River Lessons – What I have Learned from a Lifetime on the River
Having spent a good deal of my working life either guiding on rivers, mostly the Rangitikei, or working in some other way associated with that pursuit, I thought it might be a good time to reflect a little on what those years have taught me.
There is an old saying amongst river guides that goes like this. “There are only two types of river guide, those who have flipped (their raft), and those who are going to flip.”
The popular perception of river guides, and possibly how many river guides view themselves, especially newly qualified guides, is of a somewhat larger than life character. A swash buckling, (often loud) hero who takes on the unpredictable elements of a river and safely guides customers over drops and through swirling white water.
If the river has a voice, and many days I have thought it does, then I am sure it chuckles, or even laughs outright at this foolishness. Many a time I have seen the guide who has the most inflated view of their own importance get the biggest beat down. After one of these beat downs, the epic swim, the long down time, one realises one’s fragility and inconsequence to the powerful force of the river.
You learn humility. Sometimes, guides can be slow learners requiring multiple lessons, but eventually the message gets through.
Following on from humility is respect. You learn respect for the forces of nature. You recognise these powerful natural forces as being outside your control. You learn to work with them and not against them. Over time you see what those forces can do. Reshape rapids, move huge rocks with nothing but the force of water, create incredible beauty.
If you enter a rapid with no plan other than believing that the best will happen, then it is highly likely that the best will not.
Often the most critical part of running a rapid is the set up at the entry. A good set up, a plan for what lies ahead. A good set up and plan greatly increases the chances of success.
An observation I have made over the years is that when running a rapid, experienced guides almost always seem to have a lot of time. There is little that is frantic or hurried. They have learned the art of patience.
Patience is doing the right thing at the right time, waiting for the appropriate moment to call that command that puts the boat just where it should be.
Coupled with patience is decisiveness. When the time is right, then the command is called for action by the crew, or the critical stroke with oar or paddle is taken. There can be no dithering at that time. It is total decisive commitment.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have worked with some tremendous river guides. Guides who have not only incredible skill levels but also many other talents. They have written books. They can sing and play the guitar; they have a vast knowledge of culture, nature and geology. They can build, they can really cook. They can hold conversations about things they know nothing about. Sometimes people even believe them!
But what has made it most special is the camaraderie and almost sixth sense bond that develops amongst professionals who, over years, work together. No need for big arm signals, for yelling and shouting, rather there is the small thumbs up, the slight nod, the intuitive placement of rafts leapfrogging down the river — rafts covering each other, covering critical points in rapids.
As a guide in this environment, you feel both safe and valued.
I would challenge anyone to not work in this sort of environment, one where nature rules, where the forces of wind, rain, river current and tectonic forces have shaped the landscape, not to feel awe at the majesty of it. I would challenge them to not feel upon occasion, both inconsequential, but also, incredibly lucky to be in such an environment.
These things the river has taught me. I am thankful and grateful for the opportunity I have had.
Looks a little like a blueprint for life, doesn’t it?
The early days of guiding on the Rangitikei
Guiding on the Rangitikei this Summer
The team covering each other on the river
A team photo before the rafting trip
Guiding the rapid Max’s Drop