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How to Pace Yourself for a Lifetime of River Trips

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This winter, a friend of mine and fellow river guide got Covid. Once she recovered, she described to me how the virus made her feel. “I was really tired and my whole body ached, especially my shoulders,” she said. “Honestly, it felt just like the end of rafting season.” I have been fortunate enough to have avoided Covid, but I knew exactly how she felt.

Let me reiterate.

The virus, which has led to a global pandemic, felt—to a guide—like the end of rafting season for her shoulders and energy level. Clearly, that isn’t right and can’t be sustainable. Our conversation led me to think of ways we can pace ourselves better on the river. We love our jobs, and we love our trips, but how can we best prioritize health and longevity while we do it?

The different elements of the river are often at odds with river longevity. The river is fast, adventurous, loud, rushing. It moves quickly and is full of excitement, danger, and can be overpowering and strong. I would like to think that the flatwater and scenic days on the river balance out the tension and stress involved on rapid days. But while we bask in the silence of still water and canyons, the social and/or internal anxieties are given a chance to bubble up.

For guides, that could look like the pressure to continue to be ‘on’ for their guests. For private boaters, that could mean worrying about group dynamics or responsibilities waiting at home. In other words, when the physical demands of the river wane, the mental demands of the river rise. So, what can we do to better sustain ourselves both physically and mentally?

Physical Health
Guides spend long days rowing heavy boats and countless hours hauling coolers and dry boxes from boat to beach and beach to boat. And then, be it mid-day or pre-dinner, they join guests on steep side hikes and end the day sleeping on the ground.

Multi-day boating of any magnitude—from three days on the Salmon to three weeks on the Grand Canyon—takes a toll on even the fittest bodies. Whether you feel that toll in your shoulders—like my Covid friend and me—or in your knees, or your back, every boater I know deals with some form of lingering ache. Pace yourself, and your body, by practicing a routine that gives your body a break, on and off the river.

I know guides who practice morning and evening yoga, and others who do short calisthenics before getting on their boat. And then, between trips they visit a chiropractor or treat themselves to a post-season massage.

Me? My left shoulder is notoriously pesky. My background of rowing 18-foot stern frame behemoths down the Snake River Canyon whitewater stretch five times a day as well as multiple multi-day endeavors throughout each summer has made this worse.

Last April I rowed the Grand Canyon long before I started taking commercial trips that summer, and let’s just say my shoulders were ill-prepared. One technique that I’ve consistently found to be helpful is to take the time to properly organize my skeleton before I get behind the oars. This may sound silly, but if you observe rowers in our lazier moments, we easily slip into a gremlin stance. I’m sure you know it. Feet crossed on the frame in front of us, lumbar spine slouching into the seat, lackadaisically rowing our way down the river. As a rafter, I get it. As a personal trainer, it makes me cringe.

However you raft, whether it’s rowing multiple trips a day as a guide or multiple days on end as a recreational boater, that amount of rowing catches up to you. It’s like bench pressing over and over, all day, every day. You aren’t going to have a very strong bench press if you don’t take the time to organize yourself and focus on your form and power before lifting. Rafting is the same, and though it might look dorky, take the time to retract and depress your scapulas (like your mom always told you—pull your shoulders back and down) before you ever start pushing a boat.

Other things that can help are working on mobility and stability exercises during the off-season. This “prehab” that I’m talking about can help alleviate any early-season soreness or tweaks. Day to day, guiding or tripping, yoga and other restorative stretching practices can help prevent stiffness and soreness and can make for a longer, more comfortable season.

Something is better than nothing; it doesn’t have to be a huge lifestyle change. Take five minutes in the morning to do some shoulder circles and scapula push-ups and then take five seconds to consider your posture before you row four-eight-ten hours. Your shoulders will thank you now and later when you finally pull a coveted permit (or invite) like the Grand. You’ll be thankful that you can still push rubber.

Mental Health
Another important contributor to river health and longevity extends beyond physical health to include the actual chemical makeup of your brain—your mental health.

While on the river, especially on multiday trips like the Grand, it’s essential to take care of your skin, your muscles, your cracked and painful heels, and your peeling and desiccated fingernail beds. It’s equally, if not in some ways more important, to take care of your mental health. I’m not an expert. I’m simply someone who fights through mental health challenges daily and have lived the effects of poor mental health on river trips.

Not to continually harp on the Grand Canyon but being with the same 16 people for three weeks can be emotionally taxing and is especially dependent on group dynamics. In another example, guiding an entire season with the same coworkers can be equally draining. Being able to take an accurate pulse on your mental state is essential for river longevity.

While rowing long multi days, for example, getting caught up in the splendor can quickly carry you away. It’s easy to be engrossed in the endless stream of opportunities for hikes, games, meal prep, etc. On the Grand Canyon last year for example, being honest with myself about the state of my brain was the best thing I could have done for it. I could tell when I needed an hour alone to journal or when a solo side hike would help clear my head and rejuvenate me for the next round of campfire activities that night. FOMO is real, but so is mental exhaustion.

And while the river may require more intentional routines, don’t neglect the routine that works in the front country. Whether that involves medications and supplements, journaling, meditation, breathwork, etc., add that to your river routine. I have friends who brought notes and letters from their therapists on multi-day trips that helped on some of the more challenging days. Whatever other methods of care you have in your toolbox, it is useful to mold them to a life on the river.

Additionally, don’t shoulder the burden of your mental health alone. It’s vital to preemptively create a healthy support group among your trip mates; it’s the best thing I did for myself on the Grand. If you feel comfortable doing so, pull a friend aside before and let them know what you struggle with and how they can help. Maybe in this way, if you have a rough day inside your brain, someone from the outside world can notice and have an idea of how to help you. This can be so much less isolating for folks having a mental health crisis or just a tough day.

Amidst all of the post-river-trip photos and captions oozing with words of positivity and revitalization, rafting isn’t always easy on the mind and body. And that’s okay. I hope that you can take with you something from this article to help you continue to live your best and healthiest life in some of the most beautiful places on earth, for as long as you can. There is a lot to be learned from the river world and it’s in our best interest to extend the amount of time we can spend in it. Here’s to celebrating your next decade on the water!

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. 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. Read more from Caleigh here