By Erin Allen & Sara E Walker
A few weeks ago, we embarked upon a rather unique journey — we took a 10-day river-rafting guide course with a local outfitter, Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trail Tours. And, trust us, 10 days in a wetsuit seems like a lifetime. To tell you the truth, we're not entirely sure what possessed us to do this. Erin has had some whitewater rafting experience, having gone on a number of trips over the years. Sara has only been rafting once. However, because summers on the water in Durango are pretty much the thing to do, we both figured gaining confidence on the water was reason enough for signing up. Plus, if we also walked away as certified guides, how cool?!
I'd like to say that our class was a mixed bag of ages and skills, but what became immediately obvious after the first couple of days was that we were both largely outnumbered in both. The majority of our class was between the ages of 18-24, most of whom were naturals on the oars due to previous experience or, you know, youthful recklessness.
We ended up banding together with three other classmates that were closer to our age — later calling ourselves the "Rock of Ages," because of course we were still hardcore raft guides in training despite not having much in common with our younger comrades. And, we're not implying ageism here — we both think quite fondly of all our classmates and enjoyed getting to know them and learning from them.
Our training was challenging and rewarding, frustrating and exciting, exhausting and thrilling -- all the things you might think of when trying a new, extreme sport. As they say, with great risk comes reward. Much like some of the other wacky things we've done (hello, roller derby!), we were thrown right into guiding rafts down the Animas River.
Risks included within the first couple of days having novice guides trying their hand at guiding through what was essentially Class IV rapids (our class was for Class III certification). Another risk was the potential for boats being flipped (Erin had the privilege of this experience, getting stuck underneath a flipped boat in the middle of a rapid). Super cold water, ill-fitting life jackets, inexperience and the ever-changing conditions of the water were all part and parcel of this adventure.
On day one, our Mild to Wild professional guides did a quick introduction and then it was, "Ok, go get your wetsuits and let's hit the water." There were no training wheels for this course. It was sink or swim, literally. By day three, we felt like things were clicking — then they told us we were going to do "flip and swims" after lunch. The object is to stand on the side of your boat, flip it, climb onto the bottom, flip it back over right side up and then climb in the boat so you can begin rescuing the rest of your crew. Needless to say, for Sara, this was a battle of mind over matter and the matter almost won. She spent the next 24-36 hours shedding some tears and questioning if she was going to continue. She, out of all the class, was the most unfamiliar with open and swift moving water, but she quickly rallied and was back on course. By day six, we were doing "Smelter runs," which are quick, continuous trips through the Class IV rapids that run through town.
We logged well over 50 hours of time on the water, which is required by the state of Colorado to be a guide. Much of that was rafting some of the most beautiful miles to see on local rivers. We were able to raft the Delores river and its rather bumpy Snaggletooth rapid, which has been largely unraftable for years because of water flow. Our time spent on the Piedra river, while short and sweet, was memorable due to the lovely scenery and technical aspects of its rather narrow channels.
Though we are technically guides, ultimately if we want to guide for a commercial outfitter, we would still need to "check out" on whatever stretch of river they use in order to take customers on their own adventure.
From fighting the oars through fast-moving water to climbing about 20 feet into the air to load several 225-pound rafts to saying our prayers as we navigated, continuously, through Class IV rapids, this was an adventure that we will never forget.
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