Almost exactly a year ago, my wife and I resigned from our careers as Foreign Service officers with the U.S. Department of State at the completion of our overseas tour in Islamabad, Pakistan. Having met our financial goals and ready to transition to new adventures, we returned to my home state of Maine to see friends and family before spending the winter in Mexico. During that trip, I decided that I wanted to spend the majority of the next summer outside. Though I was already doing some writing and instruction for various outdoor companies and outfitters, I wanted to immerse myself in the outdoor industry and get some more hands-on experience.
Becoming a whitewater raft guide seemed like the perfect fit for several reasons: it’s in-demand (outfitters are always hiring), has a relatively low barrier to entry (just a license, explained below), and you can work as little or as much as you want. It seemed ideal across the board, so I went for it. Having just finished up my season, I can attest to the fact that this is a fantastic seasonal gig for early retirees or those on sabbatical.
Becoming a Guide
The process to become a whitewater raft guide varies from state to state, and since I only have experience in Maine that’s what I will outline here. From what I understand, Maine has some of the most stringent licensure guidelines in the country so once you’re licensed here it proves you’re qualified and it’s easy to get work in other states if you choose to.
The process for obtaining a whitewater license (Level I) in Maine is as follows (abbreviated for clarity):
- Obtain a First Aid/CPR certification.
- Complete a training course with a qualified commercial outfitter of at least 7 days in length.
- Conduct at least twenty training runs on the rivers identified as “rapidly flowing”, which for our group meant the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers.
- Complete a minimum of five guided runs on the Kennebec River.
- Pass a written examination given by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on topics of whitewater law, ethics, rules, hydrology, geography, river safety, and more.
For a Level II license (necessary to guide on Class V rapids such as those on the Penobscot River), one must possess a Class I license and make ten training runs on the Penobscot River with an additional five guided runs on the Class V section as well as no fewer than six commercial trips with a Class I license.
I chose to do my training with Northeast Whitewater, a small but well-established outfitter located near Moosehead Lake in Greenville, Maine. The training spanned 10 days in early June and it was no picnic. Here’s the typical schedule:
- 4:30am: Wake up, get dressed – e.g. put on your cold and still-wet-from-yesterday wetsuit
- 5:00am: Meet with training group to arrange boats on the trailer in preparation for the day’s river runs. We all camped at base for training so the commute was short.
- 6:00am: Drive to river.
- 7:00am – 4pm: River runs, up to 4 per day. Practicing guide strokes, safety procedures, river geography. Eat lunch on drive between runs.
- 4pm – 7pm: Deflate boats, load onto trailer, drive back to base, unload boats, perform maintenance and put away gear.
- 7pm-7:30pm: Dinner break.
- 7:30pm – 10:30pm: Classroom work to review regulations, hydrology, rules, ethics, and geography and practice skills.
- 10:30pm-11pm: Crash.
Training is akin to bootcamp in many ways: there is a lot of material and skills that the instructors need to teach in a short amount of time, so the days are long and the work is hard. Each raft weighs 250lbs or more and you spend a lot of time moving, inflating, deflating, rolling, and transporting them. What’s more, you need to learn all of the laws and regulations in order to pass the exam, not to mention the geography of the river so you know which features to hit and which to avoid. By the end of the training you will be mentally and physically exhausted.
One the final day of your training, the Warden will come to the outfitter and proctor your exam. It has 100 multiple-choice questions covering all the material you have jammed into your brain over the preceding ten days. If you pass, and everyone from my class of nine did, you will receive your Level I license on the spot (after paying the $189 fee, of course) and be a Registered Maine Guide. This allows you to guide commercial whitewater raft trips as part of an outfitter, as you cannot do them on your own.
Day to Day
Once you finish your training and receive your license, you can begin guiding commercial trips immediately. I had a hiking trip schedule right after our session ended but as soon as I got back they put me on the schedule and I was on the river anywhere between two to four times per week while alternating with guided moose and nature tours on off days.
The day-to-day work of a guide isn’t all that different from training, although it’s a bit less strenuous and more familiar. Here’s the typical schedule for a commercial rafting trip:
- 6:45am: All guides meet at base to discuss the day’s trip and divide morning responsibilities
- 7:00am: Break off to do your morning duties. You’re either in the kitchen preparing the river lunch or outside cleaning the bathrooms and preparing life jackets, helmets, and paddles for customers.
- 8:45am: Customers begin to arrive and check in.
- 8:45am – 9:45am: Get everyone checked in and fitted for wet suits (if desired), life jackets, helmets, and paddles. Introduce them to their guide, take a photo, and load onto the bus.
- 10:30am: Arrive at the dam. Give a safety speech to your crew, walk the boats down to the river and put-in.
- 10:45am – 2pm: Rafting!
- 2pm-3:30pm: Lunch on the bank of the river prepared by the guides
- 4:30pm: Arrive back at base
- 4:30-7pm: Clean up from the trip – dry and put away wetsuits and life jackets, store paddles and helmets, prepare boats on trailer for the next day, clean up lunch dishes and coolers.
- 7pm-7:15pm: Guide’s meeting to discuss how the day went
- 7:30pm: Head home.
Much like training, the days are long. You only spend a little over 3 hours on the river with your clients and the rest of the time is preparation and cleanup. If it’s an especially small trip you may end up finishing an hour or two early, but more often than not you’re putting in a 12+ hour day from start to finish.
I’m often asked how dangerous it is to go whitewater rafting, usually by nervous first-timers. While serious injuries are exceedingly rare, it’s not uncommon for people to fall out of the raft or for it to flip over if you hit a wave at the wrong angle (which can be caused by guide error, a change in the river hydraulics, or customers not paddling when they are supposed to). When this happens, nine times out of ten they pop up right next to the raft and we pull them in right away. Sometimes, they end up swimming the rapid which can suck if you swallow a lot of water. Although everyone wears a lifejacket at all times and they are buoyant enough to keep you afloat, you can still have a bad time with a rough swim.
During our training we flipped the raft several times on purpose so we would understand what it felt like to swim the rapids, and it certainly gives you a healthy respect for the water. That being said I only had a couple of people fall out of my boat all season and I never flipped, though I didn’t run the Class V rapids since I only have a Class I license. Rafting is not something to be scared of, but you do need to keep your wits about you.
Being a whitewater raft guide is not something one does to get rich – it’s a lifestyle choice. Most guides will raft in the summer and work other seasonal jobs in the winter (usually ski resorts) to make ends meet and generally live a low-cost and simple, aka “dirtbag”, lifestyle. Many outfitters allow for guides to camp at their base for the season, eliminating a large chunk of their living costs. I was, by a fair amount, the oldest raft guide in my training class and at the outfitter at 34 years old – most were just out of high school or between college semesters so their costs tend to be much lower.
Nevertheless, guides are paid a wage in addition to receiving tips from customers. The pay rate is generally between $12-$16 per hour depending on experience and tips can range between $0 (ouch) and $200 with an average of $80-$100 per trip.
The major non-monetary benefits of becoming a guide are that you get to spend every day outside with people who are (usually) excited and ready to have a great time while also building skills and a reputation in the industry. And, of course, you get to go rafting more often in a week than most people will do in their entire lives!
Being a whitewater raft guide in Maine for my first summer of post-work life was an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding experience. Though there are some hurdles to get through in regards to training and licensure, it’s something you can start at the beginning of the season with very little experience and learn as you go. The work is hard and the monetary payoff is low compared to my prior career, but I came here to build skills, be outside, and have fun. Mission accomplished!
P.S. if you’re interested in becoming a raft guide in Maine next season, Northeast Whitewater is always hiring. Check them out and tell them I sent you!
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