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The crew was up at 6 a.m. the next morning, and I was thankful to have five extra sets of hands to help take down camp. While some of the guides cooked a gourmet breakfast, I was tearing down tents, tables and chairs and repacking the sweep for the day's rapids. Just minutes after the sun peaked over the canyon rim, I shoved off with Marshall Minder, day-two sweep boat captain.
Minder, 28, grew up in Council but lives in Boise. With more than five years of experience guiding, he remains the life of the party and his outgoing personality lends itself to working closely with the guests. Minder's athletic posture and shaggy blond hair give him the appearance of the quintessential river guide.
We made quick time past the Indian Creek airstrip--one of only a handful of outlets to the civilized world along the Middle Fork--and through the infamous Pistol Creek rapid before arriving at Upper Jackass Camp.
Everyone was in high spirits on the second night, thanks to the pleasant weather and incredible scenery. A golden eagle soared high above as we prepared a hearty feast of 40 Mile stew, buttermilk biscuits and raspberry-peach cobbler. The sky opened and the stars popped, dazzling the guests who had no idea how clear the Idaho starscape could be without urban light pollution. The dippers looked like headlights bearing down on us from afar.
Better barometric offerings prompted both guests and guides alike to have a go at the Middle Fork's cutthroat trout population, but the previous day's rain muddied the waters just enough to make the catch modest.
On day three I tackled the Tappan rapid series alongside Colin Hughes, the 21-year-old son of the company's owners, Jerry Hughes and Carole Finely. Stout, with a shaggy mop that hadn't seen a cut in many moons, Hughes projects wisdom well beyond his years.
He has been on the river since he was eight months old and has been guiding on the Middle Fork for nearly five years. A University of Idaho senior, he spends his summers on the river, before returning to the rigors of his conservation social sciences curriculum each fall.
Like the rest of the guides, Hughes finds solace in his occupation and enjoys being able to share his knowledge and experience with people who can't do this sort of thing on their own.
"I guide because I see a sort of need for the people we take down the rivers to reconnect with our natural world," said Hughes. "We float through the fourth-largest batholith in the world, which is a large granite plume exposed on the surface. It's a pretty cool thing to experience."
I began to realize why these guys do what they do. In 15 years of running Idaho's rivers, this was my first commercial trip. By comparison, the ideology behind a private trip is vastly different from a guided excursion. It goes way beyond a group of friends getting together for a variation of the same adventure year after year.
The familiarity simply isn't there with a bright-eyed group of wet-behind-the-ears newbies. Many of these first-timers were enamored with every bend in the river, and the guides functioned as both educators and protectors in the Middle Fork's wild canyonscape.
On day four I got to know Peter and Erica, two of our guests from Barbados. They were in the United States for a conference and had an extra week to kill before heading home. Over our Cornish game hen dinner I learned that their expectations for the trip were surpassed and they intend to come back as soon as possible.
"Most relaxing vacation I've ever had," Peter said of his experience.
"The guides have done a really good job. It's nice to pull into camp and have everything set up. You don't have to do anything but put your feet up," Erica added.
Their comments were a nice gesture, none of which was taken for granted by the guides or myself. The monotony of setting up tents and hauling gear becomes taxing over time, making positive reinforcement an important element, even for seasoned professionals. We collectively appreciated the fact that these people felt like they were getting what they paid for.
Day five was nothing short of brutal. After tackling the legendary Weber rapid--the same one that proved fatal for the members of Brokaw's trip--I helped sweep boat captain Tony Herold set up Tumble Camp in Impassible Canyon.
Unlike previous camps, we had to haul gear up a 60-foot near-vertical rocky embankment. With 46 dry bags, Dutch ovens, tents, tables, chairs, stoves and food, thousands of pounds of gear had to be carefully muled up a loose, narrow switchback trail. An extra hour of unloading and a wasp sting later, we had a beautiful camp set out along a wide bench high above the river.
Herold, 29, is the level head of the crew, offering a positive and thoughtful approach to all he does. His well-groomed handlebar mustache and muscular build are a good fit for camps like Tumble, making the effort look easy compared to me. The Boise resident has been guiding for 12 years and works for the Hughes company throughout much of the off-season as well.
We got to whistling while we worked, so I asked Herold about something I had only heard about, but was getting a better understanding of each day: burn out.
For many guides, mid- to late season represents a time when they need a break to maintain their sanity. For some, it's the demands of the guests that does them in. Many guests have never even been camping, thereby requiring constant attention and reassurance. For others it is issues on the home front or the physical challenges of the job.
"It usually happens late in the season when guides' bodies and minds are tired and ready for a break. Back to back to back to back trips without breaks can set it off, as well as many other things," he said.
"I try to balance these things by not thinking about it too hard, and on my days off, really taking days off. Sleep, time with my lady and family, and getting back out on the water or camping, but doing it for me. After that, I usually feel fresh for the next set of trips."
Herold's perspective opened my eyes to yet another layer of this occupation: bad weather, forest fires, demanding guests, a flipped boat. Countless things can make a trip a less-than-ideal experience. This particular trip, we were lucky to have an excellent group and no major mishaps.
"Because of [guests], I'm out on the water making money and I truly enjoy meeting new people every go-round," Herold said.
By this point in the trip, the guests had gotten to know each other, become comfortable with sharing the groover and bonded over the experiences they were sharing. The guides arranged for a white elephant gift exchange that brought out the most heartening aspect of the trip. A Princeton music professor and his wife wrote a song for the guides, which they performed to a standing ovation. Their endearing account of what the trip had done for them was not only appreciated but provided several of my fellow guides a subtle reminder of the importance of the work they do.
"The way you wear your hat,
The way you tied my fly,
The memory of all that,
No, no they can't take that away from me.
The way you run the rafts,
The way you drink 'til 3,
The way you serve our needs,
No, no they can't take that away from me.
We may never, never meet again,
On the bumpy river Salmon,
Still I'll always keep the memory of ...
The way you pitched our tents,
The way you cooked our meals,
The way you've changed my life,
No, no they can't take that away from me."