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As our river season comes to an end and the trappings of fall begin to appear, I can’t help but reflect on the craziest season of my life—of most of our lives, I’m willing to bet. I’m sure I speak for the majority of guides when I say if there’s one thing that has kept us sane throughout our adult lives, it’s that no matter what happens, we always have the river. If our winter was cold, dark, or less than financially fruitful, it was just a matter of months before May was here and we’d be back in the comfort of guiding. In fact, many of us rely on that principle so much that it has become an inextricable part of our identities.

Reflections on guiding rafting trips during a pandemic

This year was different, though. May came and went, and my Portland apartment began feeling smaller and smaller. Come mid-June and still no promise of a river season, I felt the air leaving my lungs.

That heaviness and pain hung above us all as we learned about the new mitigation plans and protocols. We were excited for the prospect of a season, but it was hard not to feel like the magic of river trips—the sanctity of uninhibited adventure—was going to be greatly impacted. Our pre-season Zoom meetings were full of questions about the feasibility of maintaining a positive guest and guide experience; an endless list of questions that would only be answered once we began running trips. We were terrified of losing not only our summer wages, but more importantly, losing a huge part of what makes us feel most like ourselves. That’s the risk of loving something so untamable, I suppose.

Reflections on guiding rafting trips during a pandemic

Enough about us, though, let’s talk about you—our river family.

Your guides awaited anxiously as you walked up to the pre-trip meeting with your masks on. Rather than greeting you with hugs and high fives, we asked you to wash your hands and remain 6 feet away from the other guests. It was hard not to feel like this was all wrong, like we’d made some terrible mistake.

But then, we saw that familiar twinkle in your eye—the sigh of relief as you sat down and took a big gulp of fresh air; your legs bouncing with anticipation. We didn’t need to see the smiles on your faces to know that all of the precautions and postponements were worth it. This season would be different, but it would be its own kind of magic.

Reflections on guiding during a pandemic

This sense of relief followed us into the successful completion of our first trip. We might have missed out on some of our favorite close-contact games and camp activities, but what we gained was more than I think anyone could have imagined.

One of the first things I noticed was how the travel unit designations created a more intimate family bonding experience. Even though there were still plenty of opportunities to socialize with other travelers, it seemed that families cherished their closer-than-normal proximity. From sleepy-eyed kiddos resting on their parent’s laps in the afternoon flat water to family games of glow-in-the-dark bocce ball, I saw families find joy simply being in each other’s company. It wasn’t only children bonding with their parents though, it was couples taking on the challenge of a double kayak together or best friends giving each other river pedicures. While adventures create fun memories, the intimate time spent together with loved ones is something that you’ll hold onto forever.

Rafting during the COVID Era

Now, we can’t talk about a rafting trip without talking about the transformative power of the great outdoors. This has always been a part of our trips; taking hikes deep into the folds of the canyons, anxiously awaiting the ever-elusive bear sighting, sipping a steamy cup o’ Joe to welcome the warmth of the morning sun—you start living completely in the moment. This season was different, though. Rather than the palliative effects of nature being a pleasant surprise, you came seeking it. I noticed a lot less conversation this summer as I sat behind you in the raft. You were busy listening, busy watching, busy reflecting, busy healing. You’d been stuck in the confines of your homes, being inundated with news, staring at computer screens for work or school, and it all started to feel so heavy. On the river, you were weightless.

Rafting trips during the COVID era

This is the part where I want to thank you. Your effort to work through the logistics of making your trip happen during a pandemic did not go unnoticed. Thank you for trusting us to keep you safe amidst the most uncertain times. Thank you for the reassuring nods when we stumbled through the lists of new protocols and rules. Thank you for being flexible with your expectations. More than anything, thank you for allowing us another season on the river.

You gave us back a little piece of ourselves. We hope you found some peace here, too.

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Photos: Cindi Stephens

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