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Confessions of a Former White-Water Rafting Guide

By Maya Stanton
January 12, 2022
Raft on white water on a sunny day
Courtesy Adventures on the Gorge
Everything you've always wanted to ask a professional rafting guide.

PJ Stevenson, white-water rafting guide turned director of marketing for West Virginia's Adventures on the Gorge, has spent nearly a quarter-century in the industry, and she's seen it all, from bachelor-party hijinx to aquaphobic guests to nonagenarian regulars. Here, she unpacks the best, worst, and most bizarre things she's seen on the job. 

How did you discover you were destined for this line of work?

I came to West Virginia with my mom to go rafting when I was 14. And that was kind of it. I told her when we were leaving to go home that I needed to be a guide when I was old enough. Not that I wanted to, but needed to. When I was 18, I applied for guide training and was accepted. That was 24 years ago, and I’ve never questioned that this was where I was meant to be.

Destiny is a funny thing. I had no intention of working in marketing for a river company. However, there was one fateful day on the river when I hit a rock and broke my leg, which led to light duty work in the office. The following year, I continued to guide but also took on some office responsibilities. After a company merger, I landed in the marketing department, where I’m now the director of marketing. It’s really cool to be able to do this job and still be able to go rafting if I want to! 

What do you love about guiding?

River people (and outdoor folks, in general) are really amazing. There’s a very strong bond among our staff and the community, unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. That, combined with having the river gorge as your office and a stream of vacationers with one goal in mind—fun—makes guiding and being a part of this business very fulfilling. Being there for guests while they experience the crazy adventures we offer here for the first time brings back memories of my first river trip. It makes me appreciate the path I’ve chosen.

My niece will tell you that my job is as a convincer, and that I go to work every day to convince people to come have fun in the Big Nature, as she likes to call it. If that were really an official job description, I’d chose it every time. And I get to wear flip flops to work every day. What’s not to love?

What's the biggest surprise you've experienced? 

I’ve been in the outdoor industry for 25 years, so it’s safe to say not much surprises me anymore! One foggy morning, I get to the dam (where the Upper Gauley begins) to meet my crew for the day. We had a single guest who was afraid of water and decided that he was going to go rafting to cure his fear. He chose to do the toughest section of whitewater we have, not once, but twice in the same day and paid extra for the smallest raft that we have. It was just me and him in the boat, which makes it more challenging. In the middle of Pillow Rock Rapid, a Class V, he fell out and went deep. His life jacket popped him back up and he looked for me with great big eyes and a smile and said, “I think I’m cured!” (I don’t recommend this as a cure, but it sure was fun that day.)

What's the strangest thing you've experienced? What's the funniest? 

Adventures on the Gorge, by its very nature, draws out the fun (and sometimes weird!). Guests come for all kinds of reasons and to celebrate just about anything. It’s not uncommon to see men dressed in embarrassing outfits for bachelor parties or a group of ladies in beaver pelt vests and bikini tops. We used to have a group who would pick a theme for the weekend and dress the part—pirates, Vikings, ninjas, whatever struck their fancy. Each year, it got a little crazier. One of these guys had a prosthetic leg and actually wore different ones that matched the theme.

What's the scariest, or the most intimidating? 

Funny that after 15 years of guiding Class IV-V whitewater, my first tourism grant presentation to a panel of 12 people was one of the most intimidating experiences I’ve had in my career.

I was also one of the first women to R1 the Upper Gauley (meaning navigating a small raft by myself). At the put-in, or starting point, I attempted to start my trip three times before finally pushing off. At the end of each rapid, commercial boats were there hanging out to watch and see what happened next. After each of the big Class V rapids, the crowd grew larger. At the end of the trip was a 14-foot waterfall, with a large calm area where people were gathering to relax. It felt like I was dropping into the Coliseum. I could hear people chanting my name right before the drop, a collective gasp, and then cheers as I sailed right through it.

Who is the most memorable guest you've had? 

We have had a lot of really amazing guests—people who come from all over the world and from all walks of life. As a part of my job, I get to host cocktail parties on Saturday nights for our loyal guests, and each has unique stories and memories about their time spent at Adventures on the Gorge. A few of the folks I most look forward to seeing each year are Alex, a blackjack dealer about to complete his 100th rafting trip; Frank, a 90-plus-year-old gentleman who rafts the Upper Gauley River with his adult kids; and Shawn, who has three tattoos based on our company logo. It’s so much fun to hear what the past year held for them and to meet the new folks that they are bringing into the fold.

What's the most challenging thing about being on the water? 

Guiding has been the least challenging part of my time in the industry. The most challenging part of my job is getting more people to see West Virginia the way I do. It’s an amazing place filled with the friendliest people who are open to sharing their little piece of heaven with anyone who is interested. West Virginia is often a mystery to people, but there are wild and wonderful things you can see and do here.

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