White Water Rafting Guide School

By: Vance Andrus
11 days of rafting guide school


Got up on 4 hours’ sleep. Had one of those 19-hour days yesterday. Court in Louisiana, mad rush to airport, then bad weather in Houston.

Exhausted I set out. Coming down from Kenosha Pass into sunrise over South Park lifts my spirits. Snow-capped mountains ringing a vast 1100 square mile valley.

Reported at 8am. Thinking classroom. Wrong. Everything is on the water. The oldest in my crew of 7 is 26. The rest are 19-22 years old.

The water is shockingly cold. 38o F. Every big wave that crashes down knocks the breath out of you. Wet suit or no, it’s stunning how COLD it is. Try this: fill the bathtub with cold water. Add 3 buckets of ice. Hop in!

Today we make not one 11-mile, full-day trip, we do it twice. The water is very low ( 480 cfm) so there are 10 times as many rocks. We all get to guide, taking turns. Get stuck on rocks at least 2 dozen times, half of which require some or all of us out of the boat and into the river to push, pull, curse and pry the boat back on course.

Don’t quit until 6:30pm. Returned to my room too exhausted to eat. Hurting bad and praying that I can lay very still and sleep. Try not to move and pass out. Stay tuned for more ……….. ..


Awake and try to get up. Big problem. Am hurting in places I didn’t know I had places. Mostly lats, shoulders, biceps, ass. Hell all over.

Force down breakfast and back to the river. Today we’re going for 31· miles. Boat is loaded heavy today to simulate full overweight guide party. Handles like a pregnant sow. Takes monster effort to turn or advance, but once it stareklown its intended path, takes an Act of Congress to alter its mind. Also rides lower in the water, causing yesterday’s “sleepers” to become today’s land mines.

Still, the water’s up (540 cfm) and we’re all getting a little better at anticipation and much less indecisive. Instructor is impressed. He says that we haven’t ‘wrapped’ nor tipped the raft and only two fell out.

Afternoon wind comes up. Blowing 30.-40 mph up~canyon and, thus, up river. Often brings our boat to a complete stop. Turns into a nightmare of paddling, pause, and paddling again. This goes on for almost 4 hours. People in the boat are exhausted to the point of tears. The sight of rapids every~ mile or so brightens our spirits as we look forward to the rough, wet ride through the hydraulics and wave trains.

Instructor gives up after 22 miles. Now it’s back to the boat shed to decommission the boat and clean our gear. Tonight I take our crew out for Mexican food to celebrate our survival. More tomorrow!


Today we rig the rafts for oars, one set for each of the two boats. We split up, each with an instructor, and we’re off.

The river’s up to 900 cfm, and 70% of the rocks are gone, replaced by monster waves and fierce current. Only the big, and I mean BIG, rocks remain above water. Guiding a boat with oars is completely different. For one thing, you intentionally face your obstacle, close fast and then back away. The backstroke is much more powerful as the 12- foot oars take huge bites of water.

Some of the team have serious problems with the oars, as things happen in reverse depending on whether you’re pushing or pulling on them. I, however, am strangely comfortable with them, almost as if my soul knows them, understands them from a prior life. I volunteer to guide first and in short order find a comfort level. Feel I could run the river without an instructor, although that would probably be foolish. I like the power and control the leverage gives and take the boat through 5 of the 11 rapids we run through today.

Now, hours later, the adrenaline is wearing off and new pains are creeping in. Back of the shoulders, trapezoid muscles and triceps.
Still, it was a good day. The old man showed the kids something today.


I awake to a strange surprise. My muscles, having despaired, no longer hurt. Need to get them to talk to my right shoulder, whose old rotator cuff tear is acting up.

Today we’re back in the oa.i’ boats. These are the same rafts we use daily, but with a rectangular aluminum frame lashed down to the top of the tubes in the center of the raft. One horizontal member is just above the tube in the back, with a seat bolted on. Another drops down into the raft and serves as a footrest. The oars are pinned into the other two members which run parallel with the boat. You sit facing forward and can either push the raft in the direction you desire, or more often, pull the raft backwards, upstream, away from obstacles.

Things were going well, all of us becoming more proficient, when we approached “Big Drop”, with Ben, a student, on the oars. I was front left, John front right. Ben set up the boat at the 11 o’clock position and drove us forward to the left. Unfortunately, he was late and instead, we went over Big Drop. As the boat hit the bottom of the hole four feet below it nosed into the gigantic rolling wave, completely stopping. The rest of the boat continued forward and we “TACO-ED”, or folded in half. The oar frame didn’t bend. Instead it lurched forward, striking me just above the right kidney, knocking me to the left. Just as I was exiting the boat, however, a REALLY GIGANTIC wave crashed over the bow. At least 6 feet high, it knocked John off the tube and over to my side where he landed on my feet, keeping me in the boat. Then it continued on and swept Ben off the seat, sending us careening down the rapids with no one on the oars, which swung wildly about, trying to decapitate anyone in sight. WOW!

Later we did “self rescue” practice in which we took turns throwing ourselves into the river and shooting “Last Chance” rapids as a swimmer. The instructors claim this is good practice, though I suspect it’s equally for their own amusement. Some kind of rite of passage.


One of the most dangerous things in the river is a hydraulic called a Recirculating Pour Over. Like a poisonous snake, it is rare, deadly, and invariably encountered at an inopportune time. Today I was thrown out of the boat into one and damn near met my maker in return. In rare instances, occasioned by abrupt changes in the river channel direction or width, water will pile up in front of and then “pour over” the top of a large rock, scouring out a deep hole on the downstream side. As more water tumbles in, a giant rolling washing machine effect is created. Logs, and occasionally people, are sucked in and “recirculated” endlessly. The force of the water cannot be overcome by the swimmer and escape upwards is futile. The only way out is to collect your wits and force yourself downstream parallel to the river bottom, in my case 1 0 feet down.

We were almost through our first run of the day, only Si-dell Rapids remained. This is a vicious section, the river Nan-owed by an abandoned RR track on the left and a sheer cliff, the base of which is strewn with motor home-size boulders. Worse, the river makes two 90o turns (right then left) and drops 20′ in elevation over the span of90 feet.

I was at the helm, guiding our boat from the right rear. Set up perfectly, river left, at a 2 o’clock position. Cleared the gap between the first hole on my right and the monster rock dead ahead. Call “all forward” to charge into the breach, mentally preparing myself for a “back left” 3 seconds later in order to execute the second 90o turn.

Then all hell broke loose. The instructor said I was 1 second late on the forward charge call. All I know is that the back right of the boat dropped into an unseen hole and I was ejected backwards out of the raft. The last thing I saw was my feet going over my head backwards. I landed on the rock over which I immediately swept down, down, down into the hole. I hit the bottom so hard I scraped the skin off a knuckle.

Righting myself I swam towards the surface with all my strength. Just as my head broke water and I took a giant gasp of air, I was pulled back down as if Satan himself had me by the ankles.

I had been taught about this in Outward Bound and knew that escape up was futile, so I planted my feet and lunged parallel to the bottom downstream. Finally free of the suction, l fought my ‘vay to the surface and the faces of my anxious crew who were rowing frantically upstream to hold their position.

At lunch they stripped me naked and put me in a closet with a radiant heater to restore my core body temp. Then, fashioning a finger splint out of duct tape, they sent us back out on the river for the afternoon session. It was uneventful.


Finally … a day with no drama. Went down the Royal Gorge. Saw the train, the bridge, and some hairy whitewater, which is up to 1100 cfm. Can’t imagine it at 3 or 4000. Got to guide us through 3 rapids. Huge wave trains. Really cool when you’re in command in the back of the boat.

Am staying in a small motel 12 miles from base. Awake at 6am, get coffee and newspaper and fix breakfast and lunch. Off to work at 7: 15. Rig and pump the boats, help customers and on the river by 8:30. Usually off work by 5:30 or 6pm. Back to motel. Take panti’ two Extra Strength Tylenol and find something to eat. In bed by 9pm. Try to read, but usually out like a light. Nice rhythm to it.

Tonight, for once, I’m not cold to my old bones. In fact, rather enjoyed getting slapped in the face with cold water. Can see how this life can put a spell on you … “You know, I bet I could ..

To be continued next week…..

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