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The most common way of learning how to be a guide is by attending a river guide school. The three- to seven-day training sessions are run by many different companies (usually outdoors outfitters) and cost several hundred dollars. Ken Streater, president of the white-water rafting tour company Wilderness Trips, says that these schools are the most cost-effective training option. While you may find an outfitter who is willing to hire you as a river guide without formal training, your new boss may take advantage of your inexperience and your eagerness and he or she may not pay you fairly. In any case, an outfitter who hires inexperienced guides is not reputable and will probably endanger his or her staff and customers with shoddy equipment and negligent practices.

The best route to landing a good guide job, then, is to sign up for a rafting course. It is a relatively small investment and an awful lot of fun. Gaining this formal experience will increase your chances of getting hired by one of the better outfitters, from whom you will learn good business and rafting practices. This in turn may allow you to start your own river tour company someday. As Ken Streater says, “It's better to start earning money in your own right than to be stuck in a corporation mentality.”

The river guide school you choose should be staffed by experienced, knowledgeable teachers and mentors. They should have decades of experience leading trips and teaching students. Every aspect of guiding a raft down river should be taught, from “reading” white water (predicting its flow and strength based on its surface appearance), maneuvering boats, and knot tying, to safe food preparation, composting, and recycling. The cost of a six- to eight-day course can range from about $500 to $1,000. A workshop on swift water emergency and rescue techniques should be included in your course. In this section, you will unwrap rafts, perform flipped-raft drills, use flip lines (to right an upended raft) and throw bags (for flotation), swim in rapids, swim in and out of eddies, practice foot-entrapment exercises and linecrossing of rapids, learn about hypothermia prevention and treatment, and study the other skills needed to manage a white-water emergency. Generally, students must supply some of their own gear, such as a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, wet and dry suits, river shoes, and outdoor clothing.

A good river school will maintain a high instructor-to-student ratio (such as one to four or five) in order to ensure individual attention. Carefully supervised solo river sessions should be coupled with more hands-on instruction; this allows students to put theory into practice and discover solutions to problems on their own, thereby giving them the confidence they will need to lead their own expeditions later on. Some schools recommend that students take a course in first aid and CPR (check with the local American Red Cross to find classes) and read about river running before enrolling in a training program. The Whitewater Voyages Guide School also recommends that potential guides spend a day playing around in an oar boat on a lake—practicing sitting, holding the oars, and being comfortable in the boat—before taking on any rapids.

A River Guide's Safety Code

As a river guide, you will have to observe certain safety codes for white-water rafting. Here are some of the guidelines:

  • Make sure you and your party are all competent swimmers.
  • Be sure everyone is wearing a life preserver, shoulder protection, and a correctly fitted helmet.
  • Do not enter a rapid unless you are reasonably sure that you can get through it without injury or mishap.
  • Make sure that each boat contains at least three people and that a party contains no less than two boats. Never boat alone.
  • Have a realistic sense of your skills and the ability of your guests (taking into account their fitness, age, anxiety levels, and health). Do not attempt to navigate rapids that are beyond your party's abilities.
  • Be knowledgeable in rescue and self-rescue skills, CPR, and first aid. Carry the equipment necessary for unexpected emergencies, such as knives, whistles, flashlights, folding saws, guidebooks, maps, food, waterproof matches, extra clothing, and repair kits.
  • Be sure that your boat and gear are all in good working order. Test any new equipment before you take a party downriver.
  • Never lead a party under the influence of drugs or alcohol and do not allow members of your party to partake in either. Drugs and alcohol use can dull reflexes and impair a person's decision-making ability, thus leading to potentially serious accidents.

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