So Ya Wanna Be A River Guide? Here’s How

Warm weather is coming. Maybe you’re thinking, hey, I want to ditch everything to guide folks on river trips. We’re not saying Greg Cairns’s experiences here are an easily repeatable blueprint, but if he could do it, you can too. – Ed.

Grow up in Chicago, go to boarding school in Vermont, and get captivated by running water during a trip on the Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyon, that’s how 27-year-old Greg Cairns became a river guide and filmmaker. Cairns went to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where the squeaks from Chacos and flops from flippies can be heard on the moon. Just as the Animas River flows right through town, so does boating culture. Durango may boast the most PFDs per capita in the universe. “Naturally, I boated a lot over the six years I lived there,” explains Cairns.

Cairns’ first big river trip turned his fancy and turned into his first film. Along with some college buddies, he skied, hiked, and kayaked from the headwaters of the Animas River to Silverton, Colorado. From there, they rafted the upper section of the Animas, portaged Rockwood Canyon, and spent the next 25 days floating all the way to Clay Hills, Utah. They met up with Jack Kloepfer from Jack’s Plastic Welding there and rigged an electric motor and 900 watts of solar panels onto their raft. It took five days to motor across Lake Powell, the trip took 35 days in total.

“The film is called The Current. It’s long, outdated, and generally unpolished,” says Cairns. “But it’s honest, sometimes funny, and has a lot of information about the Animas and San Juan in it. That trip was enough for me to know I loved being on rivers and loved to make films.”

Cairns started running rubber professionally on the Middle Fork in Idaho for Idaho River Adventures and his love affair with all things river related is only thickening over time. His new film, I’m A River Guide, was just released. It’s an honest look at what life as a professional river guide is truly like. Along with the thoughts presented in the film, Cairns has a few must haves and must dos (and sometimes do nots) for a life well spent guiding rivers.

A PFD and a boat kind of go without saying. Beyond that, snacks, a big straw hat, some cheap cotton flannel shirts, and your favorite water toys are a great pieces to bring along.

“A client wearing a shortsleeve quick dry polyester shirt asked if I was hot in my longsleeve cotton flannel,” Cairns describes. “I just laid down in the river and said no. You don’t need to spend $200 on sun coverage. I bought my hat at a gas station and my shirts are from Goodwill.” Cairns also brings a wetsuit, goggles, and a snorkel. “It’s my favorite way to spend my time off and on the river. It’s amazing to eddy hop underwater with schools of trout and whitefish.”

Be aware of Young Adult Male Invincibility Complex, often found at big water in little boats with boisterous twenty-somethings. Running rivers is an awesome time for mountain folk but the white water doesn’t care how psyched you are or the levels of your cascading confidence. It’ll smack you down. “I took a nasty swim on the Piedra River at stupidly high water,” Cairns recalls. “We flipped and I surfaced only to see a huge pillow in front of me. I went over a six-foot drop, recirculated a few times, and surfaced again underneath the raft, which was surfing in the hole. I took a few frantic breaths under the boat and was sucked under again. When I surfaced, I swam to shore and lay there for a long while. We all did. We found our raft five miles downstream. It was a clear case of Y.A.M.I.C. Too big of water, too little of a boat.”

Certifications like a Wilderness First Responder and a Swift Water Rescue are great to have, as are experience and humility. “You’ve got to stay humble, and remember that rivers are incredibly powerful,” says Cairns. “You can’t fight them. People get complacent and forget that, including me. Things seem safe and manageable until you’re fighting to keep your head above water. As boaters, we’re all just between swims.”

Cairns’ top keys to being a badass guide:

1. Take time for yourself. There is always pressure to do more, carry more, entertain more, cook more. Doing a good job is tiring and draining. Get a little alone time so that you stay at the top of your game. I disappear to snorkel for 15 to 20 minutes once a day or every other day. And go to bed early. Six a.m. comes too soon when you stay up drinking with clients every night.

2. Don’t stay up and drink with clients every night. It’s hard on you and bad for your tips. Clients tip a professional better than a new rafting buddy.

3. Don’t try to sleep under a table when it rains. It doesn’t work and you’ll be sorry. Get up and set up your tent.

4. Laugh off whatever you can. Egos collide when people are tired. Remember that and let things go.

5. Watch your downstream oar. I shattered a $300 oar on my first trip as a guide on the Middle Fork. My boss said to me “Well, Greg, if that’s not something you’re alright with, you shouldn’t be guiding on this river. It’s happened to me and it will probably happen again to you.”

Guiding is part of the service industry. You’re there to provide an adventure and a safe and fun trip. “Many clients are great, although some aren’t,” explains Cairns. “Biting my lip is a quick fix for frustrating clients. Guides are a support group for each other. This includes talking about clients. But around clients, I’m a pretty quiet guide most of the time. I figure if they want to spend the day with a guide who talks a lot they can ride with someone else. I take the job seriously, which involves putting in effort to be nice and patient. It also requires me to understand where the clients are coming from, even if it sometimes feels one-sided.”

“I have some funny stories about clients,” says Cairns. “But I think I’ll leave them on the river for now.” Always check that downstream oar, kids.

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