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A Letter to Private Boaters on Proper River Etiquette

Dear Private Boaters,

I’m writing to you on behalf of professional paddlers across the American West.

Welcome to whitewater. The outdoor sports community has become so much more open and inclusive in recent years, and we river guides are happy to follow suit. It’s a pleasure to watch our sport grow.

Some of you used a stimulus check to purchase your first boat, while some of you have been at this for a while. Honestly, it’s hard to tell the difference when we run into you out there.

But you’ll find no elitist attitudes, ableism or barrier to entry here. Seasoned rubber pushers are more than thrilled to accept the inept, ignorant and oblivious into our world. All are welcome on the river.

However, a lot of what we’ve seen from you on the water and at river access sites has us a bit concerned. And that’s ok! Don’t fret. Everyone learns how to wipe their own ass at a different age.

Just like your mother breastfed you ‘til eighth grade graduation, we’ll hold your hand ‘til you figure out how to do this river thing right. Next summer will arrive before you know it, so wipe that drool from your face and read on, Sport!

Let’s start at the put-in.


It really means 15 minutes.

While everyone is impressed by your shiny new drybags and spotless Gore-Tex (mad respect for that fat REI dividend), don’t leave your gear spread out everywhere, for every other boater to step around, while you take an hour to drop shuttle at the take out.

That electric blue Tacoma with the full TRD package and ‘The Mountains Are Calling’ bumper sticker is dope too. Congrats on the inheritance. But, when you’re sitting on the tailgate at the top of the ramp, rolling spliffs for 40 minutes and regaling your date with war stories from that Class II boogie water you conquered on the Upper Colorado last weekend, people who make a living doing this are under pressure to keep to a tight schedule and get their boats on the water.

Would you park your car horizontally in front of the McDonald’s drive-thru and take your time enjoying a 20-piece McNugget meal inside, while a dozen other cars wait to order? No, you wouldn’t.

So, set your gear to the side, drop your shuttle, then park your rig near the signs that say ‘PARKING’.

It’s super cool that you’re letting your kid rock a purple mohawk and wear halloween costumes in the middle of July. But it’s super not cool to let they/them sprint around the put-in, screaming, throwing rocks, and jumping up and down on commercial rafts while hard-working guides are trying to deliver a safety orientation that may save their customers’ lives out there. Set your hard kombucha down for a second and reign in that little snot monster. Or maybe leash your crotch goblin.

Which brings me to my next point. The cooler you are to local guides, the more likely you are to have a smooth day on the wet stuff.

I get it. You’ve watched The River Runner on Netflix, like, a dozen times, and your dad’s cousin guided for a half-season on the French Broad in the early 90s. Definitely wear that with pride. Maybe get a paddle tattoo. You’ve got whitewater in your blood, for sure. But, it always helps to remain humble when asking for beta from a local.

If a guide who’s run that particular stretch thousands of times tells you you’re not properly equipped or that you shouldn’t take your 7-year-old nephew through technical Class IV in an overloaded oar boat, you should probably listen. Consider taking off those Oakleys and looking them in the eye too. Ignorance, arrogance and lack of respect get people hurt on the water. If you don’t return from the river, who’s gonna take responsibility for getting the boys hyped before intramural dodgeball every Wednesday night?

Once you’re finally out there, if a guide in the raft behind you hits her whistle and motions towards shore, that means you should row, row, row your dad’s boat into the nearest eddy, and hang out ‘til they pass.

You’re moving too slow and blocking her downstream view, which can start a chain reaction that clogs up the entry to major rapids with multiple boats and creates carnage.

The smart move is falling behind any commercial pod you come across. Local guides drop these rapids two, sometimes even three times a day. They know the way. Play copycat, follow their lines for a smooth ride, and your date will never realize her life’s been in serious danger since the moment you pushed off shore.

Also, flatwater stretches between rapids aren’t an excuse for you to throw a river rave. By all means, drink, laugh and enjoy some music out there. But do it respectfully.

Being the guy with the Bluetooth amp cranked to 10 is the whitewater equivalent of being the dude who puts his phone on speaker and has a 40-minute conversation in the quiet car of a commuter train. If you wanna make your ears bleed to EDM, buy a ticket and go to Red Rocks.

Fishermen along shore want to cast their lines in peace, and that family in the commercial boat shelled out good money to enjoy the high country. They might not have another chance to immerse themselves in nature like this again, and that guide’s gratuity is dependent on them having the best experience possible.

Be courteous to professional paddlers and anyone else you come across out there. They might be the only help you have after failing to keep the flat side of your boat down.

When your day on the river is done, get your raft out of the water, up the ramp, and onto your trailer. Don’t hang out for 40 minutes in an eddy the size of a one-car garage while you and your buddies smoke a bowl and argue over whether you should get sushi or Mexican back in Denver. It’s hard enough for guides to motivate six Houston hogs to carry their boat up the ramp after two hours of paddling without having to tell them to wade around you and the rest of Cobra Kai, too.

And while it might be difficult, try to resist the urge to offer female guides help in carrying that “awfully heavy looking boat”. She knows what she’s doing, and trust me, she’s not interested, bro. Everyone saw the way you panicked after getting stuck on that rock.

In closing, clean up your trash, crush and recycle your cans, and for the love of god, get rid of those ridiculous, UV-protective, fingerless gloves. If you can afford an overnight dry box you’ll never use, you can afford sunscreen at the local grocery store.

See ya out there, Chad.



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