Picture yourself on a large, yellow raft, heading straight for a rock jutting out of the high flowing water, at the very top of a small rapid. You’re the guide in training, and you panic, instruct two backwards paddles, then a front, then a back, oh shit, oh, here comes a bump guys! Lean in! Crash. You hear, “Everyone climb on top the rock, now. Hurry!” One day that voice will be yours.
Now there are six of you standing atop that rock, which feels much smaller than it looked a few minutes ago. The other trainee took off downstream; he bailed as soon as the situation looked sketchy. You should know where he’s at, but you don’t. As you stand on that slippery rock, holding on to your new friends, you watch the raft fill up with water, and then fold itself around the rock, like a taco.
You look at the guide instructor who is training you. A curly-haired cutie with a couple thousand river miles under his dry suit. He’s calm. You ask, somewhat sarcastically, “Is this what you guys would call a wrapped boat?”
He smiles. “I didn’t think it would wrap or I would have prevented it. But yes, this boat is pretty well wrapped!” He blows his whistle and waves his hands to inform the other raft full of Colorado whitewater rafting guide trainees that we’re indeed “wrapped,” and we’re going to need help.
All you’ve heard about, even before you started this training, was that wrapping a boat is the worst thing a guide can do. You were told by a fellow employee of A1 Wildwater that wrapping a boat might be the only thing a guide can do wrong to mess up her chances of getting hired. “I guess this means I’m not getting a job, huh?” you say jokingly, with a loud laugh. You somehow know in this moment, on Day 3 of your course, that it does not mean you won’t get a job.
But you also begin to ask yourself if you even want one.
Being a raft guide, you’ve learned, is much more stressful than getting a tan and an adrenaline rush a couple times a day. As the guide, you’re solely in charge of every customer in your boat. That’s up to seven people in a large raft to keep tabs on. Many fall over on their own account, but if you wrap or flip a boat, they’re all in danger, and it’s your responsibility not only to remain with the boat but to keep a head count and instruct them how and where to act…all while moving rapidly downstream. You must be the first one in or on the upside down boat, you must have your paddle in hand, you must be able to steer it to safety and steer your clients to safety as well. And if something were to go terribly wrong and someone becomes hurt, you must be able to perform the appropriate measures until help arrives, which this far up the Poudre Canyon, could be at least an hour away.
You’re beginning to feel more confident by Day 5, but those rocks are often hard to see with water levels above three feet, covering some just enough to camouflage them into a wave. You steer the boat without too many problems, but then the instructor takes over, tells everyone to jump to the right side of the boat, and he pulls the left side over as everybody falls into the water. It’s upside down, and you try to jump on but it seems impossibly high. Someone pulls you to safety, and when everyone is aboard you huddle in the middle and hold on over the rapids.
It’s so much more fun when the responsibility is not yours, you think.
Then he flips the boat to right it, and once again we’re in the water that, at this upper run, rushes through the canyon walls at 35 degrees fahrenheit. You must climb back in the boat now, without help. Using a handle and a small ring, you try to pull yourself up and over but the thickness of your life vest, the height of the raft, and your overall weak upper body prove this an impossible task. “You can do it, Jess!” yells the cute instructor as he watches you flail. “Dunk yourself and use the buoyancy of your life vest to propel you up.” You try. Fail again. Eventually he pulls you in, to both your dismay and delight. Then pulls the boat over so you can practice in the eddy. You do it without hesitation and proclaim this is certainly not the same.
“As guides you have to be able to pull yourself into the boat first,” he explains. “This is often the safest place to be.”
You understand completely, and think once again that maybe you just aren’t cut out for this gig.
He flips the boat once more, so you can practice climbing in. You bob up and down, dunk your head completely and, determined to beat the imminent rapids, flop yourself over the tube and into the boat with a grunt and few kicks. Proud.
With another week or two of training, you just might get the hang of this after all.
Training to be a Colorado Whitewater Raft Guide: Am I Cut Out for This?