When a Private Boater Goes to Guide School


No shit, there I was staring at the fast-approaching horizon line on the far river left entrance to Nugget, a Class IV rapid on the Rogue River outside of Gold Hill, Oregon. I played the part of passenger for another rookie guide; this was his second time rowing the stretch. As the only passenger in the rodeo-framed oar rig, I had chosen the front right to paddle assist from. At the last moment, I switched to the river left side, thinking it was a safer bet. Boy was I wrong.

The commercial line the veteran guides pointed out from the bedrock shore was left of center and cascaded over a rock called the Monkey’s Fist. If you hit the preferred line, you’d need to be ready for a guide catapult recoil as you dropped over the fist. If you hit the wrong line—too far right—you’d hit double trouble: back-to-back massive holes that flipped rafts of screaming tourists daily. The whole rapid was jammed into a narrow, basalt-walled chute with anglers casting non-stop from the bank. As a passenger in an ill-prepared greenhorn guide’s raft, I was a sitting duck and I knew it—but this is what I signed up for, right?

I was in my first week of guide training in southern Oregon.

You might be asking yourself, why? Why would anyone choose to put themselves in that position? Especially a 37-year-old who owned her own business, her own raft, trailer, drysuit, and had a sweet garage to keep her gear in. But after a few years of private boating, I knew without the dedicated effort of guide school and training, I’d be a class III rafter forever and never breaching the class IV gauge I so desired to crest. Even if it meant giving up all control and passengering for a rookie rowing his first class IVs. Even if I felt too old and out of place. No matter the reluctance I felt to the humorous and sometimes totally terrifying hurdles presented, I was going to pony up. It was now or never. After all, I wasn’t getting any younger.

So, we landed the first drop on Nugget Rapid off the preferred line. We didn’t drive far enough left, which set us up to smash the right side of the first two holes. This positioned me to enter the hole at its fiercest, most intimidating, largest rooster tailing point. As we made contact, I was buried in a deep, hectic hydro grave. I felt myself lifted out of the raft and ushered forward underwater, locked in the arms of a hydraulic.

The river upchucked me for a split second, which is when I remembered the second hole. Then, the river sucked me toward a towering white wave topped by blue sky and underpinned by darkness. In an instant, I remembered there were no obstacles ahead, like rocks or strainers, and I knew I should just give into the hydraulic. Don’t fight it. Allow it to take me without fear of pinning. After a few moments back in the black womb of the river, I surfaced, reborn to starfish on the bow of a more experienced guide’s raft who was running safety at the bottom of the rapid.

Photo: Lochsa River, Idaho.

This is the worst part: Not out of fear but out of shock, I let him drag all my deadweight into the boat without even helping. Later he said he didn’t mind because his guests would likely tip him more after observing this feat of perceived heroism. Lesson zero of being a guide taught to me by a 19-year-old. River guiding is nine parts showmanship and one part skills and abilities.

Swimming Nugget was embarrassing and necessary and, in the process, it reinforced all the reasons I thought I didn’t fit in at guide school. What I realized in retrospect was all the most embarrassing and humbling moments were exactly the reasons I needed to be there training. So, here are nine reasons you should go to guide school, even if you feel like you’re unprepared, won’t fit in, or worse, think you’re too skilled of a boater to need it.

Reason #1 You Learn How to Swim Like a Champ
In the wise words of one of my favorite whitewater teachers, Christina McKeown, class V boater and wound care nurse, “We are all between swims.” I’m still not sure how I let go of the raft on the Nugget run. But the next time I was close to being lifted out of a raft, you better believe I held on for dear life.

Reason #2 You Learn How to Not Swim
Weeks later during the guide-in-training shadowing process, I was in the captain’s seat running Power House for the umpteenth time with my very own rookie paddle assist on a 14-foot Sotar. I tweaked the second drop and we hit the landing with a thud, which launched me. As I caught air, in slow motion, I felt my hands track along the right oar grip and traverse the shaft toward the blade. When my hands reached the frame along their downward trajectory, I intertwined and locked my fingers like the talons of an Osprey retrieving its catch.

My head was still dry, but I was out of the raft, half-submerged, wiggling like a worm on a hook. After seeing GoPro footage of one of my cohorts’ unexpected previous swims in the same spot, I knew at the base of the drop it was a guaranteed lights out, deep dive in the drink. I held on tight until my young buck paddle assist pulled me back in the boat. Since my hair was dry and I never let go of the raft, I asked the more experienced guides if it counted as a swim. Yes, they said.

Entering Power House rapid.

Reason #3 You Learn to Push Your Comfort Zone
Even if you have tons of experience trip leading and you’ve navigated all the rivers worthy of bragging rights, guide school has lots to teach you. If you’re like me, you’ve been paddling with all the same people for ages, and you may be following routines and safety protocols that could stand to be challenged. In guide school, I learned more than I ever thought there was to know about how to rig a raft. How to rig for a day trip, how to rig for a multiday trip, how to rig for class V high water. There is so much to know about rigging. Plus, come home with all that knowledge and earn tons of street cred with your full-time boating buddies.

Reason #4 You Get the Rare Chance to Boat Difficult-to-Access Epic Water
Outfitters hold envious permits. I recommend choosing a guide school that holds a permit for a stretch of particularly epic whitewater you’ve yet to win a permit for. For me, this was the Upper Klamath River. A special stretch of Wild and Scenic Water straddling the Oregon and California border. This waterway may not be boatable at a class IV level in the future after slated dam removals transpire (perhaps in as little as a year from now). Currently water released daily from John C. Boyle dam awards boaters with consistent, out-of-season, commercially raftable class IV, a very rare opportunity for guides in Oregon. The shuttle to this section is over 250 miles and super impractical for private boaters. Thus, rafting it a handful of times during my guide training was a huge blessing.

Reason #5 You’re Not Getting Any Younger
Are you looking down the barrel of an impending mid-life crisis? I recommend you confront that tension by attending guide school. For me, this meant having at least a decade (maybe two) in seniority (just in age, not experience) on the other greenhorns. Anyone else in the crew near my age had at least a baker’s dozen in years of guide experience. But just remember, getting away for the week (or more) required to participate in guide school will only get harder the more commitments you have. So, even if you feel old now, the longer you wait, the older you’ll feel when you finally commit to going back to school.

Reason #6 You’ll Tighten Your Technique
Although I have been private boating for several years and I fancy myself decent at reading water and navigating it, I’m definitely as guilty as the next guy of sloppy Joe technique. Caught downstream oars, pointing the barrels of the oar grips at my face and body far too often, and worst of all, freezing in a moment when I need to be acting are all ways I can improve. Nothing calls you on your shit like crashing through terrace drops on the Upper Klamath River with a boat full of expert guides while you observe from the floor of the raft, because you got bucked out of the captain’s seat, AGAIN. If you can make a run look good on old-school pins and clips, a rodeo frame and heavy-as Sawyer smoker oars, then you’ve made it to the big leagues, and you can make anything look good.

Photo: Main Salmon River, Idaho.

Reason #7 You Get Better at Playing it Cool
After running the Rogue River out of Gold Hill several times as a passenger (the stretch with two class VIs, Nugget and Power House Rapids), it was finally time for me to shadow a commercial trip with an empty raft. To give myself a leg up, I filled a cooler with water to emulate the weight of mock passengers and lashed it to the front of the raft where the bow thwart would typically sit. I was out of my mind with fear and my nervous system was saying eject, eject. I could barely contain my energy.

When we got to Power House, the veteran guide I was following said he was going to run ahead of me and set up safety in case anything went wrong. He told me to hang back with two boats from another company that happened to be at the entrance of the rapid. I told the lead guide of the other company, “Hey mate, I know the beta, I just need to follow y’all’s boats down, to make sure I can find the entrance in this maze—do you mind?” Of course, he couldn’t help mansplaining the whole rapid to me one more time—but I digress.

As we were all shoving off, I started to overthink every paddle stroke on the flatwater, super headed out. But at the last second this little kid looked at my company-issued oars which had several sections broken out on the blades. He said, “What happened to your paddles?” And even though I was nervous I gathered myself and made the most well-timed guide comment I have ever summoned. “SHARKS. It gets really sharky out here.” His face: priceless. I reached a new bar for playing it cool. When you’re (metaphorically) peeing your pants but put on a good show for the guests… nine parts showmanship they say.

Photo: Lochsa River, Idaho

Reason #8 The More You’re Forced to Drive Pulling a Trailer, the Better You Drive Pulling a Trailer
Although this could be the longest section in this article, I’ll keep it short. Blown fuses, converting four-pin flat to seven-pin round, male to female, lying when you get pulled over, “The lights worked when I left.” And the hands-down worst of all: Driving down a single-lane gravel road for hundreds of yards only to find that it doesn’t lead to the put-in and now you have to find a way to back it all up. Learning to drive with a trailer made me the gritty can-do woman I am today.

Reason #9 Do it For the Glory Moments
The most rewarding moment of the entire training program, which lasted about six weeks and included many weeks of job shadowing, was the third and last time I ran the Upper Klamath River. I was behind the sticks for the last four miles or so and around mile 11, I posted up like a hood ornament on a center channel obstacle the size of a whale known as, High Side Rock. Approaching, I thought I’d catch a grandma pillow boof that would lead me down the river right channel. Instead, with great momentum, I launched up the sloped ramp on the backside of the rock and stalled out long enough to look like a baller. I caught the current with my blade which teetered the raft. In slow motion, we slid backward and back into the river right current. Here’s where it gets cheesy. For the moment I was mounted on that rock, I imagined I was Rose at the bow of the Titanic shouting, “I’m the queen of the world!”

In the spring of my 37th year, my biological mother passed away. For the better part of a year, she battled several cancers. Though we had been estranged since my childhood, her fight for life shook me out of the zombied monotony of the middle-class coma I’d been trapped.

Not knowing what to do with the flood of emotion I felt from losing someone both integral to my existence and in all honesty, someone I barely knew, I decided it was a good time to make a big move. I wanted to do something I was afraid of, something I could do battle with, like my mom did battle with cancer. So, I did what any boater in their right mind would do, I signed up for raft guide school. Though I am normally a rather reserved boater, it was spring and high water was happening in my heart. All jokes aside, now you know the real reason I went to guide school.