Northeast Whitewater Maine Rafting Guide Training - Life of a Raft Guide Trainee

Northeast Whitewater Guide Training: Life of a Trainee

A siren pierces the layer of fog hanging over Indian Pond Dam like a gigantic alarm clock with no snooze button. Then, right on cue, the loudspeaker crackles with a warning as icy as the water below, “WATER LEVELS DOWNSTREAM FROM DAM ARE RISING, EXIT THE WATER IMMEDIATELY!” Except we are not exiting. We are getting in. My fellow trainees and I are embarking on the toughest and most exhilarating training of our lives.


First Night and Equipment

            However, I am getting ahead of myself. Training officially began on Friday, May 26th. I suggest getting to base early to allow time to fully set up your tent and meet your fellow trainees. The first night was a barrage of information covering everything from how to correctly hold a paddle to where you can find coffee when you are back on base. We also got to meet the employees, trainers, and the furry four legged staff members Ellis and Abby.

That night they supplied us with the necessary safety equipment to make it down the river, this included:

1 Helmet: Initially I thought this was to protect against rocks, but it is more to guard against fellow crewmembers as the fly around the boat during a rapid.

1 Yellow PFD: This is crucial for when you inevitably fall in. It will also make anyone who wears it look like a Minion.

1 Paddle: Don’t go anywhere without it, when you are in the raft you can’t go anywhere without it.

The night ended with a quick (hands on) lesson on how to inflate, deflate, and stack 15 full size rafts before we were sent to bed, with a reminder to set our alarms for 5am.


Ferrying and Flipping

            Day 1 on the river was dedicated to the basics. Our experience as a class ranged from someone who had guided before to people who weren’t sure which part of the raft to sit on so a lesson in the fundamentals was just what we needed. Under the snowy peaks of the Katahdin on the Penobscot River we endlessly practiced our guide strokes, prying and drawing across a forgiving class 1 rapid. Suddenly, the head trainer Jeremy told us to flip our boat. I wanted to remind him that the goal of the guide is to keep everyone in the boat, but I stayed quiet and we dutifully flipped our raft… 7 times. It turns out, the only way to learn what to do in the event of an actual flip is to rehearse flipping over and over and over again.

guide training resources

That night we had class time to teach us about the different hydraulics we could face on the river and a quick briefing on the Kennebec River, which would be our training ground for the next six days.



The Kennebec

           From Sunday to Friday, the Kennebec will become your home. By the end of these six days, your butt will remember every bump on the bus ride to the river. Your legs (if you are not wearing a full wetsuit- me) will be speckled with Black Fly bites from the put in. Your mind will be able to replay a safety speech in your dreams. And your strokes will be anticipating each wave as you cruise through the rapids.

My advice to a future trainee is to become a sponge. Soak up everything the trainers are saying. Even when it is not your turn to guide listen to the advice the trainer is giving, familiarize yourself with the river by looking around and asking questions when you are unsure of what certain things are. The quicker you can identify markers like Goodbye Hole, Funk Wave, Kayak Keeper, and Magic Falls the easier it will be for you to guide a solid run. Northeast does a great job of pairing trainees up with a number of veteran guides that can each give you tips and different perspectives about the Kennebec.

By the end of the day Friday, our class, which in my mind is of course the greatest training class of all time, had broken (unofficially) some Kennebec River records. Here are the most notable:


Most Bug Bites Sustained on A Right Leg

Best Drawing of the Kennebec River in Gravel

Longest and Most Discombobulated Float Out

Most Bug Bites Sustained on A Left Leg

Worst Chafing Behind Knee Caps

Slowest Inflation of Rafts at Put In

Most Pizzas Consumed in 20 Minutes at The Forks

Greatest Number of Bus Games Played

Slowest Deflation of Rafts at Take Out

Least Burnt Rice on First Try

Most Naps Sneakily Taken on Bus Home


These statistics are a testament to my training group, because although not all of these are positive achievements, we stuck together and worked as a team to get through them. That is what Northeast Training is all about, how well you can deal with adversity as a team and still find success.

Kennebec River training


The Penobscot

            The Last 3 days of training took place back where we started, the Penobscot. Except this time we would not be merely ferrying across a Class 1 rapid. Instead the Class 5 rapids Exterminator and Cribworks were our targets. Both falls acting like the final bosses in a video game, if we wanted to complete our training, we would have to go through them.

Penobscot River training


Summing Up

            Guide training is not an easy 10 days, and that is a good thing. At the end of the experience you will be able to guide customers through some of the most technical whitewater in the country, so earning this certification should not be a task that everyone can handle. There were times when I was putting on a soggy wetsuit at five in the morning that I wanted to quit, but I am glad I didn’t. The feeling at the end of training when you pass your test and receive your license must be what Tom Brady feels when he holds up the Lombardi Trophy at the end of a long season. Every late night, every mosquito bite, every dip in the 50-degree water becomes well worth it. You have conquered the training, you have bonded with a team, and you are ready to take on the white water.

Chase Stokes


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