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I became a whitewater river guide the year I held my last j-o-b. That would be 1992. It was a rocky beginning at guide school and in my new path with self-employment, but the river has more than made up for that in life-long lessons since then that are true on and off the water.
Enjoying the beauty and being safe on the river requires having the right attire and equipment. On the river it would be a hat that won’t fall off, clothes that dry quickly, shoes or sandals that will stay on, and a life jacket that squeezes you enough to know it will stay with you if you end up in the water and need to float until you are pulled back into a boat. Off the river, this is still necessary. I think of it as a uniform. I have my working at home uniform, my being in public uniform, my workout uniform, and my fiesta uniform, por darles unos ejemplos. They all require a different attitude and there is a purpose for each. It is not about bowing down to other people’s requirements or expectations. It is about setting myself up for success so I can focus on my goals and aspirations.
I am very intentional to bring people on the river who may not have grown up feeling comfortable near water and who add racial/ethnic diversity to the natural world. As a river guide, I assess and then re-assess the strengths and growth areas of the folks in my boat because I count on them to listen to me and trust my leadership, their own capacity to confront challenges, and the power of the team. I am not expecting perfection, I am looking to balance our strengths so that the raft does not veer too much to the left or right. I also make sure we are all seated in a posture like a tripod, balancing on our two feet and our fabulous butts, allowing for the best use of our biggest muscles and for keeping us steady as we plow through the rapids. Off the river, being with people who value all of who we are and pronounce our names as we prefer is key as well. We need a tribe to cheer our success and console us when we suffer inevitable loss and disappointment.
To get down the river, I have to use the right commands at the right times. To be a guide is to speak up often, loudly, and con ganas. Your voice and your experience are your most important assets. Just like a car, the raft can go in five directions. Forward, back, right turn, and left turn. In many ways, the most important command is the fifth: STOP! This allows for the pause necessary to change direction, to celebrate success, to catch your breath, and to drink water. People tend to wonder ‘why you would paddle backwards on a moving river’? For the same reason we do we do this on land. Sometimes the best plan is to pull away from danger rather than hit it head on. This can be a person, a work situation, a group or even sometimes a family drama.
More than anything, as a guide my goal is to stay in the current. It is the true meaning of going with the flow, connecting with the river’s knowledge of the most efficient path to your destination. My most important tool to stay in the current is the guide paddle, which has a longer handle and blade. I am the rudder, quietly moving the raft or course-correcting my paddlers to create even power on both sides. On and off the water, it is important to exert enough effort – not too much and not too little. This is rarely obvious and requires us to know our tendencies and course-correct regularly.
As the guide, I am always looking a few curves ahead, like a chess player who makes every move with the next few in mind. In essence, I am setting my raft and paddlers up to manage the dangers and thrills of the river with grace and ease. I also know that the best laid plans are full of rocks hidden just below the surface of the water, paddlers who get distracted just as I call a command, or of other rafts who may not understand the etiquette of river collaboration. The meta-plan that ultimately guides me to read the river and then run it. Being in the present moment is the intention and truest approach, on and off the water. What just happened? What is the best response? If that doesn’t work, what is another response?
Inevitably, someone, including the guide, may fall in the river. The instructions are to listen to the voice of the guide to tell you what to do, even if they are the one swimming. Generally someone will pull you into a boat. Nice if it is the boat you fell out of, but any boat will do. If far away, then perhaps the best option is to lay on your back with your feet up to push away from any danger like a rock, using your hands as paddles, and your life jacket as flotation to hold you up. If in breaking waves, you breathe in the troughs between waves. If under the boat, you feel your way out. If right next to the shore, you get out and decide the best option. You breathe, you listen, you trust and you learn. Those who falls in have the best story, even if they also feel the power of the rapids, understand why one rapid is called “Lost Hat”, and sport a few bruises. Off the water, we fall all the time, tripped by our unrealistic expectations, the daily inequities of society, and our distractable minds. We remember this happens because we are living life fully.
If you are excited about being on a river to learn all the lessons it offers, summer is the time to attend the ‘school of the river’ and practice what you learned in your daily life. The river is life, beauty abounding, dangers known and unknown, with destinations worth every minute of quiet, determined effort with people joined by trust and circumstance. I became a river guide in my late thirties and trained with a woman in her mid-fifties. She is still guiding in her late seventies. The force is strong in her.
My first river rafting trip was down the Colorado river and the ability to be in the splendor of the Grand Canyon was breath-taking. Yes, I fell in. Yes, I got distracted by the huge waves and didn’t paddle when I should have. These days I guide and paddle on the South Fork of the American river, located northeast of Sacramento, California. It is new for me every time, as is every day I wake up with gratitude for being alive and open to living with a ‘beginner’s mind’, where all things are possible.
What the river teaches me each time is that a life full of community, opportunity, and delight requires a Plan A, B, and C. When those all fail, as they will repeatedly, remember to read your life and run it with your body, mind, and spirit aligned to guide you. They will not fail you, even if you fall out of your boat or your comfort zone. That is when they shine.