Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Get Ready to Raft: Guide School at NOC

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So what if the average high in early March is only in the upper 50s, or if the lows reach into the 20s? When March is here, rafting season is too—at least for the aspiring raft guides and diehard whitewater lovers at NOC’s annual Raft Guide Schools.

The program is a five-day introduction to life as a professional river guide. Guides in training learn to master raft control and how to deal with the weight and momentum of large, eight-person rafts. They also get to learn whitewater features, rescue skills, how to carry rafts, the soft skills and more. Not just for aspiring guides, the program is perfect for "average" river enthusiasts who enjoy guiding their friends down the Nantahala in a rental raft and for rescue professionals looking to increase their rafting skills.

The course takes place on the Nantahala and French Broad Rivers, and the it boasts a fun “we’re all in this together” group mentality that provides built-in support and camaraderie for all participants.

This year’s course offerings begin in February and extend until mid-April. Typically guide schools receive a high percentage of college-age students looking for an exciting summer job, but there are also participants looking for an alternative spring adventure. On-campus lodging and dining are included in the price, so it’s really an easy pre-packaged spring break.

If you’re interested in learning more about this unique week of whitewater, read this discussion I had with eleven-year veteran Will Norris, an NOC Head Guide on the Class V Cheoah River. Will leads a guide school every other week during the spring (trading off with Stephan Hart—one of NOC’s only guides to be “checked out” on all seven rivers).

Will actually led my guide school four seasons ago, so I knew a few good questions to ask.

NOC guide school instructor Will Norris by the banks of the Nantahala at a 2008 guide school.

Charles: Do you prefer students to have previous whitewater experience?

Will: No, as a matter of fact many times we’ve seen students with no experience do better than avid kayakers. Sometimes kayakers have a harder time dealing with all the extra weight and momentum [of a raft], and they’re typically harder on themselves if they can’t get it right away. Sometimes a blank slate is easier to work with.

Charles: For the students seeking employment at NOC, there’s an evaluation of their skills. What are you looking for?

Will: We focus on raft control, but there are five main categories we rate; it’s not all about raft control. If we see the learning progression is happening, and that you’re working well with others—like you’ve got a great personality and that you’d be good at working with guests—well, that plays a huge part in it.

Charles: What parts of the course are the most challenging for students?

Will: One of the more challenging elements is the aggressive swim, when we’re actually getting out in the river. It’s physically demanding for many students, and it’s always cold.

Charles: That’s on the Nantahala from above the rentals take out to the pedestrian bridge, right?

Will: Right. I almost always try to do this at the end of the first day, so that students have experience with swimming if they come out of the raft the rest of the week. Here we talk about the different safety aspects of entering the water—body angle, moving through current, crossing current—we tie it in with positioning your body like a watercraft.

Charles: What else is challenging?

Will: For many folks it’s just dealing with all that weight and momentum in the boat. The flip drill is also anxiously anticipated. [This requires the guides to flip the raft to practice flipping the raft back over in moving water.] I almost always do this drill at the pool below Frank Bell’s rapid on the French Broad.

Charles: Frank Bell’s can be a class IV rapid at some water levels—is this the biggest rapid of the week?

Will: Yeah, Frank Bell’s is the biggest rapid we’ll do. Pillow, the Ledges and Kayaker’s Ledge are all in play on the French Broad, so every student in a training raft will get to guide at least one class III rapid on the FB. That’s in addition to the Fantasy Island drill on the Nantahala, where the teams do laps on Nantahala Falls. During that drill, the students carry the rafts back up each time so that each guide gets three runs on the rapid.

Charles: So the guides have to carry the rafts back up the river over ten times. I don't remember that being a major challenge.

Will: Usually students don’t know what to expect going into the drill, but they figure out an efficient system for transporting the rafts and they enjoy it. Usually several groups keep going past the three-run requirement.

Charles: What about weather? It’s still cold outside in March.

Will: Weather can be a large mental factor, usually much more than a physical factor. We let the students know what to bring and we provide necessary gear. Some of the folks you'd expect to be cold and weaker in those conditions surprise you and thrive, while the bigger and stronger participants don’t always handle them as well. We tell the students, if you can make it through this you’ll be even more comfortable in July in your Chacos, river shorts and sunglasses.

Charles: It’s good for the guides to feel the impact of weather on the rafting experience I suppose.

Will: Yes, that’s the upside of making the guides swim in cold water and in cold weather. You can feel what a guest would feel if he or she were to fall out, and it teaches you to be ready with the equipment and gear to respond.

Charles: How physical is guide school?

Will: In five days you do a physical activity every day. You don’t need to be an athlete to do it, but this course shows you what you’ll be putting your body through every day as a guide. Everything is hands on—from rope tying, to loading rafts, to rescue practice.

Charles: Do you stick to a tight schedule?

Will: We have a syllabus and a skills-progression order, but we’re flexible enough to use moments of opportunity. Pinning a raft may present the perfect opportunity to practice unpinning a raft. The first two days are the most critical learning days. By day three folks are getting dialed in, and there’s less emphasis on teaching the control skills. By then we’re fine tuning and working on other necessary skills.

Charles: Anything else you'd like to mention?

Will: We incorporate fun and keep things as light as possible. For a lot of folks it's their spring break, and we don't want them to feel like it's another day in class or at work.

For more photos from previous guide schools see the photo gallery on the guide school page at noc.com.

I’ll leave you with a photo from my guide school in 2007. For the record, I believe we all had a blast, and I think the only time I felt cold was actually on the lake learning the basics. The rest of the time I was pretty focused on the activity.

Except for the swim drill; no doubt, that was cold.

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