Selecting a Whitewater Rafting Guide School

Selecting a Whitewater Rafting Guide School

January 28, 2020 – Aaron Cavagnolo

There are numerous options when it comes to choosing a whitewater rafting guide school but all courses are definitely not alike. We are going to break down the difference between professional and recreational rafting guide schools as well as the variations in what guide courses and rowing clinics offer. Finally, we will discuss some key variables that impact the quality of each school.

Guide School Options

Professional Rafting Guide School

Professional rafting guide schools are designed to prepare people to work as commercial guides. However, students typically come out of these schools needing further training. Ideally, they are competent enough to rig and row an extra raft on a multi-day trip and/or able to run a paddle boat down a class II – III whitewater day stretch with a senior guide in the boat with them. After showing they have the skills to consistently run rapids safely, guides are typically then given the opportunity to get paid work.

I’m a big fan of professional guide schools for anyone wanting to be in charge of a raft on a commercial or private trip. Pro rafting guide schools are typically more intensive with higher expectations and students come out better prepared to deal with emergency situations like swimmers, wraps, and flipped rafts. If you are planning to take your friends rafting you will find the differences between a commercial and private trip are minimal.

I also find the professional schools are typically a little more fun and rewarding because they tend to develop a stronger relationships among students. The higher expectations and expected level participation are incredible bonding agents.

The main reason I would discourage someone from taking a professional guide school is if they only want to row. Most pro guide schools spend a significant amount of time paddle rafting and some spend all their river time on paddle captaining. By contrast, recreational guide schools (also known as Rowing schools/clinics) typically focus on rowing.

Types of Pro Rafting Guide Schools

The are many different types of rafting companies to meet the demands of a variety of rivers and guests. Most courses are run by rafting companies so they can have a pipeline of new guides to run their style of river trips.

Day Trip versus Multi-day Trip Courses

The biggest variation in pro guide schools is if they focus on one-day or multi-day trips. Rafting guide schools focused on one day trips typically use paddle boats or oar/paddle combination boats (also called stern mounts). These courses tend to emphasize learning one stretch of river with the idea that at the end of the school students will be working that same section. Due to the emphasis on whitewater, these students come away with stronger paddle boat skills, team boating skills, better safety talks, and more refined paddle talks.

Multi-day trip courses cover more information. Students end the courses with a larger breadth of knowledge but less refined skills. In addition to what is covered in courses for one-day trips, these courses teach gear boat rigging and rowing, setting up river camps, cooking meals, and loading and de-rigging for these more complicated trips.

Camp Scene on a multi-day rafting trip
Judgement versus Policy Based Companies

There are two main types of rafting companies: judgement based and policy based. Rafting guide schools follow the culture of the company. Judgement based companies tend to focus on building skills and then teaching guides to critically decide how to apply those skills based upon the situation. I’m a fan of judgement based training because it makes guides more adept at adjusting to the variety of conditions we see in multi-day wilderness trips.

Policy based companies also focus on building skills but they are more directive regarding the application of skills. Typically, rapids are memorized with guides being told how and where to enter a rapid and what commands to use. Safety practices such as where to have rafts waiting at the bottom of rapids are also memorized. Dam release rivers tend to have more of a focus on memorizing while free flowing rivers vary more throughout the season necessitating an ability to read whitewater.

Rowing Schools and Clinics

Rowing schools and clinics are typically designed for private boaters. Some of the courses have the instructors doing the cooking. Others have students and instructors cooking together. It is advantageous when rowing schools have different types of equipment so students can see and experience what is out there before buying their own kit.

One of the biggest variables is what type of oars the course uses. Most boaters use oar locks and beginners typically use locks with oar-rights. However, pins and clips with stirrups is another great option. Having a chance to try the different rowing options is helpful. There is a big difference in the way rafts and catarafts perform. Many courses provide the opportunity to try both crafts.

whitewater rafting guide school lecture
Morning Chalk Talk

Key Variables in Rafting Courses

What type of craft will you be using in the course?

Getting exposure to the different types of rafts is helpful. Exposure to catarafts, gear boats, and oar/paddle combos from 14 to 18-feet in length can be helpful for aspiring commercial guides. Private boaters tend to prefer 14 to 16-foot boats. Fourteen foot rafts are typically a nice size for learning paddle boating for both commercial and private boaters. Larger boats can be difficult to control while smaller boats are sometimes a little too easy to control. Guides typically have an easier time going from driving paddle boats to rowing than vice versa.

What types of rivers will you be running?

I find technical pool drop rivers are the best for learning to run paddle boats. When rivers are low there are more rocks to avoid forcing students to control their momentum in a precise manner. Low water also means the potential wraps and perches which are excellent learning opportunities.

Guides that train on low water typically have a much easier time going to high water river than vice versa. Day stretches are also best for learning because they typically have more rapids per mile and it is helpful to repeat the same section multiple times.

Having a base camp means less time setting up and taking down camp and more time developing whitewater skills. That being said, seeing different stretches of river helps develop read and run skills and keeps students from solely memorizing routes.

How much will you be guiding?

The student to instructor ratio is a key part of getting more guiding time. A good ratio is 4 students per instructor. Many companies also provide solo boats to increase the amount of time students are guiding.

What is the experience of the instructors?

The best courses are led by instructors with 10+ years of experience working on different types of rivers including single and multi-day trips as well as high and low volume runs. It’s also preferred that the lead instructor has taught numerous courses.

Ideally all the instructors will have AT LEAST worked multiple seasons as a lead guide on class IV rivers. Guides who are not comfortable on class IV typically are not comfortable enough on class III to be a strong instructor. An important aspect of learning to guide is making mistakes. Instructor that are not comfortable do not allow students to make mistake which decreases learning in the short term and inhibits a new guide’s confidence in the long term. In the best case all your instructors would have class V guiding experience.

Class V guides typically have much more refined skills and understanding of rigging, training crews and running rivers to minimize risk. I’ve seen many guides that need to relearn skills as they progress because the initial way they learned doesn’t work on harder rivers.

What skills will you be learning?

Quality courses will cover most of the following: flipping rafts, swimming rapids, swimming into eddies, climbing into rafts, using throw bags, picking up swimmers, rigging boats, setting up camp, knots, team boating, paddle boating, rowing, and gear repair.

A note on buying gear before your course

Instructors are a wealth of knowledge. Many times it is better to wait to buy gear after taking a course. Too often I see students show up with brand new gear that is not ideal for the rivers we are running. For example, students will show up with a low volume lifejacket for a rafting course on high volume rivers. Their lifejacket makes swimming in the river more challenging and dangerous.

Some Quality Rafting Courses

My rafting guide school course offered spring quarter through Lake Tahoe Community College is a screaming good deal if you are a California resident. Enrolling through the college is a little cumbersome but worth the effort. We teach paddle captaining and rowing.

ARTA River Trips runs an excellent commercial guide school in Oregon where you usually run the Klamath, Cal Salmon, and Rogue. They teach both paddle captain and rowing as well as multi-day rigging and camp skills. They typically have a good student to instructor ratio of 4 to 1.

River Runners teaches an advanced paddle captaining course for commercial guides on the Kaweah River. John Kosakowsky has the experience necessary to teach a course like this.

Northwest Rafting offers a couple of great rowing courses for private boaters. Their beginning course on the Rogue is taught by veteran guide Peter Fox. He can geek out on rowing with the best of them. Northwest’s advanced rowing school run on tributaries of the Columbia River Gorge is great for people wanting to improve their rowing skills from class III to class IV.

Concluding Thoughts

There are many other high quality rafting guide schools that we have not listed. Professional instruction will help you minimize risk for yourself and your friends when on the water. Set yourself up for success by asking some questions of the company providing the course to find out if it meets your needs.

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