▶️ The Great Outdoors: Going to rafting guide school


Central Oregon is a mecca for outdoor activities that attracts people from all over the world to play here. But only a select few have the skills and aptitude to work as whitewater rafting guides.

“Today is what we call rescue and recovery day of training. We spend a lot of time in the water getting people comfortable getting in and out of boats,” said AJ Untermeyer, Ouzel Outfitters training manager. 

“We demonstrate and practice what to do if a guest falls overboard. How to get them back in the boat. Just being safe with the people who are on the river with us.” 

Each year, Ouzel Outfitters in Bend invites about a dozen applicants to attend whitewater guide training.

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There’s a lot to learn, not the least of which is knowing what to do when a raft flips and everybody falls out.

“What you do is get all the guides on one side of the boat. You get your paddles into the rope on the opposite side, and it goes over. Then everybody is in the water. Then it’s kind of a scramble to get back up on the boat. You do it over again and pop that boat back over again,” said Cameron Jordan, Ouzel Outfitters operations manager.

Whitewater river rafting

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“Easy and hard. Once you’ve got that motion and that weight going, it flips fairly easily,” Jordan said. “The tricky part is when you hit that water, getting your orientation, getting yourself back up on the boat and then flipping it over again. It’s a tricky thing but it’s a valuable skill for any raft guide to know.”

Training includes a lot of learning on dry ground such as how to secure rafts to a trailer and proper technique for throwing a rescue bag.

“Bags have 75 feet of rope in them. Getting the swing weight on them is a skill,” Untermeyer said. “It is different than throwing a football or a baseball, so we practice that on land.”

The guides in training are shown everything they need to know to safely guide family-oriented trips through Class III and IV whitewater rapids.

They repeat the drills for up to nine days and the trainers do not make it easy on the trainees. Cameron said the trainers purposely fall in the rapids while going through Box Car rapids. 

“They get a feel for what it’s like to chase a swimmer and get them back in the boat whether they are participating in their own rescue or not,” Cameron said. “It’s a challenging thing because there’s a lot of things going on. You have to guide the boat. You’ve got people in the boat that are paddling and then you have to manage the swimmer. There’s a lot going on. It’s good to get a feel for when it happens hopefully, they are more prepared for it.”

Working guides are required to have Wilderness First Aid and CPR certificates. The must also have an Oregon Food Handlers card because on multi-day rafting trips, they prepare meals for customers.

“After a new guide gets through training, we require them to do what’s called swamping. They ride along with an experienced guide until they feel they are prepared to work that section of river.  Then they do a check-off run where they are running the boat for the day,” Cameron said. 

“The question we ultimately ask is would the guide sitting there be comfortable with the new guide taking their mother down the river?” said Untermeyer. “So, if I feel comfortable putting my mom in the boat with one of the new guides, that’s what we are looking for when we check them off and let them guide for us.” 

Ouzel Outfitters offers whitewater adventures on six Oregon rivers including the Lower Deschutes, McKenzie, Umpqua, Rogue, John Day, Owyhee and Grand Ronde and Lower Salmon in Idaho. 

“What we are looking for is people who are willing to learn and good attitude, good people skills,” Untermeyer said. “Ultimately this is a customer service job at the core in a really cool outdoor environment. Driving a boat and the skills associated with that are kind of foreign to a lot of people and it takes different people time to figure it out.”


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