A workout as intense as the rapids
Central Oregon is an outdoor activity mecca that draws people from all over the world to play here. But only a select few have the skills and abilities to work as whitewater rafting guides.
“Today is what we call rescue and recovery training day. We spend a lot of time in the water getting people comfortable getting in and out of boats,” said said AJ Untermeyer, Ouzel Outfitter 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.
Every year, Ouzel Outfitters in Bend invites a dozen candidates to train as whitewater guides.
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There’s a lot to learn, including knowing what to do when a raft overturns and everyone falls.
“What you do is have all the guides on one side of the boat. You put your paddles in the rope on the opposite side, and it’s ok. So everyone is in the water. Then it’s a sort of scramble to get back on the boat. You start over and put that boat back together,” said Cameron Jordan, chief operating officer of Ouzel Outfitters.
It’s not as easy as it seems.
“Easy and difficult. Once you have that movement and that weight, it flips pretty easily,” Jordan said. “The tricky part is when you hit that water, get your orientation, get back on the boat, then flip it around again. It’s a tricky thing, but it’s a valuable skill for any raft guide to know.
The training includes a lot of learning on dry ground, like how to attach the rafts to a trailer and the proper technique for throwing a rescue bag.
“The bags contain 75 feet of rope. Getting the swing weight on them is a skill,” Untermeyer said. “It’s different from throwing a soccer ball or a baseball, so we practice on land.”
Guides-in-training learn everything they need to know to safely guide family trips through Class III and IV rapids.
They repeat the exercises for up to nine days and the trainers do not make it easy for the trainees. Cameron said the trainers deliberately fell into the rapids while traversing the Box Car Rapids.
“They have a sense of what it’s like to chase a swimmer and get them back in the boat whether or not they’re involved in their own rescue,” Cameron said. “It’s a difficult thing because there’s a lot going on. You must guide the boat. You have people in the boat paddling and then you have to deal with the swimmer. There’s a lot going on. Good to have an idea of when this is happening, hopefully they are better prepared for it.
Work guides must have Wilderness First Aid and CPR certifications. They must also have an Oregon Food Handlers card because on multi-day rafting trips they prepare meals for guests.
“Once a new guide has completed their training, we ask them to do what is called submersion. They accompany an experienced guide until they feel ready to work on this section of the river. Then they do a check run where they run 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’re looking for when we pig them out and let them guide 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’re looking for are people who are willing to learn and have a good attitude, good people skills,” Untermeyer said. “At the end of the day, it’s a customer service job in the heart of a really cool outdoor environment. Driving a boat and the skills that go with it are a bit foreign to a lot of people and it takes time to different people to understand it.