This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

Words: Arlene Burns
Photos: Brian Stevenson

Arlene Burns

Arlene Burns

I always thought I needed to do something 'legitimate' 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 really had become a believer in following your heart, decided that New Zealand looked incredibly beautiful, and I felt I could travel alone there as a woman. I'd applied for a job as a river guide over there, and they hired me, sight unseen, assuming I was a man. When I arrived, they were like, "No way. No woman's ever worked here, never will." I was devastated.

They did let me go on a trip, but I wasn't even allowed to paddle. I was supposed to scream and bail like a good Sheila. And the hard part was these guys were completely out of control. I'd worked a few seasons at Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, and I had enough safety training and experience to see that these guys were really dangerous. I don't know if it was some kind of little 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. His raft, which had eight people in it, was just honking down toward a 150-foot waterfall. I was standing on the edge of the cliff because girls weren't allowed to carry anything. I was watching this drama play out, and my guide's instinct took over. I jumped into the river and swam to the raft. I coordinated the people, and we barely made the last eddy before the waterfall.

They would have all died. Eight people. And it could have very well been me, too. It was one of those things that, if I thought twice about it, I might not even have done.

When I get to shore the owner of the company walks up. He's dripping wet and he says, "Do you want a job with us?"