It’s an uncharacteristically rainy May afternoon in Colorado, and I’m gasping for breath in the deep end of the Evergreen Rec Center pool.
What the hell am I doing here? I wonder, but I don’t have much time to rethink my life choices.
“Again!” the head boatman cries, and I do my best to hoist my slippery carcass onto the upside-down raft for what feels like the hundredth time. I wedge the t-grip of my paddle into one of the boat’s self-bailing holes, shakily rise to my feet, and flip the beast onto its back.
It is my first day of raft guide training, and right now, I’m pretty sure it will be my last.
Finally, our time is up and the Evergreen High School swim team starts trickling into the steamy pool. I’m relieved to see that the rest of the rookie class looks just as haggard as I feel, a fact I use to comfort myself as I stagger into the locker room to stare blankly at the wall and fight back tears until it’s time to go.
The drive back to the shop in Idaho Springs is quiet, and I wonder whether any of the other rookies are feeling this discouraged.
We pull onto the I-70 Frontage Road and a trio of blue rubber rafts slides past us on the Creek. The guides wave heartily at our van, then turn back to their boats and steer effortlessly away from Clear Creek’s many obstacles. How do they make it look so easy?
Clear Creek, like the training its guides endure, is relatively short but very intense. It runs sixty-six miles to its output into the South Platte, but contains some of the most continuous whitewater in Colorado, certainly on the Front Range. It holds the distinction of being the only creek in the United States fed by a river, and, much less glamorously, of being farthest from its natural state of any commercially runnable stretch of whitewater.
Guide trainings on other rivers teach their rookies how to look for and avoid undercuts and keeper holes, but on Clear Creek, we have rebar and old cars. The best line to run a given rapid changes regularly due to blasting on I-70, and existing obstacles are made easier to see by the presence of orange road cones and speed limit signs.
An enchanting trip into the wilderness it is not, but if you can guide Clear Creek, you can guide just about anywhere.
This was one of the many things that appealed to me about guiding the Creek: I pictured myself guiding friends on long wilderness trips, gracefully piloting the boat down one rapid after the next as we made our way downriver, pulling over only for hot springs and beer breaks.
These were the raft trips my fantasies were made of—glamorous photos from my uncle’s days of guiding on the Colorado, Kenton Grua’s speed run on the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory, childhood memories of family vacations where we all stuffed ourselves into tight wetsuits and matching PFDs and safely arrived downstream with a handsome twenty-year-old at the helm—excitement! Beautiful scenery! A general sense of safety and well-being!
In fact, some of the happiest memories of my teenage years take place on the Upper Colorado, where my longtime friends and I enjoyed relative solitude and independence on an annual rafting trip. With three-two beer purchased for us by older siblings, we set up camp at the put-in each summer, letting ourselves feel extra-cool as we lazily floated by commercial boats full of Griswolds. The closest we came to scouting rapids was a map drawn by Hannah’s dad on a cocktail napkin, admonishing us with a sad face and several exclamation points to avoid a certain newly exposed rock.
Pretty quickly after we’d all finished college, everyone stopped coming home for the summer, and the yearly pilgrimage to the Upper C petered out. Still, I managed not to let go of that feeling: the ineffable satisfaction of floating downstream, and the unique exhaustion of a day spent on the water.
It was with all this in mind that I signed up to learn to be a raft guide. Determined to take a summer off from thinking about academics, I sent an application to an outfit whose boats I’d seen go by as we climbed in Clear Creek Canyon the previous summer—how very Colorado, right?
I showed up to that first day of training with a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach and a light drizzle in the air, and things didn’t exactly improve—in terms of the weather or my constitution—as the day dragged on. Nine hours later, I called my mom on the way home and cried because there was absolutely no way I was going to make it through training.
I wish I could insert a Rocky Balboa-style montage here, alternating shots of me swimming fearlessly across the river, easily lifting boats above my head, and steering inept crews of paddlers around Clear Creek’s myriad obstructions. I wish I could say I showed up on Day Two with renewed determination and nailed every drill, and that I knew right away that a) this was my calling or b) I never wanted to set foot in an inflatable rubber raft again.
But, as with most things, my progress was incremental. On the second day of training, we covered knots and rigging, and for one blissful hour I was back in my element. Figure eight, Muenter, double fisherman’s, prussik, three-to-one: I knew them all, no problem.
In fact, water itself was the primary complication on my journey to become a raft guide: I was (and remain) terrified of it.
As long as I’m listing my neuroses, I should explain: I’ve always been quick to vomit. I’ll puke because I’m nervous, excited, upset—any strong emotion, really.
Without even really being pressed, my mom will share this story from my childhood: When I was six, my parents took me to Disneyland and I puked every single morning. One morning, we were standing in line for Space Mountain, and I ralphed chocolate chip Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes all over myself—from excitement, she maintains—and she cleaned me up a little and sat me down on the ride. (I have only fond memories from this vacation, though I have since avoided pancakes with faces on them.)
Let’s bypass the inevitable question of why I thought it was a good idea to become a raft guide when the thought of swimming in whitewater literally makes me want to upchuck. The closest thing I have to an answer is this: If an anxious person like me never did anything I was afraid of, I’d never do anything at all.
So, in addition to being one of the most physically taxing two-week periods of my life—this includes weeks spent in the Alaskan interior in winter and a stint on the Harding Icefield with an eighty-five-pound pack—guide training was an emotional drain, too.
Sometime in that first week of training, the senior guides brought us to my old stomping grounds, the Upper Colorado. We put in at Pumphouse, just like my friends and I used to, only this time it was lightly snowing and I was wearing two wetsuits. Eventually, as it always does in Colorado, it warmed up enough to swim, an idea I’d been dreading to the point of nausea for the last six days.
One by one, the rookies swam across the wide, slow river, which, even doubly wetsuited, was cold enough to briefly render me breathless. A few too-short seconds later, I was swimming back across, panic rising in my throat as the gentle current pushed me farther downstream from the boat, reminding myself to “adjust my ferry angle” or some shit, and, finally, arriving at my destination only slightly worse for wear.
A hundred yards downstream is a slick, green tongue of smooth water that leads to a wave train, the entrance to a mellow Class II known as “Warm Up Rapid.” The head boatman barked that we would each swim into the current, flip over into whitewater swim position through the wave train, and exit into an eddy on the opposite side of the river. He said all this as if it were perfectly normal, which, of course, caused the contents of my stomach to churn.
I waited until the other rookies were lined up on the shore and quietly informed him that there was absolutely no way in hell I could do that.
“I don’t think I want to be a raft guide after all,” I told him, barely holding back tears of dread.
Realizing that my fear was genuine, he softened a little, eventually offering to swim the rapid with me.
“Ethically,” he told me gently, probably hoping not to be thrown up on, “You have to be willing to swim anything you’d take a client down.”
Despite my better judgment, I agreed. This was not the most dignified instant of my life, but moments later, there I was, on the other side of the river, vomiting into the current.
As training progressed, spring began to look more like summer. The snow stopped falling and started melting, water levels rose, and boats full of rookies were no longer the only ones on the river. We’d arrive at the put-in and wait for two or three other companies to load clients into boats, give them a quick spiel on how to paddle, and get onto the Creek.
Periods of solitude are few and far between on Clear Creek, given its proximity to two major mountain thoroughfares, and now they had disappeared altogether.
All these people got me thinking about why I like to go outside in the first place: to get away from the crowds. Clear Creek isn’t wilderness, but despite its alterations, it’s still a part of the natural world, and I felt uneasy about the role I was playing in its removal from the state I so value.
On one hand, of course, I’ve based my personal life and career on the principle that it’s important to get people outside. Not so much for their own edification, though that’s certainly part of it—paddling for two hours on Clear Creek isn’t going to solve the obesity epidemic, but it’s better for you than sitting on the couch—but so they have something to visualize when they hear about “endangered rivers,” something to vote for and write their congressmen about, a reason to tell their kids not to throw gum wrappers and plastic water bottles out the window.
It’s too late for Clear Creek to return to its natural state; it’s been rerouted and rerouted again and blasted into and contaminated with chemicals and mine runoff and surrounded by freeways. And that’s why I want people to experience rafting there: so they can see that building a gondola across the Grand Canyon would be a travesty.
On the other hand, being responsible for those folks as they see what capitalism does to a beautiful place is perhaps too much responsibility for a puker like me.
During the second week of training, I was in a boat that flipped at the top of a Class IV rapid in Clear Creek Canyon. Double Knife looks as sinister as its name implies, and it did not disappoint on this day: I fought to keep my head above water as I pinballed between rocks, eventually making my way to the shore, rattled but unhurt except for some bruises, a puncture wound on my ass, and a considerable amount of vomit.
The next day, a customer with another company fell out of her boat, swam the same rapid, and died.
Professionally, I spend a great deal of time thinking about risk and risk tolerance and the potential for death in the mountains, and raft guiding was not shaping up to be the break I’d needed from all that: as I write, sixteen people have died on rivers in Colorado this season, three of them on Clear Creek.
Statistically, of course, most people who go whitewater rafting aren’t killed. Most of them make it to the take-out without incident and tip their guide and go out to lunch and carry on with their day. But thousands of people go rafting every summer with commercial outfits all over the state, some more by-the-book than others. Even when necessary precautions are taken, an unfortunate reality of recreating in an uncontrollable environment is that a very small percentage of those people are hurt or killed.
To me, it doesn’t matter so much how the numbers shake out. The outfit I trained with has an excellent reputation, and for good reason. But looming over my head is very real possibility that someone could be killed and I could be directly responsible for that. This is too much for me to bear, which doesn’t make me a very good candidate to be a raft guide.
So it wasn’t exactly Rocky. No montages. But two-and-a-half weeks after that day in the Evergreen pool, I’d earned my stripes. I can lift a boat above my head (not effortless; they’re really heavy) and I’ve guided without incident every rapid on that stretch of Clear Creek. I told the head boatman and the owner I wasn’t cut out to guide the Creek, and while they expressed some disappointment—I’d gained a reputation for my salty tongue and irreverent sense of humor, essential traits for a successful river rat—they graciously accepted my resignation from the rookie class.
Still, I haven’t been able to stay away from the river. Like many of the achievements I’m proudest of in my life, I am at once terrified of it and drawn to it. I find myself at the shop at least once a week, putting away wetsuits and blowing up boats until someone invites me to paddle with them. I even guided some friends on the Upper C, showing them all my favorite spots and feeling terribly glad not to be on a commercial trip because beer.
I’m not any stronger than most people I know, either physically or mentally, and I’m certainly not any braver. I don’t think I’m smarter than average, though I do have a tendency to overthink things, often to the point of nausea. I’m mostly pretty average, but what I do have is grit.
I’ve applied to—and not gotten, or even been interviewed for—several dozen jobs since I finished grad school. I guess you can’t put “but you see, I have grit” on a resume. It’s been a little demoralizing, especially since my most recent rejection letter was hot on the heels of a reminder that the grace period has ended, and my student loan payments are due.
Despite all that, I’m harboring some hope. Some mornings I have to do some Daily Affirmations, Stuart Smalley-style: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I’m not always convinced these things are true, but I do know one thing: if I made it through guide training and lived to tell about it, the next challenge is probably, at the very least, survivable.