Early sunlight peeks over the dry desert hills and filters in through the dirty windows. He shields his eyes to fight the brightness, a rush of grogginess interrupts his deep, drooling slumber upon a dusty mattress. Scrambling to cram the day’s essentials into a dry bag, and with one eye open, he jumps out of his van, pulls on his board shorts, kicks into Chaco’s, dons sunglasses, and fills two Nalgene’s with water. He slugs down half of one, refills it and heads out to meet his clients. Hopefully covering the final round of cheap whiskey didn’t zero out the prior day’s earnings. It’s 8:57, and this morning’s group arrived little early. They’re eager and alert, and although it’s clear he was not, just moments ago, they’re somewhat prepared to see him like this. After all — raft guides are supposed to be gnarly. Whatever’s lacking in personal hygiene and external preparedness, showing up under the slightest hint of impairment is an uncompromising threshold not to be crossed for obvious reasons; and it also results in instant termination.
The bus crumbles to a halt on the river rock parking area, it’s where they’ll put-in. He handles the group intro & safety speech, checks life vests for snug, and arranges his boat according to age, size and ability. 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, like hypothermia or drowning, are mitigated through proper training and gear, like wetsuits and life jackets. Engaging these hazards appropriately introduces risk, challenge, and the release of endorphins. The result (for most), is fun. What one person calls fun risk, another might view as maniacal. The term for this subjective range is called acceptable risk.
His job is to find the sweet spot for the group’s level of acceptable risk. Today’s family might want to skirt the edge of the hole he slammed head-on yesterday, soaking the high school group and even dumping a few before their laughing peers pulled them back in. A job-well-done results in smiles and laughs. He’ll Make up stories, share fun facts about about the land and topography. He’ll hear “Omigosh! I thought we were goners!” and they’ll ask for group photos and slap high fives. Save for the unkept appearance, he’s learned to be a gentlemen & always gives hand to the ladies & kids. Everyone is offered a cookie after lunch, and he carries extra sun-block to share. They debrief at the take-out, and cement the recent memories. He does this to ensure a full experience. He does it, because tips will come quietly, and in larger sums at the final goodbye.
Back at the boat barn, guides recount the day’s stories as Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” crackles out of a perforated speaker from an old Sanyo. They refuel on potato chips, he takes a long pull from an ice-cold “greenie”. As good as it tastes and feels on his 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 baby! They finish, he grabs his stuff & makes the walk back to the rusty van, where he’ll change out of his wet shorts and into a clean shirt for dinner.
Back at the bar, the group eats dinner together. They all shoot pool and talk loudly while the sunburned tourists dance under neon lights. After obliging to three “last drinks” and paying for a round of cheap whiskey he heads out to retire for the night. Back to his van, down by the river.
What it is, to be a River Guide.