Surviving River Guide School: Part 1

River Guides in training gathering for a safety talk

Eugene is a city blessed with easy access to two beautiful rivers. Most people who live here visit those waterways seasonally, for recreation and relaxation. But some folks call these rivers their workplace.

For this type of specialized employee, on-the-job training is out of the question because there is simply too much at stake. Welcome to river guide school.

Each April, the River House Outdoor Program (RHOP) hosts its annual river guide school on the waters of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers. The school, which traditionally pulls its students from a select group of City of Eugene Recreation Services staffers, is designed to test the physical and mental skills of Eugene’s prospective river guides.

“I am inspired by the enthusiasm of these prospective guides, and look forward to what this week of guide school holds,” head coordinator Aimee Goglia says.

Guiding groups of people through whitewater rapids isn’t for everyone. Which is why often times, river guides are rare commodity in high demand.

“It takes someone with the river in their blood,” river guide and RHOP guide school graduate Josh Lutje says. “Someone who can flow with the water rather than fight against it.”

That’s sound advice from a veteran river guide. But if you’ve ever stood on the banks of the McKenzie and peered into the rapids, you know that going with the flow in some of those waters is easier said than done.

It was my love of river fishing, outdoor expeditions and a proclivity to chase exciting stories that compelled me to toss my hat in the ring for an opportunity to enroll with RHOP’s guide school. Ever hear that old saying “careful what you wish for?”

The following is the first in a 3-part series of articles documenting river guide school in Eugene. It’s one man’s account of whitewater rafting and what it takes to become a guide in the city of the arts and outdoors.

river house
Prospective river guides suit up

River House is a dynamic place to meet up for anything but this is especially true in terms of an orientation meeting for prospective river guides. That’s because the River House building borders the Willamette River. A guide-in-training can step right outside and be greeted by the sights and sounds of the rushing water they will soon be navigating, that is if said person can brave the chilly spring evening weather. I cannot, and having just come back from a wet and unsuccessful bow hunt, the soft couches, chips and popcorn decorating the meeting space seem to really need my attention.

“Welcome everyone,” Goglia greets us. “Glad you could all make it.”

As Goglia says this to the handful of people sitting around me, I imagine her saying these same words at the bottom of a nasty set of rapids. I think about the ways someone could not make it through a nasty set of rapids. Then I very purposely stop thinking about that. I comfort myself with the understanding that Goglia has been river guiding for 19 years, and is still in one piece.

The initial stages of guide school begin like any other program: Hello, my name is “insert name” and what brings me to the program is “insert reason.” While there is usually nothing more boring than this part of an orientation meeting, that is not the case here. I am actually very interested in knowing these folks’ names and what their reasons for being here are because I will soon be shoulder-to-shoulder with them in a raft careening through raging rapids and some of the decisions they make could seriously effect my life. So what they say and who they are matters more to me than it would if we were just office buddies on some routine staff retreat designed to bring us closer together through sensitivity training and mild-mannered trust-building exercises.

rhop-raftingI spend a great deal of time in nature and have a healthy respect for its power. These are two specific traits I search for in the faces of those around me now. The meet-and-greet section ends and we jump right into river talk. Co-Coordinator Salmon Stroich-Norgaard asks us to form into pairs and compete against each other to see who can organize the correct progression of the International Whitewater Scale. Just reading over the scale is sobering, particularly as we get to the end. It looks like this:

Class 1: Easy. From Moving flat water to small waves. Passages clear.

Class 2: Moderate. Larger Waves, bends in the river. Passages generally clear. Little or no maneuvering.

Class 3: Difficult. Waves high, numerous, irregular. Obstacles, maneuvering necessary. Passages may be narrow or obscured. Scouting recommended.

Class 4: Very difficult. Steep drops with powerful, irregular waves and boiling (white eddies). Requires precise maneuvering due to restricted passages. Scouting mandatory.

Class 5: Extremely difficult. Long, violent rapids. Big drops, heavily obstructed. Steep gradient requires considerable study although may be difficult to do so. Often with “must make” maneuvers. Few, if any alternate routes.

Class 6: High risk to life. Considered unrunnable by most. We go over hand signals to be used on the river, and diagrams of how to enter and exit rapids.

We take a break; cover more river terminology and then head to a separate building where we are fitted for gear and equipment. And just like that, the orientation portion is complete. I am told to meet back at the River House on Sunday, five days later, ready for the water.

The woods are warming up, the turkeys are out and somewhere in the coastal range there is a Spring black bear with my name on it. There’s no doubt that I will spend the next five days before my  guide school journey somewhere in the outdoors. But while I’m in the woods, the river will live in my mind. Eddy lines, whitewater classifications, ferrying technique and hand signals are thoughts that will flow through me as I mentally prepare myself for the process that is to come.

But there is only one thought coursing through me as I leave the River House and climb into my jeep with a bag of gear, a folder full of homework and belly full of popcorn … “Sunday can’t come soon enough.”


Dante Zúñiga-West is an Afro-Latino writer and outdoorsman known to some as “The Backwoods Blaxican.” He escaped Los Angeles and now makes his home in Oregon. His fiction has been published in various literary journals. His novel Rumble Young Man Rumble: How I Fought to Stay Alive is awaiting publication in 2014, on Black Coffee Press. For more adventures, check out his weekly column at or follow him on twitter @BackwoodsBlaxi

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