BY Devin Ream
Being a river guide sounds like a job that is too good to be true, you get to be outdoors, you only work 8 months of the year, and you get to work with people who are just like yourself. There has to be a catch. Right?
BLUE RIVER, Ore – Rafting along the McKenzie River is a small inflatable raft with 7 people on board. Six are rowing forward while one man in the back yells “BUMP!” The boat glides over the edge of a rock and then continues on its way down the river.
Seems like a simple rowing experience but without a good river guide in the back, that bump could have turned into an entire boat flipping over and causing people to get thrown into the river which may lead to injuries or worse.
That is why a river guide is important to the white water rafting company of High Country Expeditions. They train the guides over a long period of time, but you start with the basics in a week-long course taught by George Adelt and Charlie Flume. “Training is a week-long, so we go over everything in that week and teach them how to get around boats, and know the motion of the boat and how to read the river,” says Adelt. It also includes being taught by mentors or more experienced river guides and seeing how they handle the river on any given trip.
“I don’t think there is just one thing, I think the biggest part of it without getting too spiritual here,” Adelt explains,” you need to be just one with the river and something just kind of clicks and it is an ‘a-ha’ moment.” The river is constantly changing, whether that be because of a big weather event, or just a down tree that happened over night, the river will never be the same twice. Focusing on the river and knowing what is going on around you is important, “I’m literally looking at everything, I am looking at joggers on the trail, I’m looking at the rocks coming up, the bend in the river…” said Josh Elmer, a river guide for High Country Expeditions. “It sounds like a generic answer but literally everything,” added Elmer.
Becoming a guide may sound easy with just a week of training and a few guides to keep handy, but the training and the job are not physically easy. Also the attention and focus you must have for hours at a time while on the river is taxing on your mental endurance. One mistake could lead to a situation you don’t want to be in, but that is what training is for, “It is one of those industries that is very self-motivated, and there isn’t always going to be somebody right by your side telling you that you aren’t doing something right or wrong,” said Adelt. “We teach them how to lead the boat and making decisions and following through with those decisions,” added Adelt.
Being a river guide is a great experience, but it also comes with the realities of anything that could be dangerous. During training, there are many exercises about how to rescue a fallen boater or CPR training. A guide may never have to experience this but it is part of the training process to becoming a guide that will be ready for any situation.
Once you get through training, that is when the fun begins for most river guides. “Being outdoors, this area is beautiful and it is exciting getting other people excited,” says Elmer,” getting that thrill factor, it’s simple, it is the outdoors and it is beautiful. I have done the cubicle stuff and it’s not for me.”
You also become another guide in an industry filled with interesting people who have a very specific skill. This creates a small culture for river guides that is close to something like a family. “We work together, we hang out together at night, we eat together. We do everything together. That is the best part, is having a tight group of friends,” says Flume. “It’s a really unique job that we have where we have to trust each other for everything, our lives and everything else,” added Flume.
The journey to becoming a river guide is longer than many expect, but once you are through the training and have guided many rivers, then you start to feel like you are part of a bigger industry and you are living the dream. “I love all the people I work with, we all are like-minded, we all like to be outside, we hang out all the time, it’s almost like family,” says Flume, “and on top of it we get to meet people from all over doing all sorts of fun stuff all the time and we travel a lot and we do different rivers.”
The enjoyment of being a river guide and going through all the steps necessary to be one is an experience that few forget. This eventually leads many individuals to take up the profession and live the dream of guiding rivers. “This time of year, running the upper section that we ran today is one of those moments where I wake up excited,” says Elmer, “the other part, is meeting new people every day and getting people who are afraid in the beginning and then halfway through or by the end they are excited and want to do it again.”
Q&A Josh Elmer
Josh Elmer is a River Navigation Specialist with High Country Expeditions in Blue River, Oregon. He has done river navigation for 8 years.
When you are on the river, what do you think is the best aspect of it?
This time of year, running the upper section that we ran today is one of those moments where I wake up excited. The other part, is meeting new people every day and getting people who are afraid in the beginning and then halfway through or by the end they are excited and want to do it again.
What is the most dangerous aspect of your job?
People that underestimate the water, and don’t take it serious, and logs. Gotta have respect for the water and be aware, and in the northwest trees are our biggest concern.
What is the euphoric moment of doing your job?
Being outdoors, this area is beautiful and it is exciting getting other people excited. Getting that thrill factor, it’s simple, it is the outdoors and it is beautiful. I have done the cubicle stuff and it’s not for me.
Has that made you appreciate your job more?
Every day is kind of a challenge with the fully appreciating what I’m doing, but being reminded of it by other people especially from out-of-state or another country. I take for granted all these trees and beautiful area and somebody will point that out and say, “Wow, look at this, I have never seen anything like this!” It kind of then puts it back into perspective.
What things do you look for when you are guiding on the river?
I’m literally looking at everything, I am looking at joggers on the trail, I’m looking at the rocks coming up, the bend in the river, where the boats are behind me and in front of me, fisherman, that is a big thing we encounter. We’ll come around a bend and they will be in the middle of the river and we’ll be off to the side. Just being conscious of that and keeping that relationship strong. But literally everything, branches moving here, and dogs walking on the trail over there, just gotta be looking at everything. It sounds like a generic answer but literally everything.
How have you seen the environment you work in change?
I have noticed that the season is starting a little bit later and going a little bit longer. I have seen a lot of significant piles of lumber disappear because of high water, and I have seen rapids change into completely different rapid. That is what makes it kind of exciting too, is that it is a very dynamic situation to work in.
What is the most important aspect of the river?
It’s people’s respect for the water and the area basically. We have a beautiful forest here and we have a pretty good level of respect of people not trashing it, and we get it but that is the hardest part of it, is keeping it clean.
Q&A with George Adelt
George Adelt is the President/Owner of High Country Expeditions. He has been a guide for 17 seasons on the McKenzie River. Adelt talks about how to become a river guide and what it takes to make it to where you want to be when it comes to river navigation.
How does someone become a river guide?
Well first we build them a foundation by putting them through guide school and then just getting them out on the water as much as possible with senior guides and other guides from other companies. It is one of those industries that is very self-motivated, and there isn’t always going to be somebody right by your side telling you that you aren’t doing something right or wrong. Some people just don’t show up, but those who do show up seem to stick around.
What guides do you follow during training?
It’s a combination, we create a workbook and we have some reference guides to the river itself. We use that workbook as a reference once we get on the water and on an individual level. Training is a week-long, so we go over everything in that week and teach them how to get around boats, and know the motion of the boat and how to read the river. We teach them how to lead the boat and making decisions and following through with those decisions.
Is there a certain rite of passage for river guides?
It really depends, as a company I can’t tell you much because you would have to be hired by high country. Really, people just become part of an extended family in the company. It isn’t a huge conglomerate or company, so you just become part of the group. Most people stay really close friends and you just become part of this group. Once you get hired on that is what happens, you just become part of the group and we have your back. It’s really a neat industry that way.
Is there any one training exercise that makes you feel like you just get it?
No, it’s really not, it’s different for every person. It is like a fisherman when they fish in different areas. One day you just learn to look at the river in a different way and you see the fish and you see them, and you are just like “oh, there they are.” I don’t think there is just one thing, I think the biggest part of it without getting too spiritual here, you need to be just one with the river and something just kind of clicks and it is an “a-ha” moment. It’s so dynamic and the river is always changing. The progression is pretty rapid, on day one or two of guide school they are wide-eyed, and by day 3 or 4 they are on really good rapids and looking back at the sections in day one or two and finding them to not be too difficult.
Q&A with Charlie Flume
Charlie Flume has been navigating the McKenzie River for 15 seasons. He has taught guide schools, rescue schools, has been a river guide and is the operations manager for High Country Expeditions.
How long is a season?
Our season typically goes from March till October, and typically we tend to do a lot of boating on our own in the winter.
What is your favorite aspect of your job?
I love all the people I work with, we all are like-minded, we all like to be outside, we hang out all the time, it’s almost like family, and on top of it we get to meet people from all over doing all sorts of fun stuff all the time and we travel a lot and we do different rivers. Everything changes every day, so it keeps the job interesting and unique.
What do you look for when you are guiding the river?
We mostly look for trees, so generally I am looking for trees that could be obstacles on the river and present some form of danger.
What is that euphoric moment that you get when you are on the water?
My favorite part on the water is the big rapids, because I see the people who I am taking down the river are petrified, I love that. Because I consider my job to make people comfortable where they shouldn’t be comfortable but where I am comfortable. So if I accomplish that and I get a big kick out of it.
What is the biggest change you have seen over the seasons?
For 15 seasons the river hasn’t changed that dramatically, it tends to self-regulate, if a high water event happens it flushes out. I think the biggest change I have seen is in the guiding industry itself. It started off that we were kind of dirt bags, a lot of guys living on the ground in tents and sleeping behind the rafting warehouses, it’s become something more that you can have a career in, something you can sustain yourself with and have a house, not a tent.