OUTDOOR EXPLORER: How to Become an Upper Gauley Raft Guide

By Kirby Simeon, Outdoor Explorer

When people come to southern West Virginia to raft the famous Upper Gauley River, one of the most common questions they ask their guide is “How did you get into this career?” The answer is a little different for every guide, but some common themes brought them here and keep them coming back.

The Gauley River is a special place for those who have what it takes to guide it. Some have spent two or three decades making a pilgrimage to the Summersville Dam every September, taking on the challenge and excitement of the river with their crew, culminating in Sweets Falls.

Others have trained, proven themselves and earned the right to call themselves an Upper Gauley raft guide for the first time. What does this job entail? What skills allow a guide to earn this coveted title? How do you know you will be in good hands when you come to West Virginia to raft the Upper Gauley River?

STEP ONE: Sign on to a licensed outfitter as a basic guide trainee, usually starting on the New River. This is a hands-on internship. Trainees must be over the age of 18, certified in First Aid and CPR, working to become a qualified commercial whitewater raft guide for their potential rafting company employer. The minimum standards are set by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. The Commercial Whitewater Regulations define how commercial whitewater outfitters, guides and trip leaders are to operate. This includes that guide trainees complete a minimum of fifteen training runs on the section of river they will be guiding on, with a certified guide, prior to their familiarization and evaluation runs. This allows guide trainees to gain valuable and crucial experience on the water where they hope to work.

Trainees must learn all aspects of a guide’s responsibilities:

  • understanding river features
  • reading water
  • identifying hazards
  • how to run each and every river section and rapid
  • how to recover from problems
  • how to instruct and manage a guest who falls out of the raft, including which way to swim, and getting them back in the raft

STEP TWO: Once a trainee has demonstrated competency in those skills, they can begin to drive the raft and command a crew of other trainees and guides, while under the supervision of the certified guide. Trainees have to anticipate what they want their crew to be doing, and vocalize it clearly so that all guests understand what to do. Once the other guides believe the trainee is ready, the trainee will get to guide familiarization trips with real guests, under the direct supervision of a certified guide. For trainees who pass the familiarization stage, they will move to an evaluation trip. The evaluation trip requires a trainee to take full control of a commercial group of guests, to navigate the river without losing control of their raft or guests and without the certified guide needing to take control for any reason. If the trainee passes the evaluation trip, their DNR trip log is signed by the certified guide. The trainee is now a guide, although a junior guide, who will go out with groups of other guides and rafts, continuing to advance their skills and gain experience.

But a newly minted guide isn’t quite ready to guide the Upper Gauley yet.

In order to be considered for an evaluation run on the Upper Gauley, a guide must first complete a minimum of 20 commercial trips as a raft guide on the Lower New River or an equivalent rafting section. This allows guides to develop their skills both guiding a raft and working with unique groups of people to navigate Class III and IV rivers, before taking on the Class V whitewater on the Upper Gauley. Gauley River training begins the Thursday before Gauley season to give both seasoned and new guides time to refamiliarize themselves with the river before opening day. For guides who are not yet Upper Gauley guides, this is where the training process starts all over again. Some will achieve that Upper Gauley certification – many will not. For those who do, it is a badge of accomplishment, and they can count themselves among the best in the business.

So, when you hit those first big rapids and suddenly wonder who is guiding your Upper Gauley raft? Remind yourself that these are guides who sought out an adventure-based profession and have earned their place and your trust in them. These tried-and-true guides are highly trained and committed professionals who are there to help you experience the thrills of this famous river. When you arrive to Summersville Dam on a beautiful fall morning, you can be assured that no matter who your guide is, you’re in good hands. Your guide has been guiding for years, is dedicated to taking care of you and providing you with an experience you will never forget.

Come raft the Upper Gauley River this fall and experience it for yourself!

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My name is Kirby Simeon and I have been coming to southern West Virginia to guide on the New River over the past three summers. After graduating from Ohio University with a focus in recreation management, I am faced with my first opportunity to work a full Gauley River season and will be working toward checking out as a guide on the Upper Gauley with West Virginia Adventures. This is a challenge that I am very excited to take on, where I look forward to the continual learning that comes along with being an Upper Gauley raft guide and helping people experience this incredible river.

This post was last updated on March 2, 2022