Santa Fe, NM
The Whitewater Rafting Guide
What it’s like for Anastasia Docherty to make ends meet with seasonal gigs
Finding Anastasia Docherty, a river rafting guide in Santa Fe, NM, seemed like exactly the right thing. Outwardly, Anastasia is the quintessential picture of a relaxed, good-natured outdoorswoman. But it only takes a minute or two to figure out there’s all kinds of modernity to her. She fits the new model of young workers who do a lot of different things to make ends meet — so many different things, in fact, she had to follow up with me to remind me of a few of them, like dog-walking and bartending. Aside from her main gig as a river raft guide and instructor, Anastasia is also taking science classes to add even more capabilities to her array of talents. Oh, and she’s an avid gamer.
In today’s world, you can float downriver on a collection of small jobs. But trying to create a career bigger than the sum of its parts is an upstream battle.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you came to New Mexico?
Anastasia Docherty: I am from Upstate New York and when I finished college, I was just kind of looking for something else to do. I grew up with my grandfather teaching me a little woodworking, just because he needed somebody to help him, so I just looked into woodworking programs in the country, and Santa Fe and Maine kept coming up first, and Maine was geographically the wrong direction. I was trying to get away from snow, and so Santa Fe just kept coming up right after that, so I packed all my stuff up and I moved here.
How did you get into rafting?
I finished the woodworking program, and then through a bunch of people I’d met, I found out about rafting. I had never done it before but I didn’t want to pay for a rafting trip, so I just applied for an intensive, eight-day guide school.
What did you study in school?
Graphic design and communications.
It’s interesting that you have a job that is not super related to what you did in college.
Oh, yeah. Not related at all. Yup, and then at the same time, I was doing that at night, and then I was a credit union teller during the day. I was doing like three jobs at the same time, so I was only saving money. I wasn’t really spending anything, except for food and rent. I had a lot of odd-job graphic design stuff. I was doing a lot of freelancing. I really enjoyed doing it, and I did some fine arts and animation at the same time. I think I was just kind of playing with doing the school thing and figuring it out. I actually illustrate children’s books now, too.
Okay, just list me all the different things you’re doing.
Oh, man. I’ve always been a musician, since I was a toddler. I’ve sung since I was a kid. I was in a metal band in New York for a while. Singing and playing keyboard, playing some keytar. Super fun.
Because of river rafting, I got into the EMS side of things, so a lot of people that are raft guides are EMTs, or there are a few paramedics. After the first summer rafting, I signed up for an EMT class, and then I worked as a snowboarding instructor at the mountain here, Ski Santa Fe, and then did the advanced EMT course, and did this for a few more years.
Then illustrating that book right now. I’ve been doing that for almost four years, four or five years, with a woman from New York that I heard about and somebody just put me in contact with her.
How well do you feel that your interests and skillsets line up with the rafting?
I think the randomness of it really fits in well because I didn’t even know that they had it here. I like the stepping out of my comfort zone so much that it’s become its own kind of comfort zone, stepping out of it. If I’m not doing that, I get a little antsy.
I like all the outdoor stuff.
Okay. Take me through the job. At a high level, what do you do?
Well, we really just want to provide people with the best time possible, so when we get here at 8:00am, we’ll set up lunch, and we’ll usually be doing it together with other guides.
We set up snack and the rafts for everybody, for how many people we know we need. Sometimes they’ll meet here, so we’ll meet with people here before we head up, and just start getting to know them pretty minimally, because we have a lot of time with them throughout the day.
We get to know them through the van ride up, we have a bunch of time in the boat. It’s really neat because you get to be in their living room for a minute. Which is a really bizarre thing. It is very social.
As a guide, are you actually trying to create an experience for people?
Oh, yeah. Definitely trying to create an experience, but I also want to get done what we need to get done, and I don’t want us to stray off too much, so I’m pretty … I’m like … What is it? Like, amicably strict or something like that.
Where, you know, you want them to know that you’re the boss, but you want everyone to have the best time that they can. Having the best time they can is very much included in them listening to directions.
They have to know that it’s a serious thing, and we have a safety talk that we do in the beginning. Which is always pretty fun. Everyone makes it their own thing, and you throw in jokes, and keep people really entertained the whole time. Sometimes I’ll say, “and if anyone has any medical conditions, please let your guide know, whether it’s you stubbed your toe last week, or a broken heart in high school. We want to know about it.”
The cheese is laid on pretty thick the entire trip.
Tell me about the sort of things that affect your business.
The water that we get in the Rio Grande is all from snowfall, so if it didn’t snow the year before, then it’s not gonna be a high river year.
It did not snow at all, which affected us in the winter, too. This past winter, I was on ski patrol, so it didn’t affect me in the way that lessons would have affected me the year before, teaching snowboarding, but that flows right into… literally flows right into…whether we have water or not.
I am big into games. I’m a big gamer, and puzzles and stuff, so I like the technical aspects of low water almost just as much as something else. It’s just totally different to navigate. I’m a fan of the technicality of it. You get much better with guiding when you’re doing low water.
How good are you at your job?
I love my job. I feel like if I didn’t love it, it would be because I maybe wasn’t as good at it.
I love the game. Along with just having the experience, you feel a difference sitting back in the guide seat. Sitting in the back. You feel a difference just hitting the water every year. The first time you go out each year, you can feel that you’re better. It is really interesting seeing the progression and how you get better just in one stroke.
Is there anyone who’s just sort of a legend in this world?
Oh, yeah! Yeah. There’re people that have been doing it for like 30 years. I can definitely notice a difference, because we go on trips for fun with each other, too, in Colorado and different places, and I love being in a boat and watching, and just feeling and paying attention to someone who’s been doing it for like seven years or something. The control that they have with such minimal effort is very impressive.
What’s the key to that?
A lot of it is timing. You end up being able to feel really well what exactly you need to do at that moment. And feeling. You can feel the whole boat. It’s like it becomes part of you. If I tapped a rock somewhere, I could definitely feel exactly where it is.
I could tell if I put in a stroke, maybe it’s fine, but I could tell if I should have done it a second earlier or something. It would have made just enough difference where it would have been smoother a progression.
We know every rock at a certain point. A lot of them are named.
What are some of the things you have to contend with? Things that aren’t the easiest, but you just have to put up?
Stuff, it happens all the time. Any service industry, you’re always working with people, so people are always different, right? You’re always just working with what works for those people, and reading the room.
It’s different if no one can keep a pedal stroke together with each other. Usually, I can get them to stay together, but sometimes you just have a boat that just can’t. They don’t have any rhythm. They can’t pedal together, and you just work with it, and it’s fine. But those are the tough parts.
There’re some days where I’m like sore and tired, and the water, when it’s low, is much more physically taxing, because I’m getting out of the boat and lifting the boat off of rocks, or I’m working much harder to keep us in the line that we need to be in, because we can’t stray from the line.
What is the trajectory? How do you grow within this job?
There are about four of us that our boss super graciously took us to a training in Oregon, and so we all went together in a van, and we did a rafting training to become certified international teachers, to teach that guide school. That was a big boost in the field.
You get paid more every year. Per trip, you probably get $5 more per trip every year or two. Then you want to get extra certifications, so swift water training bumps you up. Any kind of trainings really bump you up, and it’s the same with the skiing industry. Having my EMT, and then my advanced EMT helps a lot.
Then you get tips from people. Tipping’s a big deal.
Take me more into your belief system, and how this lifestyle and what you’re doing here in Santa Fe sort of jibes with that.
Santa Fe is pretty liberal. I really try to pay attention to local politics, just because it affects what I’m doing. I pay a little too much attention.
Lots of immigrants here. I don’t even want to say “legal” or “illegal” immigrants, but there’s a big influx of people to Santa Fe specifically, and I think that’s great. I think we should just help people instead of trying to make everyone’s life harder.
Statewide there’re definitely problems that New Mexico specifically has. Their schools are really bad, and so I think about that a lot, just because it’s just taxpayers’ money being put in weird places, and instead of putting more money into a school that already exists and paying teachers more, they’ll knock it down and build a different school.
People in the boats will ask me sometimes, too, “What is it that you don’t like about Santa Fe?” I can’t really think of much aside from the minimal metal scene, which I can deal with.