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A river guide runs through it...

by Darrell Hookey

Dateline: May 24, 2001

Raft in severe white water     They can tell the difference between Fireweed and Purple Vetch at 20 paces; fold phyllo pastries with one arm tied behind their backs; and anticipate the mood of a bear by which season it is.

    They can strap 12 days of food and gear onto a raft, flip it upside down in the water, bounce it off a canyon wall and find a current to bring their shell-shocked guests into a pleasant harbour for an evening of song and story telling.

    They are river guides. A tenderfoot’s best friend.

    It is amazing how much common sense leaves us the moment we are placed in an unfamiliar situation. Rafting big rivers in the Yukon, like the Tatshenshini and Alsek, is the exact kind of situation you need all of your senses working at peak efficiency. This is why the river guide is so important to thousands of visitors every year.

    Certainly the guide must know every bend in the river, be skilled and strong enough to paddle safely through Class IV white water and be certified for first aid. But they must also have patience with beginners, have a great sense of humour and the bush smarts of a mountain man. And because guests on their trips ask questions, they need a working knowledge of botany, geology, ornithology, anthropology and natural history.

    They need to be handy with a tool kit. If the propane stove doesn’t start or the raft springs a leak or the water purifier sticks there is nobody else around to fix it except the river guide. And they need to be tactful enough to discuss personal hygiene with a woman twice their age.

    In the kitchen they need to know at least two recipes for roasting lamb, which wine goes best with it and how to bake bread over a camp fire.

    Finding such a person takes trial and error, says Bob Daffe, owner of Tatshenshini Expediting. He has never had to fire a river guide ... those who are not suited to the job just end up leaving.

    When hiring a new river guide, he looks for excellent people skills. "We are in a service industry," he says. "They have to like people."

    Daffe starts a new guide as a helper on his day trips. As a guide for 23 years, he knows how to spot a good prospect. Do they answer questions with enthusiasm and respect? Can they intuit who needs help?

    Even if they have the people skills and can handle a river, some just don’t want the responsibility for all those lives in their raft. Especially if they want to graduate to the big leagues: Long trips that can last up to 12 days. The pressure is on them 24 hours a day. The river guide, alone, is responsible for the happiness of the clients. "Their problems are our problems," says Daffe.

    Neil Hartling knows how important a good river guide is to an outdoor adventure company. His business, Nahanni River Adventures, sees 40 percent of its clients return for additional trips. And another 30 percent are from referrals.

    Finding good river guides is not a problem, he receives two applications a week. Those he hires must work a season for free, but it is a good quality education they receive. Hartling says after one season with his company, a river guide learns enough to start up their own.

    Daffe says river guides must have the mandatory Basic First Aid and CPR training. But they are then encouraged to continue their education by attending classes on River Rescue, Wilderness First Aid and, eventually, earn their British Columbia Trip Leader Certificate. On top of all that, Daffe’s river guides meet twice a week for a de-briefing to learn from each other.

    Bob Hanley says he has heard guiding is "90 percent cooking and 10 percent terror". He is another experienced and respected river guide who operates SunDog Guides and Adventures Yukon, which specializes in more active trips. He works on the 10 percent of terror by preparing. Hanley says he gets himself into shape before each season and is always reading up on new techniques, such as bear safety.

    During his 20 years of guiding, he has had several bear encounters, a few accidents and the occasional client fall out of a raft. He owes the small number of incidents to preparation, yet he considers his biggest challenge to be rain.

    He has guided some long trips with weather so bad his clients could not see the mountain tops the entire time. Good tarps and high spirits gets him through these times. Clients are disappointed they can’t see the scenery they travelled so far to see. He has to dig a little deeper to stay cheerful and keep things running smoothly. His reward at the end of a trip is seeing happy clients. And perhaps showing them the wonder of the Yukon nature that he has taken for granted.

    River guiding is a lifestyle. These men and women enjoy the outdoors and they enjoy showing it to guests. Asking a typical river guide to put on a suit and punch a time clock would be like putting them in jail.