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Experienced hands pass on river-running knowledge

They come from all over, and for all different reasons.

Recent graduates from Flagstaff looking for summer work. A family who just scored a permit to raft the Grand Canyon and wants to sharpen their skills. Or students from the Midwest shaking up their summer vacation.

“We are both engineering majors and just got sick of the culture there,” said Andrew Naropa, a senior at the University of Miami-Ohio, who, with a friend, traveled to Durango on a whim. “We just wanted to go out West and do something exciting for the summer.”

Last week, 20 or so river enthusiasts began Mountain Waters Rafting & Adventure guide training, eager to take on the six-day course that would bring them down the Animas River in a seemingly endless succession.

“We all run the same stretch of river, with the same old boats and the same old-school buses,” said Mountain Waters’ co-owner James Wilkes. “The only thing that separates one from the other is that person at the back of the boat.”

Kicking into gear

The scene at Mountain Water’s boat yard behind the Jiffy Lube on U.S. Highway 160 before classes start at 8 a.m. is a serene blend between a Dust Bowl refugee camp and a college dorm.

Campers fill the parking lot as breakfast boils over a portable stove. Trainees wedge into their wetsuits and splash gear. A lone 20-something in a bathrobe rolls a cigarette as Creedence Clearwater Revival asks in the background its eternal question: Who will stop the rain?

But once trip leader Doug Ponce calls for people to load up, the day kicks into gear.

“Being a guide really depends on your hunger and drive,” Ponce said.

Twice a year, before the rafting season gets in full swing, Mountain Waters hosts two guide training courses, which provide beginning boaters with the state-required 50 hours of experience on the river. Other companies in town offer a similar session.

And though anyone can take the course for whatever reasons, Wilkes said the training is an essential part of restaffing for the busy summer season.

“Durango people come and go,” Wilkes said. “A lot of kids do summer jobs, and then they move on. So it’s imperative we offer this training.”

Wilkes said Mountain Waters needs around 30 to 40 guides to handle the workload during peak season. Yet each year, only about 20 return, which is actually a good retention rate relative to Durango, Wilkes said.

It’s tough to gauge the town’s porous population of river guides. Wilkes estimated that with eight rafting companies around Durango, it’s likely there are about 100 full-timers, and another couple hundred on call.

A tough job

The life of a river guide is not easy, Wilkes said. Pay can be erratic, landing trips can be competitive, and workers usually need a second job – and on top of all that, it only lasts about 10 weeks.

“It can be feast or famine,” Wilkes said.

Despite all that, there is no shortage of people who want to spend long summer days on the river.

“A lot or people see this job with a seasonal mentality, and it can be difficult,” said Ponce, who is entering his seventh year as a guide. “But if it got boring, I would have stopped by now.”

One trainee, Russ Penasa, graduated from Fort Lewis College in May, and with the flexibility of the post-graduate summer, signed up for the course hoping to land a job as a guide.

“I just figured, why not?” Penasa said. “I’ll try to get a job here, or if not, with another company in town.”

Flipping happens

Indeed, the pursuit to become a guide is a labor of love. On Monday, just three days into training, Ponce gave the order to intentionally flip a raft in the precarious Corner Pocket Rapid in the Durango Whitewater Park.

“With the new whitewater park, unfortunately, flipping is something that happens,” Ponce said. “And the only way to prepare someone for that is to put them in it.”

Madison Smith, also a recent FLC grad, was one of the unlucky few jettisoned off the 16-foot raft and into the turbulent, murky waters of the Animas, running at around 3,000 cubic feet per second.

“You feel pretty vulnerable even with the life jacket,” Smith said. “But we’re learning how to have composure during chaos. People totally freak out, and it’s contagious.”

For the rest of the week, instructors, little by little, wean themselves out of the situation, allowing trainees to take over and make split-second decisions on the river.

Some will take jobs; others will take their newly acquired skills elsewhere.

Regardless, all leave with a better understanding of how to read the subtle signs in the water.

“And that’s really the most challenging part,” said Roger Dale, an instructor. “But you don’t learn how to read the river in a week or a month. It takes years.”


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