Thursday, February 2, 2012

9 Things to Know about NOC's Whitewater Raft Guide School

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NOC's version of spring break is Whitewater Raft Guide School, five days of learning the skills, techniques and know-how that form the basis for professional raft guiding everywhere. The week-long course is most popular with college students excited to be securing a fun summer job while also enjoying a "you'll never guess what I did" spring break experience.

Interested but not in college? No worries, about 25% to 35% of our guide school guests are regular working folks looking for a fun week outdoors with friends and instructors. We provide equipment, transportation, food, lodging and instruction at a 5:1 student/teacher ratio. At only $450 it's a darn good deal. Click here for Raft Guide School dates and more program details.

NOC Guide School Instructor Stephan Hart chatted guide school with me over lunch today and here are nine observations I gleamed about the program:

Sometimes guides schools get "lucky" and it rains all week. Photos in this post are from a 2011 class that "got" to run the Big Laurel Creek and French Broad combo on their travel date. They paid their dues though, running a high-water Nantahala Falls for the Fantasy Island drill. Good weather classes are more comfortable, but not quite as exciting.

1) "The Weird Middle Dimension." Our guide school guests see NOC from a very unique perspective because many of them are training for future employment. This means they have to carry their own gear and rafts and listen to directions and feedback from their instructors. This leads to an interesting dynamic: our guide school instructors make the students do all the work, so this time the onus is on the guest to impress the guide.

2) The food is delicious. The folks at River's End Restaurant always make good grub, but for guide school they break out a custom, family-style meal plan. It's delicious in its own right, but the daily eight hours of raft guide training and the sometimes chilly weather work up impressive appetites. And food never tastes better than on an empty stomach.

3) It's a cool crowd. Let's face it, guiding rafts isn't for everyone, so the people who show up for guide school are usually pretty fun-loving. Stephan says "the kind of person who is seizing this opportunity to come out and play is just energetic and exciting."

The Fantasy Island drill at Nantahala Falls where guides practice running the Class III rapid over and over. No problems on this run, but not everyone was so fortunate.

4) The "Spring Break Effect." So maybe the folks who come to guide school are adventurous go-getters by nature, but we think there's a spring break effect going on too. By this time of the year, people are so happy to be outside and on the water that they're pretty enthusiastic no matter what mother nature throws at them.

5) 70 Years Old. That's right, we've graduated septuagenarians from guide school. Everyone gets pushed a bit in raft guide school, but most folks can handle everything we throw at them. We'll toss in extra challenges to our more aggressive students to see if they're prospects for guiding some of our harder rivers, but usually everyone finds a comfortable challenge level in the course.

6) Travel Day. Usually on Thursday we roadtrip to another river so guide students can test their skills in a new environment. Usually we go to the French Broad, which can be really interesting if it's been raining. Last year the water was pretty high, and we got a highlight reel of epic "learning" moments.

7) It's not all about NOC. We're well aware that students may head out West for the summer (or something like that), so we give every guide school guide a certificate of completion. We try not to belabor NOC processes and logistics, sticking instead to universal whitewater guide skills. In fact, guide school graduates that we hire go through a "grad school" when they come to work at NOC. This is where they learn all the NOC-specific systems and protocols.

Guide School isn't exactly "full service." Up and coming guides still have to earn their stripes.

8) The dreaded swim drill. Many students are anxious about the aggressive swim drill. While this takes place on relatively calm water right here at NOC, students know it's going to be cold. The swim drill is often the elephant in the room until it's over, but it often serves as the test that binds the guide school classes together. You're never "green" again after the swim drill!

9) My favorite part of Guide School was the Fantasy Island drill, where raft crews navigate Nantahala Falls over and over again, rotating so each student gets to guide through the falls a few times. The easier you make it look, the bigger the challenge Stephan and the other instructors will throw at you next time.

Notice the difference? This group has been challenged to run the rapid with upside down paddles. Can you hear the "Getting Stronger" refrain from the Rocky theme?

Does raft guide school sound perfect for someone you know? Either get them professional counseling or send them the link to the guide school webpage at Spring break will be here before you know it!