The Arkansas Valley’s river rafting guides have had a few days to consider Arkansas Valley Adventure and Colorado River Outfitters Association’s lawsuit against federal labor regulators, filed Dec. 7.
Most were agreed that wages should be increased across the raft guide industry. They held varying degrees of agreement with the arguments put forth by AVA and CROA.
“I would love if like any other job you got paid overtime,” said Atticus Redding.
Redding was critical of the wages offered by the area’s swiftwater touring companies.
“These raises over the years haven’t been with inflation at all. It hasn’t kept up with anything,” he said.
Redding has been a guide in the Upper Arkansas Valley since 2015 and just finished a seventh season guiding.
“When I first started on this river I got paid $22 a trip from Ark River Tours – which is crazy. I don’t know how I survived.”
Guide A had 13 years in the profession, with the past four on the Arkansas River.
“A lot of people think $15 an hour is way too much to pay, but after taxes you’re maybe making $13, and you’re responsible for keeping people alive,” they said. “People who have no business being on whitewater – people who cannot swim, people who cannot speak your language – your job is to show them a good time and keep them alive and safe for about $7 an hour.”
Several of the guides interviewed for this story suggested the simple solution would be raising wages and cost off-sets through price increases.
Opinions varied more on the issue of overtime.
Overnight rafting trips could have a guide on the clock for 24 hours straight or more. And when working 120 straight days is a reality of the job for many, wage increases and overtime bonuses could add up fast for rafting companies.
A 20-year industry veteran who said they chase the water year round, Guide B, gave a different perspective, saying that the money for overnights doesn’t add up under current pay structures in the valley.
“A 24-hour trip – that’s the time with clients not building and tearing down – let’s say you actually get 8 hours (not at your home) of sleep, and you pull it off in 24 hours (which is impossible),” they said. “That’s still $8.80 per hour – way lower than 15 and no overtime.”
Guide B observed that in the given example trip, paying for all the time that a guide is away on a trip with guests, the rate is more like $5 per hour.
“My last job, we got an extra $50 to do an overnight (three times half-day trip pay) but it required 24 hours work instead of three,” said Casey Halstead on the BV Paddlers Facebook group for local guides and paddlers. “(That company’s) overnight business is probably less than 10% of revenue.”
Redding said overnight trips don’t pay another way.
“It’s not worth it because the chance of you losing out on tips is really big. When you do overnights, you’re losing out on potentially four or more tipped trips,” he said. “We do need tips to live because we’re underpaid.”
Like many service industry jobs, raft guides rely heavily on tips.
“Tipping is the only way guides make a reasonable income, but those can be fickle for even the best of guides,” said Avery Potter, a whitewater professional who said she had worked multiple rivers including the Arkansas since 2014.
“Duke (Bradford, AVA owner and plaintiff) also has repeatedly tried to bar guides from talking about tips with guests, some of whom aren’t aware that rafting is a service industry and that guides rely off tips for their livelihood,” Potter said.
Another guide corroborated Potter’s statement about tip requests being discouraged.
“Sometimes we’d get tipped nothing and we were told it was rude to talk about tips from the higher ups,” said Guide C, a guide with 4 years under their belt. “I’m a bartender and have been serving for a long time – it ain’t rude to talk about tips.”
Wages can be enhanced through training certifications, but given base pays near minimum wage, the enhanced wages still don’t amount to much. And the certs can be expensive.
“I personally have spent over $2,000 on certification courses between wilderness first responder and swift water rescue in the last decade,” said Guide A. “Most of these companies do not reimburse you.”
Housing and scheduling were also topics discussed by all the guides.
“Housing?” Guide D laughed. “You live in a tent. Or in your car.”
Guide B said they had spent the better part of two decades living in a van, only recently being able to afford a rugged cabin without electricity or running water.
“Pre-COVID, 3 years ago, we had 80 employees at that camp facility with two toilets,” said Guide B, speaking of one company’s accommodations.
Sites that offered free camping started charging fees for the utilities, said Guide C.
“Camping on the outpost is usually free and every outpost differs. When I was at AVA camping was free. The year after I left they started charging money,” said Guide A. “Some outpost have great spots and some outposts have nothing to offer their guides so the guides live out on public lands.”
Several guides observed that schedules were often uncertain until the last minute. A guide might turn up to help outfit boats but end up without a trip, being paid for an hour of work or not at all. They’re then on call for the next trip.
As a worst-case scenario, a guide might only help prepping for two trips and spend a whole day on call for the company for only a couple hours’ pay. And no matter what, lots of guides’ time at work goes unpaid.
“You were expected to show up at 7 a.m. to help load boats and gear even if your trip didn’t pop. They said it was standby, so you showed up and hoped enough people walked up to get a trip. Otherwise you spent an hour working for free,” said Guide A. “The bus ride is 30-45 minutes to the put in and from the take out. Plus 2-4 hours on the river depending on the water level. Then gear down. I’d usually get two trips a day so from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I made 90 bucks that was taxed.”
“Scheduling is comical compared to any other business I’ve seen or heard of — the fact that sometimes we won’t know what we’re doing the following day, including leaving for a multiple day trip — until 6 or 7 o’clock the night before,” said Guide B.
“The way they schedule is extremely time consuming. There is no other job you can have, and the days can be really exhausting,” said Guide C. “I also remember feeling the pressure to work even when you were sick or hurt because if you missed a day, you’d be worried about being bumped off a tier on the schedule.”
Dustin Ehmen is a BV resident who started guiding in 2013 and has since pared back his industry involvement to part-time.
“I kind of gave up on raft guiding,” he said. “Unless you want to be a dirtbag raft guide your whole life — you don’t get ahead raft guiding.”
He also said that increasing regulations on camping in the area were only making things more difficult for guides.
“Where are we supposed to live and work for no money?”
Buena Vista resident Alex Telthorst said he got his start 25 years ago in the valley as a kayak and raft guide.
“In the past few years I’ve taught, been a rent-a-guide for RMOC (Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center),” he said. “When I went to work for them, I got paid the same amount that I got paid in 2001 when I worked for them. Maybe a little less.
“It’s the right thing to do to pay people a living wage. The vast majority of raft guides are living in their vans or camping illegally,” Telthorst said.
Many of the most experienced and skilled guides suggested the answer is to raise prices to customers, hold guides to higher standards of training and certification, and compensate them as professionals.
“I do love the river and I do love my job, but I also recognize that I’m a professional that deserves to get paid a professional wage,” said Redding.
Guide B said the dedicated, year-round guides often burn out.
“Everybody’s living in tents and out of vans, whatever they can make happen,” they said. “I can’t recommend it to my friends. The situation’s hard. The amount of labor that’s being asked for is ridiculous. The return, the wage offered just isn’t there.”
“A lot of raft companies just want you to be happy that you get the privilege to run the river all summer long and you’ll take the pay that you get because you get to run the river,” said Guide A. “A lot of us decided to make this our career. So we have learned how to budget and live on next to nothing.”
“I know outdoor recreation companies often have a slim bottom line, but I also know that being a raft guide is not the fairytale people like to believe. Days are long, the work is manual labor and people’s safety in a wild and dynamic environment is in guides’ hands,” said Potter. “Rafting is the lowest paid guiding service in the industry.”
Redding said the lack of dedicated professionals was already starting to affect the local industry.
“I saw it this summer on the Ark. No senior guides came back. Swimmers everywhere,” he said.
Not all Colorado raft companies have joined AVA and CROA in the lawsuit or agree with the substance of their case.
“I’m a 20-plus year guide and own a company. The guides are the face of a business. They deserve to be paid and treated fairly,” said Adam Caimi, owner of Monumental Expeditions in Salida.
Almost none of the guides were in support of the lawsuit by AVA and CROA, who were not immediately available for comment on this story.
“I think they should lose,” said Ehmen. “I hope the government wins. You should pay your employees more.”