Not so long ago, river rafting guides were perceived as wild and reckless adrenaline junkies.
With the advent of the White-water release plan from the Francis E. Walter Dam in 2005 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the perception and reality of river guides has changed dramatically.
Today, they are still drawn by the thrill of the ride, but in most cases are professional, courteous and trained in everything from first aid and CPR to swift-water rescue.
That's because river rafting has turned into a big business. White-water rafting accounts for, in the estimate of Ken Paley, owner of Whitewater Challengers — an adventure center based in White Haven that runs trips on the Lehigh River and four rivers in upstate New York — more than $11.2 million in economic impact in the Jim Thorpe region in the western Poconos.
Alicia M. Quinn, director of public relations and communications for the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, gave a slightly higher figure for 2012 for water based adventures in the four-county region, saying the impact was $13.85 million based on $60 per person for a day trip.
Some river rafting and kayak guides for the major outfitters that operate in the Lehigh River gorge work part of the year on the river and part of the year at Poconos ski resorts. Some of the guides are professionals in other fields, like Bill Walters, a former high school assistant principal and current director of education who works summers for Jim Thorpe River Adventures.
"We're looking for people who can not only be cool under pressure, but who can do it with a smile on their face," said Jerry McAward, who has owned Jim Thorpe River Adventures for the past six years, and who operates Northeast PA Kayak School. "We want guides who know how to coach people, who can teach people how to paddle, sometimes on the fly."
McAward started his kayak school in 1999, and bought the Jim Thorpe River Adventures business in 2007 — only the second time in 30 years that one of the four outfitters for the Lehigh Gorge had changed ownership. Back then, 48 friends and fellow paddlers came out to help him get started with the rafting and kayaking business. Today, he signs 100 paychecks every two weeks.
"We need people with good people skills, and they have to be physically fit, it doesn't matter what shape or what size," McAward said. "We want them to make an impression on our rafters. We want the people who come here to enjoy themselves and enjoy the river."
That employment and people skills push is one of the reasons the major outfitters that operate in the Lehigh Gorge —Pocono Whitewater Adventure, Jim Thorpe River Adventures, Whitewater Challengers and Whitewater Rafting Adventures — look for guides who can teach, smile and remain calm in the face of novice paddler panic.
The rafting business alone has been on the increase ever since the collaborative — if initially stormy — effort among anglers, the rafting industry and conservationists, along with the know-how of the Army corps of Engineers that operates the Francis E. Walter Dam, came up with the release plan.
While the plan has been tweaked over the course of its short life, it has enhanced the rafting industry with white-water releases varying between 650 and 1,000 cubic feet per second every other weekend beginning on Mother's Day, usually ending in mid-to-late August unless there is enough to continue releases into the fall.
The plan also calls for daily "fisheries" augmentations of no more than 400 cubic feet per second to keep the levels in the river somewhat stable for aquatic life. The release plan has actually reduced the number of 1,000 cfs days pre-plan by almost 50 percent, and the number of 400 cfs days or higher by 28 percent.
What it has done for tourism and the rafting industry is astonishing, according to Doug Fogal of Pocono Whitewater Adventures.
"We started Pocono Whitewater Adventures in the spring of 1977," Fogal said. "We've gone from no water in the summer to plenty of water. The high water used to be so inconsistent that you had to cancel trips if you depended on the natural flow. Now with the way the dam is operating, they save water from the heavier rain months like March and release it in the summertime.
"On what we call a white-water release day in Lehigh Gorge State Park, we can count on water and consistently offer trips and be 95 percent sure they will go off and not be canceled.
"We're doing better than we ever have. Our number of employees has gone up 43 percent. More people are participating on trips and taking advantage of this resource through rafting than in the past."
Safety is a huge concern for guides, McAward said, and the challenge to river guides is to make the trips fun and enjoyable. Trips are operated with guides in several roles: trip leader, assistant trip leader, two or three guides in the middle to make sure everyone is OK, and a sweeper at the back end in case there is trouble.
According to figures compiled by Paley, the rafting industry — exclusive of kayaks and canoes — is responsible for 125,000 rafting guests a year. Coupled with costs for restaurant meals, lodging, gasoline, souvenirs and miscellaneous items that visitors bureaus account for when judging economic impact of events, Paley estimates the rafting industry brings in about $90 per person, or about $11,250,000 annually for businesses that are basically open only from May through August, and perhaps a few weekends in September and October.
McAward said his consent forms indicate about 50 percent of the clientele come from out of state, and that the springtime water levels guaranteed in the summer because of the white-water releases for Class 2 and 3 are the drawing card.
According to the results of a recent economic impact study on the Ocoee River Region by Steve Morse, an economist and associate professor in the University of Tennessee Knoxville and posted on tnvacation.com, the Ocoee River in Tennessee is officially the most visited white-water river in the United States with 229,542 visitors in 2012.
The next most visited white-water rivers, according to the study, are: the Arkansas River in Colorado (208,329), Pigeon River in Tennessee (169,060), Nantahala River in North Carolina (165,906) and Lehigh River (110,422).
It estimates the economic impact of the Ocoee on the region to be $43 million.
The Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau has not done an economic impact study on the industry, but Paley said that adding in private boaters such as canoeists and kayakers could easily raise the impact to more than $30 million per year.
The four rafting outfitters employ about 750 people full- and part-time, and the businesses can see up to 5,000 guests in a single day during a white-water release event. The four outfitters pay about $300,000 in annual fees to the state park system of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for access to the Lehigh River in the gorge.
Fogal said the number of private canoes and kayaks on the river has also increased dramatically.
"I bet 95 percent of those boaters were introduced to the river and the sport from a raft trip," he said.