Our guide-in-training writes about learning the rafting ropes
By Shea Stephens
My friends donated equipment for my first weekend of guide training on the Ocoee River: a crappy dry top, PFD and helmet which I wore with some tight black pants and Keen River Shoes. All geared up and ready to go I walked into the office where I overheard the river managers discuss how “there was no way ‘this girl’ is going to make it and if she does she’s going to go through some serious carnage.” I was fired up to say the least.
More eager than ever to prove the guys wrong I made my way to the raft barn where I met the other trainees, Vince and John. The first lesson was how to load the boats onto the school bus. Two people for each boat, one in the front the other in the back, with arms spread shoulder length apart. The boat is taken down a gravel hill and loaded onto the bus. Each weighs upwards of 200 pounds. The first raft I carried to the bus fell on my head three times. We weren’t even on the river yet and I was already being laughed at. The guys snickered and mumbled, probably taking bets on how long I would last and who I would end up hooking up with. It’s a rafting company after all and dirt bags abound.
After tying the boats down we all got onto the school bus named “Special” and took a 15-minute drive to the put-in. The shaking of the bus and the adrenaline didn’t mix well. Once there, I made a run for the porta-potties. We unloaded the boats and walked them down the ramp and looked out at Grumpy’s, the first of 18 rapids on this five-mile stretch of the Ocoee. Joe, the river manager, explained the importance of holding a left hand angle until reaching Pyramid Rock then he said to call a few stokes and get the boat straight. We got in and he navigated through the tight ferry lines like a pro and we hit the ledge perfect, just the way we were supposed to. The first trip was a guided tour where the experienced guides showed us the lines and basic maneuvers, like how to pry and draw efficiently. The second run of the day was a little different and things didn’t go as smooth.
Joe gave the three of us trainees the opportunity to guide. He took Grumpy’s and we did the rest. I guided Broken Nose, Double Suck and Double Trouble. Broken Nose, as it turns out, is one of the more technical rapids on the river. There’s an S wave that leads to the drop where a powerful hydraulic can hold a boat for an indefinite amount of time. I found out first hand. I hit the S wave with my weak draw and went into the hole sideways, which means we surfed like punters until another boater bounced us out only to get caught too. Even though I was sucking it up, Double Suck and Double Trouble weren’t as difficult. I got myself in and out of trouble often, the rookie usuals, hitting rocks and getting stuck. The mentality being it’s better to meet disaster when in training.
The second day was miserable. Temperatures plummeted the night before and a cold rain set in. It was around 33 degrees and the wind was blowing upstream. We went down the river once. The water felt like needles against my shriveled feet and frozen hands. Although the conditions were poor my level of excitement never wavered, the joy of learning how to read the river outweighed the uncomfortable elements. I guided through Tablesaw and Diamond Splitter, both class III+ rapids. Tablesaw is a fun chute that mimics a water slide at an amusement park with a big rock at the bottom right called Prudential. Trust me, you don’t want a piece of it. You have to hold a 10 o’clock angle in order to avoid Prudential and the guide ejector buried under the raging haystacks. I held the angle and avoided the destructive forces. At Diamond Splitter I missed the first gate and had to go down the death slot backwards. It was really intense but, luckily, no swimmers. The weekend was filled with adrenaline and awe, but overall I gained an unquenchable thirst for more.
I found what I had lost during my time in corporate America: a sense of purpose and direction. The river forced me to be in the moment for the 90 minutes I was on it. It was like meditating but without the stinky incense. I learned that the river could help me become the person I wanted to be.
I looked down at my broken nails with fading polish and decided it was time for a change. I told the river manager that I would be back the next weekend. He smiled and said that he was looking forward to it and whispered something about “good carnage” under his breath. The drive home was different for me. Although I was completely frozen and water logged I couldn’t shake the smile from my face. I was determined to make it through training and become a raft guide…