HENEFER — Before launching the boats at the designated spot on the Weber River, guide Ken Beiler had some last-minute instructions for his guests and several guides-in-training.
“If you fall in, don’t try to stand up. You can get your foot stuck on the bottom, and if that happens, the current can pull you down and it’s hard to keep your face above the surface,” Beiler said.
“Watch where you’re swinging your paddle,” he added. “The most common injury on the river is people getting hit with paddles.”
After those tidbits and a few more words of wisdom, a new crop of prospective Weber River guides shoved off to become one step closer to official certification.
Aside from occassional trips on the Provo River, the Weber offers the only guided river rafting in Northern Utah, and it has become a popular attraction for Park City tourists over the past decade or so.
Beiler said that All Seasons Adventures, the Park City-based outfitter he has guided for since 2005, sees about a dozen new guides every summer. Some end up sticking around for multiple seasons like he has, while others may end up finding other jobs and leaving before guiding a single trip.
“It’s obviously a seasonal job, and for most people, it’s just a part-time gig,” he said. “Most of these guys are working other jobs as well.”
Such is the case with Jessica Denver, a Utah native who works as a waitress at Deer Valley’s Stein Eriksen Lodge while in guide training.
“It’s not about making a living,” Denver said of her decision to seek guide certification. “It’s a great way to get out and see the outdoors, and meet a lot of interesting people.”
All Seasons Adventures is one of three Park City-based companies that offer guided raft trips on the Weber. While the bulk of its clientele consists of tourists from out of state, it’s also a nice adventure for local families, said Beiler, whose wife, Cassie, also guides for the company.
“A lot of the locals are already comfortable on the water, and the rapids on the Weber are typically no bigger than Class II,” he said, referring to the internationally recognized system used to classify the size and difficulty of river rapids (the scale ranges from Class I, with small waves and clear passages with no serious obstacles, to Class VI, which is generally considered unraftable, although extreme kayakers have successfully navigated Class VI rapids).
However, he added, some “city slickers” with little or no experience in the outdoors find the experience quite intimidating.
“Some parents are so worried about their kids that they can’t stay focused on the task of paddling,” he said. “The kids are the ones who usually handle it the best.”
He recalled one instance where a husband and wife were sitting side by side in a raft, and when the boat encountered one of several rapids on the trip, the wife leaned into the center of the boat so hard that she knocked her husband into the water.
“We’ve never really had a major emergency situation, but anytime someone goes overboard, you have to take it seriously,” Beiler said. “That water is really cold, especially early on in the season.”
While the rapids of the Weber aren’t especially technical (last year was an exception, when this stretch of river that typically peaks at around 500 cubic feet per second during spring runoff was roaring at more than 2,000 cfs in early June), there are numerous obstacles, including large boulders strewn throughout the riverbed and overhanging trees along the banks that can trap boats.
“You don’t want to get caught up in one of those Russian olives,” Beiler said. “They have some pretty nasty thorns.”
All Seasons Adventures guides on an approximately eight-mile stretch from Henefer to Taggart. The longest and biggest rapid of the trip, known as Taggart Falls, comes just before the end.
On our boat, guides-in-training Clayton Windsor and Denver took turns at the rear. While both had only been down the stretch a couple of times, they deftly guided us around boulders and through the rapids, confidently giving out paddling commands like “two forward!”, “three back!” and “all forward!”
Beiler chimed in often with words of encouragement and praise. While he said he doesn’t hesitate to point out when a newbie makes a mistake, it’s important to let them develop a sense of being in charge as early as possible.
“They have to learn for themselves how to run the show,” he said. “My job is mainly to observe, to provide feedback, and to answer their questions.”
Rather than brute strength, he said the ability to anticipate and read the river is the most important aspect of being a successful guide.
“Some of the best guides are five-foot-three, 100-pound women,” he said. “The best guides know how to let the river do the work for them.”
The process of becoming a certified river guide in Utah, while more complex and onerous than in many other states, is still fairly simple. Prospective guides must be at least 18 years old, be current in the required first aid and CPR certification, pay a $50 fee, and have a minimum experience of running any three river sections for a basic crew license.
To take the next step and become a crew leader, applicants must complete a written examination and have at least six river trips under their belts. The written exam, Beiler said, is where Utah’s requirements seem excessive and confusing to many.
“There’s a lot of stuff in that test that really has nothing to do with river guiding,” he said. “Hardly anyone passes it on their first try.”
River guides tend to be drifters (no pun intended) — outdoorsy types who are well-traveled and into biking, hiking, fishing, skiing and other outdoor pursuits. The guides at All Seasons Adventures come from Illinois, Washington, Pennsylvania and other states.
Windsor, who recently graduated from college in his native Georgia and headed out west, said it has been a long-time dream to live and play in the Rockies.
“I just can’t get used to how beautiful it is out here,” he said with a slightly detectable Southern drawl. “I kind of hope I never do.”