Okay so I decided to hit up the US National Whitewater Center’s (USNWC) Raft Guide School. Tough. Exhausting. Challenging. Superbly fun. These are just a few words to describe my recent whitewater experience. This is not a blog about rafting but rather exemplary leadership.  I made my initial decision to attend raft guide school because I wanted to challenge myself to try something new. It was only during guide school did I make the cognitive connection with exemplary leadership and the role of a raft guide. I will get real deep with my theory later.

Admittedly, I toyed between the USNWC and a few other organizations that were offering simultaneous schools. After talking it over with a ton of friends, I decided the USNWC would provide me more bang for the buck. Furthermore, I would get training that encompassed a larger variety of conditions indigenous to whitewater rafting and paddling. Wow, was that an outstanding decision? From the moment I signed up online for the class, I was immediately contacted by the coordinator. She made sure all questions were answered and provided a layout of expectations from students as well as guides. Being a law enforcement veteran, I appreciate order or at least organized chaos. I am glad to say there was no remote sign of organized chaos, just simply smooth transitions throughout the entire process.


Day one orientation consisted of the standard paperwork required for any course one would take. After the paperwork was completed, the guides all introduced themselves and gave a historical lesson on the USNWC. Then the real fun commenced—ice breakers. Silly fun! Later, we took a tour of the grounds and were shown were we would be “living” for the next week.

Days two through six were simply awesome! My paddling friends as well as non-paddling friends all thought I was insane (as most of my friends do) for going through guide school in weather conditions that averaged 40 degrees daily. Mid-week, we had near icy conditions which just so happened to coincide with swimming. I say this as mid-week was set aside for the swiftwater rescue portion of the training. The weather was ironically realistic to what could happen in the event of an unintentional swimmer on any body of water under unpredictable conditions.  We had to swim the entire Wilderness Channel and last big rapid called “Big Drop” in the Comp Channel. As the week went on, a lot of us swam those same rapids unintentionally, but we survived with a heightened since of awareness and safety.

photo by: Debra Jean Goodnight Dandro

 Okay, so where does the leadership play a role in this experience? Leadership for raft guides is more than simply telling someone to take two or three strokes forward. Anyone can sit in the guide seat of a raft and “bark” orders. Being a raft guide is about getting your crew to willingly do what you want without them even being aware of doing it. True leadership is not management of people. It is creating a copasetic layer of trust between the guide and the crew. That trust translates into the crew being actively engaged and taking ownership of their part in creating an enjoyable experience. Thusly, the importance of honing your “trip talk” and “paddle talk” skills is significant because that is the first point of contact the guides have with their crew members.

To support my theory, I turn to my favorite leadership book, The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. The authors state, good leaders should model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart. Chapter two is my absolute favorite as it speaks to modeling the way. The USNWC paddle sports instructors clearly modeled the way in which raft guides should lead their crews. They made us all feel important; thereby, encouraging us to become more vested in the organization as a whole. Since graduation, the instructors have been in touch with all the guide school graduates. They have continued to model the way and assist with honing our skills. They have ALL been willing to offer advice on how to stay safe and have fun while providing the client with a memorable experience. I cannot speak enough about the leadership quality of the US National Whitewater Center. “How leaders spend their time is the single clearest indicator, especially to other people, of what’s important to you” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). It is clear what is important to this special group of individuals!

Paddle on, paddle strong. See yawl on the concrete river!

~Ericka Heath aka SgtRiverRat~

*Special thanks to the US National Whitewater Center

*Extra special thanks to the Paddle Sports Department

*Extra, extra special thanks to my raft guide school cohort, Guide School A: The Storm Troopers

USNWC Raft Guide School A "Storm Troopers"


Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2007). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.