Memories of a Mentor


I was a relatively green Scoutmaster when I met Jim Harston back in 2006. Earlier that year the leaders had decided we would take the Troop 550 Boy Scouts of Colfax, Washington whitewater rafting that summer. I was a little overwhelmed by the prospect. I had only two rafting experiences under my belt. One was a guided trip down the Wenatchee River in Washington. And the other was during the summer after high school graduation when a friend and I bought a $25 Sevylor raft and spent three days starving on the Nooksack River when the fish we were “going to catch as the staple of our menu” didn’t materialize. I reached out to Jim and expressed my concerns over my lack of experience. It was there our friendship was first forged.

Jim was a guru of all floatable things in the outdoors. He launched a large vessel consisting of two hand sewn pontoons each with about 50 soda dispenser bags inside. Their bag-of-marbles like shape had the appearance of adipose tissue, and so, on its maiden voyage it was christened the SS Cellulite. He strapped the monstrosity to a makeshift NRS aluminum frame. Jim was the resource man and loved the adaptability of the erector-set-like qualities NRS frames possessed, with limitless options to customize your boat. Over the next 12 years we built frame after frame, and by the end of it, Jim had collected three generations of LoPros in what came to be our communal rafting arsenal. But it wasn’t just having the equipment that made Jim who he was. He was an avid recruiter of paddling newbies and made many river riding disciples. He loved the outdoors. I think his wife Kim said it best, “Jim packed more life into 62 years than most would in 162 years.”

To me, he was a great mentor and it was in this capacity that I approached him that spring as we were going to take a fleet of five rafts down the lower Salmon River, a 70-mile excursion through Idaho, Oregon and Washington. I pleaded with Jim to join us, I needed him to get me through a gauntlet of class IV and V rapids like China, Half-and-Half, and Snow Hole. To my delight, he agreed. We started building a cataraft together and went on smaller class II-III runs to prepare. He taught me to point the bow toward the danger and back ferry to evade obstacles, how to split the “V” to get flushed out the back side and how to save your power row for the trenches to push through a turbulent hole. I slowly gained confidence, and when it came time to take China and Snow Hole, like any well-trained student, I graduated and successfully took each one solo while Jim went to guide a struggling raft.

I had always loved the outdoors, avidly backpacking, hiking and lake canoeing, but after that first trip I was hooked. Rafting moved way up my list of priorities. It may have stemmed from sheer laziness. Once Jim taught me to read a river, I realized how to use the power of hydro-propulsion to effortlessly take me through rugged gorgeous landscapes—ravines stocked with wildlife, waterfalls, and other epic scenery. Backpacking required work a hundred times harder to experience the same magnitude of scenery. Rafting felt like I was somehow cheating at life. But as easy as it could be, the river always opposed and the ensuing battle was half the fun—adrenaline spurred encounters, staring at a vertical eight-foot wall of raging water and digging hard to pull out of a hole. And thereafter, calm peaceful eddies, where you collect your thoughts and occasionally a swimmer or rogue gear.

It was in these quiet moments that we generally conversed about the philosophical aspects of the meaning of life, nature and god, the proper ratios of work versus play, or how to best deliver difficult parts of the Boy Scout curriculum. On the latter point, Jim was adamant that if you had a group of boys in a well-organized classroom with a chalkboard and handout smelling of fresh toner, you were failing miserably. The instruction would be better recalled if the youth were dodging smoke around a campfire. Turns out the trick works on adults as well (Thanks Jim!).

Jim taught me to appreciate the small things, that small half-day trips could produce just as much enjoyment as large expeditions. He loved to do the Palouse spring runoff from Elberton to the Aldergott Bridge, or of late, we did a quick three-hour stint on the Spokane River from Maple St. Bridge to Plese Flats to ride through Bowl and Pitcher and Devil’s Toenail rapids.

Jim was the first person I would call when I purchased a new piece of rafting equipment because he had a great MacGyver-esque engineering approach. The second or third time we ran the lower Salmon, in order to push through the slack waters following the confluence of the Snake River, Jim conceptualized a current sail: through a series of pulleys, I could release a hinged piece of plywood on the underside of the cataraft frame that would catch lower currents and cut down on manual rowing. It worked great until I tested out how much thrust I could get on a group of rollers and it launched me three feet in the air and snapped the plywood. That was met by applause from fellow rafters from either the feat of jumping a roller or from their jealousy of having to row out “Snake Lake” while I sailed pass. This kind of ingenuity was just how Jim’s brain worked.

I always told him that I hated going on rafting trips with him because if it ever came to a survival situation where we had to vote someone off the raft, nobody needs a rodent surgeon and Jim possessed a skill set any seasoned survivalist could envy.

In loving memory: James Talmadge Harston June 18, 1954-May 8, 2017

And so it was on a fateful day in May on the beautiful Moyie River in the Idaho panhandle that Jim, following one of his primary passions made his transition from earthly to celestial rafting. The northwest this year saw record spring run-offs, which is truly exciting for rafters young and old. The loss of a good example, a mentor and friend tries to curb my enthusiasm, but I know Jim’s spirit quietly whispers to me and many others who had the privilege of knowing him: “To the river!”

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Chris Davis is a sleep neuroscientist at the new Elson S. Floyd Medical School of WSU in Spokane, WA. He enjoys the outdoor activities with his wife, three children and their dog.