Sunlight peeks in through the dirty windows. You shield your eyes to fight the brightness, which just flipped a switch to the groggy synapses – slow at first before running smoothly. You scramble to cram essentials into your Dry Bag. Tug on your board shorts, kick into your Chaco’s, don sunglasses, grab the empty Nalgenes, and you’re walking to meet today’s clients. Hopefully last night’s round of cheap whiskey didn’t zero out yesterday’s earnings. It’s 8:57, and this morning’s group is a little early. They’re prepared to see you like this, after all — raft guides are supposed to be gnarly. Gnarly has 3 definitions according to Merriams, 1. Difficult, Hairy. 2. Bad, Nasty. 3. Cool, Good. A proper raft guide might simultaneously embody all three. Whatever’s lacking in personal hygiene and external preparedness, it stops there. Showing up under the slightest hint of impairment is an uncompromising threshold not to be crossed for obvious reasons; it also results in instant termination.
The bus crumbles to a halt on the river rock parking area, this is where everyone will put-in. You handle the group intro & safety speech, check life jackets for snug, and arrange your boat according to age, size and stated ability. The following was learned from coursework in college, so of course, you know it to be true… The types of hazards encountered during any outdoor activity include Objective Hazards — These are the uncontrollable, harsh elements of our natural world, i.e. rolling, swirling icy cold water, powerful enough to move rocks the size of Volkswagens. Subjective Hazards can be equally as harsh, but mitigated through proper training and gear. i.e. drowning (life vest), hypothermia (wetsuit). Engaging these hazards at the appropriate level results in a nice release of endorphins, creating FUN. What one person calls fun, another might view as un-necessary life endangerment, maniacal even. Somewhere between “Even my little sister thinks this is lame,” and “Awesome, let’s do that again!” all the way to “Take me back, this is not okay at all” lies the bar. The term for this moving target is Acceptable Risk, not to be confused with Inherent Risk, which is what the waivers are for.
Your job today is to find the sweet spot for the group’s level of acceptable risk. Today’s family may like to skirt the edge on the hole you slammed head-on yesterday, soaking the high school group before pulling a few back in. A job well done results in smiles and laughs. You will hear “Omigosh! I thought we were goners!” You’ll be asked to take group photos and slap high fives. Always be a gentlemen & give a hand to the ladies & kids. Make up unbelievable stories on the slow sections. The crazier, the better, but you have to buy-in & sell it hard. Everyone gets offered a cookie after lunch. Carry extra sun-block to share. Debrief with the group at the take-out and learn what parts were most memorable. Do this, because it makes for an enjoyable experience, because it redeems your character for showing up unshaven and unkempt this a.m. Do it, because tips will come quietly, and in larger sums at the final goodbye.
Back at the boat barn, you’ll recount the day’s stories with fellow guides, as Led Zepp’s “Stairway to Heaven” crackles out from the half-broken Sanyo. Scarf some potato chips, and take long pull from a cold green Henry Weinhard’s. As good as it tastes on your hot lips, it’s just a quick fuel-up — the time has come to stack all 40+ boats, and team work makes the dream work, buddy.
Now grab your stuff & make the walk back to your rusty van, you’ll need a cleaner shirt for dinner. Just remember…you bought rounds last night, maybe save this for the upcoming semester….
What it is, to be a River Guide.