The river through Browns Canyon is high and rowdy, and Meg Bendik, Colorado whitewater rafting guide, is in her comfort zone. She raises her voice to be heard over the waves crashing against the raft.
“Back left!” the guide shouts, and two on the boat’s left side paddle backward. “Forward right!” and the other two on the right paddle forward. All paddle ahead twice at her order, “Forward two!”
“Forward one! Back right! Forward right! Back two!” – she goes on like this, showing an uncanny knowledge of the water as the boat navigates around rocks hidden by the current, through rapids trying to pull the crew in other directions.
Then, they stall. An unforeseen eddy has caught the raft. The waves roll over the boat as its nose starts to sink, deeper and deeper into the frigid water. Now Bendik calls louder: “Paddle! Keep paddling! Keep paddling!”
‘Less traditional route’
It is a summer afternoon like any other in the life of a Colorado whitewater rafting guide: unpredictable, and for that reason, thrilling and also addictive. Soon Bendik will turn 30, and she feels what other guides her age feel: life’s tug toward something steady – something like a 9-to-5 and a house.
But “Grams,” as colleagues at American Adventure Expeditions know her, quite likes this life. Home sweet home is the Chevy van she shares with her rafting guide boyfriend, whose parents once used the vehicle to shuttle around nine children. The van is parked at a dirt corral where dogs roam around other old vans occupied by guides.
“My mom visited last year,” Bendik recalled. “She was like, ‘Megan! You do not live here!'”
Proudly, she does, for a third season, living out the life she dreamed about in high school before “life got in the way,” she says, before she went off to college and started work as a nurse in her native Atlanta.
Three years – that’s about the average career span of a guide, as observed by American Adventure Expeditions‘ owner, Mike Kissack. He’s worked nearly two decades along the Arkansas, where an estimated 1,000-plus guides find summer work with 49 licensed outfitters.
Kissack gets about 120 applications every year. After interviews, he picks between 10 and 12 to come train and join a guide staff of about 20 in Buena Vista. They’re typically college kids from around the country or Colorado ski bums looking for another seasonal job.
“It’s people who want to do something different,” Kissack says. “They want to kind of take a less traditional route.”
Traditional in Katie Spencer’s mind was going to college and graduating with a job related to her degree in psychology. The 22-year-old got that from the University of Minnesota in May. And today she is with Bendick, spending the morning in the boathouse after breakfast – a chocolate pudding Snack Pack that was free at a church the night before.
The two make money per river trip (a flat rate that their boss declines to divulge). The earnings are enough to make guides here seriously wonder if $50 is worth spending on a membership at a gym, where they could shower regularly. (Other options are the church or the outpost’s makeshift shower of spare wood).
The joke goes like this: “What’s the difference between a raft guide and sasquatch? One’s hairy and smelly and the other’s a mythical creature.”
But money wasn’t what Spencer and Bendik had in mind when they first came to the valley, nor was personal hygiene. They thought about the water and the mountains. More than a job, they wanted adventure. Mostly, they did not want to be in an office.
Both arrived three years ago with the same question: “Am I gonna be the only girl?” They are the only two women returning this summer to their guide roster.
“You have to let the boys know you’re in charge,” Spencer says.
Adds Bendik: “I think we did have to prove ourselves.”
The opportunity came immediately, during a hellish three weeks of training led by “the slave driver,” who the women point to now: a guy with stubble and blonde locks spilling from his flat bill hat, holding a clipboard that he scans through his dark-rimmed glasses. He leads 12-hour days during which boats are flipped and rookies learn to swim the rapids.
Days before, veteran guides celebrated rookies completing the training process. Prizes included a box of fig Newtons, a can of Spam and duct tape for the recipient of the “Slippery Bottom Award.” It was a party within the party that never seems to end at the outpost.
The scene across the industry contributes to suspicions of sexual harassment – a report last year found it to be rampant within Grand Canyon National Park’s rafting district. In Buena Vista, Bendik and Spencer say offense comes not from fellow guides, but from customers who express surprise or concern by their presence.
The outpost is a place they are proud to be – a place that they struggle to leave. Spencer shows off the premises, starting in the boathouse where a pair of 30-pack Pabst Blue Ribbon boxes sit depleted atop a recycling bin. They are from a liquor store that has a deal with local guides: spend a combined $1,000 and get a keg.
Behind the office center is “Tent City,” the gravel lot where some of the guides camp. Spencer has upgraded this summer to a trailer big enough for a full-size bed and a knee-high drawer unit.
Dirty clothes hang in the run-down school bus that the guides know as “Delta,” which on hot days has an intensely “Delta smell.” They share the bus as storage space, and nothing is stolen, for they know “river karma” to be real. A platform has been built on the bus’s roof, where there is on this day an empty handle of Jack Daniel’s and a stunning view of the mountains. At night, the stars are spectacular.
Delta is “the ultimate dirtbag hangout,” Spencer says.
“I think it’s OK to be young,” she says. “We still have time to have fun.”
Spencer feels pressure to be elsewhere next summer. She thinks she’ll browse the web for jobs this week. “Or next week,” she says with a smile.
Bendik has a nursing gig lined up back in Atlanta after the season. Her boyfriend also has family in the South, and they want to see how they do in a familiar place.
“We’re kinda ready to pick a place to settle down, grow some roots,” Bendik says.
For whatever chances at “traditional life” they’ve missed, she and Spencer think about the stories they’ll tell their kids and grandkids from their time as rafting guides, a time they say has taught them how to lead and be confident.
Bendik will have this story from the river, where she and her crew are paddling furiously to not get sucked under.
“That’s the fun stuff!” she exclaims when they escape.
At one point, the water is calm; the boat is just floating. And Bendik says to look out for something coming up on the canyon wall. Through the trees emerges a tiny house, wooden with forest green shutters, simple.
“Isn’t it cute?” she says. “That’s my dream house.”
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