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How to Become a Whitewater Canoeing Guide

How to Become a Whitewater Canoeing Guide

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This is a guest post by Mikaela, an experienced whitewater canoeing guide.

Do you love whitewater canoeing and traveling? Do you dream of spending days at a time paddling through the backcountry on gorgeous rivers? Well, whitewater canoeing can be more than just a fun travel hobby—you can make it your actual job.

As a canoe guide, you get to see some of the most remote places in the world, have a new adventure almost daily, and influence the lives of the kids you guide down the river. Becoming a whitewater canoe guide (and generic outdoor adventure guide) allowed me to travel for five summers while I was in University.

It took me from Ontario to Nunavut in Canada and then all the way to New Zealand. While I chose not to continue with the profession full-time after I graduated, you can easily travel the world guiding trips wherever people go on whitewater adventures.

For a river sport enthusiast, this is one of the best travel jobs you could ask for.

What is whitewater canoeing?

When people refer to whitewater, they are talking about a stretch of river that has fast-flowing and choppy water called a rapid. The rapids are classified on a scale from one to six (I – VI)—one being a few ripples in the water and six being nearly impossible to get through.

There are many types of boats that you can take through whitewater. The two most popular are rafts and kayaks, but my personal favorite is the canoe. 

whitewater canoeing guide paddling through rapids

Whitewater canoe vs kayak

There are pros and cons to each boat. A kayak is much smaller, and therefore can maneuver better, and the cockpit is closed off using what is called a skirt. This enables a kayak to flip and then right itself, without taking on water, enabling kayakers to take on larger and more challenging rapids.

Since a canoe is larger and cannot (typically) right itself after flipping, canoes cannot paddle as challenging sets as a kayak can. However, since canoes are larger, they can carry a lot more gear. This makes canoes great for long river expeditions.

What does a whitewater canoeing guide do?

As a whitewater canoe guide, you have a long list of responsibilities that begin well before you leave out on your trip. Before the trip, you have to plan out your route – complete with emergency access points and exactly where you’ll be on a given day.

Prior to the trip, you are also responsible for preparing all the food and ensuring gear is working. You may need to do gear repairs if something isn’t working (i.e. patching tents or replacing skid pads on the canoe).

Once you’re on the trip, your top priority is ensuring all your participants make it down the river safely. This could involve teaching paddling strokes, scouting rapids, helping with portaging and guiding the set up/take down of camp. It also includes food prep and cooking, plus first aid treatment if needed.

After the trip, you must take care of packing up all the gear and making sure it’s ready for the next set of campers plus completing the paperwork for the trip reports.

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What does a day in the life of a whitewater canoeing instructor look like?

A whitewater canoeing instructor can have a few different “typical days” depending on the type of work they’re doing.

If they are guiding on a multi-day trip: The instructor is up early, likely building a fire, cooking breakfast and helping the group pack up and leave the campsite.

Throughout the day, they’re teaching by demonstration; as the group encounters rapids, the instructor explains how to scout, how to choose a line, how to paddle the rapid, etc.

Once the group is at site, the instructor is likely helping to set up and cook dinner. They probably will end the day writing in their trip log and going over the route for the next day.  

If they are teaching a course: Prior to the course starting, there would be some preparation to do, like ensuring all the gear was in place. Once the course kicks off, the instructor would get everyone signed in and host a short orientation to go over the game plan and objectives.

Once everyone is on the water, there would be a few hours of teaching. Finally, the course would wrap up – either entirely or just for the day – and the instructor would likely have some clean up to do before calling it a day themselves.

If they are prepping: Although not exactly the most enjoyable, there are a lot of “prep” days involved. This might include route planning, meal preparation, repairing gear and staff training. Depending on what needs to be done, these can either be very long days or very short days.

whitewater canoe instructor scouting the rapids

How is the work/life/travel balance?

That is very dependent on the job and the individual, though there are some common themes. Most contracts are seasonal, beginning in the late spring and ending in the early fall.

The number of days that you would be guiding trips varies with each outfitter. If you are only guiding for 3-4 days of the week then that leaves a lot of time for exploring the area. However, if you are guiding trips almost daily then you obviously won’t have much downtime.

If you are going to follow the seasons and jump from one area of the world to another then you could always do some exploring while you’re between jobs. Say you have a season beginning in Ontario but you arrive a couple weeks early to check out the area you’ll be in.

How to become a whitewater canoeing guide

I grew up going to summer camp and being outside the majority of the time I wasn’t in school. This is where I began whitewater canoeing and fell in love with it. After some time as a camp counsellor, I started taking more paddling and wilderness medicine courses, eventually progressing to flatwater canoe trips and then whitewater canoe trips.

If you’ve never been whitewater canoeing before, then the first step is to get outside and try it! Once you’ve done some trips and grown comfortable with self-guided trips, you can start looking at certifications. A few good ones are wilderness medicine and whitewater rescue, plus there are some universities that offer guiding diplomas.

Once you’ve built up your skills and gotten some qualifications, it’s time to try and get some experience working for a company. Make sure you have a professional-looking resume that highlights your outdoor skills and experiences.

The best way I’ve found to land jobs is by networking in the industry. Start calling your local outfitters and see what qualifications they require of their guides. Talk to them about their company mission and how they run trips. The people you’ve met through courses you’ve taken can also be great references.

What does whitewater canoe guide training involve?

There are quite a few necessary certifications, though the exact requirements will vary between employers and whether you are an instructor or a guide. Here are the certifications I needed:

  • Paddle Canada Moving Water II
  • Whitewater Rescue Technician
  • Wilderness First Responder or Wilderness Advanced First Aid
  • ORCKA Canoe Tripping III
  • Lifeguard with the National Lifesaving Society (typically only required for camps)

For whitewater canoe guiding – In addition, you need experience paddling whitewater, and in the case of guiding, you need experience guiding in flatwater.

For example, in order to take the course ORCKA Canoe Tripping III (which I needed to be a whitewater canoe guide) I needed to already have 500 km of wilderness tripping experience and more than 6 canoe trips where I’ve been the organizer/leader.

For whitewater canoe instructing – You won’t as often need a course like ORCKA Canoe Tripping III or Wilderness First Responder; however, you will need to be much more skilled at whitewater canoeing and, for most employers, also have experience with whitewater rafting or kayaking.

whitewater canoeing guide gauging the river

How to find jobs as a whitewater canoeing guide?

Like I said, networking is the biggest part of getting jobs in this industry. Start calling your local outfitters just to introduce yourself. Let people know when you take a course that you are looking for a job as a canoe guide. You never know who someone else is connected with.

The other option is to find Facebook Groups that help people find outdoor instructor positions. You can always apply to NOLS or Outward Bound as well, but these are highly competitive and not worth applying to until you have experience working as a guide.

How much does a whitewater canoeing guide make?

There is quite a lot of variability in this, but as a general rule, I’d say anywhere from $500 to $1200 per week.

If you’re guiding for a camp or a non-profit, expect to be on the bottom end of the spectrum. If you’re working for a commercial guiding company, you’ll likely fall closer to the middle; however, it’s also dependent on where you’re guiding and the level of skill/experience required.

As you gain more experience, certifications, and skills your salary can increase. Whitewater instructors (teaching courses, rather than guiding) are more often paid hourly. The lowest I’ve heard is minimum wage, and the highest I’ve heard is about $30 per hour.

Some jobs will come with room and board, or a discounted rate on rent. Some jobs will also come with excellent discounts on gear (a personal favourite perk of mine).

What’s your favorite part of being a whitewater canoeing instructor?

My favourite part has always been teaching whitewater canoeing to teenagers. I love when a camper thinks a rapid is too hard for them, they’ll definitely tip, and then they paddle it beautifully, smiling the whole way down.

Whitewater canoeing is an amazing opportunity for kids to gain confidence in themselves, learn to work as a team, and build a deeper connection with the environment. I especially love being on the river with them, away from the pressures of high school and social media, and help them overcome obstacles they didn’t think they could.

What do you wish you would’ve known when you first started?

The first trip you guide will be a little terrifying. Even though you know you’re prepared and have all the skills you need, it’s still scary. You are responsible for the safety and well-being of other people, and you’re hours (maybe even more than a day) from help.

It’s normal to feel like you’re in over your head. You’re not – and your confidence will increase with each day and decision you make.

Also, whether you’re guiding or instructing, the relationship you have with your other guide/instructor is so important. Whitewater is really scary for first-timers. You need your participants to have complete confidence that you know what you’re doing and will keep them safe.

That means you and your co-guide/instructor need to be on the same page and a team. On my guided trips, my campers would often refer to me and my co-guide as Trip Mom and Trip Dad and it was a very accurate nickname.

On the river, you and your co-guide are in a partnership not unlike a marriage. There may be disagreements, but you need to remain a united front for the kids.

What other advice do you have for someone who wants to become a whitewater canoeing instructor?

The most important thing to do to become a whitewater canoe instructor or guide is to just start paddling. Take courses, plan your own trips, and build your skills.

Whitewater canoeing isn’t exactly the safest activity in the world, so if you’re abroad, make sure you explore different travel insurance plans to find one that covers whitewater canoeing.

Once you’re ready to think about employment opportunities, just start reaching out to outfitters, camps, course providers, etc. Most won’t lead to a job, but you want to get to know people in the industry and learn how it works.

For example, it was through a friend that I learned Camp Pine Crest needed someone to lead their Missinaibi River trip (and it was one of my instructors on a course whose referral landed me the job). Likewise, it was people I met in a Wilderness Advanced First Aid course who hired me for a guiding contract in Iqaluit, Nunavut a year later.

Although I’m not guiding currently, through the connections I’ve made I now get messages from employers asking if I’m interested in going back to guiding.

Be humble, be kind and get to know people. This is an industry based on word of mouth and connection!

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