Rafter J PhD. – College Credits for Rafting?

College's are offering classes like AE 331 - Advanced Paddling. Paddling Life finds out if we can get a degree in whitewater rafting.


- Advertisment -

After an epic ski season, teaching snowboarding was coming to an end. It was the early 2000’s and I found myself sitting in the Alpine Meadows locker room wondering what I was going to do next. As fate would have it, someone had posted a flier for an upcoming raft guide school at Tahoe Whitewater Tours. At that very moment my life shifted course, never to be the same again. Twenty plus years later, running rivers is still a cornerstone of happiness for me, and now for my children too.

Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing – from the life long friends and adventures that raft guide school created, through meeting my future wife and living out of her parents’ Ford conversion van during Gauley Season (I’m sure they were questioning their daughter’s judgment at that point), to all the river miles since. 

Now what if that pivotal guide school flier was actually a college course brochure? This is an option for the river-curious in Durango, Colorado, the place I call home. Fort Lewis College, sitting high up on a mesa overlooking Durango, offers courses like “AE 331 – Advanced Paddling.”

So many questions… How did my high school guidance counselor not mention this option?

Can I get a degree in whitewater rafting?

Putting on our investigative reporter hats, Paddling Life tracked down Fort Lewis College’s Senior Lecturer and Adventure Education Operations Coordinator, Dr. Aaron Ball, and asked him all of our burning questions.

Paddling Life's Miles De Feyter and Aaron Ball of Fort Lewis College
Paddling Life’s Miles De Feyter and Dr. Aaron Ball of Fort Lewis College

Fort Lewis College

PL: Aaron, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Fort Lewis College. 

Aaron Ball: I am a senior lecturer and AE’s Operations Coordinator. I began whitewater rafting in 1998 in CA and guided for CSU Chico’s outdoor program on the rivers of NorCal (Upper Sac, Trinity, Feather River, S. Fork American). After graduating, I guided in Utah and CO on the Green through Lodore, Yampa, and Gunnison Gorge. I then moved to OR for summers and worked on the Rouge and Deschutes for Outward Bound. During that time I also guided on Cataract Canyon for OB. Over all that tenure as a river professional, I began teaching swiftwater rescue courses for Rescue 3 International and have now been doing that for almost 20 years. I’m an Instructor Trainer for R3. I boat recreationally with my family, but I haven’t worked as a professional “river guide” for many years now.

PL: What type of river programs does Fort Lewis College offer?

Aaron Ball: There are several paddling programs here on campus. One is the Adventure Education department, which is an academic program where students earn a bachelors degree. This program was formed in 2007. Paddling courses are some of the courses they can take for credit from the program. Another program is FLOW (Fort Lewis on the Water), which is a interdisciplinary, place-based outdoor education program focused on providing access to the river ways of the South West, particularly for underserved populations. FLOW was formed in 2020 after FLC purchased river permits and equipment from the old Canyon RIO. The third program is Outdoor Pursuits. That program is the longest running program at the college, which formed in the 70’s. They have run river programs for FLC students for many years. They only run non-academic trips that people can sign up for if they are an FLC student. 

Fort Lewis College Swiftwater Rescue class
Fort Lewis College Swiftwater Rescue class on the Animas river in Durango CO.

PL: Are the Fort Lewis paddling classes popular? 

Aaron Ball: Adventure Education paddling courses have space for 20 students every fall (Paddling Fundamentals) and 10 students every spring (Advanced Paddling), which we fill frequently. We also have a Swiftwater Rescue course that we offer in the spring and it fills with 12 students.

PL: Who are the classes intended for?

Aaron Ball: Adventure Education courses are meant for students majoring or minoring in the Adventure Education program. Our swiftwater rescue courses are open to all FLC students.

PL: Okay, let’s talk about me. Can I get a degree in whitewater?

Aaron Ball: Not specifically, but people who are interested in paddling can choose those courses over others. They can also do practicum and internship courses with FLOW through the Adventure Education department. This is a great way for students to get practical experience working for a river program.

PL: Most colleges and universities grant academic credits for exam scores, military experience, workplace training, or professional certification. Sometimes called credit for prior learning, or CPL, these policies help students earn their degrees in less time. So the question is, does prior river guide experience transfer?

Aaron Ball: Unfortunately, no. However, although some people come in with prior experience, they typically have not had any formal paddling education, so their knowledge, skills, and understanding of the breadth of the paddling discipline are limited. 

PL: I’m pretty sure you just said my guide school wasn’t thorough enough. We’ll revisit that another time. Let’s get to the big question: For those of us that clearly disappointed our parents and crushed their aspirations of having a surgeon in the family when we told them we were going to become whitewater guides and go live down by the river in a conversion van (true story), is Fort Lewis College now encouraging this career path?  

Aaron Ball: There are commonly misconceptions about what it means to be an outdoor leader and educator. The AE dept has worked hard over the years to dispel those misconceptions and to advance the professionalism of the career. Many of our graduates go on to be gainfully employed, while others find different paths (not unlike a graduate with any type of degree). People who go through the Adventure Education major are developed in several competency areas, all of which create a well rounded professional: Leadership, outdoor and technical, teaching and facilitation, interpersonal and intrapersonal, and program administration. While living in a van down by the river is still an option for some people, it doesn’t have to be that way. The industry is in the process of professionalization with increasing pay and better benefits. There are innumerable programs around the USA and internationally that operate river programs and provide stable and well-compensated employment. Many of our students have gone on to get their masters degrees, create and/or run outdoor programs/businesses, and maintain healthy and meaningful lifestyles. 

PL: Do you know if other colleges have similar programs? 

Aaron Ball: Prescott College has something similar, but they are a private college and costs much more than FLC. Western Colorado State University has something similar as well, but it is focused on recreation and not necessarily education.

PL: For anyone interested in the Fort Lewis Adventure Education program, where should they start?

Aaron Ball: Check out AE’s webpage

Fort Lewis College FLOW program
Fort Lewis on the Water (FLOW)

What have we learned, class?

No honorary doctorate of whitewater in my future but the future is bright for this next generation of Adventure Educators.

Fort Lewis College has three paddling programs – Adventure Education (formed 2007), FLOW (formed 2020) and Outdoor Pursuits (formed 70’s) – that offer paddling courses for credit and non-academic trips for students. FLOW focuses on providing access to river ways of the Southwest, particularly for underserved populations.

Aaron Ball explained that it is not possible to get a degree specifically in whitewater, but those interested in paddling can choose related courses. FLOW also offers practicum and internship courses through the Adventure Education department, providing students an opportunity to gain practical experience in a river program.

More information on Fort Lewis College’s Adventure Education program can be found here and more info on Dr. Aaron Ball can be found here.

All forward… Class dismissed…


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisement -

Latest news

Paddling, Not Prisoners, Top of Mind for Iran Slalom Kayaker

While the world is wrapped up in the news of the five U.S. citizens being freed from prison in...

The Fantasy Flash: PL Checks In on Dane Jackson’s Speed Run of Cali Classic

The Fantasy Flash, an Edit by Bren Orton Well, he's done it again. Jackson Kayak's Dane Jackson is turning heads...

Level Six Emperor Drysuit Review

By Judah Harms It was day three on the Middle Fork Salmon. After paddling 14 miles to Loon Creek, then...

Good Gauley: Gauley Fest Turns 40!

Good Gauley, Miss Molly! American Whitewater's Gauley Fest is Turning 40, Complete with an '80s-theme party! Get ready for some...
- Advertisement -

Jackson Kayaks Brand Manager Jameson Redding Leaves Role

 Jackson Kayak announced that longtime brand manager Jameson Redding will be leaving his role as Brand Manager for the company’s...

Chums Celebrates 40th

Chalk it up to another idea born on the river by a guide looking to make things better and...

Must read

Paddling, Not Prisoners, Top of Mind for Iran Slalom Kayaker

While the world is wrapped up in the news...

The Fantasy Flash: PL Checks In on Dane Jackson’s Speed Run of Cali Classic

The Fantasy Flash, an Edit by Bren Orton Well, he's...
- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you