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Confessions of a River Guide

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Some people in the rafting world are fortunate enough to be born into those revered rafting families. I’m sure you know the type. Their idea of a family vacation is hopping on Ruby Horsethief for two or three days with the whole gang and letting four-year-old Charlie row her own boat. River time to them is just as ordinary as some families’ trips to grandma’s house.

I envy these families because I have always been a part of the latter grouping of rafting folk: the working class.

I was ushered into it as a professional endeavor that later morphed into a hobby. Raft guiding fell into my lap when many of my friends guided and I found myself at the boathouse every other day, playing music and enjoying the scene. Guiding had never crossed my mind until one of the owners told me I might as well be getting paid for all the BH hours I was accumulating. I think I had only been on a raft five or six times by that point. I then fell in love and started rafting for a paycheck. It wasn’t long before I was also choosing to take rafting trips and not get paid.

This generalized two-party system obviously has dissenters who fall somewhere in the middle. What interests me the most, however, is how professional river guides view multi-day trips. Why is it that we have the curious habit of engaging in our professional lives during our free time? Few other occupations have this tendency to vacation while doing the very same thing they do for work.

I recently asked a close river friend what she thought the difference was and she replied simply, “Beer.” We laughed at her honesty. Not that river guides don’t enjoy drinking beer. Of course, we do. But despite her facetious response, there’s more to it than just the freedom to enjoy a cold one during rigging.

Some guide friends invited me and thirteen others on a Cataract Canyon trip in October, and this dilemma was all I could think about for seven days.

It continues to elude me exactly why raft guides are so willing to play into this peculiarity. We still have to rig boats, organize cook groups, clean many a burnt pot, be on groover duty, etc. However, the so-called ‘negatives’ of commercial guiding such as these take on a different meaning on personal trips. You can drink a Bloody Mary while rigging to flip in the morning. Appetizers don’t have to be so formal, instead, you can enjoy them while slip-and-sliding down a flipped-over Mini Max or lounging on a Gili mat. Groover duty can actually be a pleasure when one person dressed as a unicorn and another toting a large speaker overhead are cheering you on.

On our recent Cat trip, almost everyone was or had been a guide in Colorado on the Shoshone rapids and/or Gore Canyon. A friend on the trip who is a guide-turned-professional photographer alluded to my dilemma best: “On a private rafting trip, I feel integrated, a part of the people and the landscapes surrounding us…I feel relaxed, in the moment, unscathed by the future and unburdened by the past. I understand the world and the world understands me. This feeling reconnects me to the person who I feel that I am that I often deviate from.”

River time means disconnection from the world, while simultaneously being more in-tune with yourself. I consider it mindful-connected time. It’s a literal unplugging, and when you don’t have to worry about keeping clients safe and happy, all you have to worry about is yourself. You can fill layover days with whatever makes your heart happy. Cook crews can concoct elaborate meals or keep it as simple as dirtbag huevos rancheros—frozen hash brown patties and a fried egg wrapped in a corn tortilla.

Our trip found us bad at mileage math but happy with an extra layover day, drinking Mint Juleps and tossing a rugby ball on the sand. We had the time to spend a whole day baking in the sun atop the canyon walls while exploring the other-worldly Dollhouse. We filled our free time with glow-in-the-dark bocce ball, dance parties, extra hikes, and musical serenades. On a private trip, you can feel at peace with flatwater days, without the overwhelming pressure to fill the hours with little bits of ecology and fun facts for clients. You can truly let your guard down in most ways when exploring on your own time.

A large part of river trips for me is enjoying the mystifying desert. To see Cataract Canyon from different perspectives—from the top of the Dollhouse, beside the raging Big Drop 3, or from atop a narrow, bottlenecked canyon wall—feels like a different sort of privilege than guiding clients down the same stretches of river day in and day out. One can only access these views and these unique experiences via the river. As guides, we’re privileged to have the professional skills to experience this perspective at our leisure. It’s a special blessing we’ve bestowed upon ourselves.

Private trips allow us to see through an undistracted eye. An honest eye. Only worried about ourselves. It sounds selfish, but why else do we go on a vacation if not for ourselves? With any river trip, you’re still unplugging, you’re still soaking up nature, but you don’t have to worry about customers’ comfort or even their survivability on rapid day. Instead, you can enter the trip more like a sponge: willing to learn, there to absorb new information, open to all that the river has to offer you.

You can play with lines. You can be more forgiving with the Mini Max on rapid day, because if you flip, you just get back up and flip ‘er over again, right? When we had to break out the pin kit and set up a Z-drag for example, we could openly question the best way to rig it, instead of trying to convey confidence to guests. I think we learned more in this open moment of trial and error while we figured out angles and rope set-ups to drag our stranded friends off a rock.

We are recipients, willingly at the whim of nature. On commercial trips, we set out with certain intentions. Everything is meticulously planned: the food, the schedule, the gear lists. Not that everything isn’t planned well on personal trips, it has to be, but the option to be a little more exposed to the elements allows for an opening. An opening of mind, body, and soul. I think it lets us relax in a completely unforced and unexpected way. On commercial trips, we more carefully account for the unexpected, and I think this excitement ironically provides a certain relaxation on private trips.

And what an appropriate way to end a season. It feels cathartic to round it out with a multi-day trip with all your friends or coworkers, allowing yourself to feel and experience all the things you might have been closed off to during the relentless summer work hours because maybe we didn’t have the time or maybe our minds were simply otherwise occupied.

Whether you found yourself on the river because of your family or because of your summer work, you can’t deny the sacredness of river time. There are few ways to describe the sensation garnered while on the river. I feel it in increments while guiding, but the full-force-feeling emerges mostly while on multi-day excursions, where the strangeness of the river breed is on unabashed display.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Caleigh Smith recently moved from her born-and-raised and much-loved home of Colorado to a new horizon in Jackson, Wyoming. She has always enjoyed exploring outside via whitewater, on foot, by horseback, on skis, or with ropes and quick draws. Jackson lends itself to a plethora of new opportunities outdoors. A seasonal raft guide on the Snake River after the last few years guiding on the Colorado, she fills in the rest of her year with personal training and freelance journalism.

All photos courtesy of Raleigh Gambino. Watercolor feature image by Caleigh Smith.