Whitewater presents a laundry list of hazards and potentially life threatening scenarios.
But if you’re planning on becoming a guide, what you really need to worry about are the creatures you’ll call coworkers. Emerging from their winter slumber at the first sign of snowmelt each spring, these oft-odorous, unseemly beasts will occupy the same space as you—guide camp.
I’ve managed to survive three summers in these lawless shanty towns. How well your first season goes largely depends on how well you coexist with these animals, so here’s a preemptive guide to every kind of river rat that might float your way.
The 2nd Year Sheriff
He’s got one season under his belt, a brand new drysuit and lots of opinions. He’ll bark orders at the put-in, lecture 6th year guides, scold you in front of your guests (even after you run a cleaner line than him) and wax poetic about how rewarding a life on the river is for the mind, body and soul.
He’s gonna dump more swimmers and flip more boats than anyone on the payroll, but as a rookie, you should expect to catch a lot of shit from him. He’ll frame it as “a post-trip briefing”, then get drunk on four PBRs and tell you how much he values your friendship.
When he’s really a dick, feel free to toss some dog shit in his tent, or dump his PFD in the bootie washing bucket, and stick it in the freezer overnight. The good guides will give you high fives.
The dirtbag supreme. He sticks to a strict bimonthly shower schedule and washes his board shorts so infrequently, they’d shatter like glass if you hit them with a hammer.
You can find his socks and dirty undies scattered throughout camp, but at least you’ll never find his toothbrush in the community sink, because he doesn’t own one.
All in all he’s a good guy, and a halfway decent boater, so listen when he gives you feedback. But if you’d like to avoid vomiting in the shop each morning, treat his locker like someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, and don’t get within 6 feet of it.
The Senior Guide
Calm, cool and collected, she’s been guiding for a decade and hasn’t flipped a boat since 2013. Her résumé boasts seasons on the Ocoee, the Chattooga, the American, the Rogue, the Deschutes and the Upper Gauley, plus a grip of Grand Canyon trips.
It doesn’t seem like she ever has an off day, and will be your trip leader more often than not. She parties just as much as everyone else, but still manages to stay stylely on the river. Don’t question her. Whatever she does, you should do too, even if it’s in powder form.
The “Does He Even Work Here” Guy
Hair so long he could braid it with his happy trail. Between bong rips he’ll use adjectives like “mystic” or “infinite” to describe the river, despite only guiding one or two commercial trips a season. He only smokes hand-rolled Bally Shag cigarettes, and says going on that five-day peyote trip in Moab was the best decision he’s ever made (quitting his dishwashing job in town being the second). Don’t take his advice.
The Margarita Queen
She’s loud, she’s proud, and she’s definitely not afraid to expose herself. At some point she’ll wake you, screaming at 2 a.m. about the Bassnectar show she went to in Denver. Common decency is not in her vocabulary and she’s never used an inside voice. If you need somebody to teach you how to finish a fifth of tequila and still run a flawless full day trip the next morning, she’s the one.
The Old Crusty
He’s 50, perpetually sunburnt, never misses a virtual Phish concert and is still pissed off that he didn’t finish that degree and propose to his college girlfriend.
No matter what you say or do, or how often you style a line on the water, you’re always an asshole rookie in his eyes. He’s more than happy to tell you how lazy, unbearable or utterly useless you are, as he smokes a Pall Mall and watches you strap his boat to the bus trailer for him.
Known to break out his pellet gun if a dog starts barking prior to morning boat loading, he’s a crotchety, abrasive bastard, but the dude is a wizard on the water and always runs clean lines.
Buy him a pint of Black Velvet Whisky and massage his ego next time he’s at the bonfire. It might motivate him to give you some tips, or at the very least, redirect his rage at some other innocent bystander.
The Older Crusty
This saggy-balled river sage has been guiding since the Nixon administration, dropped acid with Hunter S. Thompson in Aspen, ran into Janis Joplin at an orgy in Taos and boated with Martin Litton once (Google that name).
He’ll spin you a yarn about the history of whitewater. Bring a six pack and be prepared to sit for a while. His stories involve many long, uncomfortable stretches of silence, as he needs to let his hard drive reboot every few sentences.
The old fossil moves around camp in a slow, awkward shuffle and any time he bends a joint, it sounds like stovetop popcorn. But on the river, he reacts like a cat; a grey, bearded blur of swift paddle strokes and improbable maneuvers.
Off the river, he’ll put on a clinic in PBR consumption, then ask you to help him find the way back to his camper, which has been parked in the same spot for three decades. Do it. River karma is real.
The Overzealous Rookie
He tries to fit words like “rad”, “stoked”, or “gnarly” into every sentence, and always raises his hand when the head boatman asks a question during training. Despite having just as much experience as you, he’ll be the guy telling the entire rookie class how to row on the first practice run with oars. Good news is, he’ll quit after failing his checkout run, ditch town in his 2020 Tacoma with the TRD package and leave a bunch of brand new gear his parents paid for behind. Make sure you call dibs on the drysuit.