What do river guides do in the winter?
As a career river guide, I am well accustomed to questions regarding any and all seasons that aren’t summer, when we river guides have to find something else to do and make a living. What do we actually do when we aren’t on the river? What else is there ever to do than raft and fish? For the most part, when a river guide isn’t on the river, they’re cycling through one of several seasonal jobs that, for me, were a placeholder for river season. That’s not to say that every river guide feels the same. Some people are just biding their time floating rivers until winter comes and they can ski again. Others love that they get to guide in the summer because the other seasons are occupied by a “real” job, usually something like teaching and molding young minds.
As far as my personal experience goes, I feel that I have cycled my way through the most classic of seasonal jobs, and I’m here to tell you about what river guides might actually be doing when they’re not rafting.
Starting My Seasonal Career
I was already embedded in the seasonal cycle of work before I graduated college, commuting up to Arapaho Basin from Denver and sleeping on couches and in friends’ empty condos while I was ski instructing. The summer after college, between ski seasons, I worked over 50 weddings at a mid mountain venue at 9,000ft. Every Thursday, we would spend around 8 hours polishing every piece of silver, glass, and plate ware in the building. We would invariably talk about everything under the sun, but would always circle back to the reason we were all there — the view outside the massive windows.
We loved that mountain and those vistas, and we were willing to work odd and taxing jobs to get to spend as much time there as we could. Back then, it was about the skiing for me. Summer was for hiking and making ends meet until the snow started to fall. But all that changed when I left Summit County for good and continued my journey north and west.
Becoming a River Guide
I started river guiding the summer of 2018, on the Snake River in Jackson, Wyoming. I moved from one resort town to another, and was therefore moving from one interesting and unconventional living situation to another. In Dillon, Colorado, I lived in a four bed, two bath home with eight other people, oftentimes featuring one or two drifters crashing on the couch. It was the way to make ends meet and keep rent cheap in a place where everyone wanted to live and play. The tragedy of the mountain town lifestyle is already a tale as old as time. But it is integral to the life of a river guide as a seasonal worker.
When I moved to Jackson, I downsized and moved into a place of my own — the back of my 2014 Jeep Wrangler. I was able to park for free in the dirt lot behind the rafting company where I worked. This was a prime and coveted living situation. Free living in Jackson, Wyoming? And all I had to do was sleep in my car? It was a dream come true. So I spent my first summer as a river guide in a way I thought of as novel, quickly discovering that the setting was anything but unique. River guides across the country have been living in their cars down by the river for generations. It was a rite of passage.
An Unconventional Winter
As my first season guiding came to a close, the question that looms ever more present as the river slows and the leaves change, was what to do in the winter. What do river guides do in the winter? I had already been a ski instructor and worked in the service industry, so I knew those were options. But I enjoyed guiding and rowing a boat downstream so much that when an opportunity to continue that all winter came to me, I didn’t hesitate. I became the third member of a crew determined to complete a source to sea journey of the Green River to the Colorado River, to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
As far as options go for river guides in the off season, I had gone above and beyond the usual and traveled into the borderline insane. Instead of spending that winter racking up as many ski days as I could, as in the past, I spent 141 days rowing and paddling from northern Wyoming to the border of the US and Mexico in Arizona, and then 100 more miles after that. We passed all of the traditional riverside take outs, traversing reservoirs and flat water stretches that most river users chose to go around or bypass. Many friends and family members thought we were crazy and obsessive to spend 5 months in the elements, battling headwinds and camping for days on end. But our fellow river guides understood the draw, and many were jealous. We were doing what most guides dream of — a never ending river trip.
Return to Reality…
I went back to Jackson that next summer, in the same dirt lot as before, but this time with a slight upgrade — I had moved in to the back of my boyfriend’s Nissan Titan. It was another glorious, mind-numbing summer, running up to four trips and 40 miles of whitewater every day. Inevitably, it came to a close, and as we weren’t planning on embarking on another 2,000 mile river journey, we faced the same question again — what do river guides do in the winter? You mean we actually have to stop rafting this time and get other jobs? We went a more traditional route and moved into a small apartment in Jackson, found jobs and bought a few more pairs of skis.
I worked that winter as a food runner four days a week in a restaurant at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort called the Mangy Moose. And in order to get a free skiing pass, I also worked as a rental technician at Teton Village Sports three days a week. So my winter was spent on my feet — skiing laps between jobs, pacing the floor of a huge and busy restaurant, or running skis up and down stairs and fitting them to an endless parade of ski boots. Was it fulfilling? Not particularly. Was I happy? Yes. Winter was becoming the in-between season for me, the time when I sacrificed personal fulfillment for the sake of an income. I still loved to ski and got out on the slopes and into the backcountry as much as time allowed, but I felt I was just waiting for spring to come and for the snow to melt into a river again.
…But Not For Long
Unfortunately, when spring did appear it also arrived with a global pandemic that completely shut down the planet for a while. The rafting company I worked for didn’t open that summer. So, I did what any rational river bum would have done and collected my weekly unemployment check from the government while running as many coveted and varied multi-day river trips as I could with my friends. Desolation Canyon, the Selway, Middle Fork of the Flathead, the Middle Fork of the Salmon to the Main Salmon, Stillwater and Cataract Canyon, and finally Desolation Canyon again to round out the summer. In between river trips, I hiked and backpacked all around the west, from the Sawtooths in Idaho to the San Juans in southern Colorado.
It was one of the best summers of my life, despite the context of a global pandemic. After all of those adventures and almost nine months of unemployment, reality came to the door are barged in on my unconventional lifestyle. It was time to get a job again.
Finding A New-ish Path
I worked another winter in Jackson, this time as a server at the Mangy Moose while still also doing time as a ski technician in Teton Village. The pandemic was still raging across the country and people were still flocking to ski resorts. Christmas Day of 2020 I showed up to work at the Moose and quickly realized it would be a holiday to remember, as three of the other servers and two bartenders had called out sick, as well as half of the kitchen staff. I was left running the show with one other server, as our food runner was in the back helping to flip burgers. It was utter chaos, we were overrun and overwhelmed, and the people didn’t stop coming.
What do river guides do in the winter? They work just as hard as they do in the summer, usually long hours in the guest service industry, in a restaurant or hotel, or outdoors guiding, patrolling, and instructing. Later into January, I ended up with Covid after running myself ragged throughout the holiday season. I spent those 10 days sequestered in my apartment, applying for a dozen guiding jobs across the west, including bike packing, multi-day river guiding, fly fishing, and even leading a team of pack llamas in Yellowstone National Park. Change had to come in some form — I was ready to get out of Jackson for the summer.
In April of 2021, I showed up in Clarkston, Washington at the warehouse of ROW Adventures, ready to become a multi-day river guide. I spent the season pushing rubber and making memories on the Lochsa River, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, Hells Canyon, and the Lower Salmon. I already knew that multi-day rafting trips were my preferred way of seeing rivers, but after that summer I was committed, done for, completely dedicated, ruined. No hope remained for me to ever find a “real” job. There was nothing more rewarding for me than helping others experience the magic of traveling wilderness rivers for days at a time.
Facing the Music
I went back to Jackson that winter determined to make money and ski hard, but continued to yearn for and obsess over my other life as a river guide. Working at a restaurant in a ski town is somewhat similar in a few ways to working as a river guide. Most relevant is that I would get the same questions but in reverse — what do you do in the summer? I loved getting that question from tourists because that meant I got to tell them all about the rivers of the west that I was beginning to know and love more than anything.
Working seasonally is incredibly difficult for a multitude of reasons. One of the most impactful for me is that I have always felt a sense of limbo in between seasons, a feeling that I was floating along insignificantly and unfulfilled until I got to pursue my real passion. I worked doggedly all winter, not truly happy but still satisfied. I was seeking the answers to life and finding nothing but stagnancy. There was no where to go up, no next step to strive for. I wanted to someday own a home and property, instead of cycling through expensive apartments and the back end of vehicles. I also wanted to be a river guide forever, but how could I possibly make ends meet? There seemed to be contradictions criss-crossed throughout my hopes and dreams and my reality.
One-way Ticket to an Endless Summer
Grappling with these questions and my life choices, I headed back to Idaho for another summer guiding, spending most of my time on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and falling in love. Recently single, I knew that I couldn’t go back to Jackson again for another winter — I was over it and life held little meaning for me there. I loved the place and my friends, but I had no future as a seasonal worker there. Everyone eventually gets forced to move on from those resort towns. I had made a lot of money as a server there but a life in Jackson was still completely unattainable in the ways that I desired.
So instead, I took that money and went to South America for the winter. I was chasing the endless summer. I showed up in Medellin, Colombia alone and without a plan. After three weeks and a few rafting expeditions there, I headed down to Ecuador, made more new friends and saw incredible sights. I was traveling solo, dreaming up new itineraries on a whim, and feeling more myself than I had in a long time. Just before Thanksgiving, I flew down to Chile to meet up with some friends and explore some of the most amazing rivers in all of South America. One of those friends was Jake, who at the time was slightly more than a friend and who you might recognize as my current partner in life and in business. Because of him, I kayak now.
The Rollercoaster of Kayaking
Jake bought a truck and a kayak for me in Santiago, picked up some other kayaking friends and headed south to meet up with me in Pucon. I spent those first few weeks in Chile learning simultaneously how to roll a kayak and how to drive stick shift. We moved to Futaleufu, the whitewater mecca of South America, home of one of the most renowned rivers in the world. I had never seen anything like the Rio Futaleufu — shockingly cerulean and absolutely massive, with some of the most formidable and exciting rapids I’d ever seen. Again, I had found a way to be on the river all year long.
Luckily for me, there was a smaller and much more beginner-friendly river that ran through the town of Futa called the Rio Espolon and that was where I cut my teeth as a kayaker. I also put myself through hell again and again on a stretch of river at the end of the commercially run Futaleufu called the Makal section. I say it was hellish because it was huge water, I was terrified, and I swam out of my kayak more often than not.
One day in particular was significant. I found myself in the river again after missing several rolls. My boat and Jake went downstream and I ended up on the river bank, hacking my way through thick forest and scrambling over bus-sized boulders in order to get my eyes on my gear and my friends. I sat down on a rock and cried, telling myself that I would have to sell all of my gear because I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t kayak.
The very next day I successfully paddled the entire 6-mile, class 4, big whitewater section of the Futaleufu. To say my time in Chile was an emotional and physical rollercoaster is an understatement.
A Quick Discussion of a Long Future Together
It was another season of travel and new experiences that reiterated my aversion of stagnancy and forced me to reconsider my seasonal lifestyle. Just how sustainable is constant change and instability? When Jake and I returned to the US, we decided to start imagining our future together. It wasn’t really a sit-down-discussion — it went more like “would you want to buy a rafting company someday?” “Yeah I think so.” “Yeah cool me too.” And that was that, we had put it out there in the world, our very insubstantial and far-fetched life plan. We figured it would be a 5 year goal at best, maybe more like a 10 year goal. Fast-forward 6 months later, and we became the new owners of Solitude River Trips.
What do river guides do in the winter, forever?
We did it — climbed out of the sucking whirlpool of seasonal life. We are so fortunate to have found ourselves in this situation. I have purpose in life, and its long term. I’m hoping to still be running Solitude River Trips and pushing boats down the Middle Fork in fifty years. Reality is that most river guides will never get this chance, and will remain guides forever, always answering to someone. Many don’t mind this because they trade compliance for freedom — as it turns out, owning an outfitting company comes with a lot of responsibility. It was nice for a while not to have to make the big choices. Now, I’m embracing that part of my role. I longed for purpose and challenge in my life before this, and am not about to back down or become overwhelmed.
So what do river company owner/outfitters do in the winter? This winter, we’ve been enjoying life in our tiny cabin, directly adjacent to our gear warehouse in Salmon, Idaho. We spend a lot of time on our computers, scheming and dreaming, and also make sure to get outside and onto the slopes at Lost Trail Ski Area. We are making new friends and getting used to a domestic life. It can be disorienting when a seasonal worker moves into a place of their own, forever. I’ve officially converted my car to a normal vehicle, and changed all of my addresses to the one here in Salmon. I haven’t had this kind of constancy in years.