A Well-Rounded Education

Raft-guide school: high water and high anxiety.

I'm always amazed at how rivers can shape people in the same way they shape rocks—if you spend enough time on a river it will eventually wear away the rough edges and make you smoother and more rounded. But you have to pay your dues, leave your ego on the shore, and be willing to get knocked around a bit. A couple of examples come to mind.

High-water training. Nothing strikes fear in a raft guide's heart like those three words. To the initiated, experienced raft guide, spring training trips mean several days of being cold, wet, adrenalized, and sodomized (Mother Nature can be cruel). But, to the rookie guide, talk of high water doesn't yet have any meaning. It's like trying to explain Christmas to children who have never opened gifts—words can't capture the experience. No amount of preparation will mentally prepare them for the surprises they are about to receive!

Derek showed up at spring training after driving for two straight days from down south. He had been a college baseball player and was a thick-necked, bowed-up super stud. Good-looking and loud-mouthed, he was the kind of guy that in all ways stood out and was bigger than life. However, the first two days of training during the May runoff were a little more than he could handle. Being ejected twice into the snow-melt-fueled torrent and then swimming big-water rapids was too much for Jocko. He’d had enough—he preferred to be the dominant force, and the river was just too much for him. So, he packed his duffle and headed home to Arkansas—back to where he was safe and dry.

Samantha was just the opposite. She was a beautiful Jewish American Princess from the Chicago suburbs. She left Illinois to escape an abusive relationship and ended up on a permanent vacation in Montana. She heard about the guide-training program and figured she'd give it a shot. She had virtually no experience outdoors. She'd never even been camping. Soaking wet she couldn't have weighed more than 110 pounds. Fortunately for her, 98 of those pounds were heart. However, we didn't know that yet—we bet she'd make it through one day of training before she'd wash out and go home.

The first day was brutal; it was 48 degrees and raining—perfect rafting weather. Samantha was in a raft that flipped, and she swam straight into a log-jam strainer and was sucked under. She popped up 20 yards downstream with a stick impaled in her cheek and lip. She looked like a member of some primitive tribe with a strange piercing ritual. She was very shaken, but her spirits were still high. She wanted to finish the trip—we wanted her evacuated. After a visit to the emergency room to have the stick removed, she was right back on the water, learning to row and read the river. She didn't pass the training course with the other rookies, but she was allowed to keep with it until she mastered all the mandatory skills. It took her all summer but she never gave up, and now a decade and a half later she is the bronzed and muscular head guide of a raft company in Idaho, and she spends her winters as a ski-patroller. Her ex-boyfriend better pray that he never runs into her in a dark alley, because times have changed.

I don't know what happened to the baseball player, but I imagine he's safe in his hometown, playing the role of the big fish in a small town. He probably doesn't talk about his raft-guiding career very often though. Rivers are funny like that—they humble some, and empower others, always wearing us down and rounding our edges.

Jason Matthews founded River Source Outfitters in Paradise Valley and has spent two decades showing his clients the wildest places in Montana by raft, horseback, canoe, foot, and dogsled.