Being not far away from my 61st birthday, I thought my days of rafting customers on the Grade 5 section of the Rangitikei River were over. Recently, that has proved not to be the case.
Winter is always when the older experienced senior guides come out of the woodwork. This winter is no exception. On any given day, between the four of us who generally guide during this period, there can be up to 97 years of river guiding experience. That is quite something.
Over winter, it is also more of a family affair. There is me, father and grandfather, Janey the eldest daughter, Tom her husband, and long-time friend and fellow river guide Paul Eames. PaulE, as we know him, operates his own company in Mangaweka over the summer but gets up on the Grade 5 section in winter. Talking about family, on occasion, Max Sage, the junior of the bunch and my nephew, Janey’s cousin, is also on the river.
I always had this idea that I would be finished with river guiding, especially on the Grade 5 section, by the time I was 55 years old. Circumstances and probably a reluctance to really let it go have proven this not to be the case.
However, I am sure there does come a time, just not sure when that is.
As I write this, it is almost mid-May. A storm went through last night that has cooled temperatures and put some much-needed moisture on to surrounding farmland. The river has also had a top up. In fact, due to high flows, at this stage, it is unlikely we will be rafting tomorrow.
Other than a couple of other short-lived top-ups, we have had an extended period of unseasonal lower, almost summer-like flows, right through Autumn. These lower flows have been coupled with warmer temperatures and more settled weather than normal. Personally, and I would have to add what I observe from the majority of customers in this statement, I find lower flows are a huge amount of fun. Why?
The Rangitikei River at any level is challenging. However, what I like at lower flows are a couple of things. First of all, the rapids are very technical. What being technical means is that there is a lot to do for both guide and crew. Much of the manoeuvring needs to be very precise, with the crew involved in both paddling and shifting their weight around the raft.
The second thing I like about low water is that the consequences of getting it wrong are seldom so full on. If a raft flips, the current is a lot slower, meaning that people seldom go far, and as long as they keep their feet up are unlikely to encounter any harm. We also experience more minor wraps and swamps of the rafts, but for customers, these are often highlights of the trip!
Rafting at these flows has suited me just fine.
So, What Happens as You Get Older?
What I have found is that age does not affect my ability to guide the raft. I am still strong enough and coordinated enough to, in general, put the raft where it needs to be. However, it is when something does not go to plan at higher water that age certainly catches up.
It is a reality of life that as you age the mind may still be willing, but the body is not always up to the challenge. I cannot get on an overturned raft as quick as I once could, nor can I swim rapids with the same equanimity and composure as I once could.
Where to From Here?
I could say this will be my last season, at least on the Grade 5 section, but that might be making a rash statement. The Rangitikei River and I now have such a long relationship, going back over 40 years since my first trip and 33 years since I started guiding, that I am unlikely to ever truly finish our association.
So, what does that mean?
Expect me to still guide now and then at lower flowers, and probably be in a safety boat at higher flows. All the while both enjoying these special times on the water, but also wondering whether I should really still be there.
And no doubt, I will still talk about retirement.