Between raging whitewater, harsh weather, and the existence of possibly every poisonous critter imaginable, there is no doubt that rivers are a dangerous place. So, naturally, river guides are highly attuned to danger. Most of our job involves mitigating risks on the river, from knowing every rock and wave that might flip our boat, to memorizing practically every patch of poison ivy we might encounter in the long stretches we guide. However, when it comes to current events, politics, or knowing the latest Kardashian drama, we are useless. To a certain extent, being hopelessly out of tune with the rest of society is a natural side effect of being a river guide. Normally, we go days without technology. Our only access to civilization is usually a spotty Satellite phone and the occasional back-country general store, so there is no way we could keep up with current events.
The barrier that the river provides from the rest of society doesn’t bother most guides. In fact, many of us seek out this kind of escape from the constant buzz of depressing news cycles and political turmoil. Many river guides go so far as to pride themselves on being “out of tune” with greater society, and often disregard pressing socioeconomic and political issues as a dramatic nuisance. And, I don’t blame them. Coming back to civilization after a relaxing trip down the river can be overwhelming and disheartening. The second we turn our phones back on we are immediately bombarded with notifications and news-feeds showing all of the hardships and ugliness of the world. Instead of engaging with these issues, we often choose to tune it all out until our next escape to the safe-haven of the river. As a result, one of the biggest dangers that guides face on the river is not one that we can easily see, navigate around, or treat with ointments. Instead it is the danger of an escapist mentality, rampant throughout the guide community, that makes us ignorant and complacent to the important issues affecting our own communities.
That being said, not all river guides seek to ignore the problems of modern civilization. Many guides that I know regularly engage with complex sociopolitical issues through activism and community organizing. However, discussing race, gender, socioeconomics, and politics becomes taboo when we are out on the river. Much of this is due to the fact that river guiding is a customer service job, and, in general, these subjects are taboo in the customer service industry. Many of our clients are drawn to the river for the same reasons we are: to escape the dysfunctional reality of the world. So, in an effort to help them recharge their spirit and soul, we don’t talk about those issues. But, unlike guides, our clients don’t remain out of touch with the world for extended periods of time. By the time they reenter civilization and face all of the complex problems it holds, we are back out on the river, once again reveling in our ignorant bliss.
Something that many guides fail to see is that our ability to easily escape from the world’s problems is a huge privilege. We have the choice not to live with, engage with, or see the hardships of the world everyday. Some people have no option but to struggle with these issues by virtue of their race, gender, or religion. And no, I’m not saying that river guides don’t deal with significant issues in their personal lives at home or even while they are on the river. What I’m saying is, our job makes us out of touch with the institutionalized barriers set up in society that harm minority groups in our communities. This disconnect is amplified by the fact that river recreation is largely a white, middle-class bubble. Many of the guides that I know come from white, middle class backgrounds, and the majority of our clients are white upper-middle class folk. Because there is very little nuance in this demographic, our worldview is rarely challenged by the conversations we have and the people we interact with on a regular basis. And, even if we have conversations about issues like discrimination, people who hold those lived experiences are rarely present and a part of the conversation.
Overall, the reality we live in as guides isn’t reality at all. River guides readily admit this in the language we use. We often refer to the world outside the river as the “real world,” as if river life is disconnected from reality. Although the river and the experiences we have on it aren’t “fake”, they definitely are not a representation of the true state of the world. Instead, the river is an altered reality, where the days are measured by sunlight, where ice and beer are more valuable than money, and where your biggest problem is running out of coffee and toilet paper.
The river is the reality that most people want to live in — an example of perfect paradise, where people live in sweet simplicity with nature. In a fear-filled world where people rarely let their guard down, the river gives people a rare chance to unwind and connect to their surroundings without worry. In this way, escaping to the river has incredible value. It provides a safe sanctuary that allows for a spiritual recharge. Although the river makes us out of touch with the outside world, it allows us to tune in with ourselves and the higher spirit of nature.
The river is a powerful force that can either put us more in touch with the world or distort our reality. When we use it as an opportunity to recharge, then we can come back and face our problems with more grounding in ourselves. However, when we seek out the river as an escape, we live in an egocentric reality where we do not acknowledge problems outside ourselves. Sure, it is easy and comfortable, but being completely ignorant to sociopolitical issues does not make them go away. The truth is, even when we are on the river, these problems directly impact our lives. We have to stop pretending that river life is reality, for when we do we are no better than the jaded politicians and shallow celebrities that we criticize for being out-of-touch with the world. Instead, we should begin to embrace the river as a way to practice peaceful living and kindness, so that we can bring the values of the river back home with us and engage in meaningful change.