Rivers saved me and gave me life

David Cernicek | Jackson Hole, Wyoming


Two tickets to a sold out show! A Van Halen one, and I was BIG stuff! I was 13, lean & mean, but I just wasn’t into the good kid soccer scene. I had just joined an explorer post though, and they had to go and mess up my plans by inviting on a trip down a river section called the “Yampa-Green” the same time as the concert. The new group of post guys were cool and camping for a week in boats sounded adventurous, but I had the previous tickets that others didn’t! It was a hard choice between “epic coolness” and “neat-sounding, but possibly dorky scouts-related river stuff.”

I didn’t really like Van Halen. It was about being somebody I wasn’t. Not sure how the choice to go rafting came about, but it was the coldest, wettest, most miserable week of my life to date. I loved every minute of it, including the flu and pinkeye I brought home! The “lord of the flies” organization I joined had two ranks: “greenie” and “boatman.” The boatman’s life was charmed while the greenie endured a life of servitude, up-to-chin sand burial and duct-tape ponytails. All boys covered every aspect of all logistics of river trips while adults drove the bus and constantly turned down the music. For the first time, I had the inner-feeling of being in the right place at the right time, from my new connection to the river, every spring weekend and summer vacation would be from then on.


It was doubtful many times, but when I crossed the stage for a high school diploma, I also set out that day from New Mexico with only the gear on my back to Colorado to live my dream to become a professional river guide. The rivers of Idaho and Colorado made my office, and my adventures provided a lifetime of stories of varying truth and ownership. It consumed every summer while in college and a bit beyond until it was time to find the American dream and the white picket fence my parents expected.

My normal and my happy left when I ‘grew up’ and put river life behind me. Careers in insurance and advertising came with severe depression. Rampant alcoholism finally brought me to my knees. I quit everything! It beat dying. I knew I had to go back to find my river normal, but had to find something better than working cheap, living homeless, smelling bad, and telling outrageous stories about how high the water level and how big the rapids were.


I found grad school to reinvent. Not sure what I was doing, I stumbled headlong into learning to manage riverine natural resources, and became an expert in river user behavior. To complete my studies, I ended up serving as a river ranger and in that, found my life’s calling. I am a federal river manager now, and one of few people who has found a way to combine their passion with their career. My life-work balance is ‘complicated’, because it defines me.

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