Arlene Burns Unfiltered
River Guide, Traveler
Arlene Burns has led only a handful of commercial trips in the last 15 years, but she still has the unmistakable presence of a river guide. It’s noticeable in a voice that’s friendly, alert, and disarmingly honest. The tone is strangely familiar, too: It’s the heroine of the 1994 thriller The River Wild, a raft guide played by Meryl Streep. Burns was 13 years into her life’s odyssey, a worldwide swirl of rivers and experiences firmly centered in Nepal, when she took a job consulting on the Hollywood film. Streep captured every nuance of her character, straight down to the cadence of her voice and the utter self-reliance that lurks, unspoken, behind every word. “I thought we were soul-mates,” says Burns, now an accomplished filmmaker in her own right. “Then I realized she was imitating me.” – Jeff Moag
I started paddling when I was 14 in canoes in the Southeast and I became a guide mainly to be around expert paddlers.
I always had thought I needed to do some ‘legitimate’ thing for a living. Then when I graduated I got job offers in geology, and thought, ‘What do I need money for so badly that I’m ready to sacrifice my life for it?’
I decided that New Zealand looked incredibly beautiful. I lined up a job as a guide before I went. They thought I was a guy, and when I showed up they were like, ‘No way. No woman’s ever worked here, never will.’ And I was devastated.
I was supposed to scream and bail like a good Sheila.I don’t know if it was some kind of cosmic play, but on this trip where I wasn’t even allowed to paddle, the owner of the company fell out of his raft and swam to shore, and this raft, that had eight people in it, was honking toward a 150-foot waterfall.
I was standing on the edge of a cliff. The only reason I was there was because girls also weren’t allowed to carry anything. It was just instinct from being a guide, but I jumped in the river, got in the raft and coordinated the people, barely. We made the last eddy before the waterfall. I got to shore and the owner walked up dripping wet and goes, ‘You want to work for us?’
I got to Nepal in ’84 and totally fell in love with the place. Right when I arrived, the owner of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, Payson Kennedy, sent me an e-mail—it wasn’t e-mail back then, it was probably Telex or something—asking if I wanted to lead a trip up to Everest Base Camp and down the Sun Kosi, a 30-day trip. I was like, okay. I’d been in Nepal one day.
If people trust me and believe in me, I’ll go 10,000 percent to uphold their trust. I always appreciated that about Payson. He could go beyond the resume and look at something deeper. I wanted to honor him in all ways. So that started my relationship with Nepal.
My favorite of all was four kayaks, self-contained, as long as you wanted, 20, 30, 40, 50 days, whatever. With four people you could split up the gear and carry everything you needed.
We had walked way up the Upper Marsyangdi, and I’d contracted meningitis, which was epidemic in Nepal. I didn’t know if I was going to die, ‘cause you can die within 24 hours from it. It was all Class V, and at some point the guys were like, ‘We’ve got to get going, are you ready?’ I got in the river and didn’t have energy for one excess stroke. I was almost hallucinating. I tuned into the river in a way I never had before in my life, out of necessity. And it changed my perception of paddling from then on.
We paddled all the time wherever we could and ran these little creeks and big rivers and floods and monsoons. Then we would guide when there were clients. It was a pretty free life. At some point, I think in the early ‘90s, I started realizing I needed to connect back with my country again, cause I’d been gone since CD players and microwaves were invented. I was almost handicapped in my own culture.
I’d been back four days when I took this group of directors and producers down the Payette in a blizzard. At the end of the trip this guy was, like, ‘So what do you do?’ and I told him I’m a river guide. And he said, ‘Well, our movie is about a river guide.’
I went from the Third World into the counterculture of Hollywood for six months, 16 hours a day, six days a week. I felt like a big cat that crawled out of the jungle and into a golden cage.
It’s a longer story than you have time for, but river-running is a skill. It’s not a stunt.
Giorgio was an Italian pilot, a complete world adventurer like myself. I thought, finally in my life I met a real partner. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. We only had four and a half years together, but we explored a depth of love that we never would have known if he had stayed healthy.
I ran the Grand Canyon in November, and it was really like going home. Giorgio had died a few months earlier, and I’d had to stay super strong through the whole thing, and it was the first time where I felt like I was back in this place where I was safe, relieved from my pain. I was back in this environment that was my own sanctuary.