5 Things River Guiding Taught Me about Social Entrepreneurship

Jul 09, 2014



While I didn’t realize it at the time, my river guiding career as a young man on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River wasn’t all about whitewater rapids, adrenaline and wildlife. It provided me with all the lessons I needed for a career as a social entrepreneur in the field of social corporate responsibility. 


Social networking around the campfire

1. Hard work

Boring alert. You can’t escape hard work in this world.

It’s a romanticized profession, but bottom line—river guiding is a ton of hard work. Just like being a social entrepreneur, which is suddenly sexy, but hard work, too.

As a river guide, I got up at 6 a.m. (or earlier) without fail to start the campfire and coffee. Then a full day of physical work ensued: cooking and cleaning (repeat three times), rowing, hauling, regaling. With nary a break. Our earliest days ended around 10 p.m. at night, sometimes later, depending on how low the water was, how hard the upstream winds were blowing, or how smoothly the campfire stories and whiskey were flowing. But you always rolled out of your sleeping bag the next morning to do it all again, and in low water you’re doing this 24/7—no days off.

Sure, working smarter is the mantra (and it does have its place), but the world isn’t going to give you anything for free and what you often make of it comes purely from long, hard work of rowing against the wind, accumulated over time. Kind of like the business world.

2. Stakeholder (Customer) Service

As a river guide, you and your five mates—we had a crew of six guides—report to 24 investors (guests) at a time on the six-day long trips. These guests are stakeholders in the trip, having each purchased 1/24th a share in an exciting wilderness vacation. They are looking for a great experience and, in many instances, are completely outside their known elements, which can occasionally make them insecure and a little testy or demanding. It’s your job to make certain their expectations are managed and/or met, that they get the return on investment they expected, and that they return home safely at trip’s end. These are all invaluable business skills.

Pistol Creek

Hubris at Pistol Creek Rapids

3. Pivot

Ah, the art of the pivot. In startup land, this can be defined as using market data or response to swiftly course-correct. I learned how to do this as a river guide nearly every day. You enter a rapids with an intended course—a “shot” you’re going to take through the obstacle course filled with waves, rocks, and suck holes. The natural world, like a marketplace, sometimes intercedes—you bump a boulder or miss a critical oar stroke and suddenly you’re on a new path. Not so strategic, but demanding the same characteristics—the ability to quickly alter trajectory and make the best of a given situation. Sometimes, you even discover a better route. Yup, I did that plenty out on the Middle Fork. 

4. Teamwork

Just like in a traditional workplace, you have co-workers out on the river. In this case, it’s your team of guides.

This is where working both smart—and hard—come into play.

Working smart means not hoisting a heavy cooler and carrying it up a steep riverbank all by yourself. That’s a short-term solution and a long-term injury in the making.

An instance where I wasn’t working smart came at Pistol Creek Rapids one fine day. Instead of waiting for the rest of the guides to come and help me get a cargo boat unstuck, I decided to get it off the rock myself and save the embarrassment of everyone seeing me in this predicament. The world taught me a world-class lesson about hubris that day, as I made a bad situation worse and ended up flipping the cargo boat and blocking the entire river, as you can see in the now-historical photo accompanying this post.

River guiding also calls for recognizing and applying the individual roles and skills of each team member and using them to create a better “whole.” One guide might be exceptionally good at teaching fly-fishing. Another might have musical skills around the campfire or a background in natural science or history. If you can knit these unique talents to maximize the group’s overall benefit, you score—and ultimately you lose if you try to make everyone something they aren’t.

And about that teamwork—guides are generally unforgiving of slackers and can apply the peer pressure of a wolf pack. Special talents aside, no one is exempt from packing up or emptying the Groover (porta potty).

River Guides

That's me second from right, circa 1980

5. Social Responsibility

Social responsibility and river guiding go hand in hand, as being a steward of the land, water and wildlife is every river guide’s job. I had the good fortune of working in the 2.2-million-acre Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness. This is one of the world’s truly special places, which was created by Congress in 1980. This work ingrained in me the value of conservation ethics—which are crucial in corporate social responsibility. It also gave me a sense of purpose by providing the opportunity to educate and demonstrate these values each week to a new group of 24 stakeholders. 

Dad Daughter Middle Fork

Daughter Kate continues the river guiding tradition

It All Adds Up Downstream

Now don’t get me wrong—this work was a lot of fun. And don’t get me started—I could easily get off track telling story after story, many of which have absolutely no bearing on corporate social responsibility, but would leave you laughing or shaking your head. I just never thought of it beyond the moment I was in. The point is—we are like canyons shaped by the flow of water throughout our lives, and these currents are found in the ways we move forward in our careers and navigate the cubicles of corporations or the shanty offices of startup social ventures. In my case, my professional path was formed as a river guide a long, long while ago. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

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