Dealing With People: River Guiding
all photos are of the author and belong to the author of this piece
The romanticism of being a river guide all but vanishes come the low water, slower currents, upstream winds and hot dry air of late summer. To pass the time - jokes and wandering conversations arise between passengers traveling from all over the globe. Steering these crowds of tourists who flocked to the region of Yellowstone from all over the world, down the rapids and scenic routes of the Yellowstone River, was my summer job from 19-22 years of age.
Chances are, if you took a trip to Yellowstone, and sat on a large red raft, (or on occasion much older blue ones) during the years of 1999-2002 I may have been your guide.
Aside from certain river navigation skills, "hydrology", reading the currents, identifying hazards and learning the abilities to move a raft quickly whether by paddle or oar about the surface of torrent, there came a different skill set in this occupation; dealing with people. My river skills, however still present are perishable, whereas I believe the skills in dealing with diverse demographics, ethnicities, languages, cultures and personality types was one of the most valuable educations to come out of this low paying, no benefits occupation.
The days often started with a chill. I remember the cold, mountain air of high altitude Gardiner Montana, never warm, always brisk and sharp, dry with no humidity. As guides we arrived early to the office, and "guide shack"- a small wooden shed that sat a few blocks from the office where life jackets and gear were stowed. We fired up old rickety vans, each of them having a nickname, "Bomber" a light blue, old ford, was the one I remember most, as he would loudly backfire anytime you accelerated and released the gas peddle abruptly. Often, we would backfire him on command while driving up the highway along the river, announcing our presence to any of our fellow guides whom we were tasked with picking up at the take out landing.
There was a smell of damp rubber, musty river booties, and stale life jackets about as we would guzzle coffee and inflate boats with vigor, incorporating a tricep workout with raft pumps, attempting to isolate that muscle group with each push of the pump. The rafts were loaded onto flat trailers, hooked to vans and positioned down along a main drag, close to the office, ready to load with tourists/clients.
Our first float was 1030 am with clients arriving at the offices around 1000 hours. As guides, slips of paper, little notepads would have the names of families or "parties" assigned to particular guides at random, unless requested. As guides we would locate the people assigned to us an then meet and greet them.
This was the ice breaker point. You were meeting people, many of them nervous first time rafters, never having been on whitewater, new to Montana, an already perilous and "wild" place in their minds. It was best to start with humor - at least that was my approach. I would often introduce myself stating, "Hi! I am your new guide - this is my first day, first trip, I am glad you all made it, let's have a good time and get through this together!" This was often followed by glances about the van (oh yeah we are in the bomber now, backfiring our way to the put in), and nervous laughter. I would inform them that I jest, get some names, ask where people are from, how many have rafted before and as we crossed the bridge I would point down to the cold 34 degree water churning down the canyon pointing out the rapid called, "Man-eater" as well as "Queen of the River".
On a small gravel lot, above the Gardiner River the vans would park, disgorge tourists, where we then fit them with life jackets and equipped them with paddles. At this step, we as guides would size up the personnel and select who we felt would make strong lead paddlers, 2nds, 3rds and so on. As a group, encircling the raft with hands out our sides carrying these large cumbersome boats, we would then slip and stumble our way down a steep hill fighting the gravel that inevitably found its way into your sandals.
At the rivers edge, we gave a crash course instruction on guide commands, "All forward", "All Back", "STOP", "Left Side Forward", "Right Side Forward - Left Side Back!", and so on. This was followed by a safety brief, how to hold and clutch a throw-bag should you be separated from the boat, what to do if we cap size, and how to float should you be in the river alone. Some were too tough, too cool to listen to the brief. This happened a few times. One was a wealthy frat guy in his 30's from the East Coast, another group I remember were some , already intoxicated bikers on the way to Sturgis for the biker rally (remind me to get back to them). Other groups spoke only Mandarin, Thai, Japanese, Italian, German, or fill in the blank. At this point, after shown the best techniques to sit and paddle, I would begin placing paddlers into assigned locations based on my perception of their strength and ability with the better of them assigned as leads up front. As guide I acted as the main rudder and command, seated on the stern.
It took a crew only one good wave, a slam of ice cold water, pouring through the raft with such a force as to awaken them to the reality of their paid predicament. The first 2 miles of the trip (trips were 8-9 miles) were the most tense, especially in higher water, oh about 8,000-20,000 CFS (cubic feet per second).
I do not have a photo of the Curler. This is a wave at the beginning of the Rock Garden. Author as Guide.
I remember a guide training day where I was training two new guys (Brent & Eric) and the three of us flipped a boat "nose over tail" on a wave we called the California Curler". At that time the river was running over 12,000 CFS, it was May 29th and ice freaking cold! This took place immediately above a section known as, "The Rock Garden". Our boss always said, "If you flip above the Rock Garden - you will never get back in that boat". Hell was that a scramble, pardon me while I digress here and share this story.
It's May 29th, we were making runs through the more tense beginning section and pulling out only after a mile or two, river right just below the rock garden so as to get as many runs through quickly, avoiding the lazier parts of the river. The water was a balmy snowmelt temperature of 39 degrees easy, freaking cold as ice, churning, rolling, pounding and roaring through the boulder strewn bed of its origins. There were only three of us in the smaller Maravia Diablo raft, red with diminishing tube diameters at the bow and stern. It is a light and snappy boat, easy to maneuver. With only three crew, the two trainees sat up front so as to paddle hard and live, "Row well and live Thirty One!" (Ben-Hur Reference). I sat in the back as guide.
We made our first negotiations into some large waves that seemed to have their way with us, dousing the boat with voluminous amounts of sobering ice water. The light raft and weaker than usual paddle power, left us stalling on many of the bigger waves. Identifying our weakness, I shouted to the two up front, "What do you guys think? You up for the Curler?? - Think we can handle it? We're pretty light, and you guys are WEAK!" - The two of them dug deep, wanting to prove their mettle to me and cried out in a drowned rat, war cry, that they indeed wished to dive into the mouth of the California Curler.
This wave deserves description. It only existed at certain water levels, as most waves do. The wave at this level, would build, and build, and build and then KaWOMPFffSsssshhhh crashing after what appeared to be 3 small swelling type build ups of energy, and water. It got its name from the signature appearance of being a curling, crashing wave one would expect on a surfing beach in California. The wave would jut out at an angle from the river right, shortly after passing by the wave known as, "Man Eater".
As we approached the wave, I screamed at the two guides to be, to "ALL FORWARD - HARD - DIG!!". I braced with my oar briefly to punch our nose into the face of the wave when I noticed the pumping action of the wave I had seen oh so many times before - it was in its third or so swelling action and fully formed ready to crash just as we were entering its mouth, the trough, that low point in front of the wave where you are then at its mercy. I was assisting the two up front by also digging in for more momentum when the wave reached out as Poseidon himself wrapping his arms around our small rubber piece of human construct, and slamming upon it with a vengeance and might so as to stall immediately in place. The breaking of the wave exploded in a fury of cold froth tossing the bow of the raft skyward. The stern was sucked into, "the hole" as we travelled through, and were tossed about in the chaos of the Curlers world.
Peering up towards the sky, the world slowed down - our raft was now vertical, perpendicular to the river, straight up and down, with me at the rear, being sucked into the river itself. The two guides seated up front were in free fall, descending into the frigid, milky violence that awaited them. They disappeared into the river. The boat flipped all the way back, and I too was swallowed into the churning madness of cold doom. "Get back in the boat" was the primeval cry of my subconscious mind, retreating into itself with the mammalian survival one is subjected to upon any cold water immersion.
I shot to the surface, partly with aid of my life jacket, as well as rapid strokes of my arms, instinctively clutching my guidestick still. I tossed my paddle into the boat that had miraculously righted after being sucked back against the Curler and flipped a second time in the hydraulic currents around this powerful wave. I barely remember the motion I used, however I felt as though I flew out of the water and into the raft that sat there empty, save me now and being tossed and turned about the chaos. Up popped another head, Brent, red hair and freckles, "how the hell did he keep his glasses on?!" (croakies). Brent had his paddle and he clutched the side of the raft, hoisting his frigid torso into the raft, then his legs. He was cold, and had been held under water a bit longer than I. We darted our eyes about - all of this happening in seconds compressed into nano-seconds. Up came the soggy bearded, drowned cat looking Eric, held under water by tumultuous currents longer than any of us. He gasped in air, no paddle, however cold, shaken and requiring Brent and I to grab the top of his jacket and together hoist him into the raft.
We had to snap to it, there was a distant roar growing louder - the Rock Garden. We had managed to make it back into the raft, above the Garden, however now we had but my paddle and Brents, two of us to control this raft and punch through a descent of boiling, frothing, anger that appeared to be a cataract comprised of California Curlers, one after the other. We picked a line, I braced and J-stroked, tearing my shoulder to pieces as we positioned for a safe line through the insanity. At the mere mercy of the maelstrom we survived the route through the Rock Garden, to find Erics paddle, peacefully turning, dancing alone in an eddy, river left, below the noise of the Garden. We sighed, we laughed, we slapped each other on the backs looking back at what we had just went through and shivered our way to the take out.
Author as Guide
Ok, back to the people part of this. There were times throughout my tenure as a guide where I would have to reach into the cold river and draw out an overboard passenger, or turn a boat so as to rescue one who had fallen out and is now upstream from our raft, or had to calm weeping children, having them sit in the pool of self bailing water by my feet, promising them that I would not let anything happen to them, (that was a good tip day).
I told you to remind me of the bikers mentioned above. Ready? This rowdy crowd of bikers did not have time for me. I was a bronzed, young mountain kid that had a little hemp bead necklace a friend had made me, Maui Jim sunglasses and likely a look of, "whatever dude" cast in the direction of the leather clad, bearded baby boomers adventuring through retirement on steel horses. We did not seem to hit it off well. They refused to be attentive to the brief as well as any instruction I offered. It was my impression they had even arrived slightly intoxicated. Throughout the initial part of the trip, they failed to function as a crew or heed anything that even resembled listening to a command from me the guide in order to maneuver the boat. This is the only time I have done what I am about to share and yes the statute of limitations is expired, as well as my desire to ever be a guide in the future.
Suddenly it dawned upon me. "I'm flipping this boat". Yes, on purpose. I planned it to where I would bring us into a particular rapid, known as the, "Sleeping Giant", just below the Kayak play rapid known as "Slurpy", where I would turn the raft sideways, in a textbook failure, wrong move (hitting a rapid sideways) and literally, "dump truck" the entire lot, including yours truly into the water. This was later in summer, the water a bit warmer, the sun was out and the pool following this rapid made an ideal collection point for casualties.
As we approached the wave, the raucous crowd of vagabonds were boisterously enjoying their self induced anarchical mutiny while their guide grew silent, ignoring their disregard for order. I placed my guide stick into the river, and pulled the boat into a sideways position, just prior to the wave. We dropped into the trough, over the rock, into the hole and BOOM, over we went. I was first to the raft, righted her, and began plucking drenched and now sober, somber individuals from the clutches of what they felt was certain death. It was as if their lives had turned around, as if I had baptized the gang in one mass ceremony down by the river. They arrived back in the boat a different folk, a new person, ready to embrace me and with joy they clasped each other, high fiving, hollering, celebrating, smiling, and thanking me repeatedly. I chuckled. The rest of the trip was wonderful - and we became friends. At the take out, I was paid perhaps the most handsome of tips I ever received as a guide, I believe a real deal C note.
Here is a look at Sleeping Giant. Author as Guide
After the tense parts of the river had passed, as well as when the season wore on, and the levels of intensity the river offered subsided, there came hours of time spent on rafts with people whom I had never met before. Scenic trips where there was no whitewater were always calm and this is where perhaps some of the conversation skills as a guide were honed and perfected.
Having a passion for nature and geology, history, nearly all subjects, I would disgorge information upon my rafts about the surrounding area. Often I would mix in a few tales, some true others not so much. Here is an example of a not so much:
"See that old wooden raft over there", I would say, pointing to an cluster of old, weathered and slimy wood, bound together as some makeshift support for an irrigation pump. "That there is the actual Raft, still there, tied up to this day, that Huckle Berry Finn and Tom Sawyer had many an adventure on. I am always surprised it is still here".
"Really?! Oh my goodness!", they would proclaim, some attempting to take a picture if they were some of the slower ones who actually brought a camera onto the river. Again, I would tell them I was joking.
I would share my understanding of the "Supervolcano", the Yellowstone Caldera, how the area was formed, pointing out various geological features. The Limber pines that lined the river "Pinus Flexilus" were abundant and there was a rich amount of information to share about them along with the river, how special this un-dammed and natural river is.
Jokes would be shared, and discussions abounded as to where people were from, what adventures they were on. I grew to love hearing accents, learning of various parts of the world, meeting people from all walks, all classes. Being thrust into a mix of people at the age of 19 and dealing with 30-40 plus people a day, every day of the Summer, honed in me an ability to get to know people in mere minutes, talk with anyone about anything, share interests, find common ground, be passionate about subjects and learn.
There are countless stories from this chapter in my life and I wish I could share them all, however the best part of that chapter, is the ability I acquired of meeting new people and enjoying the story of everyone. Being a river guide instilled in me a lifetime of confidence to hear where others have gone, and swap yarns and tales, sharing my escapades with you and you with I, getting to become fast friends even though we merely shared seats on a flight or met on a layover, perhaps we sat in an Airport at a bar, or got coffee at a local coffee house and shared a chat about current events. This part of my path fueled in me a burning passion for adventure and meeting new friends.
The immersion into a position that dealt with groups of people, awkward conversations, pulling people out of their shells and forced socialization with a captive audience helped form who I am today, and I am thankful for it. For without those 3 years, I am not sure how well I would be today at meeting YOU.
Sleeping Giant- Author as Guide
Ok addendum here, one final story you may care to hear. There came a point on the river, just above the take out where the river dropped slightly and turned right, appearing to disappear into a steep rocky face, with only a distant roar present as it slipped over a shallow rock bed and no visual to connect to the sound. On occasion, upon coming to this location, I would appear distracted and engrossed in conversation. Then, I would stand tall on the boat and frantically look about in all directions and shout, "Oh know......Oh SHOOT!"
"What?!.......What is it?", the boat of unsuspecting tourists would exclaim, unnerved by seeing their guide in this state.
"We missed our take out point.....and that roar you hear....that is THE WATERFALL", I would say in stern seriousness. "All back...I need you all to paddle all back!" Often, I could barely contain my laughter as I watched the hysterical panic set in on my crew, believing that certain doom was upon us all. They would dig in, paddling completely out of synch, no rhythm, just hysteria.
Yes, again I would tell them this was just a joke, they would sigh and slap my leg propped on the thwart between us and laughter would erupt among most of the crew.
Oh good times!