Guide Tim and son Tristan McDonald plow the rapids

A professional river guide, a waterman, I am a lucky man.

At 50 and the peak of my profession, my body bears the scars from tens of thousands of river miles guided and paddled. This is what I do. This is what I was always meant to do. 

The journey to Colorado’s rivers began more than 25 years ago, with me loading up a Toyota pickup with everything I owned, my faithful husky riding shotgun. We were heading west to the Rocky Mountains, 2,000 miles from my former Florida beach community.

The Centennial State boasts some of the best whitewater in the country, including one of our nation’s newest national monuments, Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River.

With headwaters a few miles north of Leadville, the “just-a-step-across-wide” Arkansas passes under Colo. 91, through a small steel culvert and steadily heads south as it picks up volume and speed on its way to rendezvous with the Mississippi, some 1,469 miles away.

One of the nation’s most popular rivers — truly an icon of the West — it’s more than 100 miles of incredible whitewater remote canyon boating, the Arkansas draws paddlers to Chaffee County every spring in an annual migration.

Many arrive wanting to become professional guides, like myself. Colorado has an abundance of rivers with varying degrees of difficulty for an aspiring paddler to learn — and earn — their strokes.

The growing river outfitting industry is the largest source of tourism during summer months, and pro guides are in high demand.

New guides — “rookies” — are required to receive formal training, which many outfitters in the Arkansas Valley offer: 50 hours of river instruction and current first aid/ CPR is the mandatory minimum to begin taking guests on commercial trips, beginning by running the easier Class I-III sections their first couple of years.

Once rookies receive their necessary training and certification, they begin to step up to more advanced Class IV trips, typically culminating with expert Class V whitewater found in Pine Creek on the Upper Arkansas and Gore Canyon on the Upper Colorado. It often requires three to five years for a determined guide to log enough miles and gain experience to make the jump to a Class V professional river guide. 

Some choose to never guide expert trips, but if they do, they usually supplement their training and certifications by taking a Swift Water Rescue class.

Commonly, this is a three-day intensive session held on a local stretch of water and attended by firefighters, search and rescue, first responders, police and river guides.

Having logged enough miles by my third season in 1995, I chose to become a Class V professional river guide. With the prerequisite training runs on expert sections, a clean commercial “check out” trip with my instructors, I had my Class V certification.

That summer was also my first foray into being a guide instructor, teaching new guides and also seriously focusing on swift water rescue.

Another aspect of the guiding life comes with living accommodations.                              

Many companies offer guides a place to camp near the boathouse, some provide campers and fewer still even have separate restrooms with showers. All of which accomplishes two things: It gives these seasonal gladiators a safe, secure place to live, and it allows the outfitter to keep team members nearby to help with projects around the shop and pick up last-minute trips regularly booked the same day.

Senior guides usually get first pick of campers, and then the size typically gets smaller as their condition gets increasingly suspect, issues usually amended with a tarp and duct tape. 

Often these little “camper cities” are the first signs of life at a river outfitter’s compound. Each unit, called a “Barney” by all the guides where we worked, would be cleaned up and customized.

Barneys were nothing more than glorified shacks cast off by previous owners, with the occasional exception of the gorgeous “Taj Mahals” purchased by guides with the appropriate resources. We were fortunate to have restrooms and a shower available in the guides’ quarters located in the back of the shop — first come, first served.

We were also given a large room near the owner’s office to use as a guide lounge, offering a large campfire-scented couch, a beater refrigerator, a small toaster oven and most important of all, Wi-Fi.

Due to the proximity of campers in Barney Town, and the close quarters of unisex restrooms, showers and the guide lounge, by the time commercial trips begin to go out on a daily basis, usually Memorial Day weekend, each new guide has found a spot within the crew and a place on the schedule. 

Lifelong friendships start during slow, early days of the season, and solidify as river water rises and trips become more stressful. Sometimes they dissolve by these same forces, causing a Barney to change occupants a couple times over a summer.

Before trips, guides arrive an hour early to load rafts, prepare coolers with lunch for the full-day, and then “suit and boot” customers with necessary gear. 

The days in Barney Town begin before the sun rises and they can end long after it goes down and involve copious amounts of coffee, energy drinks or a real guide favorite from South America, the yerba mate, an herbal concoction that tastes less like coffee and more like freshly mown grass.

Days are long, the work strenuous and at times stressful.

When Memorial Day weekend arrives, summer’s end seems so very distant. But soon the early season melt-off and accompanying high water levels (and high blood pressures) will subside.

We ease into a smooth groove we strive to maintain until the commercial season winds down, sometime around Labor Day during an average season.

Then, a “reverse migration” happens, and the deeply tanned, shaggy-haired guides wander off in every direction.

Many continue chasing summer with trips on other later season rivers like the Gauley and New in West Virginia, or head to the coasts, the islands, or Mexico to surf and sate their thirst with cold Mexican beer.

Others head to the Valhalla of whitewater, the Grand Canyon, a 21-day trip I’ve done with a group of longtime friends and fellow river guides, and we’re set to run it again in April. 

Since my rookie year of ’93, I’ve raised a son on the river, helped develop a stand up paddle (SUP) whitewater outfitter and subsequent specialized whitewater-specific SUP guide school and attained American Canoe Association SUP-whitewater SUP guide/instructor certifications. 

Joining forces with a local nonprofit, we developed one of the first river/SUP approaches to help soldiers and their families cope with PTSD/TBI/ traumatic combat injuries.

Of all the highs and lows, days of sunshine, rain and snow, the greatest joy during my 25 years of being a very proud professional river guide has easily been my days and nights spent on the water and within the flow, my son, Tristan, and my supportive wife, Hadley, along whenever possible. 

So, if all of this sounds appealing, load up your car, truck or van and “head West, young lad,” to spend your “Summers with Barney.”