Original artwork from @Sonja_Tierney on Instagram. Follow her, or the Editor-in-Chief may eat his dog.
Rise, Dear Rookie. Rise.
The sun cuts hot and vicious through the hole in your tent, but it matters not. Last night you abstained from the Pabst and fireside revelry, and rather than an intense suffering, this morning’s UV rays bring you an influx of strength, composure, and confidence.
Today’s the day.
Today is your day.
Today you stake your claim and remove yourself from the ranks of plebeians and peasants. On this day, you join the exalted, and transition from trainee, to river guide.
Yes, my Sweet Rookie. Steel yourself. Your check out run is mere hours away.
On this day, this glorious day, you prove your mettle. You show that those countless hours spent languishing about in frigid water, fumbling with oars, learning a dozen different knots, trying to master a ferry angle and wearing hand-me-down gear weren’t for naught.
You’ve been preparing, paddling, studying, and shivering in a 12-year-old wetsuit for weeks. But no more. No more rushed lunches as the crusty old river manager hollers in your ear. No more nervously anticipating another forced swim or flip. The time has arrived. If all goes as well as you believe it will, after today you’ll start collecting paychecks, and finally be able to afford your own beer.
As is protocol at most raft companies, you’ll take a group of paying customers out on the water, with a veteran guide seated next to you in the back of the boat. This vet will analyze your every move, your interactions with the guests, and your ability to maintain control of your vessel. If you bring your tourists back to dry land after filling their day with splashes, laughter and mirth, you’ll be on the payroll. One mistake though, and you’re a failure—a waterborne version of the kid who couldn’t parallel park at the DMV on his 17th birthday.
But you’re not worried.
You step into the shop, beaming and cocksure as ever. A few veteran guides murmur their doubts of your ability and shower you with derision. You smile and brush them off. Fools. You’ve logged, like, 200 river miles in training. You’ve tied a bowline knot a bunch of times. You got drunk and gave an almost flawless safety talk atop an ammo can in the boathouse last Thursday night. They know not how ready you are. It’s your day, Sweet Rookie.
You know this to be true, but still, there’s a brief moment of panic as you think about what the safety kayaker just said to you. What was that about watching out for White Tiger? Did he say to set up early on the right bank? Didn’t you start on the left bank in training?
Never mind. You shake it off and remember that today is your day.
You set about pouring yourself a cup of coffee and preparing a hearty breakfast on the hot plate. Water dribbles down your hairless little lips and chin as you help yourself to a glass from the tap, and droplets of bacon grease spit out of the pan and sting your dainty little wrists. A relatively minimal dose of pain, but you wince. Are you sure you’re ready for this, Dear Rookie?
“Yes,” you growl, shoveling dangerously hot pork fat into your mouth, following it with two runny eggs, and washing everything down with coffee and more tap water.
With a belly full of determination, fire, fair-trade caffeine and animal protein, you step into the head boatman’s office. He smells your inexperience in the room, and without looking up from his clipboard, murmurs “River Vixen’s gonna be checking you out.”
The River Vixen.
A ruthless perfectionist, 20 years into the game, with sun-bleached wrinkles that seem to fold into themselves a thousand times, and the forearms of a blacksmith—she’s the crustiest of the crusties and the last person you want checking you out, Dear Rookie.
A stint as a Grand Canyon guide. More than a dozen seasons on the Gauley. Summers on the American, the Rogue, Cherry Creek, the Ocoee and countless private trips on rivers across the West and Southeast. She is the consummate professional guide, born for the water, flawless in her maneuvers on the river, socially inept, and unflinching in her expectations of those guiding alongside her.
She’s the best of the best, cold in her interpersonal relations, a few years away from an emphysema diagnosis, and the only thing she despises more than a ‘No Smoking’ sign, is a rookie river guide.
The bacon grease curdles in your stomach as you step out of the head boatman’s office and back into the dizzying fray of the shop. Guides are scurrying about, throwing equipment to and fro, gathering up paddles and cam straps. Through the haze, you spot The River Vixen at her locker, dragging on her drysuit. She glares back your way, with icy gray eyes, and says “get your shit together.”
At the put-in, The River Vixen stands emotionless and aloof, clad head-to-toe in gear that was purchased before you graduated middle school. Four chubby Texans mill about. The trip leader was kind enough to assign you the most obese group on today’s trip. You breathe deeply, telling yourself it’s fine, that overweight people can paddle too, and you won’t be responsible for any deaths by cardiac arrest today.
The River Vixen taps her watch impatiently and scowls at you. It’s time for the first portion of today’s evaluation: the safety talk.
You step atop the boat and gaze out over your crew—two brothers who look like twin statues sculpted out of brownie batter, and their father and uncle, who seem friendly, though they have no discernible chins or bone structure. Dead-eyed and almost drooling, they stare back at you. Best get started with that safety talk, Dear Rookie.
You stumble through a demonstration of the whitewater swim position and the proper procedure for pulling a swimmer back into the boat. You try to explain what paddle commands you’ll be giving and how the crew should respond to your verbal prompts, but they just stare back with glassed-over, fat-choked eyeballs, oblivious to all that you’re saying. The whole thing is a stammering, meandering mess, and by the end of it you’re dripping sweat. Nonetheless, you feel like you covered all the major points, despite the clear confusion painted across your crew’s flabby faces.
As they move to pick up the boat and head to the water, The River Vixen sighs and rushes to your side. She hisses in your ear, her scorn carrying with it the scent of a half pack of Natural Spirits (the blue ones).
“Throw bags. You forgot about the fucking throw bags.”
Oh, no. Oh, my. Oh, good heavens, Dear Rookie.
You scramble to pick up a throw bag, to halt your crew’s progression down to the water, and to catch their attention once more. Like Neanderthals facing a blazing fire for the first time, they turn around in wonder, just as you inadvertently pull an extra ten feet of rope from the bag, wrap it round your ankles in your haste, and eat shit in the dirt. Standing, covered in dust and radiating shame, you explain how a throw bag might be deployed in a rescue scenario, catch your breath, ignore their blank stares, and turn to The River Vixen for approval. She nods and nibbles her lip, desperate for a smoke and her time with you to come to an end.
The boat’s rubber is hot to the touch beneath an unrelenting sun on the flatwater, but you’re a mile into the float and things seem to be ok. Your gargantuan guests are doing a halfway decent job of responding to paddle commands and The River Vixen has sat idle and disinterested. The small talk has been awkward and strained, but that can’t be helped. So long as you make it through the whitewater and keep everyone safe, you should pass.
There’s another few miles of flatwater ahead of you before entering any of the four major rapids. As the pre-diabetic uncle prattles on about his homemade barbecue rub, you run through the list in your head.
Eric’s Schmeckle is a Class II—small and inconsequential, much like the Grateful Dead-obsessed guide it’s named after.
Thunderball is slow going, but littered with rocks and boil lines that will take a boat and suck it beneath the surface if the proper angle isn’t maintained.
Boom Room is fast and splashy, with a massive wave at the bottom that hits like a Mac truck and will certainly send paddlers for a swim if it’s not punched head on.
And finally, White Tiger. A massive, rolling shit storm. There’s a rock at the top and the current wants to push you directly into it. Strong paddling and perfect timing are required here, and a tight maneuver along the rock’s edge and then back behind it is the only way through. Get too close though, and the rock will grab hold of your boat and turn it, forcing you to swim through a quarter mile of intense wave trains, where the motion of the river is violent, and air to breathe is sparse.
Just four rapids, and then it’s glory for you, Dear Rookie. Breathe. Ask your dead relatives for strength. Remember what your mother said about how special you are. You can do this.
As you approach Eric’s Schmeckle, your chubby passengers hush up.
You drop into the wave train and go to call a paddle command, but your voice cracks like a boy who just discovered the first hair on his scrotum. Still, the livestock in your boat are right on time with their strokes, and you cruise through with a few happy splashes and bursts of water. They giggle and hoot and holler like pigs in shit, The River Vixen remains expressionless, and you’re one step closer to being a bonafide river guide.
Thankfully, Thunderball goes ok too. There’s a handful of bumps, you brush a few rocks, and after the boat gets caught on a boil line, the uncle almost goes over the edge of the boat tits-first, but one of the cookie dough twins grabs him at the last second.
On the approach to Boom Room, you hear the roar of crashing whitewater bouncing off the canyon walls, and your butthole puckers up ever so slightly. Your passengers bounce around and giggle excitedly, a mess of gelatinous glee. The River Vixen remains stoic and wordless.
You drop over the horizon line flawlessly, right into the center of the main current, which pulls your boat forward at rocket speed. You crash through the first wave train and your passengers lose all composure. They’re not responding to paddle commands as you edge precariously close to the canyon walls. But with a quick corrective stroke, you’ve got the boat back on course and line up with the massive wave at the bottom
A wall of water crashes over your bow, the boat rears up like an unruly horse, and a moment later you’re safe on the other side, your passengers are soaked like hippopotami fresh out of the watering hole.
The River Vixen even nods her approval, though there’s still disdain in her eyes.
Oh, so close, Dear Rookie. You can taste it.
Twenty minutes later you’re approaching White Tiger—the final test.
The flatwater speeds up and the rock looms ahead. You hush your passengers and explain exactly what needs to happen to make it through this safely. They nod with jiggling jowls, and The River Vixen sighs, picking up her paddle for the first time all day.
The speed of the current picks up. You’re gaining ground on the rock, watching water tumble past its sides in violent bursts. What was that the safety kayaker said? Left to right? Right to left?
In a panic, you call all manner of paddle commands. It’s a mess of misdirection, the crew is confused, and the boat gets all topsy-turvy as the current gets even faster. Sun bounces off the surface off the rock, as the water carries you closer. It’s a big rock. Such a preposterously big rock. And it gets bigger. And bigger. You freeze.
The River Vixen tries to correct your hesitation with a long-limbed stroke but she’s too late. You’re too close. Oh no, Dear Rookie. The dream flickers and dies. It’s not your day after all.
With a violent thump, everyone aboard is jolted backwards, and the boat pivots, throwing its side into the granite. You're taking on water fast, getting wrapped round the rock, and everyone is scrambling upwards, desperate to stay out of the drink. But it’s hopeless.
The power of the current at the rock’s edge is too strong and your boat is sucked downward.
You’re going to flip.
Almost 2,000 pounds of man meat flies through the air, and in an instant, your world is a mess of bubbles and ferocious undercurrents. You thrash about, stuck inside a ruthless hydraulic, and a chubby elbow konks you on the side of the head.
Thankfully, the furious hydraulic sets you free, and above, there’s light. Blurry it may be, but it’s light nonetheless. You frantically swim towards it, desperate for air, and break the surface in the middle of a rollicking wave train. Your passengers are scattered yards apart, floating like donuts in a bubbling a fryer, frantically screaming for help. You don’t know what to do. One wave swallows you, and you’re under the surface again. Then another. And another. Oh, what have you done Dear Rookie?
The waves calm though, and now you’re just in swiftwater. One of the brothers is weeping as he floats along. The uncle might be unconscious. All hope is lost.
Then, you turn upstream, and see a silhouette—a glorious hero atop a rebellious rubber beast—The River Vixen.
Quick as a cat, the old crusty wrenches her flip line from her waist, turns the boat back over, climbs inside and sets about cleaning up your mess. You’re the last pulled aboard, and as you heave for air, she shoves a T-grip in your face and growls “Fucking paddle. NOW.”
Back at the shop, you take your verbal lashing from the head boatman and make your way towards the boathouse. There, your passengers are giggling and jiggling, reliving their near-death experience. The River Vixen comes to your side and sparks a cigarette, without a word. Together, you watch the sopping wet bovines strip off their wetsuits and booties, The River Vixen thoroughly exhausted, and you feeling every ounce of shame a young guide can feel.
Minutes later Dad returns from the changing room and waddles your way. He unfolds a greasy hundred-dollar bill, hands it to The River Vixen, and thanks her for keeping everyone safe. There’s an awkward moment where he meets your eyes, shrugs, and doesn’t even bother to shake your hand.
The River Vixen yanks you by the collar towards the cook shack. Oh, no, Dear Rookie. What foul punishment will you face now?
You prepare yourself for a torrent of criticism, or perhaps a flogging. But the old crusty simply shoves you towards the couch and stalks to the fridge. An ice cold Pabst flies through the air, lands in your lap, and suddenly, for the first time all season, there’s some warmth in The River Vixen’s eyes. She pops the tab on her own brew and coos “I’ve got 10 more, kid.”
Drink up and rest up Dear Rookie. There’s always next week.