Looking for Raft Guide Jobs? Read this interview first.
Interview with a Raft Guide: Emerald LaFurtune
Q: Where are you from and how were you introduced to rivers?
A: I was born and raised in Moscow, Idaho. Before I was born, both of my parents worked for Echo River Trips (now Northwest Rafting). Once they had kids they didn’t continue guiding but every family vacation we went on was a multi day river trip!
Q: What made you fall in love with rivers? Was it immediate or did it grow from specific experiences?
A: Who says I’m in love with rivers? Ha! Just kidding, of course I love rivers more than my dog and boyfriend combined. Let’s see. Growing up, rivers were just like another member of our family. When you grow up sleeping, playing, swimming and exploring in a place… it just gets under your skin. Idaho’s rivers are home just as much as the house I grew up in. So many important lessons of my life have happened on rivers, from childhood to adulthood. So I suppose it’s something I didn’t realize was happening until I was already done for. Probably the first moment I realized it was love, however, was when I was around sixteen. I was reading David James Duncan’s essay in “My Story As Told by Water” about the four lower Snake River dams. It was a hot afternoon on the Main Salmon and I had my toes dug in where the sand meets the river. After that essay I cried – I’m not sure how to explain why. It was just this feeling of rage and grief and love knowing that this place wasn’t necessarily protected and that it would probably be the fight of my life to save it. “Fight” and “Save” are pretty extreme terms, but that’s how your brain works when you’re sixteen. Everything is black and white. Including falling in love.
Q: How did you develop boating and rafting skills?
A: F***ing up! Despite being on the river as a kid, I didn’t really start rowing until high school. What I love about whitewater is that once you’re in it, you’re in it. You don’t have the opportunity to back out once you’re mid rapid, you just have to finish and hope for the best. I had great mentors like my dad and the women at my first river company but I think I mostly learned by putting myself into rapids just a step above my skill level. You learn on the fly. I also owe a lot to the first woman (shout out Rachel Veseth) that taught me to row from my core not my arms!
Q: How did you get into guiding? What advice can you give newcomers looking to break into the business?
A: After high school I needed a summer job, so I started guiding down in Riggins, Idaho. I was eighteen and barely knew how to go grocery shopping, let alone take eight people through class III rapids safely! I ended up in that job because I had a family friend who was already working there and put in a good word for me. Probably the easiest way to get into guiding is to get introduced by someone who has already worked for the company. That said, I also know people who have approached outfitters cold-turkey and been hired. If you’re taking that approach, I think it’s important to emphasize in a cover letter or phone call how interested you are in the specific place. Outfitters are proud of the sections of river they run and want to know that you’re interested in learning about the history and context of the location too.
Chances are, you won’t be hired to trip lead Grand Canyons right off the bat. Developing some experience at a daily company can be a great way to move up into multiday guiding too. Just remember that you don’t have to join in the party culture if it’s not your thing. As long as you work hard, support your other guides and your guests like you, your success shouldn’t hinge on how many beers you shotgunned the night before. If it does – you might be at the wrong company. Don’t be afraid to move around until you find the place that feels like home.
Especially for women, I’d warn against trying to enter the guiding industry through office work, food packing or driving vehicles. From what I’ve seen, it can sometimes be hard to break out of your job description once you’re seen as the “Go to food person,” etc.
Q: What rivers do you work and what are your favorite things about guiding these places?
A: I work the Middle Fork, Main and Lower Salmon rivers as well as Hells Canyon of the Snake. My favorite part about guiding the Salmon is that it is a free-flowing river. As the water drops each week throughout the summer, the same rapids have totally different characteristics and runs. With everything changing, you never get bored of rowing or fishing the water! I love both the Salmon and the Snake for their human history. Humans have been in these river canyons for over 8,000 years. It feels special to continue that legacy in our own way.
Q: It’s easy to be overly romantic about guide jobs. What are some of the more difficult aspects of guiding?
A: Uh, poop. Cleaning up poop every morning, many nights, and then again when you get back to the guide house and all you want to do is take the longest nap of your life.
No, actually, poop is the grossest but isn’t the most difficult. The most difficult is being “on” 24/7. On a multiday trip, you often work 6AM – 9PM. Even on your breaks, you’re still under the lens of your guests. Doing that week after week it can sometimes be hard to keep a grasp on yourself and who you are. A lot of guides come out the other end of a long season proud of what they’ve accomplished, but kind of chewed up. It takes some time to get yourself back after that, hear your own inner voice and needs after so many months of putting them second.
Q: Can you share a favorite experience from a private or commercial rafting trip?
A: Oh there are so many… okay, this one is kind of strange but for some reason it comes to mind. I was in my first real year of trip leading, rowing a wooden dory down the Main Salmon River. I was still learning how to lead, how to make decisions and how to support my crew. We didn’t have a reserved camp and got into our beach way later than I had hoped. Needing to get dinner out for the guests, I declared we were going to have team cooking night and have everyone in the kitchen. I tasked the boys with making the grilled chicken happen and the girls with pulling off all the side dishes, because I didn’t even have the energy to fight gender norms that night. Everything was going well until Morris, one of my favorite guides of all time, opens up the chicken bags. Soon there is raw chicken juice over EVERYTHING – the utensils, the stoves, the tables… Finally I just made everyone stop moving, made a plan to clean everything up, and eventually dinner was served without a hitch. I guess it’s a favorite experience because despite the chaos, I was still out there with some of my favorite people. Even with the chickenpocalypse, we were all laughing. I learned that you can be warm and funny AND be a leader when things need to be done. I just love those guiding experiences where everything is going to hell but you’re surrounded by people you know have your back. That’s one of the best feelings in the world.
About the Author
Emerald LaFortune works as the Director for the Redside Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that supports the health and strength of Idaho’s guiding community (www.redsidefoundation.org). She also organizes the annual Idaho River Rendezvous (www.idahoriverrendezvous.com) as well as freelance writes (www.emeraldlafortune.com). What she loves most about her career set up right now is that it still allows her to spend a few weeks each summer out on the river guiding.