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The 5 Things I learned From Being a White Water Raft Guide

Our raft pinned against the infamous Ambulance Rock - needless to say I owed some beers that afternoon for this near drowning experience. It took two hours to get the raft off the rock.

It happened serendipitously , really , the whole evolution of becoming a guide for me. Much like the river itself various unexpected but wildly strong undercurrents pulled me to it. Some of my family was up visiting me in Watertown, NY for the Summer and I wanted to find something fun for us to do together; having heard of it briefly in passing from co workers I figured it was an ideal weekend to cool off from the summer sun while getting in some action. This wasn't my first exposure to white water per say - I had done the occasional childhood trip down some epic water adventures in Georgia and Tennessee Chattanooga area and when I was at Columbus, GA I dipped my toes into some play-boat kayaking but I never really mastered the roll in my month or so of doing it before moving. Who would have known such a random Saturday activity choice would have so profoundly changed the currents of my life.

First off, I showed up in my own gear- I had a rated life jacket and helmet for white water in Columbus and I certainly preferred my own. I'm standing in the crowd listening to the safety brief when this big ultra tatted dude yells at me , he would later become known as Scary Larry, and if you've ever been down this particular river you know his as one of the most passionate white water fanatics and ultra cool dude. He , in front of everyone, calls me out and tells me I can't wear my own sh*t. I'm caught off guard and honestly pretty urked since I know my stuff was made for this particular setting. We digress and I don't think much of it until at the half way point in the river he comes over to me and apologizes. We get to chatting I unveil that I live locally and that I had a brief run-in with white water kayaking etc etc. He proceeds to tell me if I like it I should come out for guide training Saturdays at 7 am- he really sells it with the free rafting and Labatt Blue sponsorship! Needless to say, I had an epic time as our raft split waves and drops , spitting up white water all afternoon.

The next Saturday, my alarm went off a little earlier than I prefer on a weekend morning - actually the fact that there's an alarm at all is not ideal and reserved exclusively for adventure days. I throw on my sweet Patagonia board shorts a t shirt, grab the life jacket and helmet, and head towards the river. As I approach the antiquated, wood building sitting on the hill atop the River I see a tall , skinny lengthy dude lounging on the steps. The building is locked up- I check my watch 6:55am. He is a new river recruit too coaxed into this training expedition neither of us really know what to expect at all. We talk for a bit - which is the start of what would become a truly radical friendship on the river and off. About 7:15 the rickety doors creek open and a guide squints his eyes at the light he obviously hasn't yet seen. Labatt cans litter the floor and another guide is slowly shifting out of one of the still inflated rafts - a few others step into the open space from the coveted guide room. The dirtbag guide summertime vibes are super pronounced and I fully appreciate the commitment to doing what one loves; paddle a beautiful river by day and share rad stories of the day over beer by night. " Trainee's?" one questions out loud, they notion for Zack and I over and start instructing us on how to check rafts and using the air machine. We fill and tote over to the edge of the hill where the rafts then get hooked up to a makeshift zip line that drops the boats into the eddy in the river below where the rafts get staged for the guests. Aspects of it are hard - like carrying inflated rafts, but otherwise this part of the trainee experience is more about paying your dues. We prep the midway snacks and load up gear for the trips. We were mules for payment in water training- worth it ten times over! The first day of training they threw us in an extra raft that accompanied the trip - we had one guide not on rotation that talked it out and helped with the beer quota for the day. We hit ,what we would learn to be one of our major sections of the river, this particular guide newly pinned himself and flips us. I'm thrown from the raft out of the left side, I go under - come up for air and instead meet the bottom of the raft I push myself along the bottom but truthfully it all happened so fast and the water moved us all anyway she wanted. Leaving some skin in the rocks I surface with some fresh blood pouring down my left hand and arm. I was hooked. We spent the summer in rafts sometimes with experienced guides, and sometimes just the few of us, we swam a lot - bled a little, and drank our weight. I perfected my bullshit meter for entertainment, the infamous bullcocker spotting, kayak tunnels, weather towers, and labatt blue pipelines. We , the three core trainees that made it that summer, even managed to pin our raft on Ambulatory Rock - the one rule in this section of the river is to literally avoid that one rock. But - and as this story will elude to - sometimes the river has its own say. I went on to guide with team for two summers thereafter that I will never forget and always remember to casually mention whenever given the chance. In fact, the oar remains a wall fixture with countless stories I love to reminisce on. Summer sunsets, surfs, and supernumerary sweet stories later I have 5 things I learned that will always carry with me on and off the River.

  1. The River Always Has a Say...

Sometimes, you hit the perfect line, sometimes you have perfect synergy and power distribution in the boat, you memorized the features of the river, read the right water levels, it's all going amazing and then sometimes it just doesn't f*cking matter. The River always has a say; kind of a lot like life? Sometimes, things happen regardless of how well we're doing or how hard we're working ,or how hard we think we want something. Sh*t happens and it's in those moments where we are, literally or figuratively, drowning that we learn to take a deep breath of air as it comes and ride it out- feet kicked out in front and avoiding the bottom. We can swim against the current or where we think we want to be , and in some cases it's worth the additional effort, but sometimes trying to go up the river is a whole lot of wasted effort. Choose where you want your energy to go - be deliberate and really dig that oar in, but when the River says we're going this way sometimes it's more about riding it out and putting your energy else where - like how to get back in your boat and get sh*t on a different track. Nahimean? The River, always has a say.

  1. T-UP...

When we're getting ready to hit some gnarly sections of the river like a dope wave, or a sick drop, it's important to T -UP; it can be visualized as pointing the front of the raft directly into contact with that feature. I don't know how to explain the physics of it but it's important. When we hit obstacles, face that sh*t. You can't avoid it, go straight up to it and face that fear, that discomfort, that conflict - T UP! Head on , consciously, and with intent. Understand the problem to the best of your ability then do the best you can. Don't get pushed around - push into it and progress.

  1. Have Fun ...

I feel like this is self explanatory. Enjoy what you do - do things that you enjoy. Be curious, be adventurous, be kind - how does it go , " it's not the happy people who are grateful, it's the grateful people who are happy". We don't know how much, or how little, time we have - f*cking enjoy it! whether we were loading boats, floating on them, or swimming next to them- we had fun. Make mistakes? We all do - learn from them, and .....have fun doing it. Kids and adults alike remember, learning is fun don't ever stop.

  1. Know your shit but understand you don't know shit...

There's extensive actual training that goes into being a guide, for good reason. There's CPR, water navigation, understanding the river features, a written test, a water rescue test on and so forth. You have to know your shit. But also know there's real world application and experience that only comes with time on the River. Your peers and other rad guides are there to keep you , and other people, safe and as aforementioned having fun. I could spew out anything and everything from a book but what does that really mean , not a whole lot, until I understand it enough to see how it works, if it does at all, in the real world. Things, people, places - everything evolves, or it dies... Know your shit but understand there more and really for all the things we think we know, sometimes we don't know as much as we thought we did.

  1. There's always more underneath the surface...

Rip currents, tides, branches, fish, rocks, underwater cave systems... People aren't so different. Get cut off in traffic? Maybe they are rushing to the hospital. Rude person at work? Maybe they are dealing with a family issue at home. I'm not saying actions are always justified but with or without logic there are always reasons. Be empathetic and aware that there's more than what can be seen on the surface.

Being a White water Raft guide was one of the absolute coolest things I have ever had the privilege of exploring. I totally look up to the guides that live for it- live to share it with others, and make the sport and community what it is. Some of the coolest people and experiences I had in Upstate New York were centered around this and the amazing culture it harbors. The 5 things I learned are the result of a few fortunate summers of weekend rafting that will last a lifetime of rivers.

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