It is 8 o’clock in the morning and I am standing outside the River House, dressed in full river-guide regalia — base layer of Under Armor, fleece, wetsuit, dry top, wool socks and river shoes — I feel amphibian.
Inside, lead guide Aimee Goglia and co-coordinator Collette Ramirez-Maddock greet me. It is Ramirez-Maddock’s birthday and I am unaware of this until one of the other prospective guides asks her what she intends to do to celebrate.
“Run some rapids,” Ramirez-Maddock says. “Flip some rafts.”
The guides-in-training start to trickle in, as does instructor Salmon Stoich-Norgaard. With all in attendance Goglia goes over the agenda for the day, which consists of us becoming acquainted with the load-up process, putting in at Island Park boat ramp, floating down the Willamette River and back to the River House. While that sounds simple enough, there is a world of things that must occur before the rafts touch the water. A huge part of being a guide is preparation and this is what we are drilled on, first thing.
Learning the layout of the River House storage garage, carefully maneuvering the large awkward rafts and frames around neatly stacked kayaking and sailing equipment, dragging the trailer out and locating the correct gear is only part of the process that must become second nature. A guide must not only be responsible for his/her own personal gear, but also properly stock the rafts with what is needed for the safety of a rafting group. Having extra everything is standard — extra paddles, extra oars, extra life jackets, extra tie-down straps, air pump, z-drag kit, rescue rope, repair kit, dry bags, first aid kit — you need enough gear to have back-up plans for your back-up plan. Then you have to carefully load it all into the rafts, for transport. Next there’s the tie down, which is an exercise in knot tying.
Knots are an invaluable tool of the river-guide trade. Mastering them is a must. The trucker’s hitch, the single bowline, the water knot, the daisy chain, the figure 8 and the prusik are just a few of the knots that a guide must be able to tie. As we cinch down the 12-foot high stack of river rafts to make sure they remain on the trailer for the drive down to the boat dock, Goglia, Ramirez-Maddock and Stoich-Norgaard put on a knot-tying clinic. Some of the prospective guides have previous knot-tying chops, earned from their professions as sailors or arborists. Others fumble and learn. We are showed how to tie a knot, then these knots are untied and the instructors sit back to let us have at it.
“All of these knots are in your guide school manual,” Stoich-Norgaard says. “But you’ll never learn how to be a river guide from reading a manual.”
After all of us have a go at tying knots, learning and failing hands-on, our instructors inspect the tie-down job and adjust our amateur mistakes.
“Don’t worry,” Goglia says. “You’re going to be doing this a few times everyday, plenty of practice for you.”
After double and triple checks on the rafts, the trailer and the equipment, we pile into the bus and head for Island Park boat ramp.
Load out is just as complicated as load in. This is because public boat ramps can be busy places full of other folks looking to get on the water quickly. For this reason it is necessary to have all the rafts and equipment out as quickly and efficiently as possible so as to facilitate getting the trailer out of the way and clearing the boat ramp. This is explained to us by Goglia while Stoich-Norgaard backs the trailer up and Ramirez-Maddock hops out to spot him.
“Alright,” Goglia says. “The clock is ticking.”
She is timing us, to see how quickly we can get all the rafts, gear, and personal items out and into a staging area. It is a process that we will grow accustomed to doing fast but this first time is a mad dash. In a blur of paddles, dry bags, lunches and rafts, the staging area is set. The river is running in front of us, and I can’t wait to get on the rafts. But there are more matters of safety to review first.
A good river guide can make clients feel safe before the rafts meet the water. While it may seem rudimentary, the safety talk given before putting clients onto the rafts is one of the most important parts of a river guide’s duty. There’s a lot to go over: life-jacket checks, managing liquid and solid waste, self-rescuing, what to do if you fall out of the boat, how to swim through a rapid, remembering not to disturb or bring home any of the wildlife, indentifying hazards in the river ahead of time, indentifying poison oak, throw-bag use and hand signals. Above all, a guide must reinforce that the river is a great place to have fun but also a powerful force of nature. Over the course of river guide school, each of us will be asked to successfully give a safety talk to the group. After Goglia’s demonstrative talk, the time finally comes for us to board the rafts and shove off. I end up in Stoich-Norgaard’s paddle raft, with three other students. There is another paddle raft full of students and an oar boat as well.
After getting us into the raft, showing us where and how to sit, Stoich-Norgaard demonstrates paddling techniques. The most simple of these techniques is how to hold the t-grip of the paddle at all times so as not to accidentally knock out your fellow rafters, the more complex techniques range from simultaneous forward and backwards paddle strokes executed by either side at a moment’s notice. This type of paddling can spin the boat sharply and the more proficient the paddlers are, the more leeway the guide has to go for it and catch big rapids. River guiding, like most things in life, is about good communication. A guide must be able to command the paddlers in an effective and confident manner under somewhat stressful situations.
“Okay, who wants to try guiding first?” Stoich-Norgaard asks.
I speak up and the guide paddle is handed to me.