So You Want My Job: Whitewater Rafting Guide

by Brett on April 22, 2009 · 29 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

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Today we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

For this installment, we interviewed Joe Cope. Joe, a good friend of AoM contributor Chris Hutcheson and a member of the Art of Manliness Community, works as both a chemist and a whitewater rafting guide. While his job as a chemist pays the bills, his true love is whitewater rafting. Whether you’re a college student looking for a summer job, or a 9-5 career man, Joe proves you can always make room in your life for what you’re passionate about. We appreciate him sharing his love for his job with AoM’s readers.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I am from a small town right in the middle of Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, appropriately named Middletown. I was born and raised there until I moved away for college to go to Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where I still live. I am 24 years old and out of school now. I have been a whitewater rafting guide on the upper and middle Ocoee River in Ocoee, TN for three summers now, and I absolutely can’t wait for summer #4. Basically, I take multiple trips (up to three on the middle section only, up to two combined upper/middle trips) on the weekends only, due to my full-time job. The river runs Thursday through Monday (the rafting weekend is Tuesday and Wednesday). I just try to give people the most aggressive, intense ride they can handle, while keeping them safe, of course.

2. You are a whitewater rafting guide in the summer; what do you do during the rest of the year? What do your fellow guides do?

Before I graduated, of course, I was just a college student and could raft full-time in the summer. However, since I graduated, I needed a “real” job to pay the bills, etc. I am a chemist at Schering-Plough Consumer Health Care. We are a pharmaceutical company that manufactures quite a few over-the-counter products (Coppertone Sunscreens, Afrin nose sprays, Dr. Scholls products, etc.) Most of my rafting friends are actually teachers during the rest of the year, so their schedules work out that they can raft full-time in the summer. And honestly, I may go that route eventually. A lot of other fellow guides are still students, and I believe the rest of them fall into the category of the next question… As a side note, I’m trying to become a full-time firefighter and that would open up a lot more rafting time too.

3. Is it possible to parlay a job as a whitewater rafting guide into some kind of year-round career?

The Ocoee River is dam-controlled, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and they have a set schedule that the river runs, so in the offseason (November – March), the river is basically a trickling stream, with the exception of a few unscheduled releases. Many “career” guides (I guess you could say) will move to a ski resort and give ski lessons every year, some find odd jobs to do, such as handiwork, personal training, etc. Our outpost has a marina on the lake where we are located, so some of us have worked for the marina in the off season doing general maintenance and repairs, etc.

4. Is being a whitewater rafting guide a strictly young man’s job? Or are there older guys who do it too?

Ha. You may be surprised at the amount of older fellows (and women) that still guide. There are quite a few grisly old men still out there, and I plan on being one of them. I always say that as long as I live in the area and my body permits me, I will work on that beautiful river. Also, there are quite a few female guides as well. We have a few working for our company, and I would argue strongly that they are some of the best guides on the river, guy or girl.

big-splash

5. Why did you want to be a whitewater rafting guide? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

To be honest, I lived down here for three full years before I even KNEW I could become a guide. My very good friend (and now kayaking buddy, I took that up too), Kent, had been a guide for about 10 years at the time, asked me, my girlfriend, and her sister (who is now married to Kent) if we wanted to be whitewater rafting guides. We said “heck yes!” and started training that spring. It took a while to learn the river, but once I did, it felt like I had done it my whole life. That’s when I knew that the Ocoee River was my home, or I guess more of a retreat. When I’m out there, I’m in a state of flow. Even a bad day on the river is better than a good day in most other places. I realized this about halfway through my first summer. That’s when I knew.

6. If man wants to become a whitewater rafting guide, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?

It’s as simple as going to any of the rafting companies and filling out an application and waiver. Rafting companies aren’t extremely picky. The training process usually weeds out the ones that can’t hack it. Before training, I would advise working out the arms lightly a few days a week, just to prepare the muscles for action, and as with anything else, a strong core is a definite plus. You use your abs more than one may think. But mostly, preparation comes in the training phase, which starts mid-march and goes every weekend until Memorial Day, when the river opens five days a week. Training is intense, we take 2+ trips each Saturday and 2+ more each Sunday, every weekend for 10-12 weeks, in addition to swift water rescue training, rope tying, and other job specific skills such as loading/unloading boats on the bus. But if you want to be a guide and you don’t know a current guide, call a rafting company and ask for the river manager, and they will be MORE than happy to give you information.

7. How competitive is it to get a job as a whitewater rafting guide?

It’s not so much competitive to get a job as it is to keep a steady job, and by that I mean consistently rafting on a regular basis. Due to the naturally laid-back atmosphere, it takes a LOT for a guide to get fired, although I have seen it happen. Getting the job is easy, you just have to train (everyone is allowed to train) and pass your “release trip.” A release trip involves the trainee guiding the raft all the way down the river with a boat full of customers and one senior guide; the senior guide acting strictly as a customer while observing the trainee. If the senior guide (and other guides on the trip) feels the trainee is ready, they are allowed to start taking customers on their own. After that, it is a seniority thing, as far as who gets the most trips, with rookies mainly only getting trips on the weekends. Once the busy season hits, though, many rookies show up every day, even if they’re not scheduled, to see if they can pick up a trip from a guide who may want to leave early. We also get walk-ins on a regular basis. In that case, whichever unscheduled guide arrives first, regardless of seniority, gets the trip.

8.When applying for the job, what sets a candidate apart from the others?

River experience is obviously a plus. One of our rookies from last year had kayaked the Ocoee quite a few times, so he kind of flew through training and was taking trips before any other rookie guide was released. As far as the application process though, it’s pretty all-inclusive. Again, the training process shows us who can hack it.

hutch-is-on-the-other-side-backloading

9.What is the best part of the job?

Every day that I wake up and head east on US-64 Seriously, even a bad day rafting is better than a good day most other places Specifically, though, there are a few rapids where we guides can mix it up a bit and sort of show off To me, part of it is the challenge of being able to pull off these different tricks (“surfing” on a hydraulic wave, “popping up” or jumping up at the top of a big wave, as in the first picture, etc.) Many times we flip the rafts on purpose, if the customers don’t mind, of course Also, on the upper section, we have the Olympic Course from where the Olympic Canoeing and Kayaking events were held in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia A quarter mile of manmade, big, strong, class IV whitewater That is definitely the highlight of an Upper Ocoee Trip A lot of good accidents (flipped rafts) happen there As long as nobody gets hurt, it’s actually pretty fun to watch (and experience).

Really though, while I could have tons of fun on the river by myself every day, nothing compares to rafting with great people The camaraderie I share with my fellow guides is priceless I think I speak for any rafting guide with any company We are a family We look out for each other, mess with each other, splash each other’s customers, and basically act like a bunch of kids together Sometimes we have our spats, but that’s part of it, and we always end up working things out We also hang out a lot outside of work We go to bluegrass shows together, cook out a few times each summer, our boss has a rockin Fourth of July party every year, or sometimes we just sit around a fire on the weekend and tell good stories I actually had dinner tonight with our river manager and a few other guides We really have the time of our lives together, and it makes the job so much better to share it with such great people.

10 What is the worst part of the job?

This goes along with the end of the previous question. Sometimes accidents happen. They happen more often to less-experienced guides, but they still happen to the 10+ year veterans as well. Sometimes the river just has her way. And sometimes people get hurt. Fortunately, nobody has died on the Ocoee River in almost four years. However, people do get hurt, or scared if a raft flips unintentionally (again, it happens to everyone). It really does break my heart when someone wants to get off the river mid-trip. The bus driver comes and picks them up, and they wait with the driver until the trip is finished. It has happened to me a few times, and it’s hard to deal with. Those people paid to have a good time and now they’re too scared to go on. It’s a really crappy feeling.

11. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

Well, most people think of big waterfalls, ten foot waves, and just complete carnage when it comes to rafting. While there are some rivers like that (the Zambezi in Africa, the Gauley in West Virginia, parts of the Colorado, among others), most rivers are fairly manageable. Some people think they are always at the mercy of the river. While this may be true from time to time, it’s not always the case. The Ocoee is fairly safe while still maintaining the capacity to turn into a crazy ride. It really depends on the guide, what they are capable of doing, and what the customers want. I’ve given the “conservative” ride, where we just ride straight through, no stunts; I’ve also flipped my raft four times in one 2-hour trip. I really try to cater each trip to the individual group I’m taking, because after all, they’re the ones paying.

light-carnage

12. What is the work /life balance like?

When I was a student and all I had to do in the summer was to raft, it couldn’t have gotten any better. I woke up in the morning, headed to the river; if I had trips that day, of course I went rafting. Weekdays, I was usually home by 6:00 p.m. at the latest. Weekends, if doing two Upper/Middle trips in one day, it was more like 8:00 p.m., but that still left the evening wide open. Even if I didn’t have trips one day, I would head out to the river anyway to hang out, kayak, or pick up trips if another guide wanted to give one away or if we had walk-ins. Now that I work full time, I only raft on weekends, so during the busy season (July – September), I’m basically working seven days a week every week, with few exceptions. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rafting is more of a release, more play time than it is a job, so I have no problem spending any and every weekend doing it, especially after a hard week in the lab.

13. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

The best advice I could give any prospective customer is to listen to your guide, paddle hard, and trust what your guide says. Granted, we make mistakes, but your safety is our FIRST priority, and your enjoyment comes in a close second. As a prospective guide, I would urge you to TRY IT! Don’t just think “man that would be cool” or “I wish I had time” or anything along those lines. If you’re close to a rafting river, then get up, go out there, and see what it takes. And FOLLOW THROUGH. I’m telling you, it is the best, most enjoyable job you will ever have.

I wish I could think of just one story to tell, but so many hilarious and awesome things happen out there; it’s hard to pick out just one. I will say this, though: friend trips, or “fun runs” are the most fun things to do. Just bringing a group of friends, not paying customers, out there to tear the river up. It’s a regularly guided trip, but we have no rules, no restrictions. As long as we’re back at the bus when the rest of the rafts are, everything is fine. On those friend trips, we try to do the most heinous things imaginable, such as standing on the nose of the boat through a class IV rapid holding on to only a strap, surfing for extended periods of time, body surfing certain rapids, flipping the raft every chance we get, and I’ll even let my friends guide a few rapids too. If you’ve never been whitewater rafting, then go. If you’re a little hesitant, try the Ocoee River in Southeast Tennessee, look up Ocoee Inn Rafting, and ask for Joe. But really, there are rivers everywhere. . . you just have to be looking for an adventure.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Hutcheson April 22, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Having spent countless days on the river with Joe and other guides, I can attest to just how amazing it really is. If you’ve never been whitewater rafting, I suggest you start planning your first trip, you will not regret it. Live by whitewater and have summer days free? Joe’s advice here is invaluable, take it!!

Great article Joe!!!

2 Joe Cope (author) April 22, 2009 at 5:08 pm

thanks hutch! i’m serious guys. get out there. it’s training season right NOW on the Ocoee, which means other rivers should be opening up. even if you can’t guide or don’t live close to a river, plan a weekend and get it done. if possible, come see me and i will give you a day to remember. and if you reference this article, i’ll take you out for dinner afterwards :)

http://www.ocoeeinn.com for the phone number to make reservations (Brett, i don’t know if i’m allowed to do that, i hope so). be sure to request Joe!

and please, ask if you have any questions!!

3 Joshua Miller April 22, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Hey, I’m in Knoxville 2 hours from Ocoee! I have a friend who was a guide in Johnson City on the Watauga River and a couple of others. If anyone is interested in this, it is a great way to just have some adventure, fun, and get away from the world for a day. The job is even more rewarding. Once again, great article!

4 Nick April 23, 2009 at 5:02 am

I do a Gauley Marathon (upper and lower in a day) every fall in West Virginia. Every time I go, I am so jealous of the guides that get to be out there almost every day. Unfortunately, I live where there isn’t really any whitewater, or I would have started guiding years ago! Great article Joe, I really enjoyed reading it!

5 Capitalist April 23, 2009 at 6:39 am

You forgot a good question: how much do you make on such a job?

6 Roadchick April 23, 2009 at 7:03 am

I’ve been rafting on the Ocoee several times and I can definitely say that all of the training the guides get definitely pays off.

On my first trip ever, in the first rapid after put-in (Hellhole, maybe?), the front of the raft took a huge nosedive to the left. I was sitting left front and the nosedive flipped me backwards over the side of the raft right next to the rocks. My feet were still locked in but I couldn’t kick free because I was hyperextended over the side.

I can honestly say that the guide I had that day probably saved my life by yanking me up out of the water by the front of my life vest. He looked a little shaken by the whole thing (and of course, I was shaking from the adrenaline) but I didn’t think too much about it right then. The friends that I was with told me later that we were so close to the rocks that when I flipped backward, they all thought I had hit my head and was unconscious.

The rest of the trip was fun, no one else had to be rescued, and I can honestly say that the worst part of it was (and is) hauling the raft out at the end and getting it loaded up again.

I don’t remember my guide’s name, but he was at Ocoee Adventure Center and everytime I tell that story, I send him a silent ‘thank you’.

7 Michael H April 23, 2009 at 7:51 am

I have to say, this is the most appealing job out of the ‘So you want my job’ series that I’ve seen so far. Great article, but I would also like to know what the salary range is for weekend guides and full time guides (if somebody knows).
Thanks!

8 Joe Cope (author) April 23, 2009 at 12:13 pm

i can answer the salary question for you, no problem. first and foremost, nobody is a rafting guide for the money. the pay is dependent on a few factors: experience (therefore frequency of being scheduled, see #7 above), what company you work for, and your role in the trip. for example, right now, i get paid $26 per trip. the base pay for me is $25 per trip, but since i am a certified Wilderness First Responder (you don’t have to be one to be a guide, just to be a trip leader), i get $1 more per trip (almost silly, i know, but over a summer it adds up). at my company, trip leaders get $10 added to their personal base pay (only on trips that they lead), Assistant Trip Leaders get $5 extra per trip, only on trips where they are A.T.L. i wouldn’t want to be rude and tell how much my fellow guides make, but we are on a bracket system, people in years 1-5 make the same base, years 6-10 make the same base pay, people 11-15 years, and so on.

basically, i make about … hmm… maybe between a grand or two each summer. if i could do it full time, i could make a lot more, but not enough to support a life beyond extreme simplicity (which some people are happy with). on a busy weekend in august, i could probably bring home $150 on the paycheck, and that doesn’t count tips…

YES, raft guides work very hard for tips. a lot of people don’t know that, and a lot of times we end up empty handed for the day. now, granted, that’s how WHY we raft, it sure makes it nice to have a few envelopes with your name on them at the end of the day, and some cash stuffed inside. and really, tips can be pretty random. i’ve seen anywhere from an envelope full of change to $150 from a single group. for a lower-section-only trip, it’s about average for each person in the raft to tip like $5 for a trip. that gives the guide $30 bucks for the whole raft, and it gives him a smile as well. some guides are pretty shameless about talking up tips, i just take whatever i get. i’m kind of embarrassed to mention it b/c i don’t want people to think i’m only being nice for money. i’m definitely not out there for the money. i’m out there b/c it’s where my heart is.

9 Joe Cope (author) April 23, 2009 at 12:17 pm

i forgot to mention, weekends are the busiest times, we are practically dead on mondays and thursdays, business wise. so especially for newer guides, most (if not all) of your trips will come on the weekend, so the difference between weekend only and full time is almost negligible. fridays are the only weekday where business gets kind of crazy in mid-to-late summer.

oh, and this is @Roadchick, the first rapid is called Grumpy’s, and it’s called that b/c if you fall in, you’ll be grumpy the rest of the day. it’s full of swift current and many rocks. i’ve had a few swims there myself during my training, and it was not fun, so i feel you on that one!

10 Jess Cope April 24, 2009 at 12:29 am

Great article Joe!!! I’ve been rafting a few times; twice with my brother (the interview-ee here). He really does a great job, and it really is GREAT FUN!!! The Olympic course was very scary for me (because I’m a big chicken) but after we got started, everything went so well. It’s so beautiful out there, and rafting is a great time. If I lived close to the river, I would definitely give being a guide a chance.

Hope you have a great summer Broseph!!!

11 Kim Vickers April 24, 2009 at 7:48 am

Love the interview, you did. You nailed everything on the head. I work for Songer Whitewater and New River Season has geared up and we are all pumped up. Do you ever come to the area ?
Kim

12 Joe Cope (author) April 24, 2009 at 10:13 am

@kim vickers, actually, my only other whitewater experience before i started on the Ocoee was on the New River when i was 17. i loved it out there, it’s a great place, and we had a very good time on the New :)

13 James April 24, 2009 at 10:21 am

This was my favorite interview in this series. It really inspired me to get out there and do something cool. Thanks.

14 Steve Watters April 24, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Great stuff Joe. I was a Lee student from 1988 to 1992 and then managed the production centers at Lee until 1995. My cousin was a guide on the Ocoee around that time. That’s some great whitewater rafting.
All the best,
Steve Watters

15 Tom Pehrson April 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Hey guys – here’s how to get your feet wet:

http://www.alaskaadventures.com/alaska_travel_adventures/pages/job_descriptions.htm

RIVER GUIDE: Row inflatable rafts with 10-12 passengers down five miles of the Mendenhall River. There is one mile of class 2-3 whitewater. Responsible for safe operation of raft; providing entertaining and informative narrative to clients; loading, unloading, and cleaning of trip equipment. Boating and rafting experience helpful. Position requires heavy lifting; random drug testing. Available in Juneau.

16 kamal bhandari April 29, 2009 at 3:50 am

hi this is kamal river raft guide from nepal country of mounteverest
i am 29 years old river guide i love to work as a river guide i am working in nepal and india as a raft guide and i started to work in nepal from 2000AD till now as a river guids i really like to work on my river trip it was so fun and some money too
people comes from all over the world do white water rafting in nepal so now i want go out from the country of nepal so if there are any place for guide job please i am giving full time for your company
i did some traning like guide licence from nepal goverment , first aid , and WRT from nolse and many river in nepal or india
so please let me know if there any vacency to work
kamal

17 Will May 7, 2009 at 12:12 am

Joe Cope,

Do you recall a few years ago (3 or 4 maybe?) when the river got right up to the limit where you could still put people on the water, most of the rapids washed out, and Powerhouse turned into basically a 15-foot vertical wall of water? You almost had to duck as you passed under the bridge. I was told it was the highest/fastest the Ocoee had been in like 20 years or something.

Don’t know why I’m mentioning it…just a fond memory.

Will

18 Joe Cope (author) May 7, 2009 at 10:09 am

@will

yes i do remember that time. it was when hurricane ivan made its way up to east tennessee and rained for days. water flow on the river is expressed in cubic feet per second (cfs) referencing how much water is passed over the dam at the top. on a normal day, the river runs anywhere between 1200 and 1500 cfs. when Ivan came through, the river actually got up to 7000 cfs. now when it’s that high, we can’t take customers down by law, the cutoff is at 3000 cfs, and i’m sure there were trips going out while the water was still legal. we had a group of guides (myself not included) that went down the river while it was 7000cfs. the 5-mile middle section usually takes about 1.5-2 hours to run. they made it down in 40 minutes. craaaaaaazy.

19 bryceparker May 13, 2009 at 12:41 pm

I’m a former guide of the Snake River in Jackson, WY. I miss it every day…

20 Kevin November 10, 2009 at 5:08 am

Joe is doing the right thing.

My life is actually quite similar. Weekdays I work for an online broker and weekends – during the season – I am to be found rafting the Vorderrhein in Switzerland for the local kayak school / raft company.

I wouldn’t miss it for anything and I’m actually working on extending my time on the river and/or decreasing my time in the office.

Good stuff!

21 Matt February 3, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Hey joe!
Awesome post man I really enjoyed reading through all of that! I love whitewater rafting more than anything. Heres the problem.. I LIVE IN FLORIDA! I have been down the nantalahala river in north carolina I want to say at east 4 times now. One of those times in a Double Ducky. I have also been in the upper and middle ocoee. Nantalahala is no comparison in intensity and I loved every minute of it. I was hopin I could get your email so that I could talk to you about guiding and such. Will the website give you my email or do I need to send it to you in a post. Thank you and God bless!

22 Tom March 9, 2010 at 10:36 am

Cheers on the article, Joe.

By coincidence, I actually began guide training in British Columbia a few days after this article was published. I flew over from Australia to pursue this line of work, and it was absolutely worth it. I’m currently typing up my travel journal at http://papertrailtramp.wordpress.com/, in which I’m describing the training process, the work, and the lifestyle in some detail. Feel free to have a read.

Tom

23 Justin July 5, 2010 at 11:58 pm

I was acually on the Ocoee today. It was the first time i have ever been white water rafting. I feel in love with it. Im a paramedic in alabama i was wondering if they recognize paramedics? or is that training pretty much useless? Cause i would love to be on the river next summer as i guide, since im back in school. Any information would be helpfull

24 cemal January 8, 2013 at 1:59 pm

hi i am start to be rafting guide in 1996 and i had work in soo many river in turkey the place i had work get dam soo now about 2 years i have no jope i am pro rafting guide and also i can repair both does not matter howe broken i can do it i can use kayak and also kanadian both raft and douple both soo i am with out jope rafting is my love is my life i love it pls if you need rafting guıde let me know thnx

25 Evan February 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I can wait to raft the the new Gauley river this year.
And it been many years since I rafted the Ocoee river I can’t wait to do it again .

26 michelle March 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm

great article, I live the part time summer guide life as well, the pay is terrible. and everyone in the world should be jealous, we are living the dream!
what us the difference between a river guide and a large pepperoni pizza?
the pizza can feed a family of four!
happy paddling!

27 Mike Loshe June 18, 2013 at 11:00 am

Awesome in depth article into what it takes to be a guide. I know that after my first time rafting down the gauley river I wanted to be a guide too. Any tips for someone trying to break into the industry?

28 paddler August 23, 2013 at 10:22 am

It definitely takes time to work up to being a Gauley guide! But if you’re in the Southeast (I can’t speak as much about out West), check out the Chattooga River. You’d spend your first season on Section III, but then if you come back and do well on Section IV for a while, you could have opportunities in West Virginia and Alaska (if that’s what your goal is). With larger companies like NOC and Wildwater, you don’t necessarily get to choose which river you’re on – something to consider if you really want to be on a specific one.
Send in an application though! Like the article says, anyone can train. Once you’re training, just be open to learning from senior guides and sore muscles. And when you have that really gnarly swim, get back out on the water.

29 José el Legarto February 3, 2014 at 8:29 pm

I work Alaska in the summer and the Everglades in winter. Quit yer jobs and be river guides! Of course you won’t get rich unless you count how much you’re lovin life.

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