished memories like these don’t convince you to go to sign up for an instructional whitewater rafting course, I don’t know what will. See you on the river!
Some guide school programs offered by outfitters are aimed specifically at those seeking professional guiding careers. A rowing clinic or other whitewater instructional program may offer similar skills and be a good alternative for private boaters.
Photos: Chad Schmukler, Andrew Miller, Jess Wallstrom