in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Whitewater Rafting Guide

Joe Cope is jumping over the rafting boat.

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.

Men enjoying rafting in the river.

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.

The rafting boat is lifted up due to back loading.

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.

People enjoying rafting in the river.

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.

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