Is River Rafting Safe for People of all Abilities?


Anyone can go river rafting! Why accessibility is key in any sport.

Being a river guide is more than just hitting big waves, it’s about showing anyone and everyone the joy of being in a raft. With patience and a desire to teach, the sport can be accessible to all ages and abilities.

A little background: I first learned to guide on a class 3/4 river called the Nahatlatch in British Columbia, Canada. The Nahatlatch is a fast-moving, action-packed 22 km stretch of glacier-fed water. I went from knowing almost nothing about reading water to “making lines” in the span of a couple months. The experience gave me the confidence needed to apply for a guide job in Southern Chile once our Northern Hemisphere season ended. The river I would travel to was distinct in that the water chugged along at a slow pace winding through serene farmland and finally ending in a short Class 2 rapid.

Though the physical guiding was much less demanding I learned more about another aspect of the job: nurturing people. Working on an entry-level river I saw all kinds of passengers; from 10- month-old babies to a group of 70-year-old British retirees.

My most memorable day was when I arrived at the reservations office to gather information about a trip the following afternoon and noticed my boss with a tense expression on her face. She told me in quick Chilean Spanish that our company received a phone call from a local hotel who had a quadriplegic guest with a strong desire to raft. “Can you do it?” she asked, her eye brows arching in expectation. I thought about it for half a second before a wave of excitement came over me. I was absolutely delighted at the prospect of making the sport accessible to someone who had never experienced anything like it.


When we arrived for pick-up at the hotel I eagerly awaited my passenger and his family. It turned out the middle-aged man did have good use of his upper body and the re-location from wheel-chair to vehicle, and later to raft, was practically seamless. During the trip we chatted about the area, the river, our lives back home and everything else under the sun. My paraplegic passenger sat comfortably at the bottom of the boat looking around and soaking in the scenery while his family took snapshots and splashed one another between small rapids, twists and turns.We bounded though the last wave train, shouting for joy while high-fiving our paddles. Not once did the topic of disability come up and I left it at that feeling no need to ask what the cause of the paraplegia was. That day was for letting go and forgetting about everything else for a rare moment.

Guiding, whether it be a sport, hobby, art, or way of life can be all the more meaningful when we go out of our way to include others and make the practice as accessible as possible.

Caitlyn O'Brien

Caitlyn is a 26-year-old Canadian with a passion for travel, futbol, and more recently kayaking in her new Patagonian home: Futaleufú. She teaches English at a local school and loves turning her daily experiences into stories.

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