On Being A River Guide – by John Bryant Baker
“To someone who has not run a rapid before & questions the need to do so at all, the lure of this charging volume of water pouring toward your very own vulnerable, fragile body is difficult to explain . . . it gives an edge to living, a baptism that blesses with a reminder of mortality . . . once is enough for many, & forever not enough for some.”
I drift along the eddy lines, the places where current and calm meet. Here the two touch and dance, whirlpools swirling down and boils rising up from the depths. Here, as everywhere, water seeks equilibrium, balance. Maybe this is why I find myself so drawn to rivers. They are all about seeking balance. Just as in life, along the course towards equilibrium I often find myself in the midst of seeming chaos. The rapids and cataracts, the waterfalls and explosions of whitewater, the eddy lines and their tango of whirlpools and boils. Here, among the waves and whitewater, is where I remember that magic exists. Engulfed by the currents and the colliding of water and rocks, my soul sings and I know what it means to be alive. In the heart of water’s struggle for balance exists this special place I long to be, to know, and to take people to. This is why I am a river guide.
It never ceases to amaze me how life can just reach out a grab me sometimes, pulling me into something I know absolutely nothing about and yet simultaneously I feel more at home in than ever before. This was the case with whitewater. For 41% of my life now, I have been guiding people down the magical ribbons of rivers that lay themselves out across the varying landscapes of this country. From the steep mountain streams amidst the lushness of Appalachia to the rivers that carve away at time and sandstone walls in the desert Southwest, from a few hours in length to 16 days and everything in between. Each river its own personality and lessons to teach, yet everywhere water doing the same thing . . . seeking balance.
I do not wish to romanticize things here or paint you some unrealistic picture of what being a river guide entails. The days are long and the work is hard, both physically and mentally demanding. I’ve been on trips where the temperature is well over 100 degrees and on others when it has barely gotten in the 30s. I’ve paddled through every kind of weather from snow flurries to wind storms to rain so hard I could not see past the front of my raft. All the while, no matter what the conditions, no matter how long of a day it’s been or what the circumstances are, it’s my job to get my guests safely down the river and have that trip be a positive experience for them. There are a lot of factors to juggle, and then when you throw in people, you just never know what you’re going to get.
Anybody can learn to take a raft down a river, even the hardest of rivers. It would take some time, but learning the mechanics of steering and the intricacies of reading water are not some elite, unattainable skills. Like most things, they take time. What separates those who thrive at being river guides form those who can simply get a raft down the river is the ability to guide people. People are the wildcard. The river lives by a few set, unchanging principles, the first and foremost being to seek equilibrium. The same has never and will never be said about people. Every trip, I get to meet a completely new group of people. And it’s not that I simply get to meet them, but I get to interact with them. I get to facilitate one of life’s great adventures for them, and in doing so I have the opportunity to connect with people. Now, just as in regular, everyday life, there are some people who simply suck. Every now and again, those people go rafting. But the vast majority of people show up excited and enthused and ready for an experience, and I consider it one of life’s greatest privileges to be able to share in as well as greatly influence that experience.
Being a river guide does not build up my bank account. It has not gotten me ahead in life financially, nor has it ever offered any kind of health benefits or a retirement plan. But for all that it lacks compared to so many other professions, it easily makes up for and surpasses them in stories and experiences. Life is nothing without relationship, without connection, and there are four relationships we all need to foster: with ourselves, with others, with creation, and with our creator. How lucky am I that a trip down the river allows for all of these.
I remember early on, it was my second season guiding on the New River in West Virginia, I received a letter in the mail. I had taken a family of four down the river one day and out on a climbing trip another. The letter was from the mom, and she was so appreciative. She told me how the trip had impacted their family and how much of an impression I had made on her teenage son and daughter. “Thanks for showing her that a climber/rafter/outdoorsman can hold an intelligent conversation. I wanted to share these thanks especially in regards to one the comments you made when I was expressing a little frustration with the lack of cell phone connection. ‘That’s the beauty of it’ has made me think over & over again about what the important things are. Thank you for bringing me back to the precious moments of living.” What a great memory to be a part of.
On one of my most memorable trips, I took six blind people down the Lower Gauley in the fall. I don’t know if I had ever before or since been so gripped, so focused. The group was amazing, by far the best listeners I have ever interacted with. They asked me to describe everything in as much details as possible as we moved downstream. Before too long, they had attuned their ears so that they could hear specific waves and features that I was describing. At one point, as we were approaching a rapid called Canyon Doors, one of the guys reached out his right hand and finished my sentence for me, “ . . . because all down the right side of the river there are huge cliffs rising up from the water.” Those six blind folks taught me how to “see” the river in a way like I had never before.
Other memories come rushing in. Some being caught out on the river during a flash flood and navigating rapids at water levels not see before, and others a flood waters rising so fast that the safest way out was to hike. I’ve been lucky enough to have certain groups come back for trips time and again, and every time we pick up right were we left off, enjoying some time on the river together. I’ve hugged and held grown men and women in tears on the last day of a one or two week trip through Grand Canyon. Time on a river gets to people. Stepping into adventure with people and sharing experiences and meals and weather and stories and stars, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever known, and that is why I’ll do it until my body won’t let me anymore.
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” The quote by Loren Eiseley is one that I think of often. I feel as though I could go on and on about the many things I’ve learned from my time spent on rivers, but then, lessons are best learned through experiences, not words. So my hope for you is that you go and have your experiences. Go run the rivers and see where they take you and who they bring across your path. Spend time with the water, so that you’ll always remember that magic exists. Find whatever it is that makes your soul sing, and live it out. Just like the water, in your search for balance, onlookers will be captivated by the beauty you make.