More than 170,000 people in 2,700 boats hit the rapids in a year at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC). On a busy summer weekend, it takes 35 to 50 staff to orient guests and lead them down the river safely. According to Communications and Brand Manager Eric Osterhus, the center has been emergency and crisis free since opening more than nine years ago.
In addition, raft guides must own their own equipment. It is both a personal and financial commitment to become a raft guide. They really have to want to be there.
Alex Stone, 24, is an instructor at USNWC Raft Guide School. He started rafting after his freshman year at Appalachian State University (ASU). Stone’s first two summers were spent mostly as a camp counselor, but he developed his skills as a raft guide.
He said, “That is where I felt at home. I quickly developed a love for whitewater.”
After graduating from ASU in 2014, he returned to USNWC and worked on refining his rafting skills. He was offered the instructor position this season.
As a guide school instructor, Stone’s job is to help candidates become more comfortable in the water through classroom sessions, demonstrations and drills, and on-water applications. He teaches the basic functions of the raft, guide position and basic strokes. They start on the Catawba River because it offers a low-stress environment.
During the training, they cover flipping a raft, swimming in whitewater, knots, rescue philosophy, guest experience, hydrology, reading whitewater and raft anatomy. By the end of the week, the group will do guided runs down the river with no instructor in the boat.
Stone said, “In all honesty the best trainer is time and experience. This is something that cannot be learned overnight. It is something that takes an extended period of time to develop.”
Pro tips: Raft guides offered several ways to make the whitewater experience better
“The water does not tire, but you do. Relax when you hit the water.” – Andrew Bruce
“Come during the week when it’s not as busy.” – Maddy McLendon
“Don’t cheap out on shoes.” – Dan Barber
“Drink plenty of water. You don’t realize how much you sweat.” – Jesse Evans
“Even though this is a man-made facility, it still has the thrills of a natural river. It’s not a joke, it’s not a ride.” – Jon Craven
“Eat plenty of protein throughout the day.” – Morgan Brumfield
“Remain positive. One way to kill a trip is negativity.” – Oliver Padgett
“You can wear a baseball cap under your helmet to keep the sun out of your eyes. It’s better than losing your sunglasses.” – Greg Nance
Photos: Vanessa Infanzon, Juliana Hague, USNWC