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7 Qualities of Great Guides

7 Qualities of Great Guides

Being a good guide takes more than just an great ability to navigate rivers. It takes a person who dedicates a portion of their life to living as a guide. More than anything else, it is a lifestyle. So what exactly does it take not just make it as a guide, but to thrive?

1. They are excellent story tellers

There is a story I tell on the river whenever I see a steep grassy cliffside that's about a woman from Georgia who said that hill looks just like the one in the opening of Little House on the Prairie. The story is very emotionally charged about how I describe Laura Ingalls singing, then tripping and rolling down the hill. Then the woman proceeds to get insulted that I ruined her best childhood memory. It's a funny story that's highly visual and always gets a laugh from my crew because of the sheer ridiculousness of the tale. Did it happen? Yes and no. It did happen, but not in my boat. Is it a bold faced lie? Maybe. But how true is any other American gold rush story, Nepalese mountain legend, or Balinese mythology?  

The truth should never get in the way of a good story.
— Mark Twain

In truth, a story has been passed down orally through decades or centuries to become what it is today: a story, nothing more or less. People come on a river trip as much for factual history and adrenaline as they do to be entertained by a wild spirit challenging nature. Guests leave with an experience that will often turn into a tale they tell for years to come about a wild river adventure among huge rapids. The more compelling the story, the more it lives in our hearts and memories as a truly special experience.

South Fork American River Spring

2. They bring people together

My goal is to help foster an inclusive, nurturing style of guiding that helps people move from fear to confidence to joy.
— -Bill McGinnis

The hardest trips are often the ones with random groups of people from disparate cultures and wildly different world views, but bringing these people together is truly the mark of the superior guide. A guide will break the ice and absolutely crush barriers between people by finding common ground with each other very quickly. The most skilled guides have the ability to help bring out the joy of the shared experience. It requires them to listen to the group and adapt to their interests thus creating an interactive relationship between the guests and themselves. From there the best guides will foster camaraderie between the guests thereby reinforcing the new found relationship of everyone on the trip.

Hospital Bar

3. A genuine interest guests' well-being 

               Guides who understand the needs and well-being of their guests are without a doubt the most treasured guides in the world. On the South Fork of the American day trips can run long, and guests become tired after a full day of boating. Nothing polished off a trip at the end of the day like when your guide pops out some cookies or fruit snacks for a quick burst of energy during the final tow out of the lake. People have needs and those needs include very basic things in the outdoors. Are you cold, are you hot, do you need a bathroom, are you hydrated? These may sound like basic questions, but all too often these questions are glossed over by outfitters or guides in favor of logistics or some nonsense statement such as 'we need to get back to camp.' Good guides realize that focusing too much on trip logistics and not planning for what the guest wants will make people run from their company and the industry. After all, who wants to be stuck in a hot boat baking in the mid-summer sun when they have to use the bathroom just so they can paddle for a made up takeout time?

4. They bring emotionally solidity

Guide Personality

               The ability to remain calm under pressure and suck up adversity is another powerful trait of a good guide. The best guides in the world will generally bring a level of emotion opposite and completely disproportionate to the situation with a good level of judgement on how they apply it. If things are crazy, boats flipping, people swimming, children crying; a great guide handles it with calm and focus. When there is a brown bird it is an awesome bird with beautiful colors that help it blend into its surroundings. This makes the trip fun and exciting during the slow times and collected with everything well in hand during the crazy times. There is nothing worse than a guide who says nothing more than a couple words coupled with lots of yelling when conditions are less than optimal.

5. They Possess High Levels of Empathy

               Empathy is a critical attribute to being a guide and it is one of the most important characteristics amongst guides who “get it”. This attribute strikes at the core of whether or not people feel engaged with their guide. A good guide can not only recognize the implications of the fact that things may come naturally to them, but it is a completely new experience to their guest. This is a powerful concept especially when you take people out of their element and put them in a raft for the first time to paddle down a river. This is leads into our next quality…

River Guide

6. They have a very high level of patience

               Guys the T grips go in your hand not in the water… It’s about waist deep to a duck… Where’s the shuttle bus? These are all things that guides have or will utter at some point in their career. Having patience is critical to helping your guests have a good time. As a guest you are often thrust into a completely new environment and that causes a lot of stress. That stress and inexperience leads to lots of questions. A good guide knows that patience with new boater’s process of discovery will either make or break the trip. If your guide becomes salty and generally rushes you around while being generally condescending chances are guests will not be returning.

7. They Really, Really Love Guiding

Guides love what they do

               Being a guide is about a lifestyle of carefree fun and enjoying the outdoors, but it is a lot of hard work as well. My longest time guiding was 52 days straight of guiding, shuttling, food prep and camp work. I spent 52 days working 14-16 hours a day of demanding physical labor coupled with always being “on” and serving guests. The moral of this story is that if you don’t really love what you do deep down in your core, the long hours of always being there to cater to your guest without a break will make your life and their experience miserable.

The best guides that I’ve seen – or been guided by – are enthusiasts. There’s nothing more depressing than someone who sounds as if they’ve said the same thing over and over again – and there’s nothing more illuminating than someone who adds a whole new dimension to a place because they love it and know a lot about it.
— Sophie Campbell, Telegraph Travel
Oroville Dam Disaster - What Really Happened?

Oroville Dam Disaster - What Really Happened?

Trip Report - Grand Indeed, Rafting the Grand Canyon

Trip Report - Grand Indeed, Rafting the Grand Canyon