If you are considering quitting your job to pursue a fulltime river career, you’re on the right track to becoming a professional dirt bag paddler. This summer I was a river guide on the Nantahala River in beautiful North Carolina and it was the best experience I’ve ever had.
1. Step one of the process? Go to guide school! Guide schools will provide you with the basic skills you will need to become a guide. They range from about $300 – $1000 and some are even free! I attended guide school at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and would highly recommend theirs. Not only did they train me, but it was also like a week long interview which almost guaranteed employment. Not to mention guide school is a ton of fun, basically a week long adult summer camp. Make great friends, drink cheap beer and play on the river all day.
2. Get the necessary certifications before your first day. This sounds like a no brainer but this was the situation of many of my coworkers and it prevented them from actually completing the checkout process with guests. If you attend NOC guide school you can get them all done in about a week with Wilderness First Aid and CPR courses at the beginning and end of each guide school scheduled.
3. Acquiring necessary gear can be an expensive process but have no fear! Most whitewater gear companies such as Astral and NRS offer pro deal programs for guides. It’s usually a simple online application and all they require is proof of employment, usually a paystub, or if you’re newly hired send them the email you received confirming employment.
Decked out in pro deal gear, ready for a Nantahala night run.
4. The next thing I would recommend is finding a rafting mentor to learn from and explore new rivers with. It is extremely helpful to learn from someone who really knows their stuff and when it isn’t in a professional setting like your manager. This summer I boated almost every river I could in the southeast from challenging rivers like the Cheoah (NC) and the Gauley (WV) to lower class rivers like the Pigeon (TN).
This not only led me to meeting awesome people and boating gnarly whitewater, it also brought my confidence up as a guide.
5. Meet your new summer home! Most likely a small screened in structure or the back of your Subaru. Staff housing is almost always very rustic, that being said you will be saving money. Most don’t provide kitchens so plan accordingly. I survived off my mini fridge and microwave, other friends also brought camping stoves. Just make sure you check with your employer to see what kinds of electrical appliances you can bring. Staff housing can be really awesome. I lived in a small cabin on the river that I decorated and made my own, the porch was always covered with paddling gear.
This is where I lived at the NOC, a small community of buildings fairly named “the Doghouses”
6. Aspire to get on the river as much as possible. You’ll become a better guide and have some amazing times with friends. A fan favorite with the company I worked for was surfing at the NOC play wave and running the gnarly class IV Big Wesser Falls. We got on the Nantahala almost everyday and every night we could, based on night time dam releases. Night runs were challenging but awesome opportunities to test your skills out as a guide in complete darkness.
Nantahala guide Slayton Johnson sticks Big Wesser (Class IV) with myself and our good friend Marvin
7. Different strokes for different folks; no two trips will be the same so modify your routine for each group of guests. Some people really love the raft guide jokes and find humor in the fact that you’re dirt broke. Others will just keep to themselves or want to know the history and facts of everything on the river. The best advice I can give you for this is just be yourself at first and if that doesn’t work make a new routine up. As a Nantahala guide it’s not a very technical river so you have to have good people skills and keep them entertained for 2 hours. I found my way around with all the facts and history of the river almost scripted along the trip. Also know you’ll get people who raft all the time or never have so you will have to adapt every trip.
8. The Whitewater community is one of the best communities to be a part of. So get out there, make those contacts and life long friends. There’s nothing better than to talk to someone about whitewater that loves it as much as you do. And then you’ll have paddling buddies on almost every river you go to in your area.
9. Prepare to get low or no tipped at least once in your guide career. Although it’s expected to tip a guide just like you would a good waitress, many folks don’t know this, especially because rafting can be an expensive family excursion. Some companies will put out signs to hint at tipping your guide, which always helps. It’s unfortunate but a reality in the industry.
10. Lastly, go to Whitewater festivals! I would highly suggest attending the Gauley River Festival (West Virginia) in September. It’s about about $40 for all 3 days but it supports American Whitewater which is totally worth it. It’s basically a big party celebrating the awesome Fall Gauley River season which deserves to be celebrated. You’ll reconnect with old friends, make new ones and boat some of the gnarliest whitewater in the US.
Gauley Fest 2017! I was so excited to meet Dane Jackson
Whatever river you guide on this next river season be yourself, have fun and enjoy living the dream. Not many people can call the river their office but you’ll be one of the lucky few. Most importantly have respect for the river, class III or V. I hope you enjoyed these tips and welcome to the raft guide life, you’re gonna love it. – Hannah Fetzer
EDITOR’S NOTE: Hannah is a raft guide and whitewater kayaker from Flagstaff, Arizona. She currently guides on the Nantahala River in North Carolina. Give her a follow on Instagram!