Six newly-hired river guides arrived at Ocoee Adventure Center in Ducktown, Tennessee, in early April to begin six weeks of training for the coming rafting season. All of them were in their early twenties.
Except 52-year-old Jerry Hauck.
Tall and slender, with grey stubble, Jerry looks like an Ocoee River veteran in his PFD and river sandals. In fact, less than a year ago, Jerry and his wife Marsha were working office jobs in Bradenton, Florida.
Jerry, who was then a financial analyst, and Marsha, who worked in the office of an eye clinic, knew they loved the outdoors and the water, having boated, fished, and dived for years. For more than a decade, the two had been mountain biking in the Tennessee/Georgia mountains on their vacations. Jerry had even competed in the Cohutta 100/Big Frog 65 endurance mountain-bike race, held in the nearby Cherokee National Forest, for several years. “Every time we came up here,” Jerry says, “we didn’t want to go home.”
So, in August 2016, they left Florida for Tennessee, and found a house in Copperhill to renovate. The following spring they both began working for OAC, Marsha in the office and Jerry as a new guide. He concluded his training by passing two “checkout runs,” rafting trips with actual customers, accompanied by an established guide.
OAC, one of about twenty rafting outfits in the area, has 45 rafts in its fleet, each holding up to six customers plus the guide. That adds up to hundreds of daily trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day down the Middle Ocoee, with its twenty Class III and IV rapids, and the Upper, which contains the 1996 Olympic whitewater course. All of which means a constant need for new guides like Jerry to fill out the roster of 50-60 on staff.
Now he’s working his way up the ladder. Like all new guides, Jerry’s among the last to get trips on the river. He’s working on his river skills, such as keeping the raft away from the rocks, and being more consistent.
“Saturday I took two trips. The first was horrible—I lost three people out of the boat at Broken Nose rapid, and I just kept running into rocks, one after the other. Then the second run was almost perfect. So trying to have more runs like the second one is the goal.”
Reading the water is another skill that Jerry has had to learn as part of his new job. “That’s a lot harder than I expected,” Jerry says. “I didn’t exactly expect it to be easy, but learning the Ocoee’s rocks, currents, holes…it’s a complicated river.”
Then there are the soft skills, like dealing with customers—something Jerry’s previous work as a financial analyst for HCA, a hospital management company, didn’t require.
“Learning how best to relate to all the different types of people who are in your raft was something I had to learn. Some of them are really gung-ho, and some are scared to death. You have everything from 13 year old girls to big old heavy guys.”
Larry Mashburn, co-owner of OAC, says Jerry’s been a positive addition to the company. “From time to time we’ll have older guides like Jerry who are making a life change, trying to simplify things. I think he’s done a good job so far, and also is really enjoying himself on the river.”
Off the river, Jerry also finds plenty to like about his new life. “Everything is so convenient. There’s no traffic or congestion. We can go mountain-biking right out the front door, and it’s only a mile and a half to my running trail.” He and Marsha enjoy the trails with Copper, the year-old golden retriever mix that showed up at their door not too long ago.
Working for OAC is a good fit for Jerry in another way. “Part of the reason I chose OAC was because they also do guided mountain biking trips. I've been able to lead a couple of trips so far and have another one coming up.”
Not even the most versatile guide can avoid the need for additional lines of work in the off-season, though. Raft-guiding is seasonal, with little to no employee benefits or health care. When OAC shuts down Ocoee trips in the fall, Jerry plans to put his accounting skills to work for H&R Block in nearby McCaysville, as he did last winter, as well as working for UPS during the holidays.
It’s helpful to have savings or other income to fall back on, at least in the beginning, Jerry says. The younger guides live rent-free at the OAC offices, but that’s not really ideal for older or married employees like the Haucks.
The bottom line, according to Jerry: find a place you love; be ready to start at the bottom; and be ready to scramble and hustle to make it work.
In the end, he says, it’s been worth it for Marsha as well as himself: “I love going to work every day.”