The reality is this: Some guides on smaller rivers are total beginners — paying their dues and hoping to land jobs on big rivers like the Colorado and the Snake. The company where I worked required little more than having some recreational boating experience and taking a seven-day white-water-guide course. I was a serious greenhorn on my first early summer trips on the river — and that's when the water levels reached their peak.
Good storytellers always got the biggest tips. I learned quickly that you can't believe everything a boatman says. One guy had all of his passengers convinced that an escaped zoo alligator had made a lunch of two of his riders on an earlier trip. Another said he'd spent five years locked in a sanatorium. (I'm not sure that was fiction.) All of my stories ended with a guide receiving a huge tip. Hint, hint. I had good reason for stretching the truth: We were paid so little (from about $30 for a three-hour trip) that many of us had to camp out among the coyotes all summer.
Ask and you might receive
I have three pieces of advice: 1) Be nice to your guides. They'll make the trip extra fun for people they like — and for folks they think will tip well. 2) Listen. Your safety and enjoyment depend on it. 3) Guides can't read minds. Explain to us what kind of experience you want. Are you up for a wild Class V thrill ride? A scenic cruiser with grandma? Do you want the kids to get soaked without doing anything too crazy? Most guides understand that it pays to cater to requests.
Summer with the shark
Our safety lecture focused on the water, but it should have included the bus ride, too. We used the scariest jalopies — rickety rigs driven by characters like Shark, who I assumed got his ironic nickname because of his smile, which showed more gums than teeth. It wasn't uncommon for mirrors and fenders to fall off the bus. This didn't speak well to our operation's overall safety, but I acted as if all was fine — especially if clients didn't seem to be too horrified.
A new kind of river cruising
We constantly sized up clients of the opposite sex, calling dibs on ones who looked attractive — and single. As a newbie, I got stuck with older folks and families.
Then, one day, a group of blonde Austrian volleyball players showed up, and because I spoke German, they were assigned to my boat. "Make sure they know where we'll be drinking afterward," a veteran reminded me. The women came to the bar and drank us under the table — well, all of us except for a guide named Danny, who had a few stories for us the next day.
Mark Aiken worked as a white-water-rafting guide on the San Juan River in Colorado and the Rio Chama in New Mexico.