Forward Paddle: Tales of a Rafting Guide

By Cole Burmester

The midday sun beat down upon our necks. The frigid glacial waters slosh between our wetsuit booties. The tourists smile, but I grimace.

“Forward Paddle!”

I take one last glance back over my shoulder to the safety of the shoreline as we slowly inch our way out into the fast flowing current with the words of my boss ringing in my ears, “if you screw up on that second bend, someone could die”. I had a raft full of slightly overweight unfit tourists and we had just set off to tackle my first solo guided descent through the twisting canyon of the Athabasca River in Jasper, Canada.

White knuckles cling to the front of the raft as the children let out an almighty howl of laughter as the first wave splashes up and over the bow. I can’t help but grin wildly along with them. The jagged rocks jut out of the river waiting for me to make a mistake so that they can tear a titanic sized hole in the rubber walls. We bounce, buck and dance around the first bend. All of a sudden the towering 30 foot canyon wall looms closer and closer as I spin the back of the raft around trying to gain momentum in the correct direction. The silt laden river leaps off the boulders strewn haphazardly in our path blurring my vision.

Rafting in Jasper

Click to Enlarge

“Paddle hard, don’t rest now” I manage to splutter.

The individual grains of rock and sand laid millions of years ago are visible to the naked eye as we skate along an invisible barrier holding us off the canyon walls. The river plunges yet again over a drop and drenches us all. As we straighten up, the walls are a blur as the river picks up speed when the canyon narrows yet again. Suddenly the light streams down from all sides as the canyon walls retreat for the time being. I take this eerie moment of calm to whip the raft around so that we can look back upstream at what we had just conquered. The tourists grin. And I grin right along with them.

Having never even stepped foot onto a white water raft before, let alone guide, I was lucky enough to secure a job with the best white water rafting company in Jasper. I like to think it came down to my good looks and stunning smile, but much more likely it was my passion for all things water based including volunteering as a surf lifeguard back in New Zealand which ultimately gave me the perfect summertime job.

The Athabasca River

click to enlarge

Sure it had its downsides, what job doesn’t, but they were few and far between. Living in the Rockies meant that we enjoyed extreme weather changes. Previous summers have always involved a total switch from bleak winter days to consistent summer evening barbecues. Jasper’s weather tended to be a little different. It could be a beautiful 25 – 30 degrees Celsius one day to literally snowing the next.

Even with the ground, rocks, rafts and guides covered in a fresh dusting of the finest powder it never seemed to dampen the joy our clients received from the simple pleasure of rafting. These were also some of the most memorable trips as we had to really push ourselves to make sure they would return to their bleak lives and tell their friends about that crazy Kiwi rafting guide in the snow.
However, the greatest pleasure always came from being so isolated while on the river. No diesel belching tour buses. No crazy tourists trying to hug wild animals that could kill them if they weren’t too busy chowing down on that tasty green grass. Not even solitary hikers could travel along the stretches we rafted on. The snow-capped peaks plunged from the clouds to the river valley floor. And this vast wilderness was not just home to spectacular scenery.

Black Bear in Jasper

Click to enlarge

Rounding a bend we would float serenely by Elk who would be wading just metres from the raft as they swam or drank from the pristine milky coloured glacially fed river. Wolves and Coyotes would run along the river banks before darting under the cover of the dense forest cover to chase their next morsel. Eagles would hover expertly above us screeching that we were invading on their territory. Although nothing got the heart beating and blood pumping than seeing black bears basking in the sun on the river bank waiting for the heat of the day to subside.

As they say, all good things must come to an end. The weather turned cold, the tourists flocked back to their mundane lives in the cities, and we had to set off on our next adventure.

I now find myself sitting at my current desk, boxed in by the cubicle walls rather than canyon walls, and find myself daydreaming about the sun on my face, that breath of mountain air and the water chilling me to the bone and wonder how I ended up here after having one of the best summers of my life.


About the Author

Cole and Adela

Cole Burmester is one half of “FourJandals”: A down to earth adventurous Kiwi couple who are keen to try anything at least once. Currently travelling and working our way around this tiny world of ours. Check out their website at:

Author: Brendan van Son

Brendan van Son, the Editor-in-Chief at Vagabundo Magazine, is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He is currently exploring West Africa while working on the "It's My Life 365" project. Brendan's work has been featured across the world in both press and on a variety of online productions.

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  1. Hey Cole, Felt like I was there in the raft! Great article and makes me want to go there!

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  2. Wish you could have been there too Mum! Hopefully see you soon here in the UK for some more adventures.

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Forward Paddle: Tales of a Rafting Guide