“Before living here, I hadn’t lived in one place longer than 6 months since I was 17 years old…. settling in one spot means you can accumulate stuff! I have a microwave now! And a smoothie maker!”Sarah Pernick, river guide and co-owner of Adventure Cascades, grew up on a lake in Michigan, constantly playing “on the water, in the water and near the water”. At 18, itching to get out of her parents house, she packed her Dodge Neon and hightailed it to Pennsylvania, where she trained as a river guide for 6 months. “I remember somebody telling me that guiding is a black hole, and that I’d get sucked in, but I didn’t believe them. That was 10 years ago, and I’m still doing the same thing”.
After a NOLS trip and studying recreation at Michigan State, Sarah spent the past ten years guiding and living a seasonal lifestyle in Pennsylvanian, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and many places in between. She recently moved to Bellingham, WA, a town she’d never seen, to start her raft guiding company (Adventure Cascades) with her brother. I had coffee with Sarah just before she left for vacation on the Grand Canyon to chat about river guiding, life as a female entrepreneur, and settling down.
What was it like making a permanent move to a place you’d never seen?
Kind of wild, especially without seeing the rivers first! It was a pretty big move and it’s been a definite change from my seasonal, here-and-there lifestyle. I was intimidated about being settled, but it’s actually been awesome. Before living here, I hadn’t lived in one place longer than 6 months since I was 17 years old. I really thought I would get itchy feet, but I’ve been here for a year, and I am totally floored by the fact that I’m not wanting to move all the time. I’m so stoked on it.
What makes you stoked?
The Northwest is such an incredible place. I can do everything I want to do pretty much year round. It’s also cool to have friends beyond a single season. When you’re traveling all the time you’re missing your winter buddies in the summer, and you’re missing your summer buddies in the winter. And settling in one spot means you can accumulate stuff! I have a microwave now! And a smoothie maker! And my driver’s license, my plates, and my car insurance are all from the same state, which is crazy! It’s cool, I’m enjoying it.
You started your guiding company with your brother. How’s it going?
It’s great. Because we’re brother and sister, we’re really quick to resolve issues. If there’s an issue, we air it. It’s a funny dynamic being the little sister- if we can’t resolve something, it tends to default to him- he’s still my big brother. But we’ve worked through that, and it’s been really cool and a good evolution for our relationship. It’s fun- he’s my best friend. On the water, we’ve always had a really good connection with safety and comfort. It’s incredible to look behind me and see my brother on the river. It’s comforting- he’s definitely my favorite person to boat with. There is zero ego, we’re totally aware of each other’s foibles.
Would you say that river guiding is a male-dominated world?
It’s definitely a boy’s club for sure.
What it is like working as a female guide?
It has evolved for me. When I started boating, the community was awesome, but there was a lot of ego, and very few female guides. A couple times, I found myself scared to the point that it probably wasn’t good- mostly during private boating, but occasionally on trips with clients as well. Nothing ever went wrong, but I think there was a push to quickly jump in over your head because of the amount of ego involved. When I moved to Idaho, my team included more women, and I definitely learned a new style. We took time to voice our concerns and found ways to mitigate them. Up front, there was a lot more communication, and it was just different all the way down to the way we ran the rivers. I started out learning this big strong dude way, but boating with the women in Idaho I learned a style involving more finesse and less brute strength.
How did that style help you personally evolve?
I take my time more, and I’m not afraid to voice my concerns. I’m aware of what it feels like to be over my head and I’m able to step back and evaluate. Often, a bit of fear is part of the game, but I’m better able to recognize when fear is good and when it isn’t. I’ve also enjoyed imparting my knowledge of finesse boating to younger guides.
Now that you’ve got your style dialed, what kind of experience do you want your clients to have?
(laughs) First of all, I want them to have fun! And secondarily, I want there to be a certain awareness of stewardship. As people that facilitate adventures in the outdoors, I feel like it’s our responsibility to make that part of the experience, to give people resources or whet their appetite to find ways to live more responsibly. And I want them to feel satisfied, like their money was well spent, like they had a great experience, and the result was what they wanted.
What’s it like having a river as a co-worker?
The best and worst parts might actually be the same thing. The fact that it’s uncontrolled and uncontrollable- that feeling is so fun. It’s so cool to be at the mercy of this powerful element that’s just doing it’s thing and you get to be a part of it. You never know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to change throughout the day. That’s the best part, but it’s the worst part too! You can’t count on having water in August, or good weather in June. There are a million variables that you would like to control, especially as a business owner, and you simply don’t have that luxury with the river.
Has working with that variability changed you?
It’s going to sound cheesy, but it’s that go-with-the-flow thing. I think I can keep my stress level pretty low as a result of dealing with this unruly co-worker for nearly a decade. I’ve learned that there’s always another option. If we can’t run this river, we’ll run another. I’ve learned to not sweat the small stuff, and how to evaluate risk. I can slow down, step back, and take time to really look at what’s going on. I’ve learned not to push things- if it’s not right, it’s not right. The river makes that 100% clear.
How are the rivers here different from other rivers that you’ve run in Idaho and Pennsylvania?
Well, they’re undammed (except for the Skagit), so that gives them an element of unruliness- they’re really playful. And they’re technical- one day you’ll have this huge swollen river, and the next you’ll float this tiny little creek. They kind of have a mind of their own. And they’re dramatic- huge giant trees, salmon swimming under your boat, and bald eagles eating beavers on the side of the river. The scale is just huge, it really is the Great Northwest.
Why do you call it “floating”?
When I started out, I was all about whitewater, because it was rad. But now, it’s more about just being on the river. I like that you’re on river time. You can put your watch away, because if you’re late, you’re just going to be late, and if its too fast, it’s just going to be too fast. There’s no way to mitigate river time. You’re just out there enjoying this amazing natural element. As soon as you push off shore you’re just there. In the moment. You’re floating.
What’s it like combining your passion in life with your job?
I think that it’s easy to lose your passion when it becomes your livelihood. To that end, we spend a lot of time on the river for fun, which is operationally very important to us. We want to hang out on the river and enjoy it when we can. Right now we’re packing for a month long river trip to the Grand Canyon and we’re planning our personal fall trips. Because if we don’t go out for fun, we can get burned out.
You’re running the Grand Canyon with your family for fun. What are you thinking about on a big trip like that?
Primarily, we’re nervous about not having enough beer. (laughs) No, seriously, the possibility of forgetting an essential piece of gear is a little scary. For example, can you imagine if you forgot a can opener? Going a month on a river without a can opener? You’d be so hosed.
The whitewater is really big on that run, but that’s not why I’m excited. I’m excited for the side hikes and hanging out at camp and just being with my family. I always have a bit of a pit in my stomach running big whitewater, but I’m most excited about the fact that we get to play for 24 days in the most beautiful place ever.
You obviously love what you do.
It’s fairly selfish of me. I get to go boating all the time! And I get to hang out with people when they’re on vacation- I have a good time with them and they pay me- it’s crazy! I love it. Passion has definitely been important in my career as a guide and now as a business owner. Our business is passionate, and that’s why it’s going to work. That’s why we do what we do, and that’s why people want to come with us. Passionate is the main word I’d use to describe us. That’s why we make sure we take trips just for fun. And that’s why 10 years later; I’m still swirling around in this black hole.
Story by Nikki Platte Nieves, freelance writer and outdoorswoman based in Bellingham, WA. So excited to be working with her on some Women Through The Lens pieces! Check out her blog: http://www.siemprenieve.com/
Photography by Freya Fennwood http://fennwoodphotography.
For more information about Sarah’s raft guiding business, visit the Adventure Cascades website: http://www.adventurecascades.