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A day in the life of a raft-guide trainee

Article by Brad Goettemoeller

Recreation – August 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

ON THE ARKANSAS RIVER, you see rafts bouncing downstream with a well-trained guide at the helm. But have you ever thought about how someone becomes a guide? In theory, a guide is trained by mature, responsible and highly skilled instructors in a controlled and safe environment that is conducive to learning. However, my experience was quite the opposite.

I began my river running career with a rafting company near Salida that hired most of its guides from Salida High School. It was a summer job for college students. After 4 or 5 seasons on the river, these guides would graduate from college and move on to bigger and better things. This meant that the most experienced guides were usually between 20 and 23 years of age and had 3 to 5 years of experience on the river. Plus we were all cocky young men who loved to antagonize our older peers at other rafting companies. As such, we earned the dubious nickname of the “Whitewater Kindergarten.”

Our training consisted of partying every night, rising early and running down the river. There was no flip training, wrap training, or knot training in a controlled and safe environment. There were no chalk board discussions about how to read river current, drive a raft, or deal with rafting guests. All of our training was done on the river in the heat of the moment. It was trial by fire everyday for our first year or two. Yet this system worked pretty well for us — except for the tough learning curve.

How did such training work? Fast.

It was June of 1990, my rookie year, and the river was flowing at about 2800 cfs and rising rapidly. The BLM was instituting a new policy of closing the Royal Gorge to commercial rafting at levels above 3500 cfs. I was told by the head boatman that there were going to be three guide training rafts going down the Gorge that afternoon and I would be on one of them. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I’d only seen this section of the river a couple of times before — and at much lower water. But it didn’t matter because I was just going to be a paddler helping to power the raft. Our mature, responsible, and highly skilled senior guides would be in charge.

As we scouted the first difficult rapid called ‘Sunshine’ I realized that this was going to be a long and scary day. My first clue was when we saw a bunch of soaked and frightened people making their way back upstream on both sides of the river. We found out that another rafting company had decided to take five boats of paying customers down the Gorge that day. But they flipped three of their five rafts in Sunshine, so these people were hiking out of the canyon.

We, on the other hand, actually managed to get all of our rafts through Sunshine safely and also helped many of the stranded people get across the river so they could hike out. Score one for the Whitewater Kindergarten.

Our confidence was building. Next up was the Grateful Dead which leads right into Sledgehammer. This rapid had enormous 12-foot waves and holes as big as a VW Bus. Again, we got all three rafts safely through. Score one more for the Whitewater Kindergarten.

THE NEXT RAPID was the Narrows. By most accounts this should have been one of the easier rapids of the day. However, when you stuff 3500 cubic feet per second through a canyon that’s about 25 feet wide, amazing things happen. Waves get really enormous – definitely big enough to flip a raft. Which is exactly what happened. Score one for the river.

The Narrows rapid is the one directly upstream from the Royal Gorge suspension bridge. This rapid feeds right into Wall Slammer rapid just downstream of the bridge, and that delivers you into Boat Eater Rapid. Generally there are significant stretches of slow moving flat water in between these rapids, which gives guides time to recover and breathe easy. But at high water there isn’t any flat water.

The raft that flipped originally had five people in it; two senior guides and three rookies. The two senior guides (Pat and Beau) and one rookie (Jeff) were able to get on top of the overturned raft. The raft I was on was in a small eddy ready to rescue. I threw them a rope which dropped to the river just short of the raft. Jeff the rookie jumped in to grab the rope and then screamed, “Pull me in.” A more experienced guide might have grabbed onto the raft and the rope to try to get the boat to shore. But since we’d never had any flip or rescue training, Jeff did the first thing that came to mind. So now Pat and Beau were left to fend for themselves through Wall Slammer.

What happened to the other two rookie guides? Darren swam to the left shore and climbed up onto the railroad tracks. But in the process, he sliced his shorts open on the steel rebar reinforcing the left shore. This allowed his adolescent manhood to spill out into the fresh Colorado air. Score one more for the river.

To Darren’s chagrin, the tram railway that runs tourists from the rim of the canyon to the bottom had just delivered hundreds of curious Japanese tourists to the observation area overlooking the railroad tracks and river. As the tourists pointed, laughed, and furiously snapped photos, our hero vehemently flipped them the bird with one hand while desperately trying to cover himself with the other. Eventually, Darren worked his way past the Japanese tourists and was safely reunited with our party, just as Beau and Pat were able to get the overturned raft to shore.

WHILE ALL OF THIS was going on, John, the final rookie, was in the water heading toward Wall Slammer. John was small, weighing in at about 130 pounds soaking wet, but he had a giant black Milli Vanilli mop of hair. We chased him downriver and saw him take on the wall at Wall Slammer rapid — and lose. Score one for the river. We kept chasing John, for about a half mile using his black mop as a reference to where he was. We’d crest a wave and yell ‘there he is.’ We’d crest another wave and spot him again.

We finally reached John just before Boat Eater and got him safely into the raft. We ran Boat Eater, got to shore and allowed John to warm up.

After Boat Eater, the canyon eases, the river widens and the rapids become less severe. We finished the remainder of the trip without incident and reached the takeout just before dark.

The one guide who didn’t go on the trip with us, also a rookie, drove the van to the takeout and waited there. He was concerned for us after seeing all sorts of gear floating by for hours: rafts, paddles, oars, oar frames, and coolers.

But we hadn’t lost much gear in our flip. Score one more for the Whitewater Kindergarten. We were fine and had learned some very important lessons, including:

1. If a raft flips get on top of it ASAP.

2. Do not swim to the left shore in the Narrows Rapid.

3. However, if you’re swimming in the river, get out quickly.

4. Even when you do things right, the river can still win.

All in all, that day was a very productive session. Although the teaching process was a bit rough, we learned quickly. And in spite of mocking from our experienced, mature counterparts at other rafting companies, the Whitewater Kindergarten didn’t mess up very often after that. We became good at guiding rafts, partially because we were young and athletic, but mostly because peer pressure can be very motivating — and those senior guides sure did seem to enjoy ridiculing us.

Today, would-be rafters can rest assured that such adventures in Sunshine, Narrows and Sledgehammer are not part of the standard commerical rafting experience. But that is certainly one trip I’ll always remember – and tell stories about.

Brad Goettemoeller grew up in Salida, but now lives in Bend, Oregon. In recent years, he’s exchanged his rafting habit for a kayaking habit, but still gets on the river about 100 days a year.

Brad also produces a website where you can read all about Colorado river rafting (including trip reviews). Just log on to: allaboutrivers.

Information about rafting companies and trips is also available through local chambers, and kayaking lessons in a safe and controlled environment are available through the Salida Hot Springs Pool. Links to local chambers, and guides to area rafting companies, lodging, and other attractions can be found at coloradoheadwaters, or call 877-772-5432, toll free.