Log In

Reset Password

Spotlight: Guide to the river

There are some days on the river that you wish would never end.

But even on the perfect trip, the raft eventually rounds the last bend and the landing comes into view.

In 45 years as a guide with Whitewater Challengers, Kerron Barnes has helped thousands of people experience those great days on the river.

“He’s probably guided more trips than any other person I know on the planet, over the course of his lifetime,” said Ken Powley, president of Whitewater Challengers.

Barnes is not fazed by the dangers of the river. He remains cool even while shepherding inexperienced paddlers, or on the rare occasion when the river catches him off guard.

He has witnessed an aircraft crash into the river, and seen countless boats flip or rip. But he boasts that the only person ever injured on his trips was himself.

But like any great river day, Barnes’ journey as a professional raft guide is reaching the landing. His 45th year on the river will be his last with Whitewater Challengers.

“I certainly appreciate being healthy, and having that much time, and that many trips on the river,” Barnes said.

Life on the water

While Barnes does have a day job, calling rafting a hobby would not accurately describe his dedication and passion.

“I like guiding on the river because us guides help people see this resource,” he said.

Barnes was the first guide ever hired by Whitewater Challengers in 1976. He was seeking whitewater long before the sleek purpose-built kayaks and rafts ever came along.

He taught himself how to paddle whitewater in a wood and canvas canoe, while volunteering on a Wisconsin Indian reservation in the early ’60s. When he reached the end he’d hitchhike back to his car.

Upon his return to his native Pennsylvania, he discovered the rapids of the Lehigh River. He would often take trips with a club that used Fiberglas canoes that they molded and patched themselves.

In the mid-70s, he was on the Lehigh when a group of men in rafts asked if he would be interested in being a river guide. They were Powley and George Stefanyshyn, the founders of Whitewater Challengers. He became their first hired guide.

Barnes wasn’t initially convinced by the unwieldy rafts, compared to his more maneuverable canoe. But he liked the idea of having a ride back to his car at the end of the day.

About 20 years ago he gave up the Fiberglas canoe for an inflatable kayak, a more comfortable modern conveyance.

Along the way, the adventures have been too numerous to count.

Hazards above and below

About five years ago, Barnes witnessed a small plane crash land into the river after losing its engine. As the pilot tried to glide the plane into the canyon, Barnes and the other guides commanded the rafts to paddle to shore. No rafters were hurt.

The guides pulled the pilot and a passenger from the aircraft. They had to paddle with the crash victims in the boat until they could reach one of the few vehicle accesses in the gorge.

Another time, he rounded a bend and saw a helicopter sitting in the middle of the river. Another guide reported seeing the helicopter flying low through the gorge and striking a wire, sending it plunging into the river.

“They call that chopper rapid now,” he said.

Barnes says he likes the Lehigh because it’s not far from his home in New York state, and doesn’t provide too much challenge for him. While it may not be a challenge for an experienced paddler like Barnes, for the average person on a rafting trip, there is plenty of excitement.

Among the rapids there are rocks that will flip a raft, and dangerous strainers, so called because they trap solid objects like boats and people, while the water passes through. Even the “easy” sections of the river have exposed sharp rocks and pieces of metal which will shred a rubber raft.

Part of a guide’s responsibility involves directing rafts around these objects, or when necessary, jumping into their boat and steering for them.

Barnes is proud of his safety record, and that of Whitewater Challengers.

He boasts that the only person who ever got injured on one of his raft trips was himself. He once dislocated his shoulder while guiding a trip. Of course he paddled the rest of the way. He intentionally scheduled his surgery so he could minimize the amount of time lost on the river. Doctors told him to wait six months to resume paddling. Six months later, almost to the day, he took a multiday journey along the Green River through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Utah.

River family

One of the things Barnes enjoys about the Lehigh is its accessibility for people of all walks of life. He’s guided adventurous children who dragged along their reluctant parents. He’s guided many people for whom English is a second language.

“At first I thought rafts were a disaster, but then I thought ‘this is nice. You get to talk to people.’ I’ve seen some remarkable people,” he said.

He particularly enjoys guiding people with different physical and mental abilities.

He once piloted a raft with two people who use wheelchairs. At the beginning of the trip the river was a gentle 700 cubic feet per second. As the trip went on, it swelled to at least four times that.

“It’s a challenge and it helps people. My goal in life is to make myself useful,” he said.

And of course the most entertaining characters he’s encountered are his fellow guides. Barnes is the only member of his biological family who enjoys whitewater kayaking. But he has many members of his river family.

Whitewater Challengers provides a camp for its guides over 18 years old to spend the weekend. The guides range from students to people with advanced degrees.

They arrive Friday night, many from hours away, for the weekly guide meeting. It’s a chance to discuss the new hazards in the river, and how they’ll escort the rafts around them.

But it’s also a reunion of the river family.

“You see your pals - there’s people with Ph.D.s and engineering degrees, all sorts of things. We never talk politics, and you never talk religion,” he said.

They eat and sleep alongside each other. Sometimes the quarters are a little too close. One time the guides got fed up with a snoring guide and stuck him, and his bed, in a closet.

Another time, the guides occupied themselves on a rainy day by piloting their kayaks down a stairway outside the guide house.

Their signs of appreciation mean a lot to him. He is proud to have been named the company’s guide of the year. Earlier this summer, while guiding a trip, he received a cake celebrating his 45 years.

A few years ago, he wanted to do something to give back to them. He decided to establish a scholarship fund exclusively for guides at Whitewater Challengers. Since then, he’s donated every dollar he makes on the river to the scholarship fund. The rafting company also makes contributions, and Ken has pledged to continue sustaining the fund for years to come.

“We have a lot of high school kids working here in the summer, it just seemed like a nice way to give all of them motivation and a chance of getting some help with college,” Powley said.

He would also like to devote more time to issues of social justice and racial equality.

And Barnes doesn’t plan on giving up his beloved hobby completely.

So while his professional guide career is approaching the landing, the river continues to flow on for Kerron Barnes.

“It’s become part of my identity,” he said. “I guess I will always be a river guide, even if I’m not working on the river.”

For more information on the Kerron Barnes Whitewater Challengers Scholarship Fund, visit http://www.luzfdn.org/types-of-funds/kerron-barneswhitewater-challengers-scholarship-fund/.

Kerron Barnes paddling his whitewater canoe in the 1980s. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Kerron Barnes paddling the Lehigh River in 2015.
Kerron Barnes paddling the Lehigh River in 2018. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
Kerron Barnes paddling the Lehigh River in 2012.
Kerron Barnes paddling the Lehigh River in 2019.
Carbon County court — ARD