Bonnet and Riggs Spend Summer Working as River Guides in Idaho

Claire Bonnet, left, leads five clients on a whitewater rafting trip.
Claire Bonnet, left, leads five clients on a whitewater rafting trip.

By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications

SALEM, Ore. -- For Claire Bonnet (Sr., G, Boise, ID/Boise HS) and Sami Riggs (Sr., G, La Verne, CA/Bonita HS) from the Willamette University women's basketball team, this summer has been both a job and an adventure as both student-athletes have been working as river guides on separate rivers in Idaho. The summer has provided work as they lead clients on river rafting trips, while their experiences have created adventure through the challenges of whitewater rafting.

Riggs, who also competes on the Willamette women's track and field team, was the first of the two to begin working as a river guide. She was already interested in rafting after receiving experience as a youngster.

"I had grown up rafting with my family and friends and I had always wanted to be a river guide when I was younger," Riggs commented. "The first company I worked for I had known about through family friends, and my sister had worked there about four years prior. I now work for a lodge on the Salmon River and I am helping out a friend of mine start up the rafting operations out of the lodge. In total, I have been commercially guiding for three years."

Her involvement with rowing as she grew up helped Riggs as she advanced into professional guiding.

"Since I grew up boating, I was exposed to it at a young age, so I was able to learn how to read the river and develop skills needed for the job," she said.

Solo rafting photo provided by Sami Riggs
Solo rafting photo provided by Sami Riggs

Riggs' efforts as a river guide helped inspire Bonnet, who also went rafting when she was growing up.

"I work at Cascade Raft & Kayak, which is about 45 minutes outside of Boise, my hometown," Bonnet said. "I guide on the Main Payette River. My dad would take us rafting there all the time as kids, so I've known about the company for a while. I applied the summer after Sami first started working as a raft guide. In a way, she inspired me to apply after hearing all her cool stories."

Photo provided by Sami Riggs showing a group rafting in whitewater
Photo provided by Sami Riggs showing a group rafting in whitewater

River guides lead one or more clients as they ride a raft down the river. The guides provide important safety information as well as making sure the trip is safe through whitewater rapids. Guides can provide interesting stories and jokes along the way, while also fixing food or helping with food preparation. Some of their primary responsibilities include, meeting with clients prior to the trip, preparing gear and loading rafts, and providing key safety rules and procedures.

"When I first started guiding, the training I received was also part of the licensing process that is required by the state of Idaho in order to have a guide license," Riggs said. "The licensing requirement is to run a section of the river six times. The section of the river we trained on was about 70 miles. I did that six days straight. During those six days, I was able to improve my rowing skills and understand how to read the river from the perspective of a guide."

The significant amount of initial training is critical since river guides often lead groups on lengthy trips, through challenging whitewater, in areas that are remote. Staying afloat and remaining in the boat are crucial factors, and it's important to have plenty of food and water while preparing for a variety of weather and other obstacles.

Claire Bonnet, top right, leads six clients on a whitewater rafting trip.
Claire Bonnet, top right, leads six clients on a whitewater rafting trip.

"The lodge I work at is right across from the put-in of the Main Salmon, which is a six-day, rafting and camping trip," Riggs explained. "The closest town is Salmon, Idaho, which is about two hours away. Salmon is about six hours northeast of Boise. I work on the Salmon River which flows into the Snake River. The multi-day trip I run is about 81 miles."

Bonnet had limited rafting experience before she looked into becoming a river guide. Even so, she was motivated to gain knowledge and improve her skills.

"I had only been a passenger on commercial and private rafting trips," Bonnet said. "I came into the job with no guiding experience, but my company has an intensive training process to teach all the new guides everything they need to know. Last year when I was training, I went out on the water twice a day for about two weeks with a guide trainer who taught me the guide strokes, how to read whitewater, and the names of all the rapids. Both this year and last year, all the guides took a swift water training course, where we learned how to swim whitewater, tie useful river knots, rescue someone in a whitewater environment, and set up mechanical advantages."

As a river guide this summer, Bonnet has focused her efforts on the Main Payette River. The company that employs Bonnet also runs trips on the South Fork of the Payette River. It's a demanding, yet rewarding job.

"The biggest challenge for me is dealing with rude or unruly customers," she noted. "We're expected to act professional which can be hard if we're dealing with difficult people."

Most of the time things go smoothly and everyone on the trip is excited, focused, and having fun.

Claire Bonnet, in front row, fourth from the right, and six other people are ready to begin a kayaking trip.
Claire Bonnet, in front row, fourth from the right, is ready to begin a kayaking trip.

"What I enjoy most about raft guiding is being a part of the whitewater community," Bonnet asserted. "It's such a great outlet to meet so many cool people and travel to new places."

Her work has led to Bonnet adding a new type of water travel to her list ... kayaking.

"I've also recently gotten into whitewater kayaking, a new hobby I'm beginning to absolutely love," she said. "We're (Cascade Raft & Kayak) located near Banks, Idaho, which is referred to as the 'Center of the Universe' in the whitewater world. Banks is located at the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork of the Payette River, which join together to create the Main Payette. Each of these sections provides something for every skill level which is why it is such a hub for whitewater enthusiasts all around the world."

For Riggs, working on the Salmon River has its own list of challenges and rewards.

River rafting campsite photo provided by Sami Riggs
River rafting campsite photo provided by Sami Riggs

"The biggest challenges of working on the Main Salmon are the logistics that happen when not on the river," Riggs noted. "There is about a three-day turn-around in between each trip. This means that from the day we take out from one trip, the next trip launches in three days, and it takes about a day and half drive to get back to the lodge. During the drive back, we have to plan for the next trip, which includes shopping and packing all of the food, dumping all trash and cleaning equipment, and resupplying anything else that is needed on the next trip. Once we get to the boat ramp, we have to unload and rig all of our gear and ferry the boats over to the lodge. This part of the job can feel the most hectic because it is a lot of planning in a short amount of time, and it is pretty tiring driving back while also planning the trip."

After completing all of the preparations for each trip, the actual excursion on the Salmon River can be exhilarating and thrilling. According to Riggs, thankful clients make all of the efforts worthwhile.

"I enjoy so many things about being a river guide," she said. "One of my favorite things about being a river guide is seeing the proud and smiling faces of guests after a rapid or a trip that they had previously been afraid of. Many people who come on my trips have never gone on a multi-day camping trip, so it can cause them to be concerned if they will be able to do it. By the end of the trip they are so happy with themselves for stepping out of their comfort zone, and it's the best feeling knowing that I was able to help them through it, and be a part of it. Being able to show people the beautiful environment that we live in and seeing how it can change their lives is second to none."