Pushing Rubber: Raft Guide Life

“Left back, right forward …STOP… forward paddle… FORWARD PADDLE!” Initially slow, the crew responded as I cranked on the oars, and after a heart-stopping second the raft picked up momentum in the direction I wanted. Whew. I’ve seen other guides tossed right into the forward section of the raft after a lapse of attention near a big hole while the kayakers carving waves nearby smirked and nodded to one another. As a first-year guide, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. Nope. Summers as a raft guide were going to be about spending time on the water, meeting lots of cool people, making some cash and paddling every night. Well, maybe. 

ON THE RIVER

Every day, eight to twelve new people put their lives in your hands. It’s a big responsibility, and although guests often say they want to go big, their enthusiasm diminishes when they find themselves underneath an upside-down raft. A guide is paid to read not only the river but also the guests, to pick the line that best suits all members of the crew. The introductory safety talk is your time to size up your people, and as with everything, first impressions count for a lot.

“It’s the first two minutes and the first rapid. In the first two minutes they like you as a person, and in the first rapid they respect you as a guide,” said Stacey Pepplar, 23, an Ottawa River guide with Esprit Rafting for the last four years. “If you can get a good relationship with them then, it’s going to be more like going with friends.”

The human factor is important for more than just attitude because the crew is the motor, and it can be tough to get the big hits guests are looking for without a prompt and effective response to commands. On a technical level a raft filled with people might weigh as much as a ton, and they just don’t stop or turn on a dime.

“I had trouble the first two weeks, I was just blowing it, “ said six-year guide Clyde Bersky, 32, a whitewater paddler and racer since 18. “The raft’s so big and heavy—there’s so much momentum. But then a senior guy took me aside and said, ‘All you need to do is exaggerate your ferry angles and set up a couple of seconds earlier.’”

Essentially, raft guiding boils down to reading the river and a six-second rule—two seconds to decide what you need to do; one second to call the command; another for the crew to react; and finally, two tense seconds for the raft to respond. 

You need to take into account the slide of the raft during a manoeuvre and which parts of the raft are on different tongues of water. This means a strong emphasis on being able to read the water—and rafting is probably the best learning vehicle of any of the whitewater sports. Nyssa Golda, 27, a two-year guide and paddler, pointed out, “It’s safe, it’s big, it’s higher up and you can see the hydraulics much better. When you’re just starting on rivers it boosts your confi- dence level much faster.”

And sooner or later, you’ll need confidence. Mishaps happen on the river all the time, and this is where guides earn their money. Guests fall out and rafts flip. Guides have to be on top of their game and clean up rapidly and safely. West Coast rivers are often high-risk, with steep gradients, wooded banks and cold water. But even warm pool-drop rivers like the Ottawa or the Rouge have the potential for serious harm. “The insurance and the liability claims are on the upswing. The thrills and spills and flips and stuff—that’s going on the back-burner,” said Bruce Reiger, river operations manager for Wilderness Tours on the Ottawa River.

With ten people suddenly in the water, two or three of them are going to be pulled away by the current, and the other guides have to get them. At the company I worked for, Hyak River Rafting of Vancouver, if you flipped you bought beer for all the other guides working that day.

OFF THE RIVER

Guiding is 20-percent river fun and 80-per- cent work. A guide’s day starts long before the first guest arrives. Boats need to be loaded, driven to the put-in and rigged. Anywhere up to 300 guests are checking in, signing waiver

forms, getting their lifejackets, paddles and pos- sibly helmets. Kitchen staff need help prepping lunch. All these tasks are repeated in reverse at the end of the day, and all the work is done by— you guessed it—the guides.

Actual job descriptions vary, depending on whether you’re working for a small or large com- pany. At a small company you’ll do everything from food prep to parking to cleaning buses in addition to your day on the river, and this can mean pretty long hours. A typical day is likely to be a five- to six-hour run down the river, plus two to three hours on land. At a large company running a big “compound” you’re more likely to have a designated second job depending on whatever skills you brought to the company. Off- river work is inevitable and although it may not be what you signed up to do, if you want to guide, you’re gonna do it. 

WHY RAFT?

Guiding courses fill with people looking for some kind of change or just looking for cool work outdoors. I’d just finished nine years of service with the Canadian Forces and rafting seemed like a low-stress way to spend the sum- mer, meet some people and learn about the river. Although I’d never gone rafting, I did have my roll and had done just enough paddling to know I needed to learn more.

Jocelyn Dunstan, a.k.a. Jawz, an 18-year-old N’klapkap’muxw native, came from Lytton, B.C., where the Thompson River flows into the Fraser. “My parents, my family and everybody I know lives or works on the Thompson. The river’s part of our lifestyle, with the fishing and everything you just have to be there.” Then there was Sophie, a 22-year-old Quebecois who quickly earned the nickname, “Sophee not Sophie!”

“I did two outdoor trade shows for my old employer in Montreal and right in front of us was a kiosk for a rafting company,” Sophie said, “At a second kiosk another company was looking for guides. I wanted to do something else, and I didn’t want to stay in Quebec so I started looking on the Internet.”

A third student, Brad Braun, 34, a marine electronics technologist, said, “I liked rafting and also I was looking at options. I was tired of my job and wanted to explore something in the outdoors. It was something I had never really done before.”

Interestingly few western guides were there to find a way to be on the river and paddle during their off-time. In fact, among the guides I met, dedicated paddlers were actually a small albeit obvious minority. “Pathetic, isn’t it?” was the only comment of one of the Hyak paddlers who declined to be named. “So many people get into rafting and then don’t go paddling.”

This is not necessarily the case with out East, where most companies are full of paddlers. But if you’re deciding between your regular job and paddling on the weekends versus becoming a guide and living on the river, chances are you won’t paddle any more by becoming a guide. “In July and August I had maybe seven days off,” said Steve Plummer, 31, a senior guide at Esprit Rafting.

Some paddling work is available as safety/video kayakers, or as instructors with some of the larger companies that run paddling schools on the Ottawa. The downside is the small amount of work. Only one safety/video kayaker is needed per trip, and paddlers are usually forced to combine kayaking with guiding to be employed full-time. Only high-end kayakers get the teaching positions. 

In six months I met one guide who had signed up in order to paddle. Mark “Freik” Trueman, 30, said, “Rafting’s a great way to make some cash and be on the river. Its not paddling so I don’t get burned out, and it enabled me to take seven months of the year off to go paddling—but then I lived in a van.”

LIFESTYLE: THE PERKS OF BEING A GUIDE

It’s the People—Guiding tends to attract diverse personalities. One guide had dogs he sent to dog psychoanalysts. Another was a former Wall Street executive who took an early retirement (a very early retirement) for a new low-stress life. A third was perhaps the closest thing I’ve seen to a natural born leader—and didn’t seem to know it. These are the people you’re going to live with, share a single shower with, play Ultimate with, eat and party with. You’re going to get close.

“The core that I work with are just phenomenal,” said Steve Plummer. “I know my back’s covered and there’s great camaraderie between the guides. If someone’s hurting, you pick up the slack, and if you’re in bad shape, they’ll cover you.”

The team aspect is also true in the boat as well as in the company. Ginger Korba, 22, said, “Getting your crew together into a team … very few people come with a bad attitude, they all want to be there.” Giving guests a great day on the river often becomes the draw for the more experienced guides. After guiding for over 20 years, Dirk Van Wijk of OWL Rafting said, “Just seeing the level of enjoyment from our customers—that’s the best part for me.”

And you never know who you’re going to meet. One of the most unusual crews I ever had was a youth group from a Vancouver chapter of the Church of Zoroaster, a nearly extinct Middle Eastern church. Rafting was the activity the church elders had chosen for that weekend. Then there was the British tourist who turned out to be a forensic policeman who’d participated in the proceedings against Bosnian Serb war crimi- nals. But none topped the story of 63-year-old Ron Steers of Alberta, who had guided Pierre Trudeau. “He was excellent. A very fine paddler and a very nice guy. It was an honour to be with him for a day.”

Take a break from life—I worked in emergency management in the military, and after Sept 11 there were quite a few times when I could hardly unwind enough to sleep at night. Once I got to guide school and out on the water, I slept like a baby. As 31-year-old Robb Evis said, “After I come off the water, a bomb could go off behind me but I’d hardly care.”

For people reluctant to leave a career, you don’t have to live on the company property and guide every day. The weekend means more customers, and the need for weekend guides. Bruce Reiger said, “We have weekenders who are policemen, lawyers, teachers, doctors—one guide is in charge of ER at a Montreal hospital.” Guiding is a great way to step outside your hectic life, whether for the weekend or the whole summer.

Lookin’ for love—Guests arrive expecting to have a good time with their guide—both on and off the river. As a guide you represent a lifestyle most people would love to have. Add a little fire- light and your chances have never been better. Romance may be the least recognized but most important perk of all, and as one company owner put it, “It’s what keeps them coming back.” As a guide put it, “The job elicits hero- worship…which often leads to romantic implications.”

But romances between guides and clients tend to be short-lived, while more lasting relationships often develop among the guides them- selves where the scales are more balanced. 

“I met my boyfriend at guide school,” said Stacey Pepplar, 23. “We’ve been together five years now and have been all over: England, Africa, Austria, India, and now back to Canada…It’s been good.” 

THE DOWNSIDE

For first-year guides, the off-river work com- bined with the low financial rewards can be too much, as it was for fellow guide school student Brad Braun: “I didn’t expect to be a peon, and guides seemed replaceable to me. The money was a big issue and I didn’t see myself guiding past the summer anyway.”

Pay rates vary across the country more by region and less by company. For first-year guides, the range is from a low of $55/day (Que.) to a high of $105 (B.C.), with almost all Ontario companies paying in the $60–80 range when the on- and off-river wages are combined. Companies that require you to pay for training also pay more, so overall pay usually works out pretty evenly.

For me, my first paid day was July 7—pretty average among first-year B.C.guides—and my total taxable income for summer came to $3334. Out of that came $1200 for guide school, about $300 in licensing costs, plus my new river-gear. Essentially, I broke even. This is a realistic goal for any first-year guide in Canada. Senior guides can work as many days as they can handle and at higher pay rates, but consider your first sum- mer an investment.

Health issues can also arise for some. Although I gained muscle, guiding can produce repetitive strain injuries. Typical complaints are of shoulder problems from lifting heavy boats and gear, or muscular imbalance from always paddle-guiding on a favourite side. Accidents also happen. I fell off a stack of seven rafts onto a metal boat trailer and spent the next few days limping around at base camp.

NOW HIRING

Across Canada, the major employment opportunities are found on the Ottawa River, on rivers close to Montreal and Quebec, in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and on the Thompson River of B.C. If you have whitewater experience, whether kayak or canoe, you’re already ahead of the game.

Except for in B.C., most companies train their guides for free, and they’re looking for at least one or even two years of whitewater experience. You’ll also need to be a minimum of 18 years old and have Standard First Aid. Courses like Swiftwater Rescue will help you get selected but aren’t essential as you typically get these certifications during training. Submit your resume early; selection begins February–March to start training sometime in May, and although larger companies might be picking 20 or even 30 peo- ple, they receive hundreds of applications.

In B.C., you’ll have to pay for training, and there are a few companies in the East who also offer a guide school. Paying for training does have some advantages. There probably won’t be more than a dozen people in your school, and companies tend to do the bulk of new hiring from the school’s graduates. As well, schools will be competing for your business. Consequently, I was able to choose the course that I felt would make me an all-round water professional rather than simply being trained to run a section of one river. Courses are typically from 10 to 14 days and cost $500–2000, depending on variables like food, accommodation, and certifications offered. If the guide school doesn’t include swiftwater rescue, count on another $500–600.

Currently, only B.C. is government-regulated, and failure to pass the written or practical exams means the only work you’ll get will be off-river. The other provinces are industry-regulated, which means that once you’ve passed the guide training program and additional requirements like whitewater rescue training or first aid, licensing is mostly a formality. Once you have your license you’re free to move around the industry, but remember that if you change companies, you’re usually starting at the bottom of the seniority list.

Transport Canada is developing a regulatory framework to standardize commercial rafting across Canada. Be sure to check with the companies you’re looking at to find out the latest on the bureaucratic hoop-jumping.

THE FINAL WORD

For me, raft guiding was hearing opera sung live in the company van, meeting a logger who pulled a 500-ton locomotive out of a lake, watching the bright white dot of the International Space Station pass over our island campsite on a two-day trip, and moulding a new crew into a team every day.

It wasn’t about the money. Raft guiding is a lifestyle.

Former naval officer Tris Winfield worked on the Chilliwack and Thompson Rivers and can’t get enough of blow-up boats—he is currently travelling by inflatable kayak in the Venezuelan jungle and will return to raft guiding this summer. 

Screen_Shot_2016-04-19_at_12.19.21_PM.pngThis article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions, or click here to read the current issue.

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