Sromowce (Poland) (AFP) – Stanislaw Migdal sinks his long wooden pole into the water with a practised hand. For decades now, the mountain river guide has been propelling rafts full of tourists down southern Poland’s Dunajec River Gorge in keeping with a 200-year-old tradition.
Wearing a vibrant blue waistcoat embroidered with colourful flowers and a black mountain cap, he expresses how proud he is to be part of the elite group of 500 men who hand down the job from father to son.
“To be a river guide here, you have to be a mountain man from the Pieniny! You have to be born in one of the five villages by the Dunajec River, live here, be part of a family of guides,” he told AFP.
“We’ve begun accepting guides from elsewhere, but only if they settle down to live here.”
The Dunajec River Gorge, which marks the border with Slovakia, offers breathtaking scenery. Over the course of millions of years, the river dug its bed across limestone mountains dotted with trees to create a dramatic valley.
Its vertical walls can reach up to 300 metres (984 feet) in height and plunge straight down into the water. Seen from above, the rafts, which carry up to 12 people, look as small as ants.
– White water adventure –
More than 230,000 holidaymakers from around the world took part in Polish rafting between April and October last year.
The descent takes two to three hours, depending on the water level.
At times, the current accelerates, giving rafters a wild adventure with white water and whirlpools.
“It’s amazing. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before,” said Kevin, a 30-year-old Irish tourist.
“They don’t have landscapes like this in Ireland… Not to such a scale,” he told AFP.
For safety reasons, there are strict rules on recruiting guides.
“To apply, you have to be a man between the ages of 18 and 30. No women allowed. For the first three years, you apprentice with an experienced master before taking theoretical and practical exams,” said Migdal, who has done the job for 35 years.
“Only masters are allowed to navigate when the Dunajec is running high because its depth varies from just a couple of centimetres to 18 metres, which comes with a number of dangers.”
Marek Kolodziej has been propelling his raft since the age of 18.
“My father did it before me, so did my grandfather. My brother does it with me and now my son has also joined in,” he told AFP.
“Since we were little we dreamt of becoming river guides. It was natural, no one thought we would do anything else.”
– Man overboard –
The job comes with its share of hazards, especially for the young men just starting out.
“I fell into the water many times when I started as a guide. I was the helmsman and my pole got stuck between stones on the river bottom,” said Czeslaw Kowalczyk, a 56-year-old who is on his 41st season as a guide.
“I was young, inexperienced and I didn’t want to let go. So I fell in the water!”
Before they began offering tourists wild river rides, for centuries the guides floated logs down the Dunajec and Vistula rivers to the Gdansk port on the Baltic Sea.
Legend has it that for every trip the guide would add another seashell to the ribbon around his hat.
They only began to carry tourists at the start of the 19th century to supplement their income — first using boats dug out of a single tree trunk, then on wooden rafts after running out of large enough trees.
In 1932, they formed a river guide association.
In the early days, it was a particularly tough job. Once done with the descent, the guide would have to use muscle power to fight the current and pull the raft upstream.
Today, trucks do the job. Some things have changed but the guides’ love of the job and their region remain intact.
“The idea of quitting never even occurred to me,” Kolodziej said.