Bad Lines on the Buller River


As we dropped into Whale Creek, my heart stuttered. I braced my foot deeper under the thwart and shouted, “Forward three!” I felt the raft jump forward, the momentum of the first wave combined with the paddlers pulling us into the heart of the rapid. Shit, I thought as the raft careened through the first wave. We were too far left, and after the next wave, we’d type-writer into a churning hydraulic coming off the left wall. Sonny, my trainer, cackled as the passengers whooped and cheered, unaware of their pending predicament.

I leaned over the side tube, drawing with everything I had. It was too little too late, and the raft slammed sideways into the wall. I scrabbled to the high side, shouting some indistinct version of “jump left!” I saw a pair of legs in the air as the front right passenger fell out of the boat, and the raft surged to right itself. The weight redistribution was just enough to save us. Before I could exhale in relief, Sonny grabbed hold of the chicken line and flung himself to the low side of the boat. We made eye contact, and the last thing I saw before the raft flipped was the satanic twinkle of his golden eyes.

I decided to go to New Zealand and become a guide with the fanciful carelessness only a 24-year-old can pull off. I’d started guiding earlier that year, rowing baggage boats in Idaho on the Salmon and Snake. I’d also enthusiastically taken up kayaking. Anytime I had more than 48 hours off, I’d drive to Banks, where I incessantly swam every rapid on the Main Payette.

In the haze of the fire smoke of a guide party one fateful Banks evening, I found myself talking to a tall, black-haired guide from New Zealand. We chatted for about ten minutes, during which I said, “I want to go to the Banks, Idaho of New Zealand.” He answered, “Then go to Murchison and work for Tim.”

A week later, I booked a flight and signed up for my NZRA Swiftwater course, a mandatory training for guides. There were two courses offered. So, I picked the one in Murchison and figured I’d meet Tim when I arrived.

After finishing my season in Idaho, I flew to Christchurch and caught a ride to Murchison with some boaters. On the drive, I learned that Tim was the owner of Ultimate Descents New Zealand and would be helping to run the NZRA course. Calm, quiet, and steely-eyed, Tim was the most intimidating person I’d ever met. Over four days of swiftwater training, I slowly gathered the courage to ask him for a job. On the final day, I bought him a beer, and about halfway through that beer, I asked if Ultimate Descents was hiring. He told me there were a few candidates for the trainee position. They’d probably only keep one, but I was welcome to join the running.

I was nervous and elated as he walked me over to an unfamiliar face. “This is Sonny,” he said, “head guide.” Sonny turned and looked at me so intensely that I averted my eyes as we started to chat. I stared at his bare feet, feeling apprehensive, but Sonny turned out to be as charming as Tim was terrifying. He teased and bantered with me and the other trainees until we were relaxed and laughing.

My first few weeks in Murchison sucked. I felt like I had to be some combination of more cool, likable, and hardworking than the other trainee candidates. Eventually, it was just me; the other trainees had given up or moved on. I think I might simply have been more determined than the rest of them, more keen on spending the southern summer in a town as small and slow as Murchison. It was certainly not based on my guiding skills—I was, by far, the worst guide in the group.

I swam out from under the raft in the calm water below Whale Creek, sputtering as I hauled myself onto the bottom of the overturned boat. Sonny was already there waiting for me. Never one to break face in front of clients, he cajoled and teased them, winking at me, not even hinting that he had effectively flipped my boat on purpose. The message was obvious. How are you going to handle this mess? I smiled through gritted teeth as I got the raft right side up and hauled my passengers back in.

Sonny was an unlikely mentor, and I doubt he ever thought of himself as a mentor at all. He grew up in Murchison and became friends with Tim when he moved to town to start working for Ultimate Descents. Sonny started kayaking, then guiding, a career that took him from Africa to Australia and, finally, home.

Sonny’s methods of teaching were, from my perspective, infuriating. From my very first run on the Buller, the Class III stretch we ran twice a day, Sonny started hounding me about things I couldn’t care less about. I was desperately trying to focus on the water, trace out my lines in the rapids and keep things moving in the current during the swirly, often windy flats. Sonny was far more concerned with my charm. Rather than rapids, he wanted me to focus on my crew, entertaining the guests with stories and jokes.

Sonny could instantly build charisma with the passengers, teasing them and asking them the most offensive questions, leaving them so unarmed that they’d laugh and answer openly. Meanwhile, I never knew what to say. I got in the habit of debriefing with Sonny after every run. He answered questions like “How was my line in Whale Creek?” with, “There was a long awkward silence on your boat in the flatwater before Ariki Rapid.”

Sonny rode along on my boat almost every time I was on the water, giving him a front-row seat to my struggles. After about a month of training, Tim decided to come see how I was doing. The first rapid on the stretch, O’Sullivan’s, was a straightforward, fun Class III. It was so straightforward we would often play in the tail waves after running it, catching the eddy, ferrying back up, and re-entering the rapid.

If you were on a multi-boat trip and had a rowdy crew, you could flip on purpose for some extra fun. Tim and I were on a one-boat trip with a sweet, softspoken family. I was extra nervous with Tim in the boat as I called for a couple of strokes to get us to the top of the eddy. Bouncing in the choppy water on the eddy line, I told the passengers that we would ferry out and ride back down through the tail waves.

“Forward three, hard!” I shouted and threw my paddle out for a big drawstroke, trying to keep the nose of the raft pointed upriver as we entered the biggest tailwave. My angle wasn’t strong enough, and the water caught the edge of the boat, promptly and unceremoniously flipping us. It goes without saying that Tim was not impressed.

A few days later, Sonny and I were hanging up the wetsuits to dry, and I asked him my habitual series of questions about my lines. I listened to what he had to say, then added, “How am I doing, Sonny? How are things going for me?”

“You know, Mia,” he said, “whitewater is not about being perfect. It’s about adapting, being flexible, and being chill enough to overcome whatever the river throws at you.” After a beat, he said, “And some people will never be chill enough.”

I was absolutely crushed.

I felt lost and frustrated, which was intensified by the fact that I was desperately broke. Because training runs didn’t pay, I’d drive shuttle more frequently to earn a few bucks. But by doing that, I was on the river less. I already felt stuck, anxious, and inferior; having Sonny tell me I was too uptight to guide made me want to give up entirely.

One day, Tim’s partner, Solana, took us out on a training run. Solana was reserved, bordering on shy. In the flatwater paddle out, I was surprised to learn she had worked as a sea kayaking guide. Uncertainly, I expressed how I was struggling, how Sonny had been badgering me about socializing with my crew.

Solana didn’t tell me that Sonny was crazy or confirm my fear that I was hopeless. Instead, she shared strategies she had used, like asking everyone what the worst job they’d ever had was. The secret, she said, was to get passengers talking amongst themselves so you could turn your attention to the water.

My turning point did not come overnight. I took what Sonny, Tim, and Solana told me and simply kept trying despite feeling like I would never be good enough. I finally earned my guide license, swimming O’Sullivan’s rapid top to bottom three times as part of my final checkoff. Tim smiled slyly at me the morning I walked in and saw my name on the guideboard, and that was that. I was set loose. With the independence came space to assimilate everything I was learning.

One of the first times I flipped as a trainee, I was trying to do a trick slide along a grass wall in a Class II rapid, one of Sonny’s favorite moves. I overshot it, piling into the riverbank and promptly flipping. Sonny got the raft back upright, and we chased down the passengers.

Sonny was laughing and calm the whole time. Afterward, he told me that there were two lessons to learn. The first is that things happen fast. I needed to get my scene together and get the passengers back into the boat quickly. The second is that if handled right, it will be a funny story and memory they’ll have forever. They’ll laugh when they tell their friends how their boat flipped, how they “almost died,” the momentary terror all a part of the grand adventure of rafting.

As a new guide, I obsessed over whitewater. I wanted to have perfect lines every time, but Sonny taught me to focus more on how people felt. I would never be as charming as him, but I gradually found my voice—sweet and the slightest bit sassy—and slowly learned to employ Solana’s tricks.

The first time I took passengers down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, I didn’t know a single rapid on the stretch. I was completely petrified. Despite feeling frozen inside, I fell back on the skills I’d learned in New Zealand. Chatting merrily, I focused on creating a fun atmosphere as I navigated the puzzle of whitewater ahead.

My first guide spot on the Gauley, I was so terrified that my hands started cramping on the bus. But my crew didn’t see the fear I felt. Somehow, I calmly and intentionally instructed them and laughed with them, letting them—and me—have some fun. I remember watching some of the other new guides look as stricken as their passengers after a flip, and I felt so grateful for Sonny’s training.

That Southern summer, Sonny taught me how to build camaraderie amongst my passengers and how to create stoke when it’s windy and raining. He showed me how to manage and turn fear into focus, turn up the play drive, and help people relax. By focusing on others, Sonny taught me how to control my emotions and respond to the river with flexibility instead of rigidity. He taught me how to be “chill enough to guide.”


Guest contributor Mia Clyatt is a professional river guide and freelance writer. She is an advocate for wilderness and loves to play in the high country, be it skiing, hunting, mountain biking, or dirtbiking. Her writing centers around the outdoors, travel, and sustainability. You can usually find her out on the mountain or the river, wearing lots of glitter. Learn more at www.miaclyatt.com