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Prized Trait of a River Rafting Guide

The other day I was asked by a client what I look for when I am assessing a potential river rafting guide.  They wanted to know the key characteristics I thought was most important to guide customers for hire.

The coming white water rafting season will be my 38th year leading trips, training new guides and guiding customers on river trips.  Even though I am 'long in the tooth' and nursing a couple of balky joints, I continue to get out on the water as much as I possibly can.  I continue to head up our guide training program each spring because introducing beginners to river running is always one of the highlights of every season.

Let me start by saying everyone who has the penchant to learn can be taught to steer a raft through white water.  Some folks need lots of instruction - verbal and hand's on.  Some folks need lots of repetition in the captain's seat.  But, in four decades, I have seen very few who don't seem capable of picking up the concept of river running once they are exposed to the rudimentary techniques of dealing with moving water.

Now, I have seen plenty of guide candidates who decide the responsibility of the well-being of someone else was not for them.  In my mind, these folks, if they could just clear that mental hurdle, might make the best guides because they already have the key characteristic I am looking for in a guide --- empathy.

Just about every guest that arrives at the bank of the river anxious to get on the water has one thing in common --- they are novices who are completely unfamiliar with rivers, white water and river hydraulics.  From the person who claims they want you to take them to the edge of death and pull them back, to the person who is too terrified to speak, they are all rank beginners.  It is essential for a guide to remember this fact.

It is essential for guides to 'walk a mile in their customer's shoes'.  These novices have no idea what it is like to be may-tagged in a reversal like a load of soggy laundry.  No idea what it feels like when currents are pulling your limbs in every direction as if your feet are tethered to the pedals of a runaway bicycle and your arms are at the mercy of a puppeteer.  No idea of the power of a river.  Probably no idea of how cold they might get if they remain in the water too long.

Guides need to be empathetic.  Remember their training.  Remember their first time adrift in the river like driftwood.  The cold stealing their breath and the river pulling them as if they were taffy.
Learning to be a river guide.
The Dos and Don'ts of river guiding.
Granted the strengths and weaknesses of various novice boaters will vary.  Guides may be more bold with one crew due to their youthfulness, their preparedness, their overall good health.  But, even with these crews, a stellar guide will always have in the back of their mind that 'governor' to reel them back to reality if necessary.  Even the best of crews - at best - will be novices.  They are dependent on the guide's good judgement.

So , as far as I am concerned, the ability to empathize with your guests, no matter how skilled you become, is the single most important trait to look for in a guide.  It can't be taught, but it can be learned.

"Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement."  --- Mulla Nasrudin

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