Oregon Pro Guide Training with ARTA
After an 18-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon in April, I decided to pursue a career change as a river guide. The guides on the Grand Canyon trip were kind enough to offer some advice on how to do this. Something I heard from several of them was to seek out some professional training in the form of a guide school.
Once I’d gotten off the river, I did some research and landed on a 10-day Pro Guide Training course from ARTA in the second half of May. It was appealing for several reasons: It fit well for me in terms of schedule. It was soon enough to give me some hope of getting work as a river guide during summer 2022, but just far enough out that I could give my employer two weeks’ notice. It also fit nicely with a Wilderness First Responder course and a swiftwater rescue course that I had found during the first half of June. The ten-day length was also a draw. Most of the guide schools I’d found were a week or less; I thought the added length and additional subject matter (including a multi-day trip during the second half of the course) would be helpful. Finally, as with many guide schools, in addition to being a learning opportunity in and of itself, it’s also a pipeline to produce new guides for the company or organization that puts on the school. ARTA does raft trips on many rivers throughout the west, including several that look like they’d be good stepping stones to working in the Grand Canyon.
ARTA provides a clear and straightforward gear list. I supplemented it with additional items from the CanX gear list and things I’d either found useful or wished I had on the Grand Canyon trip.
Those lessons learned led to several purchases on my part; everything from a paddle jacket to liquid soap. The one big new piece of gear for this course was a wetsuit. The gear list made clear that a wetsuit or dry suit was mandatory. I got an NRS 3.0 Ultra John wetsuit.
That wasn’t the end of my gear. In addition to the guide training, I’d also be doing the aforementioned Wilderness First Responder (WFR) and swiftwater rescue courses. This meant I’d be away from home for over a month. The WFR class was not very gear-intensive, but the swiftwater class definitely was. It required a dry suit, PFD, and quite a bit of other kit. All this required a whole other big suitcase and another big bag for all the gear.
At this point, I also had 90% of the gear on my backpacking list, so I decided what the heck, I’ll toss my hiking pack in the car just in case an opportunity presents itself. Throw in some stuff I’d be dropping off with a friend I planned to visit on the way home, and my small SUV was packed to the brim.
The drive out
Despite the name, the Oregon Pro Guide Training course starts in Northern California (we’d get to Oregon later in the course). It’s quite a drive from Kansas City, so I gave myself five days to make the trip, with only about two hours on the last day to provide some cushion.
I was able to get early starts most days, getting off the road by mid-afternoon (aided by a couple of time zone changes). I spent the night in Ogallala, Nebraska; Little America, Wyoming; Winnemucca, Nevada; and Yreka, California. Of these, Little America was the standout. I’d first heard of Little America back in 2008 when I was moving from Utah to South Carolina. We drove by on Interstate 80, and I was curious about this big motel and truck stop out in the middle of nowhere in central Wyoming. Now, fourteen years later, I finally had a trip where it was a reasonable stopping point. I had a great room and some nice food.
Yreka was only about an hour and a half from Happy Camp, California, where the course would start at 8 pm, so I had a day to kill. I spent the afternoon hanging out in Greenhorn Park, including a nice walk and getting started on this write-up.
I arrived at Curly Jack campground in Happy Camp around 6 pm, after a two-hour drive. I found two of my fellow students already there. Others drifted in over the next hour or so. I made myself some dinner, and another student shared some chips, salsa, and freshly made guacamole.
Our trainers arrived around 8 pm. We started with some introductions. These included both stuff like names, preferred pronouns, hometowns, previous river experience, and what our biggest fears related to the course were.
The demographics of the ten students in the course were kind of interesting. Four were between ages 18 and 22, with another at 26. The rest of us were around my age or older (I’m 44). So two very distinct populations. In terms of what we were trying to get out of the course, I probably had more in common with some of the younger students looking to work as river guides than with the older students who were there primarily to build their skills for private boating trips.
Our trainers were Noa (no “h”), Katie, and Aaron. All have been guides for many years and have taught multiple Pro Guide Courses. They spoke a bit about what we could expect from the course: drinking from a fire hose, but with the trainers available for questions and as resources. They let us know we’d be starting bright and early at 7 am the next day and spoke about gear and being “river ready.”
With the business part of the evening concluded, we all sat around the campfire for a while. The trainers broke out a couple of guitars and a mandolin and sang some songs (stringed instrument skills are evidently required for working at ARTA).
Day 1 — Klamath River, Curly Jack to Windgate Bar
I was up early, sorting through some gear. At 7 am, we got the rafts unloaded so the trainers could get started on the shuttle. Then we had some time to take down tents, pack gear, and get river ready. That means a wet suit, splash jacket, footwear, etc.
Noa very strongly recommended wearing closed-toe shoes on the river, rather than sandals. This was a bit of a problem because these were not on the course gear list. I had been planning on wearing my Bedrock sandals. However, I had a pair of the NRS Workboot Wetshoes that I bought for the swiftwater rescue class I’ll be taking in a couple of weeks. I ended up wearing those for the first half of the course.
We ate some breakfast, and once the trainers got back from the shuttle, we headed down to the beach and started rigging boats. This involved getting them fully inflated, strapping down gear, and getting everything prepped. We also talked about rigging lines on the bottom of the raft to help you climb back on after flipping a boat.
Katie gave a safety talk which we listened to very intently. Not just because we wanted to be safe, but because we were told we’d have to give one later in the course.
With that, we split up among the rafts and trainers. A couple of other guys and I rode with Aaron. He talked briefly about how to paddle and the paddle commands, as he would with guests. However, he hopped right out of the guide seat at the rear and let one of us paddle captain the boat. We paddled downstream, catching eddies on either side of the river and ferrying back and forth.
Along the way, we stopped and floated along for a bit while Aaron had us all hop out and practice swimming under the boat: first from one side to the other, then from bow to stern. Then we had to get back in the boat, which I found pretty challenging. After we were all aboard, everyone had a chance to rotate through the paddle captain’s seat before stopping above Rattlesnake Rapid for lunch.
Before eating, we scouted Rattlesnake Rapid. It has a big hole in the middle, with lots of current pushing you towards the hole. Perhaps foolishly, I volunteered to guide us through the first real rapid of the course. After lunch, we hopped in the boats and ran the rapid. I think I did pretty well.
A bit further down the river, we pulled up on the bank for a swim. The goal was to swim across the river to an eddy and climb out on a rock ledge. Then we’d hop back in and swim across again to a spot downstream.
I saw several people get circulated in the eddy before making it to the rock, so I cut it close at the top and ended up going over a small pourover at the top of the eddy. This, combined with a surge in the river, resulted in me getting dunked pretty good. According to the trainers, I was under for about five seconds (it seemed longer). The urge to panic was strong, but I thought to myself, “I’m wearing a PFD. I’m going to be fine.” I opened up my eyes and swam up a bit, and resurfaced. At this point, I got recirculated in the eddy, shoved into a rough spot on the eddy line, and got dunked again. While I wasn’t down as long this time, I came up outside the eddy. I was pretty exhausted at this point, so rather than trying to fight my way back into the eddy, I struck out for the opposite bank where we’d intended to end the swim. Katie tossed me a throw bag. I gratefully grabbed the rope and pendulumed to shore.
One of the other students missed the eddy, and Aaron swam downstream to follow (the two of them easily got out at the next eddy). My boat got to row a short distance downstream without a trainer aboard to get them.
After our swim, we got back on the river and returned to practicing catching eddies, following the current, and holding our angle (extra hard because we had an odd number of paddlers).
Eventually, we reached our intended campsite and hung out there while a couple of the trainers did the shuttle, bringing us our bags and gear. Once they arrived, we got camp set up, and the cook crew started dinner (we rotated cooking duties among three groups of students). Dinner was some excellent tri-tip steak with pasta, salad, and brownies. After dinner, we sat around the campfire a bit.
Day 2 — Klamath River, Windgate Bar to Coon Creek
The morning dawned very dewy and wet. Both sides of my tent fly were damp, and the foot of my sleeping bag was wet where it was touching the tent.
My cook group was on lunch duty, so while another crew cooked French toast, we “shopped” lunch, pulling out the stuff we’d need for fruit salad.
After breakfast, Katie talked about communication, covering hand signals and whistle blasts. She and Aaron got started on the shuttle while Noa taught us about river hydraulics. She drew out holes, eddies, pourovers, and standing waves on a whiteboard, which was very helpful. She also talked about eddy lines and ferrying boats across the current.
One thing that was new to me and would prove very useful was the boats float slower when crosswise to the current, so if you’re trying to let rafts behind you catch up, floating crossways is a good way to do it.
Last up was talking about boat angles. Setting an angle relative to the current to keep off of the bank in the bend (something I had trouble with rowing in the canyon), T-ing up to waves and holes, pointing the bow or stern at anything you’re going to bump, etc.
By this time, the sun was high enough to dry out our tents and other gear a bit, so we got packed up. When Katie and Aaron got back from the shuttle, we loaded up the truck and got back on the river. Noa, Katie, and Aaron demonstrated a typical pre-trip guide meeting for us.
Today, I was in Noa’s raft. Again, we rotated among paddle captains. I took us through a small rapid and caught some eddies. Unlike many folks who were catching eddies low, I tended to go too high and bump the boat on the rock. We also worked some on maintaining boat spacing, as opposed to the previous day when each boat was more doing its own thing.
We got to our lunch stop, and my group got started on the fruit salad. Everyone else walked upstream with a plan to swim the small rapid we were eating below. Those of us on lunch duty would swim while the others were eating.
However, one student injured an ankle pretty severely walking over the slippery rocks on the way to the top of the rapid. At the time, it wasn’t clear if it was a bad sprain or a broken ankle, but either way, it was a genuine medical emergency.
The trainers sent the other students back for lunch while they treated the injured ankle and came up with a plan. Noa and Aaron stayed with the injured student while Katie came back and briefed the rest of us on what was happening. She climbed up the very steep slope to the road above and headed downstream to see if there was a good point to evacuate someone before the take out.
At her suggestion, we all sat around going over the safety talk card. Katie returned with the news that the take out was the closest place to get someone off the river safely. She headed off to discuss a plan with the other trainers.
I got halfway through a practice safety talk before they came back and let us know what we’d be doing. I volunteered to help Katie row a raft up the eddy to the injured student. We R2ed it (paddling a raft with two people, one on each side). Once the student was aboard, we loaded everyone else and headed downstream.
The trainers took over paddle captaining to get us to the take out as smoothly and quickly as possible. To make this an educational opportunity, they talked through a “stream of consciousness” of what they were seeing and doing as they guided us downstream. I found it very insightful to learn what Noa was thinking in different situations along the river.
At the take out, they got the injured student loaded in the van. Katie and Noa drove off with her for the car shuttle while the rest of us got the rafts loaded on the trailer. Aaron taught us the Trucker’s Hitch, used to tie down the front of the rafts on the trailer. He had everyone practice tying it at least once.
When they got back from the shuttle with the truck, we hitched up the trailer and headed out. I rode with Katie and the injured student in the truck.
We drove to the campground where we’d left the cars. Aaron drove the injured student to Yreka in the van for treatment. The rest of us carpooled to another campground along the Cal Salmon River, where we’d be rafting the next few days.
The other students unloaded the truck while those of us on the kitchen crew set up our tents before starting dinner, a nice vegetarian curry. We didn’t get finished until after 9 pm.
After dinner, we talked through the day’s events: what happened and how everything was handled. I have to say I have nothing but respect for how the trainers responded to the situation. They prioritized the well-being of the injured student, of course. They also kept the rest of us informed and were clear about what was going to happen.
It was very late when we got to bed. I slept very soundly.
Day 3 — Cal Salmon River, Methodist Creek to Nordheimer
Morning came early, especially for the kitchen crew. We got going and prepared a pretty nice spread of breakfast burritos. Since we’d be camping here the next three nights, we didn’t have to take down tents or pack up our gear, just secure everything for the day.
We’d be paddling on the Cal Salmon today (“Cal” to distinguish it from the Salmon River in Idaho). We drove a very long, curvy road up to a section fairly high up on the river. The put in at Methodist Creek was a very steep ramp down to a small, sandy beach. Since the ramp was too steep for the van and trailer, we had to carry the boats a fair distance down to the water. There was also quite a bit of poison oak to avoid on the way down.
This river was very different from the Klamath; much shallower, rockier, and lower volume. Often two paddle strokes would give the boat enough momentum to carry it all the way across the river. Commands had to be precise and very well-timed. In many ways, the most important command was “stop.”
I also found myself relying on the paddlers to turn the boat much more. On previous days there was plenty of time to use my paddle to turn the boat and just use the paddlers to drive us forward (or occasionally backward). Today, the obstacles came thick and fast.
We all got stuck on those rocks a lot. One choice, being a moment late on a command, or calling the wrong command could leave you hard up. The most important lesson was to stop and think about where the rock was, how the boat was held up, and what direction you wanted to get off the rock in. Sometimes you could paddle off the rock (generally, trying to spin the boat off with a turn command seemed to work better than trying to paddle against the current). When that didn’t work, there was a lot of learning how to shift people in the boat around to try to refloat it. As a last resort, the paddle captain could hop out and shove.
I was riding with Katie. She had a great lesson on “guide persona.” You project and act differently when you’re guiding, especially as a paddle captain who has to get guests to follow commands to get down the river. It’s not fake; it’s still your personality, but you may need to be more commanding and authoritative. When you’re in that back seat, it’s your boat. Own it.
After stopping for lunch, we scouted the most significant rapid on this stretch. I was in the guide spot, so I got to run it (I think it says something about how far my paddle captain skills had come in two days that I was much more enthused than scared about this prospect). I did ok. I think I did a good job choosing a line that I wanted to take, so my skill at reading whitewater seems to be getting better. Keeping the boat on that line using paddle commands was more of a challenge.
The students rotated through the guide seat. Today, more than any other, saw a dramatic improvement in people’s skills as the day went on. One in particular in our boat went from very tentative and timid as a paddle captain to far more decisive and authoritative through the course of the day. It was pretty fun to watch. I see why the trainers enjoy teaching this course.
As I was guiding later in the day, I found I was getting better at using paddle commands to maneuver the boat. However, I still didn’t always have the judgment on what was or wasn’t a doable maneuver. I found myself having to go to plan B quite a lot. For instance, in one spot with a medium-sized rock in the middle, I decided that the path downstream from the right side of the rock looked cleaner than the one on the left. After a few strokes, it was clear we probably weren’t going to make it all the way over to the right side. I didn’t want to wrap us on the rock, so I called for a back paddle, bumped the rock and spun us a bit, and took us down the rougher left channel backward. Not the most elegant of runs, but I got some praise from Katie for being decisive about it. Talking to Aaron later, he also noted that my instinct to backpaddle, rather than trying to turn the boat and forward paddle, was a good one.
As the day went on, we were still quite a ways from our take out point. This stretch was flatter and broader (a major tributary had contributed quite a bit of water to the river), meaning it was also slower. We students had taken quite a while to get down the tighter, more technical section of the river. To help get us to the take out in a more timely fashion, the trainers took over paddle captaining and gave some stream of consciousness commentary on what they were seeing and doing.
Katie has some excellent skills reading water. I think we were paddling less than either of the other boats while outdistancing them. This sort of thing is something I have trouble with, and watching her and hearing her describe what she was doing was an excellent chance for me to learn a bit more.
The take out was another fairly long ramp, though not as steep as this morning’s put in. While Katie and Noa drove that long curvy road to retrieve the van and trailer, Aaron taught us the paddle game. It involves balancing a paddle on the blade, stabilizing it with your fingers on the T-grip, then taking actions (clap your hands, pat your head, touch your toes) and getting the hand back on the paddle before it falls over. Definitely a good way to amuse guests during downtime.
After a long shuttle ride, we arrived back at camp even later than the day before. The kitchen crew didn’t get dinner started until after 8 pm. Having been on the kitchen crew yesterday, we were on the dishwashing crew today, so we couldn’t get started with the dinner dishes until they finished at around 10 pm. That made for a very late night.
Day 4 — Cal Salmon River, Butler Creek to Oak Bottom
I was up early doing some writing before breakfast. After we finished the breakfast dishes, we got geared up for the drive back up the Salmon. Today we put in at Butler Creek, a ways downstream of where we took out yesterday. It was another steep ramp to carry boats down to the river, but this time rather than a nice sandy beach, we had to negotiate a couple of rock shelves to get the boats in the water.
When they asked for a student to give the safety talk, I volunteered. I got positive feedback on my presentation, but Aaron noted that the order things are listed on the card doesn’t lead to a very smooth flow. He usually changes the order up quite a bit to tell more of a story. He also had some excellent suggestions on props, getting guests involved, and making it interactive.
We proceeded downriver, rotating the guide position among the students. This section wasn’t nearly as tight as the previous day’s, but there was considerably greater volume in the river. This meant less chance of getting stuck (though it still happened) but more speed and more force acting on the boat that we had to react to.
Eventually, we reached The Gaping Maw, a pretty intense and intimidatingly named rapid. We stopped to scout it. The trainers would be guiding us through this one rather than the students. However, they asked us to scout it like we’d be the ones running it and pick out our lines before they talked about how they would run it. Along with most of the students, I settled on the same line the trainers chose to run. This was the biggest rapid we’d run so far, but we had a pretty smooth run with Aaron in the rear seat.
Switching back to students doing the guiding, we continued downriver, stopping for lunch and a debrief on the morning. I think I did better today at hitting my intended line than on Day 3.
Towards the end of the day, when we got to a flatter, slower section, we unloaded all the gear from one of the rafts so we could practice flipping and unflipping a boat. These rafts can get turned over in the water, and a guide needs to know how to climb up on an overturned boat and get it back upright. You do this by attaching a flip line, a length of webbing with a carabiner at one end, to one side of the raft and leaning off the other side while pulling on the line until the boat flips. One very evident thing is how helpful it is to have some sort of line rigged on the bottom of the raft to help you get on top of an overturned boat.
While the section where we did this was pretty calm and slow, my boat crew was the last to rotate into the unloaded boat and do the drill. We drifted through a couple of riffles sitting on top of the overturned raft. The boat rides surprisingly well in this situation, even with no one actively guiding it. The boats know the way.
We ended the day within walking distance of the campground where we were staying. The trainers offered us a choice of which stretch we wanted to run tomorrow: either run the section we’d done today again, starting at Methodist Creek, or start right here and raft down to the confluence of the Salmon and the Klamath, then continue down the Klamath through a pair of big rapids called the Ikes. It was a close vote, but we chose to continue downstream.
That meant we didn’t have to take the boats out of the water, just make sure they were tied up well. We could walk back to our campsite from there. On the walk back up, we ran into one student’s sister who was in the area guiding for another rafting company. It was nice to meet her, and the two of them had a chance to talk.
We got off the river much earlier today than on previous days, giving us a fairly leisurely late afternoon. Aaron did a lesson on knots, teaching us half a dozen that he considered vital to a river guide. One thing he emphasized was making well-dressed knots. These have the advantage of being more obviously correct, even to someone other than the person who tied them.
After dinner, we had a lot of time to sit around the campfire, talking and listening to the trainers play songs. A few of us were up late chatting and telling jokes (well, the jokes were mostly Aaron).
Day 5 — Cal Salmon, Oak Bottom to confluence; Klamath, Cal Salmon to Ikes Falls
After three days in one place, we would finally be breaking camp today. The end of the day would also involve a long drive up to Grant’s Pass to the ARTA Oregon guidehouse. To save time, rather than laying out a deli sandwich spread on the river, we gave everyone the opportunity to make a sandwich and put them in baggies after breakfast.
Today, the trainers wanted us to emphasize precision: catching eddies at the top, holding our angle well, and exiting eddies at the top.
Once everything was loaded up, we walked down to the boats. While the car shuttle was going, we paired up and gave practice safety talks.
I was guiding first today, so I got a chance to give the paddle talk. Noa gave me some very positive feedback on it.
Not only was I guiding first, but we were also lead boat, so I had to read water and choose a line without the benefit of seeing what anyone else did.
Throughout the course, the trainers had been dumping themselves out of the boat without warning to give us practice reacting to unexpected swimmers. Noa did this to me this morning, even timing it to a little bump on the rock wall as we went around a bend. I don’t think she expected the current pushing into that corner to suck her partway under the boat and hold her under. I grabbed her and pulled her head above water before hauling her into the boat. It only took a couple of seconds, but as she mentioned when we talked about it later, those were a long couple of seconds for her.
We continued downstream, rotating guides as usual. We stopped for lunch on a rocky beach at the confluence of the Salmon and the Klamath. After eating, we did some throw bag practice. We started on dry land, tossing the bags back and forth, then throwing into the river while holding on to the rope. Finally, we began rotating people through jumping in upstream, throwing the bag to them, and swinging them to shore. We also did some work throwing coils of rope in case you need to make another throw quickly and don’t have time to restuff the throw bag. I concluded that I definitely need to work on my throwing skills.
We got back on the water. Shortly downriver, we came to Little Ike Rapid and stopped to scout. The Ikes were the biggest rapids we’d run so far. I was paddle captain for this one. The rapid has a big rock in the middle at the top that I wanted to pass to the right of, but I wanted to get over to the other side of the river for the lower part of the rapid. I’d planned to establish a strong angle and have everyone paddle hard. However, just before we did our run, Noa pointed out that if I took a tighter line and dragged us through the bottom of the eddy behind the rock, I could slow us down quite a bit and give us more time to make the move. I put her advice into practice and we slowed down so much that we got passed in the middle of the rapid by the raft behind us.
Next up was Big Ike, and it lives up to its name. It has two big holes right in the middle, one after another. We stopped to scout and rotate paddle captains. The trainers emphasized how dangerous the holes were. Hit them, and a flip was very likely. If you got thrown out of the boat, the best bet is to ball up and let the raging water take you down to the bottom and spit you out downstream, underneath the recirculating water at the back of the hole.
Everyone planned to drop in on the right of the top hole. The first boat got through, no problem. The second boat didn’t get far enough right and was going to hit the hole. The student paddle captaining the boat called for a left turn to T-up to the hole. They had enough momentum to punch through the first hole and rode up the frothing wave behind the second. From the third boat, I saw them hanging right on the top of the wave, but they just barely had enough speed to make it over and slide down the back side.
The paddle captain making the quick decision to T-up and executing it well really saved the day here. If the boat had hit the hole even a little bit sideways, it definitely would have flipped. Hitting it dead on didn’t guarantee they wouldn’t flip, but it at least gave them that chance.
Just below Big Ike, we paddled over to the take out. After we got the boats on the trailer, Aaron gave out the address of the ARTA Oregon guidehouse, as well as his phone number. Some of us would be following him in the van directly, but others wanted to make stops (several wanted to hit REI in Medford for some gear before the second half of the course).
We made the long, slow drive out to I-5, stopping at the rest area along the interstate to rendezvous before students branched off to their other destinations. Our little convoy headed out on I-5, reaching Grants Pass around 7 pm. We made a stop in town to pick up some pizza.
Everyone trickled in over the next hour or so. We set up tents in the yard and spent some time sitting around a campfire before going to bed.
We’d had five days of great water, fantastic weather, and tremendous learning. I was looking forward to the second half of the class.
Day 6 — Transition Day
The trainers let us sleep in a bit today. As usual, though, once I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep (the neighbor starting up his diesel didn’t help). I did some writing on previous days’ trip journals while I waited for everyone else.
This morning, our big task was to unload: get everything off the truck and put away in the boathouse (a big barn/shed type building behind the guidehouse). I was put in charge of this operation. Frankly, with such a well-oiled crew, I could take a hands-off approach. We got everything unloaded in pretty short order. Most of the work was cleaning and deciding what would get rolled over to the next trip. The food buying crew got to work inventorying what was available in the boathouse so they could build their shopping list and head out on a grocery run. We got done well in advance of our noon deadline.
After lunch, we got started on the load. We had to get everything needed for a four-day trip, from the boats and oar frames to hand soap and webbing for tying down bags. They had a nice color-coded list on a big board in the boathouse that we worked off of. One thing they did that I thought worked very well was the “Good Morning” list. Anything you couldn’t take care of or get loaded goes on this list to be done in the morning before getting on the road.
When everything was on the truck (save for the items on the Good Morning list), we gathered around the list on the big board and went through every item. The rule was you could only confirm an item if you’d either loaded it on the truck yourself or seen it being loaded.
Once that was done, we had a bit more time before our next lesson on boat patching. Katie talked about the process, covering both temporary repairs in the field and more permanent fixes back at the boathouse.
Next up, we moved into talking about wrapped boats. This is where a boat is pinned to a rock by the force of the river. Noa and Aaron talked through the options from the simplest (shifting weight and having people aboard pull on the boat) to the most complex (setting up a line from shore rigged with pulleys for mechanical advantage).
Perhaps the most critical part of the lesson was showing how to make a self-equalizing anchor so that if you’re the one stuck on a rock and someone throws you a line, you can get it attached to the boat without relying on just one D-ring or other anchor point that might give way. They did delve briefly into mechanical advantage systems, showing us how to set up a Z-drag system with pulleys and carabiners. However, Noa reiterated that the way to really learn this stuff is to do a full swiftwater rescue class.
This left us with a bit of time before dinner and quite a while to relax afterward. The trainers used some of this for one-on-one mid-course evaluations with students. They talked about how we were doing in the class so far, what we should be working on, and asked what we wanted to improve during the second half of the course. I talked about getting better at reading water, making decisions and going to Plan-B in rapids, and making sure my rapidly developing confidence in the water didn’t exceed my skills.
I changed out some of my off-river gear from what I’d used during the paddle portions of the course, taking a Paco Pad rather than a Thermarest, throwing in some rubber boots instead of my hiking boots, and piling everything into a big dry bag rather than the duffle I’d been using. The ARTA PFD that one of the students was using was rubbing his neck quite badly, so I loaned him my spare NRS Zen for the rest of the class.
We ended the day around the campfire, as usual.
Day 7 — Rouge River, Argo to Tyee Camp
Today was an early morning. We got a quick breakfast and packed our personal gear. We were wheels up by 8 am. I hopped in the back seat of the truck instead of the van. It afforded more legroom with Noa and Katie in the front seats.
We made a stop at the US Forest Service visitor center for our river permit. While we were there, staff at the desk twice asked me, “How can I help you?” even though I was 20 feet away and Noa and Katie were standing right in front of them. Not exactly a positive indicator when it comes to gender equity in rafting.
Once we got to the Argo put in on the Rogue River, we got right to work rigging the rafts. We would be running two 18-foot oar boats, a 16-foot oar boat, and a 14-foot Oar Paddle Combination or OPC. That’s a boat with oars in the rear and up to four paddlers up front. These oar boats take a lot more rigging than the paddle boats of preceding days.
Step 1 for all of these was attaching the frames: large tubular metal contraptions where the oars attach to the boats. The frames also provide space for the coolers, dry boxes, and other gear. After we had all the boxes installed, we loaded up the bags. These mostly go in the stern of each boat, but we rigged some ahead of the rower as a backrest for anyone sitting in the front. By the time we got the boats rigged, it was almost noon. We pushed off and started rowing.
I was up on the oars first in an 18-foot gear boat with Aaron and one other student. My experience rowing a similar boat in the canyon came back pretty quickly. The real difference was the far better understanding of how to read water, choose lines, and hold angles that I’d developed in the paddle boat over the first five days of the course. There were a few bumps (both metaphorical and literal), but I was able to get the boat down the river fairly effectively.
When I started on the oars, Aaron said he was just going to watch me row for a bit and see where I was, skill-wise. When he did offer some things to work on, they were pretty subtle. Probably the biggest was to get used to doing two-oar turns (pushing forward on one oar and pulling back on the other to rotate the boat) rather than just pushing on a single oar. He also emphasized that when you needed power, shorter strokes in a good rhythm produced better results than digging in for a big stroke. I took the relatively minor nature of the corrections as a sign that I was doing well.
We stopped under a highway bridge for a late lunch. Rather than the crews of the previous five days, we divided again into new kitchen crews. My new crew got lunch duty, laying out sandwiches.
After lunch, I ran a small rapid, then swapped out with the other student. He was much more of a novice on the oars than I was. It was interesting to see how Aaron coached him, introducing certain concepts and refraining from introducing others to keep the load manageable. To both Aaron’s credit and the student’s, the improvement came pretty quickly.
We saw a ton of wildlife as we rowed along, including lots of waterfowl and many bald eagles.
Aaron took over to run the “fish ladder” at Grave Creek Rapid. This is a narrow channel bypassing the rapid that was blasted out of the rock over a century ago. You basically bounce down without using your oars. Below the fish ladder, the other student rowed a bit longer before I swapped into the center seat.
During this stint, Aaron asked me to work on managing my momentum. The big gear boat will keep plowing on much more than the paddleboats we’d been using. One extra oar stroke once you have your momentum going can carry you across a current and out the other side.
We ran a few more small rapids before stopping to camp at Tyee Camp. There’s a lot more to do with gear boats, so in addition to the kitchen crew, we also had other crews managing the unloading process and setting up the groover (the portable toilet we use on the river). A majority of students had been putting up tents to this point, but Noa recommended giving sleeping under the stars a try. Most of us went ahead and slept outside for the remainder of the trip.
After a nice tri-tip dinner, we sat around the campfire. I told a scary story for River Guides called “The Boats Know the Way” that I’d heard on my Grand Canyon trip.
Noa introduced a tricky logic problem that I was noodling on all evening. She, Katie, and Aaron sang some songs and played the guitar for us.
Day 8 — Rogue River, Tyee Camp to Missouri Camp
Noa’s logic problem kept me up for a while, but I did get it figured out. On top of that, I woke up pretty early, so it was a short night for me.
I was on the breakfast crew, so we got going on French toast. It was well-received.
Today I was in the OPC with Katie. After rotating through a couple of students, I had a chance at the oars. Even just using oar power, it was far more nimble than the big oar rigs. The paddlers provide greater acceleration. However, you have to keep two things in your mind at once.
I ran some sections of interesting water before we stopped to scout Upper Black Bar Rapid. We spent a while perusing the rapid individually. Everyone came to pretty much the same conclusion about a line, with variations in angle between the oar boats and the OPC.
This time the instructors didn’t come and scout with us. Instead, we briefed them as if they were guests. Katie seemed to appreciate how I did my pre-rapid talk. We dropped in and ran it. I was able to hit the line I’d intended and make the required move, so my actual run matched what I’d promised Katie.
We eddied out just downstream. The trainers gave us a chance to swim Lower Black Bar Rapid. Bouncing through the frothing waves in a PFD was pretty fun, actually. I appreciated the opportunity to swim some whitewater after the dunking I took on the first day.
The swim also demonstrated how different climbing onto a gear boat was. The tubes are bigger, so it’s a longer climb, but compared to a paddle boat, there are tons of handholds: the frame, straps, gear, etc.
We rotated guides and continued on to lunch, stopping by a small stream. While the lunch crew was working, Aaron untied a boat to make a point about guides wearing their PFDs at lunch and other breaks.
Noa used the creek to demonstrate some hydraulic features like holes, pourovers, eddies, and standing waves on a small scale. She invited us to play around placing sticks in the current to see how they moved.
After lunch, we rafted downstream. The river was narrow in stretches, with strong currents. This was where the OPC really shined. Unlike other boats, you could ship your oars and still maneuver using the paddles.
I got a little more time in the back seat as we moved downstream, passing from the narrower, more technical wave to broader, flatter stretches. We got to our camp around 3 pm. Today my crew was on derigging duty, so we got to work getting everything off the boats.
After getting camp set up, Noa talked a bit about the contents of the repair and first aid kits. We arrived early enough to have a bit of downtime after the lesson. I used it to take a quick river bath. I also got some remedial instruction in tying the Trucker’s Hitch from a fellow student.
After a fine curry dinner, we had a conversation about equity and inclusion on the river. There were a lot of good insights on the subject from both the students and the trainers.
We spent the remainder of the evening around the campfire before turning in.
Day 9 — Rogue River, Missouri Camp to Tacoma Camp
After one of my best nights of sleep of the course so far, I was up early again. It was a lovely morning. Another student spotted an osprey catching a fish and pointed it out to me in time to see it flying off with its prize. We had breakfast and got loaded up pretty expeditiously.
Today I was on a 16-foot oar boat with another student. This meant we were running without a trainer in the boat. In the late morning would be running two “final exam” rapids. Mule Creek and Blossom Bar. The other student and I traded off as we did some mild rapids while moving downstream. I felt like I was doing pretty well on the oars.
We pulled over above Mule Creek Canyon. This is a long rapid without any good place to scout, so Aaron and Noa drew it out on the sand. We had four boats and three trainers, so not only would I be rowing this one, I’d be doing it without a trainer in my boat for backup. It was kind of intimidating, to be honest. However, I was confident that the trainers wouldn’t put me in a situation where I’d be in over my head and decided to take this as a vote of confidence in my abilities in the oar boat. With nothing but some notes I took looking at a sand drawing, we pushed off for my first significant solo rapid.
Just above the rapid, I saw my only bear of the trip, a medium-sized black bear sitting up on the bank (other students spotted two more at different points during the trip, but I didn’t lay eyes on either).
The upper part of Mule Creek has some rocks on the right that force you into a sweeping turn that terminates in a wall. I pushed to keep off the bank in the turn, then shifted to pulling to keep off the wall. The second section of the rapid is narrow and twisting with vertical canyon walls. I ran most of it sideways, using my oars to keep off the sides of the canyon. A couple of times, I had to ship my oars and turn the boat to fit through a tighter spot (in both cases, going backward happened to be easier than going forward). This portion of Mule Creek Canyon is reputedly very beautiful, but twists and turns were coming thick and fast enough that I could barely spare a moment to look above the waterline. In the end, I only bumped the wall once.
The next section of the rapid is called the Coffee Pot. It’s even tighter, with lots of confused, boiling currents. There’s no real way to stay off the walls here. I just had to ship my oars most of the time and rely on the current and the fact that I was going down the river in a bouncy house. When I popped out the bottom, I rowed over to the other two boats. Because the rapid is so narrow and you need a sizable amount of separation between the boats, none of the trainers actually saw my run. Later one of them mentioned that I had a big smile on my face when I came out of the rapid, so they figured I must have done OK.
Shortly below Mule Creek, we stopped at Blossom Bar Rapid to scout. This is a large, complex rapid requiring multiple moves with significant consequences if you mess up. There were a couple of lines through the rapid that we thought would go. Two students decided to drop in on the left and two on the right. Both would try to move over towards the left side once they cleared the first few obstacles in the rapid. Aaron would make the run down with the first boat, then come back and take the OPC through. I swapped over to the OPC to give them an extra paddler.
The first of our boats to drop in on the left side ended up getting stuck on a rock near the top. Since the OPC wasn’t going down until last, we were still up on one of the rocks we had scouted from and had a good view of the situation. It took Aaron and the student a while to get off. No advanced wrap techniques, just shifting weight, deflating tubes and floors, and lots of pulling on the raft. They eventually got it off.
The other left-side boat had a good run. The oar boat going down the right side got bumped off its intended line, going to plan B and staying on the right side rather than going left. The same happened to us in the OPC; only we went even further right, with the student in the back seat taking advantage of a narrow channel that a pure oar boat couldn’t have gotten through. Both boats managed to thread their way down to the bottom of the rapid.
We stopped for a very late lunch not far below Blossom Bar. While we were eating, Aaron untied a couple of rafts. Today, however, most students were wearing their PFDs during lunch. One swam out to a boat that was floating away. I was right behind and debated jumping in, but I figured they had it covered. Instead, I ended up hopping into another boat to help land the initial drifter and discovered it had been untied as well. After a bit of faffing about, I ended up rowing upstream a ways before I was able to get it back to shore successfully.
After lunch, we headed downstream. We had a bunch of flat water to row through. The other students in my boat generously let me plow through all of it (seriously, though, I was glad to, good practice for the flat sections of the canyon.)
Our camp was at Middle Tacoma. There are three big campsites here. Our neighbors in the Upper Tacoma Camp were a big rowing school put on by Northwest Rafting.
We got camp set up pretty expeditiously and had some time before dinner to lounge around. After an excellent fajita dinner, the trainers talked about the process for becoming an assistant guide for ARTA.
Later, while we were sitting around the campfire, a couple of the guides from Northwest came over to say hi. One of them, Daniel, mentioned that he had a birthday that day, so we dished up some pineapple upside-down cake with a candle on it and sang him Happy Birthday (slightly marred by the fact that all of us forgot his name). Later in the evening, after everyone else had gone to bed, another student and I had a good conversation with Aaron about our ambitions and our future as guides.
Day 10 — Rogue River, Tacoma Camp to Foster Bar
The previous night’s discussions of guiding for ARTA prompted a lot of early-morning thinking about the future for me. The morning dawned slightly overcast, the first time we saw anything but bright blue skies on the Rogue. We beat our previous on-river time by about 25 minutes, getting started downstream by 8:50. I was rowing one of the 18-foot boats with a pair of students up front. Today, most of the water was pretty mellow, but there was one decent rapid with a substantial pourover ledge on the right half of the river. I didn’t see it far enough in advance to move left, so I just T-ed up and ran it. Not a problem in a big oar boat, but I did get the students in front pretty wet for that hour of the morning.
We stopped at a lovely little waterfall where ARTA trips often eat lunch on their last day. We were fast enough packing things up that it was way too early to eat, but we admired the waterfall and got a group picture.
There were still several miles to go before the take out. Neither of the other students were that interested in rowing, especially a flat section like this, so I stayed on the oars the whole way.
At the take out, we parked our boats and started unloading gear, piling it up on the ramp. While we waited for the shuttle service to deliver the truck and van, Aaron talked us through using the SCAT machine to empty the groover. As we did this, I noticed a level of unease among the trainers that our vehicles hadn’t arrived yet.
Eventually, a van from the same shuttle service ARTA uses arrived to pick up passengers from Northwest Rafting. The driver said they didn’t have anyone bringing vehicles to the take out that day. This produced a flurry of activity among the trainers, of course.
After some coordination with the shuttle service and Northwest, the solution they settled on was for the shuttle company drivers to start the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the take out with our vehicles. In the meantime, Aaron and the five students who needed to get out today for flights or to get started on long drives would get a lift on one of the vans the shuttle service had sent for the other rafting company. Noa, Katie, and the remaining students would wait for the trucks, load our gear, and drive back to the guidehouse.
That led to a very hurried set of goodbyes for our group. Kind of sad, given how close we’d all become during these ten days. After some hugs and hurried exchanges of telephone numbers, those that were going hopped in the van and were off.
Those of us still on the ramp had several hours to kill. Noa went over to Daniel at Northwest and said something along the lines of, “I’ve got four guide school students with nothing to do; want any help loading?” He took her up on that very quickly. We ended up helping load a bunch of their rafts.
We lounged about on some Paco Pads for a while, then one of the trainers suggested we play Kubb. It was pretty fun, actually.
The vehicles arrived around 3:30 pm, and we got right on loading. With the experience the students had gained on the trip and Noa and Katie in guide mode rather than teaching mode, we crushed it. Everything was on the trucks in about forty minutes.
From there, it was a long drive back to the guidehouse via a very steep and curvy road. The other three students rode in the van, but I hopped in the truck with Katie to give her someone to talk to. We had a great conversation about river guiding and ARTA on the way back.
When we arrived at the guidehouse, we found that Aaron had done us a real solid by having a couple of platters of tacos from a local place waiting for us. After a delicious dinner, we decided to spend about 45 minutes unloading and cleaning whatever we could and then call it quits. In addition to four students and the three trainers, we also had the help of another ARTA guide who was at the guidehouse for a trip leaving in a few days. In that time, we were able to get everything off the truck and finish most of the cleaning and putting away.
After a short break, during which I took a very welcome shower, we reconvened in the living room to watch the movie Sing. There was also ice cream.
Sing was good, but I was pretty worn down by that point. I was asleep almost as soon as I hit the Paco Pad.
After the course
The next morning I was awake early, as usual. I got up and pulled out my laptop to continue working on this course write-up. Most other folks slept in considerably longer. A student made us some nice hash browns with mushrooms for breakfast.
The other students had to clear out by mid-morning. My parents had delayed their Pacific Crest Trail trip by a day, so I didn’t need to pick them up until tomorrow. Having no place to be, I volunteered to help the guide sort through all of the camp chairs, pick the ones to get rid of, and replace them with the new ones that had just arrived for this season.
We finished just after 11 am. I said my goodbyes to Noa, Aaron, and Katie and headed down I-5. After a stop at REI in Medford to pick up some gear I wanted for the swiftwater rescue class and (hopefully) future guide work, I drove to Weed, California to stay the night. I had dinner and some good beer at the Mt Shasta Brewing Company and hit the sack early for once.
This was a fantastic course. It wildly exceeded my expectations. I learned a tremendous amount, made some great friends, and hopefully got a good start on my new career.
The quality of the instruction was very, very high. I’ve got a background in both teaching and taking many courses as a student. Based on that experience, I can say that Noa, Aaron, and Katie have done a great job designing this curriculum. Their teaching skills are top rate. All three excel at explaining concepts and coaching students as they perform these skills. Beyond their individual qualities, they teach very well together, smoothly handing off to each other during lectures and complementing each other’s teaching styles.
We encountered a few unexpected bumps along the way. Both the injured student and the vehicles not arriving when they were supposed to threw a wrench into things. The trainers did a great job responding to both, focusing on safety in the former and getting students on their flights or on the road in the latter. Ultimately I think both ended up being good learning experiences. If nothing else, they prove that things don’t always go to plan when you’re guiding. Being able to roll with the punches and adapt is crucial.
The most significant improvement in my skills that I will take from this course is learning to read water effectively. Coming in, I had learned a little bit by watching the guides on the canyon trip and reading a couple of books on rafting, but my skills were very limited. The trainers did a very effective job of combining practical experience with explanation (especially Noa’s excellent river hydraulics talk on Day 2). They emphasized the constant application of these skills, encouraging students to read their own water rather than just following the lead boat or agreeing with the line through a rapid that someone else proposed. By the end of this course, I feel like I can look at a rapid, pick a line, and figure out if it will go or not.
Knowing where you want the boat to go and getting it there are two very different things. Throughout the course, the trainers emphasized establishing and holding your angle. A good angle and a little bit of power beats lots of power delivered at the wrong angle every time. I feel like I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what angle I want in many situations. My ability to put that into practice grew as the course went on, but it’s still a work in progress. For the most part, I’m still reacting to getting bumped off my angle and correcting it rather than anticipating and preventing it. It’s a lifelong learning process.
The other big skill I think progressed tremendously in this class was my decision-making ability. Like many of the students, early on, I tended to overthink and not solidly commit. Running the Methodist Creek portion of the Cal Salmon on Day 3 was hugely helpful in that regard, and while it’s something I’m still working on, I feel like I progressed a lot during the course.
Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. That’s definitely something I was not good at dealing with at the start of the course. For instance, when I was on my canyon trip back in April, the guides let me run a few minor rapids. When things did not go to plan in one of them, it turned the entire rest of the rapid into a series of “oh shit!” moments. Now I’m a lot more comfortable when I have to go to Plan B (or Plan C, or Plan D…). Rather than “oh shit,” it’s more “We’re going to go over this obstacle instead of around it,” or “We’re running this next bit backward.”
I was very comfortable in the oar boats during this class. Frankly, when it came to pushing or pulling on the oars, I was surprised by how minor the refinements that the trainers suggested were. I guess I did a pretty good job learning in the canyon. Where the improvement on the oars really came wasn’t the physical part but integrating that with the understanding of how to read water, hold the correct angle, and make decisions that I learned in this course. In the canyon, I’d often take a stroke, not get the result I intended, and not know why. After this course, I’m much more likely to get the boat to do what I intended and when I don’t, I understand why and what I need to do to correct it.
On the flip side, I came into the course without any paddle raft experience, even as a paddler, much less a paddle captain (the Grand Canyon trip was all oar boats). I was a bit concerned about the prospect of coordinating a team of rowers. After this experience, I’m pretty confident in my ability to give commands and get a paddle raft where I want it to go.
While I’ve been giving a lot of attention to the boating side of things, I don’t want to give short shrift to all of the other guiding skills we learned in this course. Things like setting up camp, cooking meals, and rigging and derigging boats. How to load up all the gear for a trip and unload and clean everything when you’re done. The trainers emphasized the importance of these skills to a guiding career.
Aside from all stuff they taught us, once the training day was done, Noa, Aaron, and Katie were just great people to be around. Around the campfire, Noa sang songs that she had written. Aaron stayed up late telling lengthy and elaborate jokes. Katie’s warring love of ice cream and movie references became legend.
I have spent much time lavishing praise on the trainers; I need to do the same to my fellow students. Every one of them contributed an enormous amount to the class, and I learned from all of them. One example among many: On Day 8, I knew I needed some remedial instruction on the Trucker’s Hitch to rig a boat the next morning (we use it to tie down bags in the back of the boat). Rather than asking the instructors for help, I asked them to recommend a student who could help me out, knowing that we had other folks in the class who knew the knot and would be willing and able to help get me up to speed. The student they pointed me towards did a great job, and I was able to rig the boat the next morning without any problems.
That said, my appreciation for the other students goes far beyond what I learned from them. We developed some very close bonds in a short amount of time. I am tremendously sad that I may not see some of these people again, and we almost certainly won’t all be together at the same time.
Gear lessons learned
- Close-toed shoes really are important for this class, particularly the first five days on the Klamath and Cal Salmon. I was glad I had the NRS boots; they worked well aside from being a pain to get on or off. I wore my Bedrock sandals on the Rogue the last four days, and they worked OK there. The Astral water shoes that the trainers were wearing during the class look like a good alternative. I’ve got a pair on order.
- The gear list for the class doesn’t explicitly say you can use your own PFD, but about half the class did. I would highly recommend it. As mentioned above, the ARTA loaner PFD rubbed one student’s neck terribly. A good Type III PFD or rescue vest will probably be much more comfortable.
- I liked having the Paco Pad to sleep on, especially sleeping outside on the Rouge trip. ARTA uses them to cover coolers and gear boxes, so there may be a few up for grabs on the Rogue, but probably not enough for everyone. If you have your own, it would be good to bring it.
- All that said, my biggest gear lesson is not to bring too much stuff. I had difficulty laying my hands on specific things I needed from the big dry bag and didn’t use half of it. I need to figure out what subset of this stuff is essential.
This course was a tremendous experience, definitely in the “life-changing” category (I seem to be having a lot of these lately). If you’re at all interested in river guiding or organizing private river trips, I would highly recommend it.