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Western’s “Colorado University”: An Education on the River

Many boatmen and women begin raft guiding during summer months as a means to put themselves through college. Interestingly, in the midst of attending what I thought was the greatest learning institution (university), I’ve decided that I have learned significantly more while floating down the Colorado River than I have ever learned in a classroom.

I believe this is due to the fact that as guides, we collectively learn significantly more from our respective guests than they ever do from us. Each trip features 28 new life stories with unique advice and experience to draw from. I’ve learned about jobs I never knew existed, a million pieces of marital advice, and how to be the happiest me from over 1,000 different perspectives. There are individuals and couples from every walk of life and every age group imparting their best advice. Although it’s a tall task, I’ll try to share a few of the gems that I’ve taken away.

1) Don’t focus too much on your career. A common thread from almost every guest is “I should have taken this trip sooner,” the happiest people I meet have taken this trip, and many other trips already throughout their life. Don’t wait until you are retired to play. I continually reiterate this to myself heading into my 7th season guiding.

2) Family is the most important. We all have that relative that we can’t stand but I think the happiest people on every trip are the ones that came with close friends or family. If you don’t come with any family, don’t waste any time joining the Western family. We’ve been told we are an adequate substitute and you won’t have to invite us to Thanksgiving when it’s all over.

3) Learn to let go. Whether you have just lost a favorite hat to House Rock Rapid, left the extra camera battery in the hotel room, or worse you are gripped with being disconnected from the craziness of our century, the most successful rafters and individuals have an uncanny ability to let go and relax. Watching 1000’s of people let go and drift into a week of bliss has taught me not to stress the little things at home, and I am much happier as a result. Don’t wait until you come rafting to let go a little.

4) Don’t let your career dictate who you are. I love spending time with guests all week, frolicking in side streams, and screaming through rapids only to find out at the end my new friend is a bigwig lawyer. It’s far better to be remembered as a fun having, outgoing and selfless individual rather than be known for what you do to make money. Tying self worth to career success doesn’t seem to enhance anyone’s’ happiness from my observance.

5) Listening is far more helpful than giving a speech. As a new guide I expected to spend most of my time on a boat imparting information about the canyon to new guests. After 6+ seasons experience I think I actually spend 80% of my time on the boats listening to people’s stories. Everyone wants to be listened too. In the “real world” folks often go unheard from all the distractions. The best gift you can give anyone is your undivided attention and in the meantime, you might just learn a thing or two.

Sam Hansen

Sam is an Idaho native who fell in love with desert redrock, guiding there the last 6 years while pursuing a degree in physics - and starting a ski guiding business in West Yellowstone.

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