White water rafting Sun Valley, Idaho

Before You Grow Up: Be A Raft Guide

“There are only a few carefree summers in your life. Don’t waste them interning at law firms…” So begins a recent post on Outside Magazine’s website that recommends working as a river guide before you grow up. Among the various reasons cited for doing so, our faves include getting paid to float a river and vacation days that offer climbing, hiking, kayaking, and mountain biking. Additionally, it lists the romance potential as high. (Woooo, woooo!) We would also add to the list the great sense of camaraderie with your fellow guides.

One of our guides, the fabulous Emily Wendler, just might agree with Outside’s recommendation. Having completed her Master’s Degree in Environmental Journalism at the University of Montana, she knew she would soon be moving back to Ohio to begin a lifelong career. With this in mind, she gave in to the urge for just one more carefree summer. Beginning a career as a river guide, however, is not as easy as it might seem. As with all great things, you do have to pay the price. So, if you are thinking of taking Outside’s advice, read on…


At first I was terrified.

I really wanted to be this amazing raft guide. I saw the way the veteran guides controlled their boats with finesse and confidence, and the way they greeted their guests like old friends. However, for me, in the beginning, I could claim nothing even close to finesse and confidence.

Before the season started we all took a Swiftwater Rescue course where we learned how to handle tough situations on the river. My least favorite part about the course was swimming through the class III rapid called, “Piece of Cake.” The fact that the water was 45 degrees didn’t bother me so much, it was mostly the crashing waves and huge holes that sucked me under that really got to me. The other guides seemed so brave, jumping in and making it through with ease. But me? I looked more like the person we were training to save. To be honest, I felt a little discouraged, but luckily I had awesome teammates who reassured me they were nervous their first year too.

During the month of June, when us newbies were still training, every time it was my turn to guide my palms got sweaty and my arms felt a little shaky. I’d usually make it through the rapids all right, but I doubt it was pretty. Instead of making paddle commands like real raft guides do, mine came out more like questions. I’d be like, “forward three?” And the brave souls who agreed to raft with me while I was training would turn around and look at me with puzzled expressions.

I quickly learned that doesn’t work. I also learned when headed straight towards a rock you gotta make a decision. Just pick one side or the other. Hemming and hawing over the right side or left side takes too long, and you usually end up smacking right in to it. Oh, those beginning days were fun.

But after practice-guiding our stretch of river over and over (sometimes two to three times a day), I started to get the hang of it. What really instilled a lot of confidence in me- surprisingly- was falling out of a friend’s boat and swimming through a pretty rough section. Even though we swam through rapids during training, the river still seemed like this swift and strong force not to be touched, but only to be rafted upon. After falling in accidentally, and swallowing a ton of water, I realized you’ve got to work with the river, not against it. At that point, me and the river bonded.

After that I stopped being so afraid, and started having fun. On my last day of training one of the veteran guides in my boat turned and said, “You nailed it!” after I guided us through the second class III rapid called “The Narrows.” I knew I had it down, and it felt so good! Instead of avoiding everything that looked like it might splash me, I’d head right for it. By the time I got licensed and started taking paying customers down the river, I felt like an all-knowing river wizard who got to bestow the wonders and majesty of the Salmon River to my fellow rafters.

I still can’t believe people like me get paid to guide people down the river. It’s undoubtedly the best job I’ve ever had.  (And for the record, I now consider myself an amazing raft guide!)


Although Emily is now back in Ohio, don’t be surprised if you see her next summer sneaking in one more summer of fun. It tends to happen that way.

Emily rockin' it Piece Of Cake rapid

Emily having fun in Piece of Cake rapid

Emily enjoying a day off in the White Clouds

Emily enjoying a day off in the White Clouds

Hanging with friends after a day on the river

Hanging with friends after a day on the river