The Lee Valley White water centre is a fully man made whitewater park and in fully I mean it is built from the ground up without using any sort of previously existing waterway. There is a base pond reservoir for the swimming poolish water from which 13 m3/s volume is made to circulate around by electric powered pumps in a 300m long with 5.5m drop concrete channel full of obstacles to create optimal waves, safe whitewater features mainly to host slalom canoeing events and do rafting, kayaking. Sounds fun? Well in my experience for a regular nature person and most real river guides, the idea to work in such a place is not so appealing. I spent 10 month working there in 2017 so let me tell you about my insights and maybe widen your perspective on the subject.
Raft flip in the last big rapid of the course. Rafters are being washed out
immediately to be rescued by the bank safety team from the mellow flat section
To be fully honest I have never imagined myself working in London as a rafting guide but my financial situation dropped significantly after my 2nd chilien guiding summer when I got significantly less trips working for a smaller, unpredictable company in the short, 6-8 week long main Pucon rafting season and I had to find a new job in March with less uncertainties and more reliability then what a usual rafting outfitter can offer. Long story short, after my good friend Toni Demarco’s recommendation to work together, I signed probably one of the longest raft guide contract in the world, in London.
To get a raft guide job in Lee Valley one required to send previously filled forms, pass an interview, hold minimum an IRF guide 3 certificate and a CPR/First aid certificate. Upon my arrival the paid 4 to 6 weeks long Olimpic bank safety and guide training with ride along sessions began. I have never worked for an outfitter where the training period is paid and for such a long period. A guide gifted with a big ego might think he or she does not require new training due to the his neverending list of previous experiences and logbook, however in my opinion the lee valley olympic course can hold new challenges and require some time to learn the very precise navigation especially when taking down a long big raft on the narrow channel with 9+1 person onboard. The company procedures and rules are strict and it simply takes time to learn and meet required standards for every newcomer. In England they call it “Sit ons” in America they might call it ”Ride alongs” and long term coaching are very useful and quick way to master guiding on white water safely in an effective manner. In my opinion this level of training should be the standard for all outfitter but its really not the case unfortunately.
In search for some nature on the Lee River Navigation next to the Lee Valley White Water Centre
There is a funny hungarian saying that literally translates to “The fence is not made of sausages” what means “It’s nowhere ever really that good as it seems”. Similarly, Lee Valley has advantages and has its drawbacks on many different subject. Is seemed to me that contrary to the in-depth and professional guide training, after having done the evaluations the already contracted trainee guides were getting certified anyway regardless to their actual ability to meet standards. The ugly truth about this problem I think is money related as usual. The company does not want to spend more money on guide training or new recruitment and the guide wants to keep his or her job as well to continue making a living. This happens everywhere and to be fair If I happened to be in the situation, I would have a hard time too.. One solution may be to find opportunity to train more or find a less responsible position having lower standards. “Or a basic income for all but that is an other story.”
Considering every experiences during this period of my life I feel mostly positive about looking back. From an international guide point of view I really liked the fact that Lee Valley is a big organization with proper human resource management, employee benefits, 2 mandatory free day per week, fixed working hours with the possibility to have extra trips as overtime, a weekly written time schedule that you receive a week in advance so you can easily plan your out of work life in advance which usually hardly exists in other places. For example guiding in Slovenia where the standard is to work all the time every day in the summer as much as possible. The crew was mostly very professional with monthly meetings and brainstorming about evaluation of our problems and solutions, improvements. Similarly to other raft companies the summer months are hard with more working hours and work in Lee Valley is definitely not easy, running back to back 2 hours long sessions, sometimes 10-12 hours a day with only a 30 min and a few very short breaks during the day to go to toilet and grab some fast food. It also means guides are in their drysuit or wetsuit all day wet. I remember having to cut my wetsuit in front just so I can go to the toilet without having to remove it. Guiding rafts down the big course however If it’s done well is very strenuous and super fun. The big show is surfing the recirculating holes in a controlled way. It’s a form of art and a game balancing with your and the customer’s body weight calling different highside commands just at the right time and working hard on the guide paddle stearing and bracing. I consider learning this skill only and having so much fun was worth the time and effort. Doing bank safety watching my collages surfing is a great form of entertainment and throbag practise. On a busy day running the 300m course with a maximum of 8 raft having multiple swimmers and flips all over the place is definitely a heavy safety exercise.
Thomas Quinn charging down the Olympic course winning the day and the national champ in 2017
To be able to organise slalom canoeing events on Olympic sport standards the section of the white water needs to have constant flow that can be regulated and be stopped immediately in case of emergency. This is the main important difference compared to a natural river that flow potentially changes all day long according to previous days precipitation and temperatures therefore It is not ideal to organize a fair competition that expands over longer period of time.
From an environmental point of view, the amount of electricity required to fuel the water pumps is a big deal as well as the source of that electric energy. Building, running and maintenance costs of such facilities are on an elevated level. Water filters and equipment, pumps, conveyor belt and machinery need to be maintained on a regular basic for a significant amount of money. The whole cost of the facility is estimated to be around £37,3 million pound sterling. Lee Valley Regional Park Authority hope to bring in up to £45,000 on a good summer day from visitors to offset the costs of the facility. It seems to be a crazy big number for my guide eyes but considering the facts that the London Metropolitan Region population is around 13,7 million with a median gross annual wage of £34,473 according to National Statistics (ONS), it might be a reasonable number.
I tried paddling slalom during my stay and it is definitely an amazing very precise and elegant sport. I could not compete in any way with the pros who usually start their training in a very young age. I decided to continue with less pricey plastic kayaking after leaving at the end of my contracted period in autumn. I am afraid slalom canoeing as a competitive sport practised on a manmade course run by electric pumps is not for the general public but for only a handful of very talented kids who finds sponsorship or kids from rich families.
An other option is a semi manmade slalom course alongside or next to a real river having made small modification on the flow and river features seems to be a cheaper solution, however that setup might not qualify for organizing olympic games.
My personal opinion is that nature knows best and that knowledge should be respected. I think having an existing river with rocks and river features are priceless. I am not against the idea to make small modification like cleaning wood hazard, removing strainers, sivs out of our way.