I was 20 and living in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains when a friend of mine suggested that we train to be commercial river guides. It was the Spring of 1978, and a large snowpack had finally broken the drought of the mid-1970s. River companies were scrambling to hire more staff to take advantage of the sudden opportunity. She was right — it was the chance of a lifetime, and I thank her for this guidance to this day.
My very first training trip had me joining a group of trainees who had already been at if for several days. All I saw was crashing and burning. This culminated when a trainee blew it and our boat came up against a razor-sharp rock (the rapid is called “Razorback” if that gives you any idea). Our trainer, an experienced guide, made the mistake of putting his hand out to push off the rock. He cut his hand, and became so disgusted with his boatload of newbies that he told us to put our paddles down.
For the entire rest of the trip (basically half of the river’s length), he took the boat down the river himself. We sat there immobile and ashamed. Seven people in a paddle boat and he guided the boat himself with a hand he couldn’t use. This was indelibly etched on my memory.
I learned a lot that day.
First, all I had seen to that point had been garbage. No one knew what they were doing except our trainer. This made me feel better. Second, I understood that it was possible for a single person to take a boat down that river by him or her self. I vowed that I would be able to do that one day. Soon, I could. Third, I understood that this would not be easy. Little did I know at the time how difficult it would be in the end.
I’ll skip over the difficulties to later that year when I got my chance to prove myself. I had been trained to guide a paddle boat (six passengers all with a paddle) and the boat I was given for my test was an oar boat (the guide rows with long oars and the passengers just ride). Rowing an oar boat is very different than guiding a paddle boat. Did I say anything about this error? Of course not. Even back then I wasn’t that stupid. Once I had done it, I said to myself, they could never say I couldn’t.
So after getting down the Stanislaus River in that oar boat moderately well I was approved to be a commercial whitewater river guide. It was also my 21st birthday. My boating friend and I jumped in my beat-up Sunbeam Alpine convertible and drove to Yosemite to celebrate.
That was just the beginning of my learning process, and I will be sharing those lessons in a series of posts that I hope you will find relevant or at least interesting.