River World: River Guides Face More than Epic Whitewater on the Middle Fork of the Salmon 

A behind-the-scenes look at life on the river

Rafts pile up waiting the next morning's launch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Andrew Mentzer

Rafts pile up waiting the next morning's launch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

"Remembering Harmon's earlier attempts to swim in the frigid water and my own brief struggle when the raft went over, I was numb with fear. Seeing Stone at a distance, sitting safely on the shore, raised new hopes, but as we approached, Gold quietly signaled that Harmon and Teague were still missing."

--Tom Brokaw, Men's Journal, May 2007

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River in North-Central Idaho is the stuff of legend among rafters. This 100-mile staple of Idaho recreation is the envy of A-list boaters worldwide, offering some of the most challenging and scenic whitewater anywhere. Reverence and excitement go hand in hand with taking on the Middle Fork. Thousands flock to the river each summer to experience it for themselves.

It is one of only a handful of runnable rivers in the United States that remains truly wild, without interference from dams or upstream urbanization. The river's personality changes dramatically throughout the rafting season depending on water level and weather, but regardless of the time of year, a trip on the Middle Fork is an unforgettable experience--with the potential for both good and bad.

In 1970, broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw was part of a commercial trip that took the lives of his close friend and a guide after their boat was submerged on Weber rapid. His experience so affected him that he returned to the river in 2006 to face one of his worst memories.

Brokaw shared the river's beauty and danger with the greater public in a deeply personal account of the trip he published after his return trip. It's a reality river guides face for three to five months out of every year, in some cases for more than 30 years. After a few hundred trips down the Middle Fork, guides develop a special connection to the river. It's a connection forged from hard work, natural beauty, exposure and the isolation of the river.

This summer, I had an opportunity to experience the life of a guide firsthand. I joined Hughes River Expeditions for a six-day journey, not as a guest, but as an unpaid swamper: the guy who rides on the gear boat to camp, sets up shop for guests and assists guides with various tasks ranging from doing dishes to showing guests how to fish.

Most people imagine the life of a river guide as days spent drinking beer, fishing and swimming in between running epic stretches of whitewater. While, yes, it is a rewarding and fun occupation in most cases, it is not always a picnic. The perils of guiding--particularly on the Middle Fork--make it an undertaking that can't be done purely for the love of nature and/or adventure. Guides must have a desire to share this unique experience.

We started by spending hours loading a massive Chevrolet 5500 diesel flatbed and trailer at the Hughes warehouse in Stanley with camping gear, personal effects, boats, fishing supplies, a satellite phone and food for 23 guests, six guides and a swamper before heading to the put-in at Boundary Creek, an hour and a half into the wilderness.

Arriving at the steep wooden boat ramp, we came face to face with a peak river season bottleneck. Idaho River Journeys, Mackay Wilderness River Trips and Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters were all rigging boats, along with a handful of private trips. All in all, there were 34 boats in the water by the end of the day--tied together three-deep in many places--all awaiting the next morning's launch. A guide from our group was delegated to select camps for the week and complete outfitter paperwork at a small U.S. Forest Service kiosk, as the remainder of the crew retired to camp for an evening of pre-trip revelry.

The camaraderie and cordiality of the Middle Fork brotherhood is something special. Guides from competing companies camp together and trade stories from the river the night before every launch. Some are hilarious accounts, while others are somber reminders of the dangers of the occupation: injuries, deaths, divorces, spiritual encounters, life-changing moments--they all occur in dramatic form on the Middle Fork. In fact, two of the Hughes guides met their wives while working this stretch of river.

After a few beers, the details of a particularly unsavory river trip began to surface. Just three weeks earlier, one outfitter at our camp embarked on what should have been a textbook early season voyage. It quickly became the "voodoo trip from hell," according to several guides. Two flipped boats, an irreverent streaking teenager and some stolen goods made for a guiding nightmare. Despite the dismal recollection, all seemed grateful to have "the worst trip in years" behind them.

This was my first opportunity to get to know the folks I would spend the next week working with a little better. Surprisingly, the Hughes crew does not have a rank and file like many other outfitters. All guides are trained at virtually every aspect of guiding--cooking, fishing, camp set-up, first aid, professional storytelling, running oar or paddle rigs and being able to navigate the constantly changing waters of the Middle Fork safely on the massive gear boat, the sweep. No trip leader is ever designated and everything gets done quickly and efficiently.

The next morning, we set out life jackets, double checked our rigging and prepared for our guests' arrival. The bus rolled up with 23 excited faces ranging from 7 to 76 years of age. Most were adorned with brand-spanking-new zip-off pants, sun hats and dry tops, with cameras in tow. It felt an awful lot like a Patagonia commercial compared to the guides' well-worn attire.

Our passengers were families, couples, singles and siblings from diverse walks of life. The trip consisted of everyone from Kentucky horse breeders and recently retired Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans to doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, professors and museum curators. This trip brought an incredible breadth of perspective and life experience to the table. Most were first-timers on the Middle Fork.

About an hour before the guests shoved off, my work partner for the day, Aaron Brunzell, and I were on our way.

Brunzell is the epitome of chill. A smile permanently planted on his baby face, the tall, handsome, lean 24-year-old projected a smoothness and cunning more suitable to a professional athlete than a river guide. The Eagle native and Portland, Ore., transplant has been guiding for eight years, returning to the City of Roses to work retail and play pick-up games of basketball when he's not on the river.

We carried nearly 3,000 pounds of gear on our specially outfitted gear boat. The "sweep," as it's called, doesn't orient or operate in the same manner as a traditional raft. It is two to three times the size of a paddle or oar rig, with giant wing-like arms extending from the front and rear. Cruising at a considerably faster pace than a raft, the sweep boat carries most of the trip's important gear, including kitchen, tents, toilets, spare everything, a water purification system, chairs and dining tables.

Momentum, extensive knowledge of every nook and cranny of the river at all water levels, and precise skill are required to run the sweep. The entire crew is trained on this rig, so I had a chance to pick the brain of a new captain every day of the trip.

After a bony, low-water launch, we punched through the Velvet Falls and Sulphur Creek rapids before arriving at John's Camp. Some less-than-favorable weather made the afternoon set-up more of a challenge than usual. Temperatures in the 50s and heavy rain made for a cool, slow effort.

This was my first taste of the challenges of the river guide. We hoisted gear up the rocky beach like ants marching through a downpour until we had arranged the makings of a small city.

The guests' personal effects and sleeping bags were set out, name tags up, and on the beach below what would be the kitchen was set up. On the canyon's shallow bench skirting the left side of the river, I assembled 10 blue Mountain Hardware Stargazer tents amidst remnants of trees burnt in recent forest fires.

While Brunzell laid out the kitchen and found a peaceful setting for the groover--our camp toilet--I assembled the dining area: eight camp tables, folding chairs and waterproof plaid table cloths. Two hours later, we had established an impressive home for our guests on the banks of the river. Luckily, we had better weather conditions throughout the rest of the trip.

Guests arrived shortly after we finished setting up. Hot coffee was the beverage of choice until the afternoon thunderstorms dissipated. The boats rolled in, one by one, and guests immediately grabbed their effects and made a run for their tents of choice. Some preferred to be closer to the dining area, others wanted to be near the soothing rumble of the river and some gravitated to the fringe, where they could have all the peace and quiet in the world.

Boiled artichokes, Atlantic sockeye salmon, spinach salad, homemade cornbread, sundried tomato and alfredo pasta, and fresh-baked brownies for dinner were met with fanfare campwide.

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."

People started to sense the end of the trip on this final night and their angst over the notion of going back to normal life was palpable. I felt the same way. I had gotten the opportunity to meet and learn from an incredible variety of people, which I consider the most enviable element of the life of a river guide.

On the final day I rode along with Joel Huettig, 38, to the take-out at Cache Bar. He masterfully navigated the waters of Rubber and Cramer rapids before we reached the confluence with the Main Salmon. Huettig's medium build and quick wit make him both approachable and an excellent conversationalist.

The Boise resident has been guiding for more than 15 years, opposite his elementary school teaching career the rest of the year--a suitable profession for his even-tempered personality.

We chatted about "the river giveth and the river taketh away" aspect of his summer work. Over time, when you are gone for more than three consecutive months a year, bad stuff occasionally happens at home. In 2003, Huettig got off a trip to devastating news: His father had been killed in a car accident and he didn't find out for several days. In 1998, his aunt also passed away unexpectedly while he was on the river.

Shortly after we came off of the Middle Fork and passed through the small town of Salmon on our way back to the warehouse, we were greeted with yet another sobering reminder of the occupation. As soon as we reached cell service, Minder--my sweep captain from day two--received a call from his father who had been battling cancer.

I pretended to ignore his conversation as we cruised methodically down Highway 93 but knew things had taken a turn for the worse when I heard him say, "I love you, Dad. It's great to still be able to hear your voice."

This had been Minder's reality for quite some time with the ups and downs of a terminal diagnosis, so he braced for a call that would come soon, requiring him to return home to Council and say a final goodbye to his father.

We unloaded gear back at the Hughes warehouse in Stanley and set out on the town for a little R&R. At 3 a.m., with the guides fast asleep, I heard the warehouse phone ring. It was Minder's fiance. It was that call. Minder hit the road shortly after on his way home. His father held on just long enough--passing away a few hours after Minder made it back to the central Idaho ranch of his upbringing.

For most of the Hughes crew, this was their sixth or seventh consecutive trip of the 2012 season. Six days on the river, one day off, one day rigging and back on the river. So it goes all summer. They have families, mortgages, school, jobs all waiting for them, but on the river, guides are entrenched in another world. An animal rolls into camp, a guest sprains his or her ankle, it begins to rain and the tent flies need to be put up in a hurry--a river guide is always on-call.

Before heading back to Boise, I chatted with day four sweep boat captain Bob Madrazo, 65. With Paul Newman-esque good looks and a youthful disposition, Madrazo gets along well with almost everyone he meets on the river. He has a comfortable pension, a ranch on the McKenzie River in Oregon, and a 40-foot sailboat docked in Monterrey, Calif., meaning the retired high-school principal certainly isn't on the river for financial reasons.

He has been doing this with his summers for more than 35 years because he enjoys the experience and he makes enough money to accommodate his annual international travel diet.

"I like serving people," Madrazo said in his ever-relaxed tone.

He will return to California for a few months after river season before heading off to Bali to meet his South African girlfriend, then eventually heading to the Caribbean for a four-month sailing excursion, before heading back to Idaho next summer. An impressive life, albeit somewhat unorthodox.

Five nights, six days, five camps, five kitchens, five dining areas, 80 tents and countless random tasks. I had spent a week in the life of a river guide-in-training--a week in the life of a swamper. I came away with a tremendous appreciation for both guests and guides and what it takes to be an outfitter on Idaho's most coveted river.

The life of a guide isn't always easy or glamorous. It requires balance and temperament for life on and off the river. The amount of work that these folks put into making sure that guests have an enjoyable, safe and comfortable experience is incredible, not to mention the tremendous sacrifices they sometimes make on the home front to earn this living.

"It's a beautiful place to be tired," Brunzell said.

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