Best Rafting and Water Activities

The Guiding Life in the Grand Canyon

What does it take to be a Grand Canyon boatman? Probably not what you think. Our crew of veteran rafting guides shares their wisdom on one of the best, toughest jobs in the natural world.

River Guide Emma Wharton
Courtesy Emma Wharton

Emma Wharton

Outfitter: Grand Canyon Youth;

Guiding in Grand Canyon since: 1997

Three essential skills for a commercial guide:1) Must have a sense of humor; 2) strong work ethic; and 3) a love of people and the outdoors.

Most intense trip experience: I was on a trip where we encountered a passenger with a different outfitter who fell out of the boat. His foot got trapped against a rock in a rapid. We could not free him and he drowned. I learned a lot about the power of the river.

Outrageous item packed by a passenger: Battery-operated curling iron.

Best part of being a guide: Witnessing the sense of community that develops among people of all ages over the course of a trip. I also love being away from phones and computers.

Worst part: The constant loading and unloading of the boats. Just get me to the river!

Rafting Grand Canyon is unlike anywhere else because: Grand Canyon brings people together and transforms them in a way you just don’t see on other rivers or wilderness destinations.

Number one way Grand Canyon has changed me: Grand Canyon has taught me about priorities and beauty, which I apply to my life every day, even when I’m sitting in an office. I always try to look for beauty in every situation.

Besides guiding: Wharton is executive director of Grand Canyon Youth, a Flagstaff-based nonprofit organization that sponsors Southwest river trips for children of all economic backgrounds. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington with an emphasis on community development.

River Guide Erica Fareio
Courtesy Erica Fareio

Erica Fareio

Outfitter: Arizona River Runners;

Guiding in Grand Canyon since: 1997

Three essential skills for a commercial guide: 1) Be calm and confident in all situations, from running rapids to answering many questions from clients. 2) Be able to create an atmosphere of trust and safety among the group. 3) Be able to put your ego aside and adjust to the needs of the group, whether that is making dinner less spicy or taking a more conservative run through a rapid.

Most intense trip experience: Floating down the river during a heavy summer monsoon storm. Every drainage was flash flooding, and waterfalls were pouring off the tops of cliffs in so many shades of red and brown.

Best part of being a guide: Seeing how transformative a trip through the canyon is for people.

Worst part: It beats up your body. The hard work and rugged environment takes a toll on your joints, back, and skin.

Rafting Grand Canyon is unlike anywhere else because: The length of the trip. When people are on the river for two weeks without any internet or cell phone service, they are really able to connect with nature and their friends and family in a way they had not before.

Number one way Grand Canyon has changed me: It has helped me discover what is most important to me.

Besides guiding: Fareio is a Flagstaff-based artist working in water color and ink. Many of her surreal landscape paintings are inspired by scenes and experiences in Grand Canyon. For more:

River guide, Andre Potohnik
Courtesy Andre Potohnik

Andre Potochnik

Outfitter: Grand Canyon Dories;

Guiding in Grand Canyon since: 1973

Three essential skills for a commercial guide: 1) Gotta like people. You can’t be the silent type when you are living with the same group for 18 days straight. 2) Must have enough sustained physical endurance to heft gear twice a day and row on long, flat stretches of river. 3) Know how to read the river; this is critical with dories, which are more sensitive to river fluctuations. If you screw up and get caught on the rocks, you are not going to keep your job long.

Most intense trip experience: When I first started running Grand Canyon in the early 1970s, no one had any experience, so we had to learn as we went along. On one of those first trips, we had to run Crystal when the river was low and rocks were exposed. I had all my passengers get out and walk around while I paddled through and got pinned against rocks. I had to work so hard to get out. And then I ended up running Bass Rapids in the dark.

Outrageous item packed by a passenger: A group of art dealers from Santa Fe brought 12 cases of fine bottled wine. That was a very fun trip.

Best part of being a guide: Sharing the place I love with new fans. You might think that rafting Grand Canyon is all about the rapids, but what seems to have the most impact on people are the connections formed with other guests on the trip.

Worst part: The modest compensation and the way guiding makes it tough to maintain long-term relationships. It’s like you are married to the river.

Rafting Grand Canyon is unlike anywhere else because: The length of time—about 18 days—that you can travel without seeing any sign of modern civilization. It is a continuous wilderness experience.

Number one way Grand Canyon has changed me: It got me excited about geology and wanting to study the Earth’s history.

Besides guiding: Potochnik has a PhD in geology and teaches classes about Grand Canyon natural history for the Grand Canyon Field Institute.

River Guide Christa Sadler
Courtesy Christa Sadler

Christa Sadler

Outfitter: Grand Canyon Field Institute;

Guiding in Grand Canyon since: 1988

Top three essential skills for a commercial guide: 1) Be a people person. Knowing how to run the river is not nearly as important as people skills. 2) Patience. It’s not all rapids in Grand Canyon; there is a lot of flat water, and you have to deal with chores like toilet duty. 3) Be a team player.

Most intense trip experience: Seeing people completely transform. Over the space of two weeks, I’ve watched clients learn to let go—the lines around their eyes relax, and their face softens as they fall into the rhythm of the canyon.

Outrageous item packed by a passenger: Massage table.

Best part of being a guide: Getting to know Grand Canyon really well. During 25 years of guiding, I have become intimate with 275 miles of river, the shoreline, and the rock layers. It is as familiar to me as my house.

Worst part: When people are not having a good time. It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a client just doesn’t like being in the Grand Canyon and there is nothing I can do about it. That is very hard for me emotionally.

Rafting Grand Canyon is unlike anywhere else because: The length of the trip. Spending 18 days in the wilderness really allows you to sink into the place. And from a geological perspective, it is unique in the way you can experience deep time. From the start of the trip at Lees Ferry, you go deeper and deeper into the history of the Earth.

Number one way Grand Canyon has changed me: It’s made me appreciate life. I am blessed with the best job in the world. And it also has given me compassion and patience for people who are different from me.Besides guiding: Sadler is a writer, educator, and naturalist who has studied fossils in Grand Canyon and the Gobi Desert. Through her company This Earth ( she brings natural sciences curriculum to elementary and high school students. She is also the author of the books Life in Stone, about the fossil history of the Colorado Plateau, and There’s This River: Grand Canyon Boatman Stories (This Earth Press, 2nd ed).

River guide, Dennis Smoldt
Courtesy Dennis Smoldt

Dennis Smoldt

Outfitter: Arizona Raft Adventures;

Guiding in Grand Canyon since: 1999

Three essential skills for a commercial guide: 1) Sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh at yourself and take things in stride.
2) Be patient with people and understand that it may very likely be their first time in Grand Canyon or even camping. 3) Have perseverance in doing a lot of hard work: loading and unloading, watching out for the safety of passengers, whatever tasks are required.

Most intense trip experience: I have been in several evacuations over the years. I had my first boat flip in a Grand Canyon rapid last April. That was pretty intense for a few seconds.

Outrageous item packed by a passenger: A battery-operated toothbrush that kept going off inside the boat during rapids.

Best part of being a guide: Getting to experience Grand Canyon for the first time all over again through someone else’s eyes.

Worst part: Coming home.

Rafting Grand Canyon is unlike anywhere else because: The duration of the trip is long enough that people get a chance to truly unwind. You can see a visible transformation take place in people as their relaxation level increases. With kids, this transformation happens immediately; as soon as they push off from shore.

Number one way Grand Canyon has changed me: I appreciate life more. Grand Canyon has taught me to keep my pace in check, to live more deliberately.

Besides guiding: Smoldt is a manager for Arizona Raft Adventures and oversees the company’s trip logistics and other planning.

River guide Robby Pitagora
Courtesy Robby Pitagora

Robby Pitagora

Outfitter: Rivers & Oceans;

Guiding in Grand Canyon since: 1980

Three essential skills for a commercial guide: 1) You must like people. Otherwise, you are not going to make it. 2) Have a passion for the outdoors. 3) Enjoy sharing a place with other people. You can learn about rowing along the way if you have that passion for people and the place.

Most intense trip experience: I did a trip with a nonprofit foundation where we took members of Native American tribes to their origin place in Grand Canyon. They had never been in the canyon before, but they had this sense about where to stop and get out of the boat and find petroglyphs or ruins. It was very powerful.

Outrageous item packed by a passenger: Once I had this passenger who had been told by her husband that we would be staying at fancy hotels every night. She didn’t like camping, and it was the only way she would join him on the trip. So she packed all these evening clothes and heels and a hair dryer. I discovered this as we were pushing off from Lees Ferry. The woman was shocked to know the truth but was a good sport about it. I doubt that couple is still married.

Best part of being a guide: Getting to live close to the Earth and to rise and fall with the sun and sharing that experience with other people. I am more at peace in Grand Canyon than anywhere else.

Worst part: The hard work of guiding means your body is going to wear out eventually. You have to have a back-up career plan.

Rafting Grand Canyon is unlike anywhere else because: The length of time spent on the river. You travel almost 300 wild miles, and that is unmatched in the United States.

Number one way Grand Canyon has changed me: I’ve become more kind toward others. Being a guide and having to take responsibility for a lot different types of people has given me compassion.

Besides guiding: Manages his own company, Rapid Creek Outfitters, and paddles rivers all over the West. “My buddies and I are always looking to try a new river.”