Guide Feature: Joan Sundeen

Whitewater is mesmerizing to all, challenging to most, and to Idaho River Adventures guide, Joan Sundeen, the whitewater was where she found healing.

“I love the whitewater,” said Sundeen, “it’s what draws me near the river. I love the activity, the meditation that comes with the moment, and the adrenaline. That’s what I get excited about.”

Growing up in Colorado, Sundeen attended an outdoor-based, experiential-learning, private high school, where she competed all over Colorado on the whitewater kayak team. For a semester her sophomore year, she attended World Class Kayak Academy where she lived out of a van, traveled around the North East, Canada, and Africa, all while fulfilling her high school requirements and developing her whitewater skills along the way.

While traveling abroad, Sundeen had the opportunity to kayak both the Zambezi River in Zambia and the White Nile River in Uganda. Together, these rivers have some of the most legendary big-water kayaking in the world, with extreme class v rapids that are sought-after by expert kayakers from around the globe.

Tragically, Sundeen lost a friend on those violent waters and her world was flipped upside down. Struggling to process the trauma she had experienced, Sundeen became burnout in her sport and did not return to the water for another six years.

“I was burnt out by the epicosity of it,” said Sundeen, “you know, the gnarliness all the time. It just got to me.”

Sundeen went on to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, where she studied sociology in hopes to pursue a career in social work. While in college, Sundeen began to process the trauma she experienced years before, and she decided it was time to pursue healing. For Sundeen, that meant getting back in the water. This time, she switched up her craft a bit, and found herself in a raft, instead of a kayak.

“Rafting gave me a new outlet back to the river,” said Sundeen, “I was able to experience a place that I had been so reluctant to return to in a whole new way.”

Slowly, healing started to take place in Sundeen’s life and she began to work through her trauma. Returning to the river was an important part of the healing process.

“I feel a combination of healing and empowerment every time I'm on the river,” said Sundeen, “Not only does it provide me with the more deep connection to my reality, but it also challenges me and tests me.”

Eventually, Sundeen decided that a career in social work was not what she had imagined for her future, so she pivoted into a career of guiding white water rafting trips.

She began in Colorado, where she attended a required guide school. There she developed skills and collected river miles. Shortly after, she completed her Wilderness First Responder Certification and Swift Water Rescue Training. After working for a handful of different guiding companies, she eventually found herself on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

The life of a guide is always changing, kind of like the river, and during the 2020 season, Sundeen began her career with Idaho River Adventures.

“IRA maintains the core qualities of what rafting is,” said Sundeen, “It still has the adventurous spirit, while it’s also being run so professionally. It’s a real rootsy company.”

She loves working for IRA and she laughed when she recalled a memory from the summer of eating her first fruit-roll-up in 15 years, and then consuming another hundred after that.

Because of personal experience, and years of guiding whitewater trips, Sundeen enjoys watching clients become empowered by the rafting experience.

“The outdoors prove over and over again to be a place where people go to unwind,” said Sundeen, “to heal, to let go and relax. Beyond the fact that our physical existence completely relies on this beautiful planet we inhabit, we also rely on it to keep us sane and connected.”

Sundeen spends her summers guiding on the whitewater of Idaho, her winters guiding backcountry ski trips in Colorado, and her off-season in the desert, where she lives out of her truck, and spends time biking, climbing and of course, rafting. She is also a massage therapist - a skill no doubt highly valued by those who join on her many adventures!

Emily Knittel is a Montana based writer, mountain biker, and self-proclaimed professional hype girl. With a degree in Journalism, and an unshakable love for the outdoors, Emily writes to encourage a life of whimsy and adventure.

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