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Guide Talk: The MOST Unlikely Guide

Guide Talk: The Most Unlikely Guide

by  Julie, former DVK Guide

At age 23 I was oblivious to the fact that working as a river guide was even a thing people did, so becoming one never crossed my mind. If asked about recreational water sources, my response would’ve been “rivers were okay, but I grew up near the coast and never wanted to be too far from the ocean”. Yet, to my great surprise and the surprise of many other people, by my 24th birthday I was in training to be a whitewater rafting guide.

My path to becoming a river guide began when a few perfectly aligned events mysteriously worked to bring me closer to the river. Post-college life brought me from Boston to Boulder, Colorado in the Spring to sublet an apartment from a friend. She was headed off to be a seasonal river guide for Bill Dvorak at DVK. A what? Who? For how long? I truly had no idea what she was talking about, but yay for her! When the Fourth of July weekend rolled around, I headed off to see my bestie-turned-river-guide for a few days. The trip was more to catch up with her than anything else and I gave little-to-no thought about being on the river myself.

It was early evening when I drove up the long driveway to the home of Bill and Jaci Dvorak, which is where their family, as well as their family of guides, lived, outfitted, and organized their entire whitewater rafting and kayaking expedition operation.  Set in a beautiful valley by the Arkansas River, and nestled at the foot of the Collegiate peaks was this vibrant, energetic, and busy hub. The yard was full of rafts and vehicles, there were guides all over the place carrying gear to and fro, and it seemed as if everyone was laughing.  It was like a long lost secret happy place that I’d never heard about. Jaci and Bill’s house was attached to the bunkhouse, guide kitchen, gear room, logistics room, and their own living room was quite obviously everyone’s living room. There was a pool house off to the side, and the field in front of the barn out back was dotted with tents. It was clear their home and their entire lives were open to all.

The next day my friend guided me through a series of rapids on the Arkansas River with names like Canyon Doors, Zoom Flume, Seven Steps, and Big Drop. I! LOVED! EVERY! SECOND! How was it possible I knew nothing about this sport or this way of life? Why had no one told me there were such beautiful places in the world and good people who worked outside playing everyday?

The second day I was lucky to be included on a special paddle of the Royal Gorge. The trip would be with guides and a Denver news crew filming an outdoor recreational segment featuring Dvorak Expeditions.  The stretch we paddled was on a section of river described to me the night before as big water adrenaline. I don’t recall being nervous about any of it because, I had no real reference for what this meant.

At the end of the Royal Gorge trip, the cameraman from the Denver news crew turned his camera on me, still filming. I looked straight into the lens, with a brand new light shining from my eyes, and with zero hesitation said “I WANT TO DO THIS FOR MY JOB!!!!”

That’s exactly how fast it happened. In an instant everything changed. When the river called my name with such insistence, I simply couldn’t ignore it. To this day, this perfect life-changing moment remains the benchmark for all my intuition-based decisions, and amazingly, it was recorded in history for all to see. River magic did for me what I could not do for myself and I am profoundly grateful.

The river continued to call out to me through the following Spring. Earnestly bright eyed and completely, blindly, blissfully unaware of what I was about to do – I arrived for training at DVK.


When I say I was completely out of my element when I signed up for guide training at DVK, it is no exaggeration.  You can ask Bill Dvorak himself and he’d most likely agree. To put this into the proper perspective, I’ll admit to an embarrassing secret. Up until my first night of training, other than a required Girl Scout overnight during elementary school, I had never-not even once – been on a camping trip or slept outside under the stars. My entire whitewater experience was comprised of two short day trips on the Arkansas River in Colorado. That’s it.

Despite my inexperience I had committed myself to endure whatever it would take so I could eat, sleep, breathe, and work on the river. I spent a winter working and saving so I could attend the mandatory multiple week guide training offered by DVK. When spring arrived, I was packed up and headed to training.

If it hadn’t been for a friend who was a river guide helping me with my packing list, I would’ve been sent home upon arrival. My gear included a borrowed pair of too small, well-worn Tevas that looked like Jesus sandals and were held together with duct tape plus some borrowed polypro clothing –  since I didn’t own any “fleecey” stuff. On the way to training I bought a thin Coleman sleeping bag not realizing it still snows in the Colorado mountains in May. I drove in to base with my new “gear”, everything else I owned packed in my little Jetta.

Our training group ranged in age from 18 to mid-50’s, and only 3 of us were women. Most of the other class members were focused on Outdoor Recreational Adrenaline 24/7. A number of them were hoping to secure a job for the season with Bill at DVK. These were people who used climbing rope and beaners (NRS cam straps) for belts, travelled everywhere with kayaks on top of their cars as if a paddle trip might suddenly strike at any time, and sported year-round crisscrossed tan lines on their feet. There were also folks participating in the training simply for their own personal experience, while some people were planning private trips down the Grand and wanted to sharpen their skills. A couple of folks were going to work at other companies far away, and knew it would help their prospects to be certified at DVK’s highly recognized training program .

Thank goodness for blissful ignorance, or I may never have attempted the job that became the greatest adventure of my life. I’m 100% certain I did not impress a single one of these good people with my borrowed gear, thin sleeping bag, and no clue how to put up a tent. Still, even though no one knew my name – they all sang Happy Birthday to me for my 24th before we loaded up to head out to the Rio Chama in New Mexico for the first leg of the training. Someone handed me a Tecate as a present and off we went.

The training I received at DVK was insanely full of information mixing together technical river running, rigging and derigging, customer service relations, problem solving, shuttle car fixing, boat patching, teamwork, leadership, camp cooking lessons, and Swiftwater Rescue Technician Certification – with lots of safety and environmental information mixed into everything. In my particular case, I didn’t to mumble even once “Yeah, I already knew that.” Every minute of every day brought new knowledge and most of the time I felt completely incompetent.

To Bill’s credit, the fact I never hurt anyone during my subsequent years guiding, didn’t lose any gear or destroy a vehicle (with the exception of the box trailer axel on Independence Pass) and was eventually trusted as a Trip Leader speaks way more about his training and how comprehensive the experience was than it does about my natural abilities as a river guide.

Despite the thoroughness of Bill’s guidance and decades of teaching experience, the best lessons came from a never-ending supply of teachable moments. I learned some of these through my own mistakes, but some were learned by watching the experiences of others’.

  • Shut up, listen, and pay attention.
  • Never be the last one up, most importantly if you are on breakfast crew.
  • Don’t be the first one to quit working; if your boss or head boatman is still working then ask if there is anything you’ve missed or can help with before you stop.
  • If you must make a mistake try to do so only once, especially if it’s feeding other people.
  • Everyone has a great voice when singing Charlie Daniels around a snowy campfire if they are full of Jack Daniel’s and dinner is two hours late.
  • Being dry at the end of the day is as good as being warm, but if you have to choose only one then go for dry.
  • The PUT IN is where a river trip starts. The TAKE OUT is where it ends. Do not under any circumstance ever, ever, EVERRRRR mix the two up and ask a group of people where the PUT OUT is. Trust me on this one.
  • Being so tired you’ll go to sleep as soon as the sun sets and being so excited for the next day to begin you get up as soon as you hear the pre-dawn chorus of the birds is a special kind of circadian rhythm.
  • Cooking a turkey upside down makes for a dee-lic-ious meal.
  • Don’t give up, especially when trying to back a vehicle up the driveway with a fully stacked trailer and the entire boathouse, including your boss, has gathered to watch. Ask for direction and keep at it. You’ll get it and everyone will be happy for you when you do.
  • Shooting stars are best viewed outside when laying on an upturned raft.
  • When you are scared keep moving forward.
  • Having a goofy SRT partner who brings you a granola bar for lunch and encourages you through a terrifying (to you) swim is a true and kind friend.
  • What may seem routine to you can be life changing to someone else seeing it for the first time. Try to see through their eyes.
  • Write down somewhere all the beautiful places you get to see; include the hard stuff, the beautiful stuff, the humbling stuff, and the funny stuff. You’ll need to remember these moments later in life when things get difficult.
  • In the future, when you are facing what may seem an impossible challenge or unending grief refer to the above point.
  • Having 10 people over for a fancy dinner is a piece of cake after having to cook for 20 or more on the river when someone left the cooler with D5 at the put in.

The really weird thing is finfding that many of these lessons apply to my life today -years later and miles away from the rivers of southwest Colorado.

Today, I once again live on the coast. Some days I think of my location as impermanent, although I’ve been here for many, many years; like a wonderful place to live until I get back to where I belong. On the horizon is always the urge to head to the river. I’m thinking a private Grand Canyon trip for my 50th birthday would be just the ticket, but I really just want it to be a DVK alum trip. Anyone have a permit for 2019?