Learning to Guide

By Shaina Maytum, Women’s Wilderness Instructor

At low water, the crux of the Shoshone rapid section in Glenwood Canyon is a move called “the slot.”  The move itself isn’t actually that hard, but the consequences are dire.  You have to sneak your boat right between the ominously named Tombstone and Razor rocks (the latter often referred to as “wrap rock”).  If you play it right, however, your boat will slide through easily and all of your customers will think you’re incredibly cool.  They don’t need to know that there is literally no other option.  If you mess up, you’re all going in, and your boat might be stuck, shamefully, for a long, long time.

I executed this move for the first time the other day — and entered the ranks of “big water paddle guides.”

I wanted this for a long time.  I did a little bit of guiding a few years ago, and was plagued by insecurity and doubt and a certain degree of self-loathing, really, for some of the failures I felt like I was having.  I let the egos of the senior guides get to me, resented the condescension (“This is how you cut the tomatoes”), and in one particularly humiliating incident, allowed a particularly unpleasant second year guide to make me cry.  On a boat.  With guests.  You know where there is literally no place to go if you’re crying and don’t want anyone to see?  On a raft.

I felt like at age 28 that it was too late to become the super rad rafter chick I always wanted to be, and my experiences feeling like a total loser still stung.  This summer, however, I decided give it one more try.  I signed on with a local company to train as a paddle boat guide.  My prior experience allowed me to skip the guide school the other rookies went through, and I came in knowing how to read the water, but with no idea how to deal with a paddle boat.  I had guided a paddle boat exactly one time, and it was in 2009.  

My on-the-water training started on the Roaring Fork river, and I was totally confused.  Every time I put my paddle in the water the boat went the wrong way.  The other guides were, to my pleasant surprise, supportive and encouraging.  I started to get it, but my personality is a fastidious one, often preventing me from taking risks before I feel like I can perform almost perfectly.  Eventually, though, they forced me to do a “check out” run so that I could begin guiding by myself.  I was being totally ridiculous, they said, and that I’d been ready for days.  The day of, I felt sick to my stomach and I had epically bad cottonmouth.  Allow me to clarify something, though, this was no Shoshone.  The Roaring Fork river has exactly one, incredibly straightforward rapid.  It was absolutely fine.  I was a paddle guide!  I was psyched!

Three weeks later, the powers that be told us that it was time to start our Shoshone training.  I was like, WTF?? I was freaking out on the Roaring Fork two weeks ago!  And they were like, get your helmet.  New guides train on the Shoshone section by doing “Shoshone bombs;” it only takes about 15 minutes top to bottom, so you run it over and over and over again. One group of rookies ran Shoshone 19 times in one day.  This was high water Shoshone — the Forest Service cuts off commercial companies when the river is running at above 6,000 cfs — but you better believe that the moment the water drops, trips are out and rookies are training.  

This is big, cold, water.  Nausea creeped up as we looked out the window of the van, and as we stoically carried our boat down to the water.  Then we were in it, over and over, and all, miraculously stayed in.  I was back in “crippling self-doubt” land and I really, really didn’t want to get into the back of the boat and guide.  Everyone else had done another day or two of bombs!  I DID NOT WANT TO DO IT.  

Shoshone bombs, day 2.  I knew what was coming.  Ok Shaina, the peer pressuring began.  You’re the only one who didn’t guide this yesterday.  Fine, I said.  Bring it on.  And then I started looking around for a place to puke.  The senior guide with us was uncharacteristically kind, dropping his detached bemusement about our rookie antics to tell me that a) I could do it, and b) He would be there to help me.

These are, I think, two of the most profound things one person can say to another.  You can do this.  I am here for you.  

And I did do it.  Scott coached me through it (“fix your angle;” “call an ‘all back,’” etc.), but ultimately the run was mine.  I tend to celebrate my accomplishments quietly, but when we hit the flat water at the end, I threw my paddle above my head and let out a big victory cry.  There was lots of cheering; even Scott gave me a high five and told me I’d done a good job, which for this guy is the equivalent of a giving you a big hug and a medal.  I was breathing like I’d just finished a marathon, and it was probably the coolest I had ever felt in my life.

Over the coming weeks, I studied Shoshone like a crazy person.  I haven’t studied like that since… high school physics?  I stared at the map.  I did the run over and over again in my mind.  It was the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep at night, and often all I thought about while I ate breakfast.  Finally, practice + thinking + desire equaled action and there I was, running “the slot.”  I had exploded the limits of what I believed was possible for myself.  And it was awesome.