Living in this day and age with a passion for moving water, many people assume this nomadic lifestyle is the ultimate goal. They feel like it feeds their spirit and nourishes their soul. If that’s what you feel, enjoy the ride.

Like anyone captured by whitewater kayaking early on, I loved the sport with a passion. Probably every person reading this magazine has had the same experience. The river once unknown is now suddenly alive. The freedom, challenge and fun seem infinite. Exciting friendships are made and flourish. There’s a sense of authenticity to it all, as if we have grasped the very core of reality.

Quite a few paddlers chase this feeling for years. They become raft guides, video kayakers, instructors or swampers on the Grand Canyon or the Ocoee, from the White Salmon to the Penobscot. Some chase the flows or the competition circuit like bands of gypsies on road trips to Colorado and California, British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario, New Zealand, South America, Nepal and anywhere in between.

Working the rivers gives a sense of status, even superiority for some, and a little money on the dashboard to fuel another road trip or buy another case of PBR. Others find part-time or seasonal jobs or have trust funds allowing them to live the dream for years, even decades.

The secret, if you’re reading this as a how-to column, is minimizing commitments and avoiding responsibilities except when it comes to pursuing the adventure lifestyle.

It is a fact our modern western culture is one of the wealthiest and most free in the history of all civilizations. If you are reading this magazine you are most likely white, upper middle class and a graduate of at least one post-secondary institution, or are on your way to be. You can do almost anything and go almost any place, having the financial freedom to float along following the sun, water, surf, or snow.

Living in this day and age with a passion for moving water, many people assume this nomadic lifestyle is the ultimate goal. They feel like it feeds their spirit and nourishes their soul. If that’s what you feel, enjoy the ride.

As you go, keep in mind that paddling from river to river is easy, without real responsibilities. Sometimes it feels hard and it feels like what you are doing is important, especially if the rivers are difficult. The river life provides challenging, vivid experiences and we feel vibrant, alive and happy. We are surrounded by fun people playing together in beautiful places. These friendships feel more real than anything we have ever experienced.

Over time however you may find some of these friendships are actually more partnerships of convenience. Many of them may disappear when shit hits the fan. The gypsy wagon still leaves town even when you’re broke, injured, pregnant or a family member is diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly your life stops being a fantasy and in the rear-view mirror this nomadic period starts looking like a halfway house, a glorious substitute for a meaningful life with real commitments.

As whitewater paddlers we’re fortunate to be able to enjoy this transition period in life. While chasing something fun but indefinite, there comes a time when we realize that commitment is actually something we want. In some cases it is thrust upon us whether we want it or not.

There are plenty of reasons for change and sometimes no reason at all, just a feeling. One day you wake up in your van and realize there’s more to life than rivers.

Some hold on longer. Others hold on so long the excitement doesn’t seem like the center of the world anymore and by then they don’t know what else to do.

The river doesn’t change. We do. When we start making that transition, living the dream becomes something different than we could ever have imagined at the beginning of the journey, because the dream changes. Don’t worry this is normal and natural. You may someday be nostalgic about your river days of freedom, but you’ll never regret moving on.

The dream changes because through the exploration of rivers and ultimately ourselves we grow to understand better what creates a real life.

If you seek true authenticity you must understand commitment to other people, not unattached freedom, is what creates it. The bonds that come with new dreams are ones we can believe in, bonds that we can trust with our lives.

If you don’t believe me just keep wandering and exploring free flowing rivers, but be ready. Around the next bend you may encounter other feelings that turn out to be even more rewarding. And don’t be surprised if they appear from the very world you’ve been trying to avoid.

Doug Ammons has been paddling rivers for over 40 years, making over 50 first descents from steep creeks to big water in the US, Canada, Mexico, South America and Nepal. His 1992 solo of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River was equated by Outside Magazine to Himalayan climber Reinhold Messner’s epic solo of Mt. Everest. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife, their five children and their grandchildren.

0/5 (0 Reviews)


  1. With summer in full bloom here in Ontario, I’ve been having a lot of nostalgia for my river guiding days. I keep reminding myself that I left it because I didn’t want to be a nomad – hopping from contract to contract with no sense of permanence or commitment. This has reassured me that I made the right decision. Thank you.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here