Becoming a river guide

By Eric Becker Geyser Whitewater Expeditions

Preparing for whitewater season begins when the snow is still flying. Early season preparations include purchasing new gear, fixing damaged equipment, and dealing with the stack of paperwork that accompanies both Forest Service permits and Federal Department of Transportation regulations. The fun starts when our new staff arrives and we head out to the Gallatin River in early May – often when there is still snow on the banks – for some good old-fashioned initiation.

We employ about 30 full-time and part-time guides. They vary in experience and backgrounds, ranging from college students just beginning their guiding adventures to seasoned guides who have traveled the world in search of whitewater.

This season, we’ve been fortunate and have hired an extremely experienced class of new guides. From Africa to the Yukon and all over South America and Asia, these guys and gals have some great stories to tell. We not only love hearing these tales, but also appreciate the experience they bring with them to the Gallatin.

For those who don’t have previous experience, becoming a new guide takes heavy time and financial commitments. Their journey begins with five days of classroom and river instruction, learning the ins and outs of the job itself as well as the intricacies of the Gallatin River. After these five days, most new recruits seem to remember first and foremost how cold the Gallatin is compared to other rivers they have experienced.

During this training, guides focus mostly on guiding and safety skills and learn some of the history associated with the river. Guides spend the day in the water flipping rafts, swimming many of the rapids and generally becoming comfortable moving about the river with or without a raft under them. It’s tiring and cold.

If the new guides are still game after the first five days, they will then take a three-day Swiftwater Rescue Technician course. It’s a lot of fun and focuses on the more advanced and technical aspects of river rescue, including team coordination, personal safety and intricate rope techniques. If you’ve ever seen ropes strung over the top of house rock with guides zipping back and forth, you probably witnessed one of these courses.

Again, being cold is a common theme since much of the day is spent swimming in the river. To stay warm guides pile on fleece and thermals under wetsuits, and within the last five years a lot of guides have switched to using drysuits.

After the first week, new recruits will continue their training and need to fulfill an additional 60 hours on the river as a learning guide, shadowing more experienced guides and honing their technique along the way. They’re training is almost complete at this point.

The new guides who aren’t already Emergency Medical Technicians or Wilderness First Responders will finish their training with a couple more days of Wilderness First Aid training and then, if their skills are up to it, we turn them loose on the river. A new guide begins working easier sections of river to build their confidence and get used to being on their own.

We love getting to know our new guides each year and enjoy watching them develop the skills to guide on the Gallatin River. We hope everyone has a safe and fun season on the Gallatin this year.

Owner Eric Becker started Geyser Whitewater Expeditions 24 years ago and the company runs guided trips on the Gallatin from May through September. Find more information at raftmontana.com.