5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned as a River Guide

4 Min. Read

When I showed up to my first day of whitewater guide training, I already had a few dozen river days under my belt. I’d even spent a little time on the guide stick on a few mellow rapids on the Upper Colorado. I figured I probably had a leg up on most of the other rookies.

5 Life Lessons I've Learned as a River Guide

It didn’t take long for me to realize I’d gotten myself in over my head (literally). My rookie class spent a few hours on the first day at the local rec center pool, where I could barely haul myself out of the water onto the upside-down boat, let alone flip it back over with my paddle. It turned out there was more to this whitewater guiding business than I’d thought.

Learning to be a raft guide is hard, but actually being a raft guide is harder. It’s not just the obvious skills that make the difference between a mediocre guide and a great one. The jury’s still out on what kind of raft guide I am, but I do know one thing for sure: working on the river has taught me a lot about the kind of person I want to be.

1) Always Rig to Flip

When I’ve got a boat full of guests on board, it doesn’t matter whether the rapid around the corner is a mellow Class II or a gnarly Class IV with a rock that’s notorious for flipping boats—I’m ready for the worst-case scenario. In whitewater guiding, rigging to flip means securing everything to the boat, not to mention having a throw bag and flip line at the ready.

I like to keep my life rigged to flip, too. It’s why I change the oil in my car every few thousand miles, and why I keep some savings in the bank (admittedly, this isn’t a strength of most raft guides I know). Most of the time, I’m hoping for the best but planning for the worst, which is why I’m usually ready for anything.

2) Know When to Take Charge

The first few times I guided a boat with guests aboard, I found myself barking orders at every turn. Left side, forward one! Right side, back one! I wish I could track those folks down and apologize—my constant commands must have made for a stressful afternoon on Clear Creek! In reality, it wasn’t realistic to expect the boat to be in the exact right position every second. Soon, unless I was heading into a rapid, I started to relax and let people enjoy the ride. In guiding as in life, sometimes I needed to cede a little control and be confident enough in my own skills to know things would work out.

5 Life Lessons I've Learned as a River Guide

3) Ask a Lot of Questions

I asked a lot of questions during my whitewater guide training. I learned plenty about piloting a boat down the river, but I also learned a lot about my fellow rookies and the senior guides. So after training was over, I kept asking questions: Where are you from? How do you all know each other? What kind of work do you do? Have you been rafting before? People’s answers were often interesting or surprising, and hearing their stories became one of my favorite parts of the job. I’ve tried to carry that over into other areas of my life, and the questions I’ve asked have led to new jobs, satisfying friendships, and a lot of great stories.

4) Rapids End Eventually

During my rookie season, there was one particular rapid I absolutely dreaded. Double Knife is a Class III or IV rapid, depending on the water, and it’s known for flipping boats and knocking guides out of the raft. (It’s also just a hundred yards upstream from another set of burly rapids, so the consequences are real.) No matter how many times I ran it, I got a pit in my stomach when I knew it was around the next bend.

But once I entered Double Knife, I knew what to do—and in a matter of seconds, it was over. Like doing your taxes or deciding what to do after high school graduation, it’s daunting, but once you’ve finished, it’s pretty rewarding, too. Now, when I’m stuck in a rut, I remind myself: This, too, shall pass.

5) It’s All About Balance

Being a raft guide is about so much more than running rapids well and keeping everyone in the boat (or, failing that, being ready to pull everyone back in quickly). It’s a balance between talking and listening, between knowledge of the river and interacting with people, between making people feel safe and ensuring they have the adventure of a lifetime. It applies elsewhere, too—work hard, play hard, right? We’re so much more productive when we take time to take care of ourselves, which, in my case, often means a few days on the river.

Portrait of Emma Walker and her dog on the river

Emma Walker

Emma Walker is the author of the book "Dead Reckoning: Learning from Accidents in the Outdoors." She earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as a raft guide, avalanche educator, and backpacking instructor around the American West.

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