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Guides Reflect on Five, Ten, Thirty Years at Zoar

Copy-of-IMG-6683-1-2048x1536 Zoar Team
By Thomas 'Riv' Lyons

 Some 30 years ago, before Ted Johnson led Zoar white water trips and shared rafting advice on the company's Slack channels (#GUIDEing light), he sat in a Louisiana State University study carrel, cramming for veterinary school exams. Surrounding his textbooks, he had printed photos of his previous summer job guiding on the Penobscot River in Maine, where he caught the rafting bug.

"Rafting became a form of therapy," Johnson said during a recent interview at Zoar's Southside, the nickname for the employee parking lot where Zoar guides gather after work.

He so enjoyed being out on the water he even considered leaving veterinary school to accept a job offer to guide in New Zealand.

"I wised up and stayed in school," Johnson laughed. These days though, he's found a balance: working at the New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic as an Equine Vet, and the summers raft guiding part time at Zoar, where he's spent the past nine summers.

The two overlap, he averred. When first starting to guide, Johnson said he was shy, but learning to connect with and guide strangers later helped him form a rapport with veterinary clients.

While many white water enthusiasts such as Johnson continue to feel the pull of the water after many years (the average kayaker on the Dryway, the advanced section of the Deerfield River, seems to be 50+), they recognize the importance of recovery.

"As the years go on, I start to feel it in my body. I do my best to take care of it: eating right and getting lots of rest," Zoar guide David Frenkil said in a recent interview.

Though Frenkil's grown into an informal mentor during this fifth season on the water, "I'm constantly learning," he said. "I can only teach what I know, so I learn from everyone"

Mentors teach new Zoar guides rafting skills, rescue techniques, and even calculus — such as Bob Mastorakis, "Mathematics Teacher Extraordinaire" at Mohawk Trail Regional High School. Mastorakis has been guiding at Zoar (30 years) almost as long as he's been teaching at Mohawk (33 years).

"I saw an ad for Zoar in a newspaper in 1993, and I just kept showing up," Mastorakis said recently over the phone.

Mastorakis estimates 30+ of his former students have become raft guides at Zoar. He said he often takes his Advanced Placement Calculus class rafting in the spring, and the trip inspires many young guides.

"The new guides have a tough time calling me Bob, though I still answer to Mr. M," Mastorakis laughed.

"In both teaching and rafting, you have to explain a new concept and teach people to work together cooperatively," Mastorakis said. While this or next year is his last teaching, he foresees a long tenure on the Deerfield River.

"Rafting is a way to keep up with my younger self," Mastorakis mused. "I enjoy every trip on the gap. If it ever gets old, I'll move on."

Though he guided on the Dryway for twenty years, Mastorakis now most often guides the halfday Gap trip.

"I'm not one of the most fit people in the world," Mastorakis said, "and back when I first started, there was an idea that you needed to look good — to "look the part" — to train on the Dryway. That perception has really changed over the years."

Also changed, Mastorakis pointed to the large number of women guides and women-focused whitewater events and courses.

One of Mastorakis' former students is Haley Rode, who recently finished her fifth season as a zip guide. After swinging through the canopy for many years, Rode has recently added raft guiding to her resume. ("I fell for the peer pressure," she laughed).

"When I started rafting, I wanted to go all in," Rode said, referencing colorful gear.

"Some guides have certain colors," chips in longtime Berkshire White Water guide Max Swenson, "I was baby blue." (Some fashion statements for your next rafting or paddling trip: the neon red NRS Gore-tex Drytop, or blazing yellow Level Six Kids Splash Top).

"For us in the trees and on the water, the fun of the job is watching guests make new friends with the former strangers in their group," Rode said.

Zoar culture is "so silly in a good way," Rode laughed. "This job is unlike any other job I've worked. To work at Zoar is to work with colleagues who are very invested in me as a person."

Rode emphasized that training any new guide at Zoar is "fundamentally about introducing them to the community" in addition to technical training.

Haley herself had longtime ties to the Zoar community, including her older brother Sam Rode, who, like all Haley's older siblings, worked as zip guides at Zoar.

Rafting guide Sam Fisher echoed Rode's family-forward attitude. During Fisher's initial job interview, former rafting manager Brian Pytko introduced Zoar as the "milk and cookies place of white water rafting, where families will have as much fun as bachelor parties."

Like guests, Fisher said their confidence grew as the trips and seasons went on. To any water adventurers looking to improve their emergency response skills, Fisher recommended Zoar's Swiftwater Rescue Course or the Wilderness First Aid course.

"Feeling the difference is really rewarding," Fisher said. "I feel much more in control."

Fisher was also at Zoar during the summer of 2021, when guides had to manage shifting public health guidelines for a successful season.

Though guests still wore masks indoors and on buses, Fisher reflected, "all the things I enjoyed about the job, getting outside and meeting new people — all the important things — they were the same."

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Monday, 15 July 2024