Dream vs. Reality: River Guiding

Dream vs. reality river guiding

The truth behind an iconic summer job.

We all know a river guide when we see one: her sunbaked skin and overall grimy appearance are readily apparent. If that’s not enough, her smell will likely alert everyone within a 10-foot radius. Sensory cues aside, river guides often emit a gnarlier-than-thou attitude and use words like “chunder” and “mank” to establish dominance over other boating enthusiasts. And deservedly so. Being a river guide is a distinguished occupation that elicits the envy of all those who witness their glory. No wonder, season after season, college students and desk jockeys abandon their boring everyday jobs to become part of this elite group. But is it truly all tan lines and good times? Let’s find out.

It’s early June, the sun is shining, and the water is remarkably warm for the season. You hop out of your outfitted cargo van, slip on your Chacos, and stroll to the boat house, ready for another glorious day on the river. The sun cuts through the morning cold, allowing you to shed layers and your mild hangover. The lead guide passes out coffee and breakfast burritos, and as you load boats onto the trailer, you banter with your cohorts and get customers equipped. After a quick ride to the put-in, you stand by the river’s edge and soak up its splendor. The water is crisp, clear, and at an ideal flow. A group of shirtless, athletic 20-year-olds are walking your way, claiming to be in your boat. Stellar. They joke around with ease, and you slide right in, as if you’ve known them for years. Their competence is clear, and coordination unmatched. With this whitewater-hungry crew, you crush through waves and weave between rocks with aplomb. After each rapid, you hoist the tip of your paddle into the air; the crew follows suit and you celebrate the triumph with a paddle high-five. When the trip is over, the boys shower you with compliments and marvel at your river mastery. They leave an ample tip along with a folded-up piece of paper: inside, a phone number from one of your many admirers, along with a no-strings-attached invitation to dinner at the best joint in town. Back at the boat house, you share stories of the day’s escapades with the other guides. You crack open a beer, courtesy of your benevolent boss, sit around the fire, and relax. What a day! It doesn’t get much better than this.

It’s early June, the cloud cover’s ominous, and a smattering of snowflakes fall from the sky. You don your damp wetsuit for the seventh day in a row and step out of the old school bus that serves as employee housing. After three trips per day, hauling overweight tourists down the river for two weeks straight, you’re beginning to question your sanity. You arrive at the boat house half asleep and hung over, joining the other guides in an organized panic. Hordes of customers march your way, and you stuff them into PFDs. “I don’t need a wetsuit,” one skinny, prepubescent kid insists. Fine, let him suffer, you think. After tying rafts to the trailer, a morose, prehistoric-looking creature—the lead guide—promptly undoes the knot you just made. He scowls, muttering “This isn’t California, bro.” What does that even mean? At the put-in, clients are divvied out Russian Roulette–style, and you take the bullet: a pair of spectacled grandparents and their adolescent grandchildren—including the little rat, who’s already shivering. You tell a handful of half-hearted jokes to break the ice, but nobody laughs. Screw it, I’ll give ’em a good splash on the first rapid. Moments later, the kids are screaming at the front of your boat while the grandparents half-heartedly dip their paddles in the water. Your boat pins against a rock and whitewater pours in, sending the whole family swimming. There goes your tip. By the time you hit the takeout, the little rat bastard is a pasty white and nearly hypothermic. As punishment for your crew’s carnage, you’re slapped with the beer fine: a 30-rack delivered to the guide shack. It’s gonna be a long summer.