When the waters get low the crews cross their fingers, hoping for the decision to Dead Head. It’s one aspect of the job that makes low credit, negative 401K balances, and the lack of permanent residency all worth it. Will Smitty and crew score the luxury of a dead head?
The shade of the cool warehouse encompasses the pre-trip briefing, a circle of plastic lawn chairs, guest rosters and guides. The cold cement is a nice reprieve from the July sun beating down outside, terminating snowpack as we speak. The river level is dropping. Days on the water are growing longer and longer, as the downstream current diminishes bit by bit. My shoulders can feel it. Oarlocks are working overtime, pushing to make camp in a timely fashion. Each grunting backstroke tests the craftsmanship of our oars; dodging new rocks where waves, holes and hydraulics once resided. All a direct correlation to the falling digits on the gauge.
Coffee: the bitter sweet, natural diuretic that river guides love to hate. All the gears are churning in Part 5 as Smitty and his crew bitterly battle for “groover-time.”
There’s something about river guides that many people don’t grasp. For all of the shortcomings attributed to guiding—bad hygiene, excessive hooting, lack of professional drive, fun-hogging—(valid or not) multiday river guides are semi-well-oiled machines. Over the 90-day period of straight gear-schlepping, the days are too long and the river demands are too tiring to not learn to be energy-efficient throughout a season of wilderness living. Fishing, hiking, cooking, rowing, band-aiding, patching, rigging, de-rigging, storytelling, truth stretching; it all takes physical and mental energy. It takes a schedule. It takes an agenda, which both the brain and the body must conform to in order to survive the stretch of summer into fall, to survive high-water nerve-racking into low-water rock-dodging. With such a demanding schedule, it takes the help of a special stimulant.
One broken sandal, two destroyed jackets, air reeking of singed belly-button hair and still, two pots of cold coffee water. It’s not all thrills and sunsets. As Smitty cusses his pre-dawn luck, a very special guest shows him once again that river trips create family.
Dawn is not yet peaking through the mesh of the tent. There are no rays of cascading Vitamin D glimmering in my eyes. The warmth of day is not beckoning me to join it with arms wide open. In fact, sunlight is still three hours away from touching this chasm-like fissure placed at the bottom of Joe Bump Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon; in my opinion, the coldest location on the river. My common sense and goose-bumped skin is screaming to stay tucked away in the shelter and warmth of my down sleeping bag. Yet, I lost the ro-sham-bo match last night. It’s my turn to prep the coffee.
The crew keeps charging and the series continues as Smitty guides a family of four down the Middle Fork Salmon. Plagued by snow, rain, hail, wind and a run-in with the infamous “Murph’s Hole,” can he keep his boat upright and his guests happy?
Chasing the never-ending-summer of paddling and guiding from Idaho’s wild and remote Salmon River to Chile’s sapphire-blue Futalefeu has allowed me to maintain a remedial-level grasp on Whitewater 101 year-round. Spending three months rowing an 18-foot raft down long and technical rapids in the Southern Hemisphere, while everyone else shreds powder turns back home, might make one think that one is prepared for rowing himself and others—say, one overweight/diabetic grandfather, his darling daughter, and her two lovely children—down the Middle Fork Salmon once spring has returned to the North.
In this week’s episode we join Smitty and the crew at the Boundary Creek put-in to witness the madness of rigging and launching boats for the first trip of the season.
Patches of snow line the bouncy put-in road to Boundary Creek. The noses of wildflowers sniff the spring air through the remains of frozen prairie. We, too, fill our lungs with the aroma of the mountains.
A river guide’s life appears to be stocked with adventure-filled days and evenings spent swapping stories and laughing off stress at guests’ expenses. But it’s not all rapids and beer, as author Jo Deurbrouck describes in the preface of her book, Anything Worth Doing. In a profession where risking one’s life is a daily occurrence, tragedies are inevitable. The question is: Is it worth it?
Direct experience is our best teacher, but it is exactly what we are most bent on obliterating, because it is so often painful. We grow more comfortable at the price of knowing the world, and therefore ourselves.
—Joe Kane, Running the Amazon
We called our home the Blue Ghetto. Each spring it accreted along both sides of a dirt road you could walk the length of in two minutes. Our scrap of road collided at one end with the backside of Three Rivers Lodge, the rustic resort that largely comprised the town of Lowell, Idaho. The other end was swallowed by a wall of dense, dark, dripping green: the Clearwater National Forest. Alongside, screened from view by willow and syringa, ran the Lochsa (pronounced LOCK-saw). This mountain river swells each spring with snowmelt and rainfall, pounds through dozens of powerful rapids in a handful of miles, and then, just downstream of the lodge, folds with deceptive peace into an even better known mountain river, the Selway.
The Selway River above the Blue Ghetto and the Selway’s confluence with the Lochsa.
As the oarlock turns: a journey into the gritty and glorious grind of a river guide’s season on the water. Starting with the madness of pre-season prep, Kyle “Smitty” Smith’s eight-part series follows the highs, lows and in-betweens of the itinerant river guide lifestyle.
Fumes of acetone, Hypalon rubber and freshly lacquered oars sift through the warehouse. Empty PBR cans tipped on their sides and random tools riddle the workshop’s table. Randy the Handy must be working on the sweep boat floor again. Damn that rock in the left line at Pistol Creek! Aluminum dry boxes are spread across the floor in a strange crop-circle-like cataloging system, and the commissary drama-queen is cursing my name for eating too much cereal the season before: “Now we have to order more!”
A method to the madness.
Forest Woodward, director of The Important Places, shares photos and memories from the Grand Canyon trip that inspired his powerful film.
Upset Rapid || Jeff was one of the more skilled oarsmen in our party, and earned himself the nick name Captain Calm for the ease with which he piloted his craft. About a half second after I snapped this frame was probably the closest Captain Calm came to losing his cool on this trip; to his credit, he still managed to do a high side dance, surf the boat out of the hole, and pickup his somewhat water logged passenger, Dr. Al, a few hundred feet downstream.