Journal of a Rookie Raft Guide

Applying to ACO

A new season of rafting is approaching fast.  Although there is still snow on the ground, we will be rafting in just a couple of weeks.  As I prepare for the season, I wanted to take an opportunity to reflect on my first year as a raft guide for Adventure Calls Outfitters at Letchworth State Park.

Becoming a guide, was a spur of the moment decision for me.  I wanted to become a NYS Licensed Guide to begin a path to a second career; a story for another time.  The requirements to become a licensed guide are certifications in First Aid, CPR and Water Safety.  The easiest way for me to get all three was to become certified as a Lifeguard.  So I looked up courses and got in touch with Tim Reed from Adventures in Fitness.  I really liked Tim’s business model of personal training, American Red Cross training and wilderness guide services, so I “stalked” him on the Internet and found he was also a Raft Guide at Adventure Calls Outfitters (ACO).

I vaguely knew about ACO.  I looked them up and it looks like they were hiring with no experience necessary.   I had kayaked through the Letchworth gorge with friends and figured how hard can rafting be? I thought this would be a great opportunity to see if outdoor guiding was a good fit for my “second career”.  I filled out the application and updated my professional resume, probably a bit overkill, but I wanted to make a good impression.

Adventure Calls Raft Guide Application

Kevin, the owner, responded to my application:

Thank you for your interest in joining the ACO staff. We’re about two weeks into training the new hires for this year but, if you’d like to come down to the rafting office at Letchworth State Park this coming Sunday, 04/08 at 9:00 am we could probably get you up to speed fairly quickly, or at the very least each find out if we’re a good fit for each other.  Bring river gear, we’ll be paddling the river in the afternoon.  
Have a Blessed Day,
Kevin – ACO

I confirmed the location and required gear like a responsible adult. I was told

We’ll have a wetsuit and top for you.  Bring old sneakers or water shoes or secure sandals, wool or polar fleece socks, gloves and a ski hat might be good too.

I proceeded to stalk all of the raft guides on Facebook and the ACO website, just to “get to know” them.

New Guide Training

I showed up for the guide training thinking I was immensely unprepared.  I was a total noob and was already a couple weeks behind on the training.  I was instantly greeted by the ACO guides giving the training and got acquainted with the other trainees.  I immediately felt relaxed and could tell that this was a great place to work.

Posing with a great crew at Wolf Creek

Some of the tenured guides were getting First Aid/CPR training while us trainees took a bus tour of the park.  Ella and her husband Brian gave us the complete history of Letchworth State Park.  We learned plenty of facts about the park that I did not know, Ella went over several stories about Mary Jamison and William Pryor Letchworth.  We stopped at several spots and overlooks.  During the tour, I got to know the other trainees; Sam, Anna, Daniel, Kenny and a couple of girls with their dad. He was very concerned with the cold and seemed to make a lot of excuses for them. I could tell they were not really cut out for the work.  Needless to say, they did not make the cut. 

We finished the day rafting. We geared up, I brought the right stuff, I think. We put on “farmer johns”, a blue splash top and a helmet.  I was such a noob. The guides had all the gear, knives, PFDs, dry suits, etc.  We went over to the east side of the park, blew up a boat and zip lined it down into the gorge.  Pretty cool and overwhelming.  We then launched the rafts. Ella took us through the gorge, giving us even more history of all of the points of interest.  She named all of the rapids and instructed us on how to run them. 

The only thing going through my mind was:

I am never going to remember all of this.

Rafting was pretty cool. It did not look like something out of my league.  I was excited to learn more and to actually command a raft.  I could not wait until the next week of training.

Luckily, I was invited to continue with training the following weeks.  I guess I did not totally suck! I found out that we needed to complete 5 trips before we were official guides.   The trip with Ella counted as number 1.

1 of 5 trips were complete.  

My next trip down the river was with Todd.  He was very knowledgable and seemed like a neat ex-military guy.  Thanks for your service Todd!  He explained how to handle the boat and how to take rapids.  He guided on the first couple of rapids and then turned the stick over to me. It was nerve wracking.  After a few maneuvers, I was able to steer the boat fairly well.  Reading the rapids is totally another story.  They all have names and some you need to approach from the left, some for the right, some turn halfway through. No way I am going to remember all of this. Thank goodness, new guides are middle guides, so we get to follow the more experienced guides through the lines. 

2 of 5 trips in the bag!

GoPro and New Gear in Full Effect

The following week, two trips were scheduled. They were short guides so they asked if I was comfortable guiding my own boat.  Why NOT? Heck Yeah!  I also decided to take my GoPro, thinking I could cobble some footage for the ACO Facebook page.

Danica and Ted were the lead guides.  Small world, I knew Ted from the Dande Farms Golf League.  The trip went well.  I did not flip the raft and none of my passengers went for an unexpected swim.

3 of 5 trips DONE!

On the second trip, I was disappointed that I would have to go with a guide, Paul.  He as really nice.  He gave me the helm right away and really took the time to explain every rapid and the gorge.  He was really constructive about giving pointers.

This trip started bumpy with one of my guests falling in the cold water at put-in.  She was kind of a small girl and could not get her foot over the gunwale.  This foreshadowed an “OOPS” I had at Mystery Rock.  I did not get far enough left and hit the rock on the right.  The girl was thrown from the boat, but I caught her and only her feet went in.  The boat spun and yanked her back in the boat.  I was mortified, but Paul was really encouraging saying I acted quick and did everything right.  People get tossed and it is our job to keep them safe and back in the boat.

4 of 5 trips COMPLETE!

The following week I took my final training runs under the guidance of Tim.  The weather was warmer and the activities at Wolf Creek were in full effect.  People were jumping into the “Leap of Faith” and sliding down the waterfall.  It was a blast pulling people out of the hole and seeing everyone enjoying themselves.  I knew I made the right decision to become a guide, even after having to take a cold swim across the river from put-in to Lee’s Landing as part of “new guide training”.

5 of 5 trips done, I think I passed!

Weekly Trips

The following week I was presented with an ACO Raft Guide hat, it was official.  I was a raft guide!  I was on the schedule.  

I worked mostly weekends which was good because there were typically two trips per day, more rafting opportunities.  For some reason, I could not time my drive to Letchworth correctly. I was always the first one to arrive for the day.  Maybe I was just excited to raft or it is my obsessive personality.  I would unlock the office and start bringing out the PFDs. Other guides would arrive and lend a hand.  This provided a good time to shoot the breeze and get to know everyone.  Then Kevin, the owner, would arrive and I would typically be assigned to blowing up rafts.  I think it is because it is a “brawn over brains” assignment.

14 People in the Leap of Faith, Not Even the Record

I quickly learned to enjoy blowing up the rafts.  There is typically a crew of 4 or 5.  You get in a good workout, you get a nice tan, you hear some good stories and you get to enjoy the peacefulness of the gorge.  Not a bad way to start any day.  Then the guests would arrive from the bus and you get to find out your assignment.

We see a wide range of people rafting with us. I have taken Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, High School Students, College Students, foreign visitors from China, Europe and Canada, families with small children, couples, and  bachelorette/bachelor (oh the bachelor parties, keep reading) parties.  You name the type of person, we have taken them rafting, even the guy that canoes and knows how to steer a raft on whitewater.

I love taking people on the river.  It is such a rewarding experience.  On one trip, there was a couple where the woman was apprehensive about rafting.  I could tell she was terrified.  I talked with her, reassured her and made sure they were in my raft.  After the first couple of rapids, she had a grin from ear to ear and had a blast. Awesome!

There are No Gender Specific Sunglasses, Right?

I enjoy meeting new people and taking them on a memorable experience.  Between the rafting and gorgeous views of the gorge, it is nearly impossible for someone to have a bad time.  However, I try to enhance their experience by naming the rapids and educating the guests on the history of the park and various points of interest.  I actually retained like 25% of what I learned from Ella and Brian during training.  And what I did not know, “fake it, till you make it”.  You know how you know a raft guide is lying?  His lips are moving. It also helps to have some bad dad jokes in your back pocket.  “Do you know the difference between a beer nut and a deer nut?”

Don’t Cross a Raft Guide

Although not all methods are encouraged by management, sometimes you have no choice but to drench a guest on a nice day.  We have several methods to get our guests wet from a gentle nudge into the Leap of Faith, splashing with a guide stick (they are bigger than guest paddles), a yank with the T-Grip or the nuclear option of pulling them in which usually means we both get wet.  With the right group of guests (teenage boys, bachelor parties, etc), the nuclear option can make for a fun and memorable time for all.

Instigating splashing is my favorite pastime.  It is funny how many people are surprised by it. You are whitewater rafting, you will get wet.  Most of the time, once the splashing is instigated, it turns into a full out battles among boats.  The guests like to play “Lets get the raft guide wet.” You will always lose.

Paddle High Five

There are two other “nuclear events” that come to mind in my first year.  The first was a trip with Boy Scouts. I had two of the troop leaders in my raft with their two son’s.  There was one “misguided” boat with the more senior scouts, high school boys. This trip was early in the season and I had yet to buy my ultra-cool raft gear.  I was using a standard PDF that did not have any pockets, so I wore a “sport belt” to keep my snacks, straps and carabiners. The senior scouts started ribbing me saying I was wearing a fanny pack or a man purse.  I ignored it until near the end of the trip where we were in deep water.  I then got close enough to their boat and caught one of the boys off guard. He got wet. It was called a sport belt for the rest of the trip.

The other “nuclear event” was during a bachelor party.  The party was split between two boats, both with guides.  The other guide, Rolf, and I conspired and pit both boats against each other.  It started with friendly jests and escalated with splashing and races.  About at the same deep point in the river as the previous nuclear event, Rolf and I bought the boats together.  I targeted the groom and made sure we both got wet.  After that, it was chaos.  Both boats were in the water.  Somehow Rolf was the only dry one of the bunch.  He is a very savvy raft guide.

Most Memorable Trips

Every trip is unique, every trip is fun and every trip you learn something new.  But there are two that stand out in my first year.  I was selected to guide the Salmon River which is a Class III dam release run.  When rafting the Salmon River, we setup a satellite operation at a local camp ground and spend two days on the river, each guide does two trips in total. I drove around with a couple of other guides to scout the river.  They showed me the final string of rapids called Twister, Lusitania and Titanic, all class III rapids.  They instructed me to make sure I square up at Twister. And then reiterated, square up at Twister.

We Salute You

My first trip went well, I was able to navigate all of the rapids up to Twister.  I entered Twister and thought I squared up.  Before I knew it it, I was in the water along with the whole right side of the boat.  I felt terrible, but that quickly subsided after I saw my two guest swimmers were OK and laughing hysterically.  I was consoled when I learned one of the senior guides also went swimming at twister and a couple of more swam the following week.  As one of the guides told me “We are all in between swims.”  I nailed Twister the next day, BTW.

Shark Suit Groom

The second memorable trip was a wedding party.  We were getting some of the wedding party and parents fitted with PDFs when the groom came walking from the parking lot in a full body shark suit.  I seriously can’t make this stuff up.  Of course, my boss encouraged him to wear the outfit for the trip which he was happy to oblige and we had great fun.  It will be the only time you will see a shark swimming in the Genesee River.

Good Hit on the Final Day of Rafting


  • ACO is a great company to work for.
  • ACO’s owner, Kevin, is a very laid back and generous guy. 
  • Wedding parties are a good time.
  • Letchworth has bears and they like our raft guide camp ground.
  • You really need to square up at Twister.
  • People will do anything for the camera.
  • There is no such thing as raft camp.
  • Never underestimate your guests.  Everyone wants to have fun.
  • Tips are never expected, but always appreciated.
  • You really need to square up at Twister.
  • You never get bored of seeing the gorge and its wildlife.
  • Bad jokes are still funny on the water (I think?).
  • Going rafting never feels like work.
  • It’s a sport belt and if you call it anything else you will get wet.
  • You really need to square up at Twister.
  • Male raft guides look good in woman’s sunglasses.
  • Paddle salutes and paddle high five’s are the best.

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