College Basics: Reading, Writing and Rafting


As a small-town girl from South Dakota, I had no clue what a liberal arts education had in store for me. I certainly didn’t expect to tie knots in the pouring rain, flip paddle rafts in the campus pool or get abandoned on the Lower Salmon River. I came to Whitman College, a small school in Walla Walla, Washington, mostly for the alliteration. When people asked me where I planned to go after graduation, I just loved replying with an unintelligible tongue-twister.

Despite the town’s funny name, it’s geographically situated in a prime location to have an incredible Outdoor Program. It’s near the Blue Mountains, which gives us our mascot—Let’s Go Bluey! It’s only an hour from the Wallowa Mountains, and most importantly, it sits between the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Score.

I couldn’t wait to try all the outdoor opportunities, but I approached class registration from an academic perspective: Chemistry, check; Humanities, check; Math, check; River Guide Leadership 101—wait, what? My eyes widened as I read the course description: “Two multi-day trips… Lower Salmon River… learn rescue skills, rigging, conflict resolution…” I clicked Register without a second thought.

I’ve been rafting with my family since I was a child. Every summer, we’d pack up and head west to embark on whatever trips we had managed to beg from strangers on the internet (no joke). We’ve had more than a few strange situations over the years. Dog versus bear showdowns, naked Californians, and the harassment of not-so-helpless sheep come to mind. We’ve had some luck winning permits, but not enough to satisfy our seasonal desire for river life, so when I saw that my college would give me two “free” trips on the Lower Salmon, I jumped at the opportunity. This class will be a breeze, I thought. It’s a rafting class, and I know how to raft. I’ll sail through and take my two free trips, thank-you-very-much.

Whitman College had other plans for me.

The class was not just a rafting class. Sure, we were taught the basics, but the class was really intended to teach us how to teach rafting. We were training to become river guides. More importantly, we were training to become leaders.

Our instructor was an experienced rafter and outdoorsman, and he opened our first day with rafting YouTube videos. Then, we went around the room and shared our rafting experience. There was a decent variety of expertise. Some students had been rafting before and were excited to get on the river and show their skills. Others had never been camping, let alone been on a multi-day river trip.

Toward the end of that first class, the instructor gave us each a piece of rope, and we spent the rest of the class practicing some basic knots, like the trucker’s hitch, figure eight, and bowline. The student beside me showcased every knot he knew, including a noose and Prusik handcuffs, which slightly concerned me.

For the second day of class, we met at the campus pool, where we kicked the swimmers out and replaced them with paddle rafts. The professor demonstrated the basic paddle strokes, then turned us loose to teach these strokes to our classmates as if they were clients on a river trip. We took turns sitting in the bow of the raft, trying to explain the importance of always holding onto the T-grip and avoiding Summer Teeth.

These meta-lessons were the foundation of the entire course. We would learn a skill, then pretend as if we didn’t know what we had just learned so that our peers could re-teach it to us. Some students found a lot of comedic value in this type of learning environment. When it was their turn to play guest, they would desperately try paddling with the paddle upside down, before dramatically falling out of the boat, thrashing, and screaming, “Help me! I’m drowning!”

One of our biggest lessons was logistics. Leading up to our big trip, the instructors assigned us to one of four groups: food, personal gear, rafting gear, and paperwork (permits, shuttle, etc.). I was put in the food group, which was certainly eye-opening. When I was a passenger on my dad’s boat, I never learned how much work actually went into the planning of a rafting trip. But as my classmates and I waded through grocery store aisles trying to decide exactly how much instant brownie mix eleven college students could eat, I couldn’t help but think I deserved a math credit for this course. Kudos to my father for doing all the work every single trip.

Two months into the semester, it was time to leave the classroom and embark on our four-day float on the Lower Salmon. We’d learned everything we could while sitting in desks, and now it was time to gain the practical skills that only a river could teach.

No rafting trip is ever fully carefree–my dad taught me that. But in my naivete, I assumed that this was going to be an end-of-semester, pat-on-the-back, you’ve-learned-so-much, let’s go boating kind of trip.

It was not.

At the put-in, the key snapped off in the trailer lock. Yes, the trailer with all our gear. We looked at the lock. We looked at each other. I waited for the group to break down into accusations and panic, but… something else happened. We stayed calm, we took stock of the situation and we discussed our options.

We shimmied the key out of the lock, found the spare, and at last, pushed off into the river. The first (unplanned) lesson on the Lower Salmon was to stay calm and assess your situation.

Although we had discussed our experience level in class, the lack of experience for some of the students really shone once we got on the water. I realized that professional guides and trip leaders encounter these novice boaters–novice outdoorspeople, even–every season. If we were to become trip leaders, we would need to be able to recognize and cater the experience to our audience. It’s common for first-timers approaching rapids to panic. But panicking is not productive, and it spreads like wildfire. It’s the leader’s job to provide a good example and remain calm, no matter what happens.

This happened occasionally, especially at the beginning. Our instructors had a “trial-by-fire” approach to running rapids. Each day, the instructors assigned someone as either a paddle-raft captain or an oar-rig rower. For some students, their day as leader was the first time they had ever seen a rapid. As they approached it, the challenge doubled as they also had to lead the other students in the boat. This sudden responsibility startled some students to the point the instructor had to take over mid-rapid. However, we debriefed after every run: what could have gone better, how could we have changed the route or our tactic, what commands were needed. The feedback seemed to help, and soon the student leaders were back in the captain’s seat, confidently calling the shots.

Eventually, panic stepped aside for hilarity. Those who had never been on a rafting trip were excited to see what our paddle rafts and oar boats were capable of. We flipped them over and flipped them back; we surfed them (and lost an oar). We stacked them and linked them and took them down some extremely fun rapids.

We scouted several Class III rapids and switched out rowers and paddle raft captains for each one to ensure everyone gained equal experience. When we reached China, the Lower’s most notorious rapid, it was my turn in the guide seat. While I’ve been on the Main and the Middle Fork, I’ve never rafted the Lower, and so I was excited for the challenge. China is a turbulent Class III with a famous little hazard called “The Toaster.” (Cue apprehensive music.)

China may not be a mandatory scout for experienced boaters, but we eddied out and hiked the short trail to get our eyes on the rapid. We discussed what we could see. Both the far left and the far right looked interesting, but everyone in our group agreed that we wanted to hit the wildest part of the river: A huge, messy wave located center-left. We’d been plowing through waves all trip, and everyone loved getting soaked. As a crew, we firmly decided to hit that wave as hard as we could.

Just before we peeled out, our instructor reminded us to ask for concerns from members of the group. We opened the floor to feedback, and that same instructor spoke up.

The wave we wanted to hit was actually the Toaster, a dangerous feature created by submerged boulders, one right after the other. If a raft tried to go over it, it would be sucked down between the boulders, and the passengers would be… well, toast.

After learning that our anticipated fun ride would actually be a death trap, we had no choice but to choose a safer route. We talked it through as a crew, and this time, we remembered to take feedback into the mix.

Feedback was also a big part of the camp life. We had a campfire most nights, and we used the around-the-fire conversation to reflect on leadership and communication. Each of us had a specified role during the day. Some people were paddle captains, some people were cook crew, some were TLs, and some were on groover duty. The roles switched each day, which provided us all an opportunity to lead in different ways. At the fire each night, we would recap how we felt about the day’s events.

We critiqued ourselves, which led to some very introspective comments. Then, those who were comfortable receiving feedback listened to the other students’ critiques. Asking for consent allowed each student to embrace the feedback or turn it down if they weren’t ready for it.

I had my own humbling fireside moment as a leader. As a TL on the third day, it was my job to make sure the morning rigging went smoothly. Now, I definitely still struggled with some of the knots that we had been learning, but I had the butterfly coil down. A student who was assigned to an oar rig was having some trouble remembering how to do the knot, and she asked me if I remembered the steps. Impatient to get on the river, and wanting to be as efficient as possible at my job, I said, “It’s fine; just give it to me and I’ll do it.”

Later, at the campfire, she privately told me that she was disappointed in my response. She had been looking forward to practicing the knot, and by doing it for her, I deprived her of a learning opportunity and an opportunity to do her job.

Her comment caught me off-guard. I thought I was being helpful, but she made me see that good intentions can have bad results. After I apologized, I resolved to lead in a way that allowed others to learn and lead in their own right.

I had never been in a group where open conversations were this welcomed. It took some getting used to, but I learned so much about communication and the importance of starting a dialogue between and about leaders.

On our last morning on the river, we woke up to a suspiciously quiet camp and a note hidden in the breakfast drybox: “You’ve learned so much, and now it’s time to spread your wings and fly. Remember to help each other, rig to flip, and have fun. We’ll be waiting downstream.”

We looked at the shoreline. Where there had been five boats anchored the night before, only four remained. Gasp! They stole our boat! Not only that, but they stole our water heater! They were somewhere downriver having a lovely breakfast with coffee, while we were alone and frightened on a narrow beach. Despite the shock of learning of our abandonment, there was really nothing to do but carry on as usual.

That morning, we were more productive than ever. We wriggled into our cold wetsuits (the worst part of every morning) and rigged the boats in record time. Everyone exhibited incredible self-leadership by packing up their dry bags immediately after breakfast. We stuck to our roles, assigned the night before, and helped each other where we could.

One student performed a “rigging test” on our boats by screaming like a wild baboon, leaping from boat to boat, and throwing anything that wasn’t strapped down. The only casualties were a helmet and a day-old pretzel that was just soggy enough to merit a long discussion of who was brave enough to eat it.

In the moment, our abandonment was slightly terrifying and maybe the comedic commotion was a way to subdue the fear. But it also taught us–yet another–valuable lesson. Sometimes leadership means taking a step back and letting people figure it out for themselves. When we saw our instructors again, we were proud to tell them of our group organization and efficiency.

As the semester wrapped up, so too did our rafting crew. We hung up our helmets and paddles. Our rafting group dispersed as we all crammed for other class finals. We came together one last time for the rafting final: a 3-to-1 mechanical advantage ropes system, otherwise known as a z-drag. On a side lawn by the raft house, we reminisced about the trip we had taken together, even as we clipped carabiners with trembling fingers as it poured rain and sleet. Did our instructor cancel the final? No, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

As I headed home for Christmas, I was already cooking up my future river guide application in my head. Seeing a river trip as a leader gave me a new appreciation for the lifestyle. I wanted to continue practicing what I’d learned so I could share the experience with others. I also wanted to continue learning from others. Leadership is an ongoing, ever-changing skill, on and off the river. Of all the lessons I learned in River Guide Leadership, that is the one I hope to take with me throughout my life.


Guest contributor Carlie Johnson is a student and river enthusiast at Whitman College. She’s been going on whitewater adventures with her family since she was a child, but now she embarks on the adventure of higher education. Photos courtesy of Stuart Chapin, Hana Rottach, Sofia DeFantes and Qichen Cai.