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For White-Water Guides, The Thrill Is Never Gone
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For White-Water Guides, The Thrill Is Never Gone

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For White-Water Guides, The Thrill Is Never Gone
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The white-water on the Colorado River is about as spectacular as the Grand Canyon scenery that it runs through. For hundreds of professional river guides, the year is divided into two parts, when it's rafting season and when it's not. As part of NPR's local news initiative, Gillian Ferris Kohl of Arizona Public Radio reports.

GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL: The Colorado River has one the longest runs of white-water in the world. Hundreds of miles of river with enormous rapids that can shift in intensity from day to day and even hour to hour.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

KOHL: For most of the thousands of people who raft through this rapids, it's a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Mr. MICHAEL WHALEN (Guide, Colorado River): Take your stuff and put it into that bag.

KOHL: Guide Michael Whalen is on the riverbank getting his passengers ready. He's stowing their gear in waterproof bags and preparing them for the unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous territory they'll be navigating.

Mr. WHALEN: If you're scared, they're going to be scared. And so you have to project this image, like, OK, this is fun. You're going to be a totally changed person by the time you finish this trip.

KOHL: Like other guides, Whalen is trained in boat operations, wilderness first aid, and white-water rescue. He can fix anything that breaks and cook three meals a day, often in sweltering heat or violent monsoon storms.

Mr. WHALEN: It is one of the coolest jobs I've ever been able to do. You're away from all the outside influence. You don't have any of that, cell phones. You're not plugged in anywhere. It's just exciting as heck to be able to do this.

Ms. EMILY PERRY (Guide, Colorado River): It's just so beautiful, the way the light plays on the canyon, and something about the running water, the way it sounds and changes. I think that's what draws me back.

KOHL: Guide Emily Perry followed her father into the business.

Ms. PERRY: You know, I remember lying in bed and listening to him in the living room with his friends telling river stories. And he always told my sister and I, he'd take us for the first time when we were seven years old. I remember when I was seven, he asked if I was ready, and I said, no, Dad, I'm not ready for Crystal Rapid. And he's going, how the heck does she know about Crystal? It was just from lying in bed and listening to all these stories going on in the living room.

KOHL: Now Emily and her husband Scott both work full time on the river, guiding tourists during the summer, and federal researchers the rest of the year. The newlyweds are making dinner in their cozy kitchen in Flagstaff, Arizona, the first meal they've had together in six weeks. They love their work, but they aren't sure how long they can keep it up.

Ms. PERRY: He was just adding up his days on the water.

Mr. SCOTT PERRY (Guide, Colorado River): It's like 160 it'll be this year, I guess.

Ms. PERRY: Scott is definitely, he calls himself a career boatman and a lifer. But I want kids someday...

Mr. PERRY: I see that far down the road, I don't know. That could always change.

Ms. PERRY: And I don't need him to quit, but I always think, when we have a family, if he'd cut back.

KOHL: About a mile downstream from where passengers launch on their trips is the Paria Riffle, a muddy tributary of the Colorado. Scott Perry's uncle, Brian Dierker, is also a river guide. He pulls his boat to shore and lights a hand-rolled cigarette, careful not to burn his handlebar mustache.

Mr. BRIAN DIERKER (Guide, Colorado River): Everybody pretty much has gotten into this business because of their love for the canyon and the river, and this is home.

KOHL: Brian Dierker has been working on the Colorado for almost 40 years. But the kind of job security he and the Perrys have is rare. River work is usually seasonal from May through September. Some guides work as teachers or ski instructors the rest of the year, others live on savings or unemployment.

Mr. DIERKER: I worry a little bit about some guys that are really being held hostage by the job in a way. Since it is a seasonal business, making a living elsewhere is a priority for people. But sometimes it's not, and the off-season boatman, sometimes he just waits for that next season to roll around.

KOHL: And those months of waiting can be filled with melancholy for some. Once a year, Grand Canyon river guides hold a get-together in Flagstaff where many of the river companies are based.

(Soundbite of music)

KOHL: They raise money for scholarships, health services for boatmen, and counseling for depression and substance abuse. One of the organizers, Bob Grusy, says coming home to bills and traffic is tough after months of living on adrenalin and sunshine.

Mr. BOB GRUSY (Organizer, Grand Canyon River Guides Get-Together): I would go back to our family farm in Illinois and help with the harvest. And during lunch one day, I was just staring out at the back door, and my mother looked at me and said, where do you go when you get that stare on your face? And I try to explain to her, Mom, I just spent the summer taking people hiking, showing off the Grand Canyon, saving people's lives. And now, I'm just sitting here.

KOHL: The end of the Colorado River season is just a few weeks away. Guides are getting ready for the long hiatus from fall until spring. But they have a saying, the next trip is just downstream. For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl in Flagstaff.

(Soundbite of river guide performing song)

Mr. BOB PARKER (Former River Guide): (Singing) One night while I was guiding...

MONTAGNE: That's former river guide, Bob Parker, performing. Our story was produced by Arizona Public radio with NPR's local news initiative. There's video of some of Colorado's biggest rapids on our Web site, npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of river guide performing song)

Mr. PARKER: (Singing) Why do you roll for short pay? You ain't getting nowhere, and you're losing your share. Oh, you must've gone crazy out there. And I said you've never seen the Northern Lights...

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