So You Want To Be A … River Guide

I’m not the only auntie who wants to share some hard-won experience with you. Meet Becca, one of the first women guides on Western whitewater. She turned her fourteen seasons as an oarswoman on the Colorado and other rivers into a collection of essays about whitewater guiding, Reading Water: Lessons from the River, as well as a novel, Junction, Utah (2014 Willa Literary Award Winner for Original Fiction.) Today, in addition to being an inspiration and mentor to me (surely a full-time job), she’s an author, instructor, and fluvial geologist who writes about wild and human nature. Don’t let her sweet smile and calm demeanor fool you. She has a wicked sense of humor and zero tolerance for those who don’t use their success to help support others. One of her favorite expressions, F the F’n F’ers, is now what I hear in my head whenever I deal with toxic people. I love what she says about reading water and what it can teach us about ourselves.

What made you want to become a river guide and what rivers did you work on?

Rebecca Lawton

Photo of Rebecca Lawton by Melinda Kelley.

I started on the Stanislaus River in California, a place I visited first on a trip with my brother Tim, who worked as a guide before me. Friends of his worked for a different river outfitter who wanted to hire women to balance the crews. I interviewed for the job, and the outfitter hired me on the spot.

For one season, I worked in California, on the Stanislaus, American, and Tuolumne. The next year I transferred to Utah to work on the Green, Yampa, and Colorado. After a few years of guiding in Utah, I worked on the Colorado in Grand Canyon (Arizona) for another ten years, sometimes also working on the Salmon and Selway Rivers in Idaho.

As one of the first women to take on this physically demanding profession, what challenges did you face?Building my strength was a huge challenge. I hadn’t been particularly athletic up until I became a guide, although my parents raised me on outdoor activities. So I was comfortable with the camping and sleeping out and being on the water part of things, but I had to get fit to row heavy loads through technically difficult whitewater. As with most things worth doing, the job takes a lot of skill to do well, and I was determined to master it.

YourRiver Guide brother was also a river guide. Is there something you wish he or someone else had told you before you started guiding?

Good advice for anyone entering any new profession: be thinking about where you want to go when you leave this job. Enjoy the job, yes, and don’t over-plan your life, but do anticipate your next move. If you think you want to own a river company someday, look into what that entails and start training for it. If you want to be a writer, as I did, reach out to those who write about subjects that interest you. Think about developing skills for the day (which always comes) when you want to make a change.

Tell us about the physical demands of being a river guide and how you prepared for them?

Good hand-eye coordination helps, as well as having a cool head in risky situations. Both are skills you can develop. In big rapids, you have to be able to decide what to do using distance and spatial judgment, and you have to make the right moves with your oars even as heavy whitewater crashes all around you. Sometimes you have to “ship” your oars—pull them in—to avoid hitting a boulder or a rocky cliff. Then you have to replace them and keep rowing, as there are critical moves ahead

You also have to be able to lift and carry moderate to heavy loads of gear, because preparing your boat for travel in the morning means packing all the camp supplies and tying them in the raft. Think of a river trip as a pack trip that isn’t by horseback but rather by boat. I never thought I’d like the packing part of the job that much, but in fact it was one of my favorite things.

I prepared for these demands by lifting weights in the off season—a friend at college helped me learn how to do it safely—and staying active year round. I kayaked in the winter months to keep in touch with river currents and the adrenaline flush that comes with running rapids. I also worked really hard on the job—I didn’t want anyone to say women couldn’t carry their weight. I made sure I did my absolute best. If I failed at any task, it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying.

What dangers are inherent to this job? (Your story in Reading Water of nearly drowning a friend was terrifying.)

Yes, that story in Reading Water stands out in my mind, too! In it I write about the mistakes that day I made to put us in such danger. It was an unusual set of circumstances. On regular trips, without such difficult conditions, there are plenty of risks that go with just being outdoors—the dangers are different than one encounters in city or urban life. With the right preparation and planning, though, risks can be minimized. Whitewater guides learn how to work as a team to run safe trips.

River GuideHaving said that, I admit there’s always the risk of overturning a boat, running into rocks, or falling into the river. Most accidents on river trips happen on shore, though: falls, abrasions, cuts—the sorts of things that can happen on camping trips if you’re not careful. For my own career, I never flipped a raft when I was carrying passengers on a commercial trip. I have flipped in the years since—once as a National Park Service ranger running an empty boat and once as a private boater with my family aboard! But when I was a pro running every day, I stayed upright.

How is river guiding also a journey of self-discovery?

In our modern world, we don’t often get to match our skills with nature in an uncontrolled environment. If there were one thing I’d prescribe for anyone who loves nature or wants to encounter it, it would be to go into the Grand Canyon by boat, foot, or mule at least once in your life. Just go. You can learn humility and more about your place in the whole system by spending time outdoors. For me, river guiding was a way to return to a place year after year, know it in all its moods, and learn who I was in the process.

What does it mean to read water? Is it as much an art as a science?

To read water is to study river current—to know where it will carry you by
paying close attention to the appearance of flow and sub flow. It’s both art and science, true. When I entered the world of hydrology after my many seasons of guiding, I met brilliant scientists who recognized and even claimed that the people who understood rivers and river flow the best were kayakers. I knew that was true; I’d let the river carry me in large and tiny boats. I knew by feel where the river was powerful and where it was gentle. Water flow became encoded in my sight and touch so I could anticipate what a current would feel like and do even before I got to it.

Water flow can also be described mathematically, and I’ve done that, too. Many scientists use equations to describe water’s carrying capacity, power to erode, and direction of travel. That’s another exciting aspect of reading water, but not one I’ve sunk into my muscle memory.

Your summers were thrilling adventures. How did you spend the rest of the year?

River guideGood question—and it’s the question most asked by river passengers! First I was a college student, then a seasonal work in jobs ranging from ski lift attendant to retail store clerk, then a fluvial geologist (one who works on stream studies). Even in the off seasons, though, I got on the water either in its frozen form or in rain-swollen, kayakable creeks.

Was there anything that you hated about being a river guide? Why did you stop?

Saying goodbye to the passengers at the end of every trip was something I disliked. We’d grown so close, we’d all transformed, and then they were gone back to lives that were invisible to me. Not seeing them again—and realizing it was futile to stay in touch if we couldn’t be on the river—took its toll.

Also, I injured my back fairly early in my career. It wasn’t a big accident that did it, just a little tweak when I lifted something without being careful. When I left guiding after 14 seasons at age 32, I was feeling the pain of the injury pretty much every day. Later I learned I’d worn out the little pads between the disks in my spine. Degenerated disks are quite painful, so my days lifting heavy loads were over. Rowing, however, never hurt my back and in fact helps it feel better to this day.

Do you still get out on the rivers?

Not often enough. For many seasons after I retired I went back to row at least one trip a year, either in the Grand Canyon or Utah. After my daughter was old enough, we took river trips for our summer vacations (and she went on to be a river guide for a time). In the 1980s I took up open canoeing, which I love, though I’m looking for a newer, lighter craft to enjoy out on the water. Rivers are still a big part of my life. I’m on the Advisory Board for Friends of the River, an effective, important organization whose mission is to save wild rivers from dams. Of the seven books I’ve written and published, four are about rivers. Most of the articles I write are focused on water.

What are you doing now?

I’m an author and scientist for my own consulting business. This year I’ve concentrated on finishing a book I started last year while working in Canada on a Fulbright Scholarship. Everywhere I go, people want to hear about my life as a Colorado River guide. I feel very fortunate to be able to share what I know about it.

Any advice for young women interested in a river-guiding career?

Look for a good whitewater school (training program for river guides). They’re easy to find through the outfitters who provide guided trips. Get as much training as you can before going professional so you feel as comfortable on the water as possible. And persist! If I’d taken “no” for an answer when I wanted to be a river guide, I’d never have made it.

From Auntie Venom’s Eighties Audio Files: (even if technically it came out in ’78)

Ever dreamed becoming a river guide? Got any questions for Becca? Sound off below or visit her site

 Rescue @ Green River Race

One Comment on “So You Want To Be A … River Guide”

  1. This is a great interview. I agree with all your points, Becca. I especially like the advice to go to the Grand Canyon. I fell in love with it as a teenager and eventually hiked nearly all of the trails before I became a river guide. Then, when I became a commercial guide and was able to get on a 30-day private Grand Canyon trip (this is no longer allowed) I was over the moon. I quit my job to do it, although my employer was kind enough to welcome me back after the trip. It was transformative.

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