I became a whitewater river guide the year I held my last j-o-b. That would be 1992. It was a rocky beginning at guide school and in my new path with self-employment, but the river has more than made up for that in life-long lessons since then that are true on and off the water.
Enjoying the beauty and being safe on the river requires having the right attire and equipment. On the river it would be a hat that won’t fall off, clothes that dry quickly, shoes or sandals that will stay on, and a life jacket that squeezes you enough to know it will stay with you if you end up in the water. Off the river, this is still necessary. I think of it as a uniform. I have my working at home uniform, my being in public uniform, my workout uniform, and my fiesta uniform, por dar unos ejemplos. They all require a different attitude and there is a purpose for each. It is not about bowing down to other people’s requirements or expectations. It is about setting myself up for success so I can focus on my goals and aspirations.
I am very intentional to bring people on the river who did not grow up feeling comfortable in water and who add racial/ethnic diversity to the natural world. As a river guide, I assess and then re-assess the strengths and growth areas of the folks in my boat because I count on them to listen to me and trust my leadership. I am not expecting perfection, but the strengths have to balance out so that the raft does not veer too much to the left or right. I also make sure we are all seated in a posture like a tripod, balancing on our two feet and our butt, allowing for the best use of our power and for avoiding a spill into the river.
To get down the river, I have to know and use the right commands at the right times. To be a guide is to speak up often, loudly, and con ganas. Your voice is your most important asset. Just like a car, the raft can go in five directions. Paddle forward, back paddle, right turn, and left turn. In many ways, the most important command is the fifth: STOP! This allows for the pause necessary to change direction, to celebrate success, to catch your breath, and to drink water. People tend to wonder ‘why you would paddle backwards on a moving river’? Why would you do this on land? Sometimes the best plan is to pull away from danger rather than hit it head on.
More than anything, as a guide my goal is to stay in the current. It is the true meaning of going with the flow, connecting with the river’s knowledge of the most efficient path to your destination. My most important tool to stay in the current is the guide paddle, which has a longer handle and blade. I am the rudder, quietly moving the raft or course-correcting my paddlers to create even power on both sides.
As the guide, I am always looking a few curves ahead, like a chess player who makes every move with the next few in mind. In essence, I am setting my raft and paddlers up to manage the dangers and thrills of the river with grace and ease. I also know that the best laid plans are full of rocks hidden just below the surface of the water, paddlers who get distracted just as I call a command, or of other rafts who may not understand the etiquette of river collaboration. Thus, the plan that ultimately works is to read the river and then run it. Being in the present moment is the intention and truest approach of every guide, on and off the water.
Inevitably, someone, including the guide, may fall in the river. The instructions are to listen to the voice of the guide to tell you what to do, even if they are the ones swimming. Generally someone will pull you into a boat. Nice if it is the boat you fell out of, but any boat will do. If far away, then perhaps the best option is to lay on your back with your feet up to push away from any danger like a rock, using your hands as paddles, and your life jacket as flotation to hold you up. If in breaking waves, you breathe in the troughs between waves. The one who falls in has the best story, even if they also have the most moments to feel the power of the river and sport a few bruises.
If you are excited about becoming a river guide, summer is the time to be trained in an art that will spill out into your daily life. The river is life, beauty abounding, dangers known and unknown, with destinations worth every minute of quiet, determined effort with people joined by trust and circumstance. I became a river guide in my late thirties and trained with a woman in her mid-fifties. She is still guiding in her late seventies. The force is strong in her.
If being a guide is not your path, than getting on the river is a great option. My first trip was down the Colorado river and the ability to be in such splendor was breath-taking. Yes, I fell in. Yes, I got distracted by the huge waves and didn’t paddle when I should have. These days I guide and paddle on the South Fork of the American river, located northeast of Sacramento, California. It is new for me every time, as is every day I wake up with gratitude for being alive.
What the river teaches me is that a life of ease and joy requires a Plan A, B, and C. When that fails, as it will repeatedly, remember to read life and run it with your heart, mind, and spirit to guide you. They will not fail you, especially if you fall out of your safe zone. #52essays2017