Dream Job: Whitewater Rafting Guide

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A Great Way to Get Your Feet Wet

You wake up in the morning on a gorgeous day, throw on a pair of shorts and sandals, and head out to the river in a national park. You hear whitewater rapids rumble in the background, as you lather on suntan lotion. You get ready to put a raft in the river for your trip under the summer sun through a scenic gorge. What a peaceful vacation.

But wait – you are not on vacation. You just arrived for work.

Such preparations are part of the normal routine for Tom Bashore, a river rafting guide for the Rolling Thunder River Co. in Eastern Tennessee. Bashore was working a construction job a few years ago when he saw an ad in a newspaper for a rafting guide training course given by the Colorado State Parks and Outdoor Recreation department. He paid the $600 fee and learned to lead whitewater rafting trips.

In the western United States, the weather allows for rafting only from May to August, so Bashore headed East where the season extends from March to October. He landed with the Rolling Thunder River Co., which operates in two locations – on the Nantahala River in North Carolina and the Ocoee River in Tennessee. He now manages the Ocoee post.

His duties include loading rafts with equipment in the morning and making sure the raft is safely prepared for the trip. He meets and greets guests, briefs them on what to expect, and gives them a safety speech. Other typical duties for raft guides often include working at the company’s office, making reservations, renting equipment, and helping organize and sell retail goods. Employees may also help guests find lodging at nearby campgrounds, or set up a volleyball court where the clients can play after the trip.

The most important duty, though, is making sure the guests are enjoying themselves. “You need to be an entertainer as much as a raft guide,” Bashore said. “You have to make it fun and keep the guests entertained.” While a positive attitude and friendly personality are a prerequisite for just about any job, it is especially important to have a dynamic and playful personality as a raft guide. “You need to keep everyone smiling and laughing the whole way,” Bashore said.

There is more to becoming a guide than just paddling and telling jokes. Most companies do not require experience, but training is standard. Many companies, including Rolling Thunder, provide free training to new employees. Guides must also be certified to provide First Aid and CPR. Certification courses are inexpensive and readily available. In addition, Bashore has a Wilderness First Responder certification, which involved an eight-day course. This course is also standard for Outward Bound leaders. Other guides in his company are certified paramedics and have other medical certifications. Guides must also be in peak physical condition, because the work is physically demanding.

Bashore leads two-hour long trips for groups of six to 10 people twice a day. Even though he generally stays on the same section of the river, it never gets boring. The stretch he travels was the site of the 1996 Olympic canoe and kayak events, so there are plenty of big waves and large drops. And Bashore makes sure no two trips are the same. “It’s always a different trip. Something new happens every time you’re out there,” he said. “You learn how to read the water, and how to read people. You see what they want to do in a raft, and you take them accordingly. You can take an easy line or hard line, depending on what they want.”

His job allows him to meet a variety of people from all over the country. In fact, one of the best perks is getting to know the clients, even though the trip lasts only a few hours. Once he was invited to visit a guest’s home to go duck hunting, one of his favorite hobbies. Many clients have left their address and telephone number with an open invitation for dinner whenever he visits their town. Other guides Bashore has worked with have even been offered jobs by their guests. “People enjoy themselves and like to help you out,” he said.

In addition to all the free river trips and kayaking opportunities, the best part of the job for Bashore is the freedom. “You can be yourself. You can be an individual. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie.”

The fun can be short-lived, though. When the rafting season ends in October, Bashore has to find jobs for fall and winter. He heads to Michigan, where he works construction jobs, does lawn work, plows snow, and helps out friends who run various businesses. Many rafting guides in Colorado and Utah remain in the area to work at ski slopes as instructors, ski patrollers, or bartenders at resorts.

Bashore warns against becoming a guide if you are looking to strike gold. “Don’t expect to make a lot of money, but expect to have a lot of fun,” he said. Normal pay for a river guide is about $30 per trip, and Bashore usually does two trips a day. He also gets tips, which vary from $2 to $100 and average $15 to $20 per trip. Guides for some companies give five or six trips a day, but Bashore said he finds these trips to be less personal and not as much fun for the clients. He prefers taking his time and focusing on the clients’ entertainment.

If you enjoy entertaining people, want to work outdoors in a natural wonderland, and keep yourself in good physical shape, then head to the nearest whitewater rafting destination…and dream on!

For more information Rolling Thunder River Co. http://www.rollingthunderriverco.com

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