Risk Management in the Outdoors (lessons from the Grand Canyon)

It’s been about two and a half weeks post Grand Canyon. We’ve all gone our ways and adjusted (supposedly) back to society. We chat often, reminiscing about how easy the Canyon was and how hard real life is… #somuchadult.

We tried to write “GC16” with a laser but…

It’s interesting to me that we say that the Canyon was so easy and real life is hard, because there was nothing easy about the Canyon. Our fingers split open at the tips, there were three days with no sun and bitter cold, and we were responsible for thousands of pounds of gear in class 8 rapids. But the payoff was incredible. The stars at night were amazing; the first week we were out there was a full moon, so the beams would bounce and reflect off the Canyon walls at night. Sometimes I’d wake up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to see the light.

The Canyon is gorgeous, but its hard work. You’re almost always busy, either cleaning dishes or packing gear or pumping your raft. But you don’t mind because its different, its not what you think of as work. The reward is 16 days away from your phone and bills, 16 days of freedom from having to make decisions about what to eat, 16 days away from filling your gas tank again. It’s a good mental break, a good time to think about what really matters in your life and what you value.


While we were in the Canyon, we talked a lot about risk management. Being in a setting that remote for that long requires careful attention to managing risk so the trip goes as smoothly as possible and no one gets hurt. There are two things I always think about when I think about risk management: honesty and communication.

Last summer I learned the importance of honesty when it comes to risk management. When you’re trying to minimize risk, its important to be honest about what you can handle. Too many times our egos get in the way. We want to think we could handle a bigger emergency then we could. At the beginning of last summer I thought I could handle taking a beginner down the Nantahala alone. I had a little more confidence in my rescue skills then I should have. Sure enough, my guest swam at the beginning of a long series of ripples. She was fine and got off the river on the bank, but the boat filled with water and kept going. It wasn’t until around a bend that I finally wrangled the boat, but I couldn’t see my guest anymore. Luckily, another instructor happened to be on the river and brought her down to where I was with her boat. Everything turned out fine, but I learned my lesson.


A few weeks later I had a father-son duo that was particularly hard to manage. The son was out of control, and would jump in the river with no safety gear while the father cheered him on. I realized I couldn’t manage the situation alone, and so I asked for help. Luckily my boss was supportive, and he brought in a more experienced instructor to take the guests from me. It can be tempting to want to think you can handle anything, but being honest about your level of training or skills can be the difference between recovering gracefully or having a giant mess on your hands.

Communication with your group can avoid a lot of confusion, especially when trying to coordinate boat colors.

Communication is also key in risk management. The first few days of our trip we were rather disjointed. We would stop to scout rapids, then run them as we each felt like it, regardless of where the others were. We would pack camp in the morning, then leave as we were ready, often times leaving half the group behind for a half hour. After one rapid where we had a swimmer and only one other person in the water to help, we realized we needed to have a clearer plan everyday. We started talking every morning about the plan for the day and discussing the order for rapids before we ran them. Communication is also important when it comes to making sure you always have a first aid kit or a pin kit on a trip, or knowing who has what level of medical training. It’s easy to fall into relaxation mode and forget to talk about things, but a few minutes of discussion can be the difference between a smooth, safe trip and a messy one.


I’m back in North Carolina, enjoying the last few days of freedom. Starting Monday, I’ll be the Operations Manager at Green River Adventures for the season. My winter of adventure is wrapping up, and after Cheoah this weekend, I’ll be back in work mode for a few months. I’m looking forward to a new job in a new gorge, however hard it was to leave the Nantahala Gorge. Six years is no joke, and I’m so thankful for all the amazing memories I have from my time there.



2 thoughts on “Risk Management in the Outdoors (lessons from the Grand Canyon)

  1. Awesome to hear about your adventure and how far you have come from the girl I met on the Rez kayaking for the first time….you are always in my heart “Rivergirl”. Love, “river mamma”

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