Guide Life: Rafting the Roaring Fork River |

Guide Life: Rafting the Roaring Fork River

A day on the river with Elk Mountain Expeditions

Photo Essay by Anna Stonehouse

Who: Tom Wills

What: Raft Guide

Where: Elk Mountain Expeditions

Hometown: Placitas, N.M.

Age: 29

I started rafting when I was 6 years old. I grew up in northern New Mexico, so my local rivers were the Rio Grande and the Chama as well as the Animas up in Durango and the San Juan in Pagosa Springs. So, southern Colorado and northern New Mexico are where I grew up on the water.

I had quit for about seven years before I moved to this valley. I was visiting a lifelong friend, who I grew up rafting and skiing with, for a couple days. We went on a fly-fishing trip and I said if I caught a fish that day, I’d stay in the valley. That’s how I ended up here.

I had no intention of sticking around. Then I got a job snowmobile guiding at T-Lazy-7 Ranch and I had a friend who was guiding with Elk Mountain Expeditions in Durango and we started working for them in the summer.

From there I was lucky to start safety-kayaking down the Slaughterhouse section of the Roaring Fork in my first year. I slowly worked my way up from there to start raft-guiding on class 4 and 5 sections of the Roaring Fork and the Arkansas.

My favorite aspect of guiding is showing people the thing I love to do most, taking people out and giving them an experience they’ve probably never had before. It’s unique. Not a lot of people who come visit Aspen have been rafting before. And when you get them into something that pushes their limits, they seem to really enjoy that and find a new respect for the river. It’s also about educating people about water and flows and what they can actually expect from the power of water.

To be a good raft guide, first and foremost, you have to be personable and you have to be able to deal well under pressure. Things can go wrong very quickly. It’s not about whether you run lines perfectly every time — what we want to see is, if you end up in a bad situation, how you can manage that. So, it’s personality mixed with having a good head on your shoulders and keeping calm and cool in serious scenarios.

People might not know that all the rafting companies pitch in to chainsaw wood in the river. We want to get it out for our sake and for a community service. One of the more dangerous things we deal with is wood, so we’re cutting out trees and “strainers” and it involves ropes and pulleys to get pieces out, as well as chain-sawing in a strong current. It can be dangerous, but it’s satisfying once you get that wood out and you know you are making the river a little bit safer for everyone.

This early season, water has been gradually growing and in the last two weeks really we’ve been starting runoff. The river had been bumping up about 100 cfs everyday. But it’s only going to get bigger. I expect this to be one of the bigger years in the last 10. I’ve been in the valley for five years now and this will be the biggest runoff I’ve seen.

— As told to Andrew Travers

Aspen Times Weekly

This week in Aspen history

“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.

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