Five skills I learned while training to be a Whitewater Rafting Guide

After years of inactivity and being an observer of life, I’m taking action, and becoming the adventurer I’ve always wanted to be, no matter if my mind and body are ready, or not. My excuses were endless. I’m not strong enough. I’m not fast enough. I’m not fit enough. And the list goes on. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could be adventurous.

I’ve started to take risks with my travel experiences, one at a time. Last year I went ziplining for the first time when I was in Austin, Texas. In September I’d decided to take a scooter tour of downtown Denver when visiting Colorado. But being a whitewater rafting guide was a whole new level of risk for someone who’s literally NEVER been in a kayak in whitewater and who’s only experience kayaking on flat water was falling in and fighting for four hours against upstream currents.

Rafting Guide Training 4
Rafting Guide Training, Day 1 at Lehighton Outdoor Center, April 27, Learning the basics of rafting and river rescue. Dave, an experienced guide,  showed us how to create a pulley system to get a boat to safety.

I started to think about this view I had of people like that do these kinds of adventures. A good example is my friend Tom. He was a guy’s guy. Outdoorsy is his MO. He exuded adventurer. I took him up on his recommendation for a kayaking class and put the raft guiding on the back burner for a moment. However, when I signed up for a kayaking class earlier this year, I mentioned to the women on the other end of the phone that I’d be interested in learning about training to be a white water rafting guide. She added my email to the list. When the email came to my inbox telling me about the dates of the first training weekend, I realized I needed to sign up or give up this idea of becoming a rafting guide. I had written it in my goal book, in addition to mentioning it to a few people. I don’t like to give up before I’ve even started, so I booked the stay at a local B&B and headed out to learn about river rafting.

The first day was about learning the basics. Learning about the raft itself, where to sit, how to paddle, which paddle strokes make the boat move directionally.  More than that, we learned about safety for yourself and then for others. We learned about what gear to buy and what’s needed and expected of guides. We also had a ton of cultural diversity training. Located in the eastern corner of Pennsylvania, Jim Thorpe River Adventures has guests from all over the country and the world.

Of the 20 trainees, I was one of five “rookies” who are learning to river guide for the first time. Of these, I was the only one who’d never been kayaking in whitewater, and who’s only been kayaking two times previous to that. Most of the people who do this have been on the river for years, learning how to paddle as a kid and spending summers on the river. This made me realize that I was going to have a completely different point of view. One of a true beginner. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve learned so many life skills as well as have learned more about myself. I’m going to dive into what I’ve learned while in this training. My training continues as I’m about 1.5 hours away from Jim Thorpe and have a full-time job at the moment, so I am doing this training on weekends about twice a month. I hope to become a guide soon!

Day 2, Rafting on the Leigh River, learning paddle and captain skills. We took out the rafts and switched off as the captain with an experienced guide in our raft to guide, instructing us on how to paddle, and speaking to guests.

1. Trust myself and others

I was so afraid to be out on the river. I felt that I was a weak link. During the Swiftwater Training, I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. I had anxiety before we even got onto the river. Based on our training the day before, I thought I’d be alright, but the first exercise in the water was to swim into the current, down to a raft that was in the current and then pull myself into the boat.

I swam out into the current but didn’t get far enough over because I hadn’t realized I wouldn’t be able to see. I became disoriented and completely missed the boat. I had to get pulled in by the instructor and when another guide helped to pull me in because I wasn’t able to get myself in the boat. I went into a full-blown panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to cry. I wanted to crawl under a rock. I felt so embarrassed that I wasn’t going to keep going. But after some time passed, and all the other guides came to the boat and made their way back to shore, Mike Mathers, the instructor, turned to me. He gave me three choices. He said I could jump out here, like everyone else did, and swim to shore, or he could take the boat a bit closer, then I could swim, or thirdly, I could stay in the raft and ride back to shore with him.

I chose to swim from the raft, like the other guides had done, and worked as hard as I could to swim to shore, and upon arrival, my newly made rafting friends helped me up when I fell and gave me high-fives for making it. The rest of the day I stuck it out because I realized I could trust that I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t going to float down the river forever. I could trust in my own ability to take control, and when I need help, there are people to catch me.

2. Enjoy the ride

It took me two trips in a kayak on the Leigh River to really enjoy being in the water. The second time is the day I smiled the entire time and was actually sad that the trip was over. The first time I was on an inflatable in the river and on a trip (not in a class) I literally was telling myself I was ok and to smile. I tend to take life and every single experience so incredibly serious. I’m not quite sure why, and I know I get it from my mother.

This experience has helped me to relax, calm down, and just breath. Because there’s nothing like floating along and seeing waves as fun. The first few times I looked at those waves, I was terrified. I thought I’d surely fall out of this kayak and then never get back in and have to ask for help.  But that didn’t happen. In fact, I was surprised at how forgiving the kayak was, and at myself, for doing this. I was kayaking in whitewater! It felt so empowering, and although I’m no longer terrified, there’s still experience and learning I’m doing. But I finally get what other people do about being on the river. There’s nothing like it, and when I see waves now, I get excited and enjoy them!

3. Focus on moving forward

Kayaking IW, Raft Guide Training 2More than any skill I’ve learned, it’s about moving forward. In moving water, you can’t stop moving in whichever direction the water takes you. I learned that I have to face my boat forward towards the direction I want to go. In a raft, in a kayak, and in life. I can’t dwell on how far behind I am in the group. I just want to stay calm and focused on how to move forward. This is key for my life as well.

I struggle with regret and depression. I’ve faced so many fears in the past few years, but there’s many more ahead. Time keeps moving, and I keep learning, but forward is the way. With a deep devotion to moving past and around obstacles in the river and in life. If I hit a rock, even though I’d tried to avoid it, so what? Keep moving forward. Focus on making sure I don’t hit it the next time.

4. Let Go of doubts

Rafting Guide Training 1
Rafting Guide Training, Day 1 at Lehighton Outdoor Center, April 27, Learning about cultural diversity and that training came in handy during my adventure as a raft captain.

I’m just as capable as anyone to be in the river and working as a guide. I had doubted that for a few weeks and especially during the Swiftwater training when I missed the boat. Last weekend I was captain on a raft with one English-speaking person. The family was from Beijing, China. I doubted their rafting abilities, but they proved that they could work together. Even though the trip had been not what they had expected at all, they stuck with it and worked together. They could’ve easily given up and waited for me to do all the work, but they figured it out and managed to have a fun time as well. I felt confident in my abilities and knew that with practice, I’d be a great river rafting guide.

Sometimes life isn’t what I expect, and sometimes I doubt my ability to do things. This experience has opened me up to the idea that I am capable of much more than I give myself credit for being capable of doing. I do need to work on practicing kayaking and getting more experience in the river, but in life, I am capable of doing anything I set my mind to. That’s a big deal.

I’m afraid of expenses this year, getting dental work done is expensive. Travel is expensive. But I am capable of paying down $46K in debt, and I know that I can take control of my expenses to make them manageable and not a burden. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to say that. I’m thankful for the steps I’ve taken to let go of doubting my ability to have a good paying job, do work that’s meaningful, and develop a deep relationship with myself, which is the next “journey” that I’m delving into.

5. Resilience

Try, try, and try again. Over and over. I do this each day I wake up and try to be my best self. This says it all. Swiftwater training was hard. The hardest physical thing I’ve had to do in years. But I kept trying. I didn’t give up. Maybe because I didn’t want to quit, maybe because I just didn’t want to believe I couldn’t do something.  As I look back on this weekend, I realize that I am resilient. I continue to fail and try again. At everything. Because there’s no other option. Failure isn’t an option, but it can be a goal towards learning how to improve. So I work to not be afraid of falling out of the boat, I work to be fearless in getting back in when I do fall out.

The people I’ve trained with have been amazing. I’ve really come to depend on them in the river. It’s crazy how strangers become friends when in a kayak or on a raft. So many people that didn’t know me were willing to help and support me. Guys that I just met that weekend stayed by my side when I was afraid to cross the river, or thought I’d be left behind.

I can’t express in words how important having a great support system is to not only catch you when you fall, or offer a throw bag to pull you in. I’ve developed a number of groups to helps me succeed in so many aspects of life. Without this support, I know I’d delve into the pit of unworthiness and thoughts of being a permanent failure.

As for my future, it will be filled with failure, but the failure that leads to learning something. I believe that every experience is truly a skill or something I needed to learn to continue on this path called life.

Cheers! I hope to see you on the river! Here’s my video from my kayaking class, which I was thankful to have during this guide training.

Check out all of my videos here.

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