The Professional Raft Guides of Northern Outdoors
Meet just a few of the professional raft guides who call Northern Outdoors home during Maine’s summers!
Author: Ted Tibbetts, Northern Outdoors River Guide and Professional Nomad
To many of our guests, (and maybe the rafts themselves) raft guides must seem like mythical creatures. They appear seemingly out of nowhere in the spring, dot the landscape, river, (and bar!) all summer, then slowly drop away again like autumn leaves.
Where do they go?
For many of our guides…(nay, I would have to say all), sharing their passion for whitewater isn’t just a job.
It’s a lifestyle.
And a nomadic vocational existence is just a means to support our love for river life.
So what do we do in the “off-season?” When winter winds choke the rivers with ice and it’s so cold the dog refuses to go outside, we supplement income to support our rafting habit!.
Many of our team members continue to guide in the off-season…just in a different setting. For several, the classroom serves as a natural companion to rafting season.
“There is no better job than being a raft guide and teacher,” says Trevor Donoghue, guide class of 2008 and elementary Physical Education teacher. “Your vacation time is still a vacation yet you’re making money. You’re still doing what you love to do…which is interacting with people whether they are pre-k students, 5th graders, families, or bachelor parties. You’re still interacting with people, you’re just doing it in a different reality.”
But it’s more than crashing through Exterminator rapid or Magic Falls, it’s about sharing the beauty of the river.
“I’m turning on people to being outdoors,” says Trevor. “There’s so many things to do in the state of Maine with rafting, fishing, climbing…it’s incredible.”
Sandi Howard, a music professor at Keene State feels the same way.
“Teaching at the College and teaching on the river both draw from my inherent love for introducing others to new experiences and new information.”
And the two venues compliment each other. “I think of teaching as a lot of long term goals and guiding with short term, immediate goals – the rapid is there, and you need to navigate through it. Working with students all year is also long term, and I find you can track growth over time.”
Having the winter and the shoulder seasons of spring and fall employment is also nice financial security, notes 20 year Penobscot veteran Todd Mercer.
Teaching provides “a stable income that allows a person to purchase more toys and somewhat reliable vehicles, campers, buses and boats of all sizes, with which to pursue our whitewater passion.”
Balancing the two can sometimes be a challenge.
“After being so physically active during the summer, the sit down meetings at the start of the school year is really tough,” says Sandi.
“I find myself thinking about where I’d be on the river, or eating lunch or the float out when I’m supposed to be focused on educational tasks.”
For sure…pre and post trip guide meetings are a lot more fun than faculty meetings!
Other guides migrate from rivers to mountains in winter, working as ski-patrollers or snow makers.
“I get the same feeling of satisfaction when I manage to successfully navigate the Cribworks with a group of guests, as I do when I safely stabilize and transport an injured skier to Sugarloaf’s first-aid building,” says Zach Davis, guide class of 2011 and Operations Manager. “Both are very rewarding experiences and one could say I’m addicted to both.”
And speaking of stabilizing and transporting, ski patrollers are great assets on river trips should medical issues arise!
As you can imagine, dividing time between rafting and skiing creates a physical lifestyle that can wear on the body.
But it keeps you in shape!
“I think it makes the day go by faster,” says Penobscot River Manager guide class of 2012 and Ski Patroller, Christine Rholl. “Engaging mentally and physically…it feels good to be tired at the end of the day.”
The daily physical demands “make me think about taking care of my body, too,” says Parker Kennedy. “It’s kind of our livelihood…having a functioning body.”
While the focus shifts at Northern Outdoors in the winter, there is still a lot of work to be done! The extensive groomed trail system tied directly to the Northern Outdoors resort in the Forks brings snowmobilers from all over New England.
Matt Bateman turns his attention to crafting beer at the brewery.
“I was at Sugarloaf with Zach, and he mentioned that Mike, the former Head Brewer, was looking to potentially step away from the brewery,” Matt says.
“That same time I was kind of looking for something a little more serious and year-round than the seasonal work of guiding and Ski Patrol.”
Other than the physicality of throwing around rafts and kegs, though, Matt says the two are radically dissimilar.
“I’m kind of just on my own all day when I’m in the brewery. It’s a one-person operation and unless somebody kind of walks by and says hello I’m flying solo all day.”
Another year-rounder, John Hamilton, guides rafts in the summer and talks about rafting in the winter. Or snowmobiling. Or 4-wheeling. Whatever guests are interested in doing.
Working in the reservation office through the late fall, winter and early spring, John gets to connect with our guests on a whole different level.
“If the power goes out, I run the generator. Whether they need more towels or it’s a real emergency- I’ve dealt with everything.” (John discovered a fire in our exercise room last winter and saved the lodge from extensive damage!)
“Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything…if they need restaurant help Monday night, I work in the restaurant, so it’s a different hat for every little thing and you just have to be flexible.”
Helicopter Pilot? Yep!
Other guides completely break the mold!
Dan Levy, long-time veteran guide at Northern Outdoors, flies helicopters when not driving rafts.
But it’s not as different as you think. Guides spend the early mornings rigging rafts, checking equipment, and readying the base for guest arrival.
At the airport, Dan does “a check listed preflight inspection of the aircraft, goes over aviation maps and writes up the flight plan.”
And, for Dan, “the responsibilities that I need to shoulder [are similar] when doing either job. They might be the most exciting, most fun jobs out there but we are responsible for people’s lives and safety while doing them!
Keeping it Fresh
For all of our guides, the seasonal nature of rafting helps keep the passion alive year after year after year…and no one knows this more than Todd Mercer.
“I get to come home to my summer love, I have an entire winter to miss the people I work with. It’s true what they say, absence makes the heart grow stronger. I don’t experience the burn out.“
As much as our winter lives are an important part of our identity, though, we all long for rafting season. Sandi returns “to western Maine’s rivers and mountains to basically hit a reset for myself.”
Christine agrees. “It keeps things fresh, you know, when you get to look forward to that next season so I really enjoy that aspect of it and don’t get burnt out on a single job.”
While all raft guides get into the industry for fame, fortune, and glory, what really keeps them coming back is the people.
Sharing the exhilarating experience of blasting through rapids with adventure-loving people quickly becomes much more than a job. Guests become friends and colleagues become family.
“Northern has always shown appreciation for us with awards and the End of the Year party,” says Trevor. “And the raft guests show their appreciation and we’re so thankful that we look forward to seeing people come back year after year and we look forward to people coming back to work at Northern year after year because you get to know them better and better.”
Zach Davis also recognizes the quality of people in the outdoor recreation industry. I “get the benefit of working with not one, but two groups of amazingly talented people.”
And Dan Levy sums it up perfectly:
“I will always feel that my career as a guide has had a positive impact on every aspect of my life. From the amazing new friends and characters I meet (which have now and forever become family), to working with such a close, knowledgeable team at Northern Outdoors.”
Living in Maine connects us with the seasons. And the staff at Northern Outdoors have mastered the art of “migrant wave farming” by structuring their lives around their passion for the river.
And while we enjoy shifting our focus from time to time, we keep our eyes on the calendar, our thoughts on spring, and our hearts on the river.
So…Is it May yet? 🙂
Ted, a writer and whitewater guide travels the country in his converted school bus. You can read about his adventures at The Eddy-Line.