Oral History

“How can you tell when your river guide is lying?”

“If their lips are moving….”


We are river guides. We tell stories. Sometimes we tell outrageous stories. Sometimes we embroider those stories.

That is what we do. It is how we pass along hard-won knowledge from generation to generation. Stories illuminate, ingratiate, lend clarification and - even on rare occasions - enlighten. 

And, of course, we tell stories to entertain. We tell them to fill the hours. We tell them around campfires. We tell them over cocktails and beers. 

We tell them in eddies below big rapids as we await our comrades. We tell them in anticipation of an adventure. We tell them immediately following those adventures while the emotions are still sharp and personal, and many years after the emotions of the tale have long since degraded.

Worn, faded and roughed up like the aluminum beer cans in the drag bag after two hundred miles down the mighty, muddy Colorado. (Oh, is that a PBR? Or a Sierra IPA? Bruce Lovejoy’s succinct retort, “Hard saying, not knowing.”)

They might be laced with inaccuracies. Mostly fabricated. Full of hyperbole. But they serve a purpose. Our river stories are the fabric of our community. 

They tell who we are. They tell why we are. They tell how we got here.

Some of them are so shopworn we can tell them in a sort of shorthand. 

“So, how did you come to be here, Kook?” 

“Mind the line, mind the line!” 

“Do you see the bubbles? Where are the fucking bubbles?”

They might be cautionary. They might get you to double over in laughter. Whatever they do - ultimately - they stitch us together. 

Stories speak to why we launch out into the current and settle into our oars for the next great adventure. Why we endure long bus rides, multiple flight connections and cramped, damp quarters. Why we suffer bug bites, dysentery, torrential rains and biblical winds. Why we agonize over menus, go late into a night packing rigs, drive bleary-eyed across state lines to make a launch date on time.

Real river stories feature people. The river plays second fiddle, provides the setting. The river is our foil. The prop. The antagonist. Perhaps the protagonist. The tales of derring-do and hubris and what-not-to-do are meant to please, humor, inform and shape. They all add to the ever growing fabric. 

But to be the best of river stories - they must be people stories. 

Not all river tales are equal. Not all tellers are skillful with the tale. Even so, they all form some portion of the fabric. They are all worthy of being told and added to the montage. 

It can be about the white water, but it does not need to be. It can be a morality tale, but it can also be celebratory, farcical or humorous. It can include carnage but it has to speak to the human aspect.

When you join a river running community, you step into an ever-changing, ever-growing mythos with its long-standing pantheon of characters and their deeds. Yet there is always room for more and every new guide begins collecting and creating stories from their very first day on the job. A river running community, especially a rafting one, is a collective with shared memories, each one building on the next. All falling together, one on top of the other, like Tetris blocks.

It’s just another reason why utilizing a seven-day river trip as a trainee’s introduction to the world of guiding is so important. There is no better means of introducing outsiders to the rich fabric of our dirtbag and wannabe dirtbag existence. They can judge for themselves whether the mythos we carry and share and memorialize is a mythos they can embrace as their own. 

Our stories lay bare our culture. They also enhance it, fortify it and keep it vibrant.

Imagine if our oral history were immortalized in a mural of tiles kilometers in length? Or a quilt the size of a football field? 

Imagine the colors, the panoramic sweep, the incredible cast.

Even though we are now well into the age of non-stop visual documentation, there will always be a place around a campfire, at the pub or in the midst of a city’s most deafening hubbub, for a no-shit-there-I-was tale.