Bill Parks: The Truth Behind the Legends

1990 Rogue River


If I had known about river running and being a guide at the same time I learned about skiing and being a ski instructor, I’d probably be the world’s oldest river guide at this point. – NRS Founder, Bill Parks

Before NRS founder Bill Parks was a river runner, he was a ski bum. Having studied business at Michigan State, Bill spent a few years working in the buttoned-up world of General Motors Electric. The experience taught him that life in a big corporation wasn’t his style, so he went back to school to finish his master’s degree. Then he decided to put his advanced degree to use as a ski instructor.

Bill went on to earn a Ph.D. in business and took a job at the University of Oregon, where he continued to teach skiing at Mt. Bachelor. While in Eugene, Bill discovered a new outdoor passion that would define the rest of his life: whitewater. His first river trip was as a swamper—guide slang for a glorified gear schlepper—on arguably the most famous river trip in the world.

“I had done a little canoeing in Michigan when I was a student,” says Bill. “But the first time I really got into whitewater was when a friend of mine, a professor of geology, had a spring trip, which was actually a geology course, in the Grand Canyon.”

It was the spring of 1969. The Colorado River was cold and intimidating, but Bill was hooked. He milked the other boatmen for all the knowledge he could, and thus began a lifelong passion for pushing rubber down rivers. Never one to dabble in recreation or business (or anything else), Bill was all in. “Anything worth doing, is worth overdoing, I guess,” he says, quoting Idaho rafting legend Clancy Reece.

After the Grand Canyon, Bill returned to Oregon, got involved with the outdoor program at the university and bought his first boat—a $69 Montgomery Ward raft. He outfitted the raft with a home-built wooden frame and started running rivers. Eventually, Bill got a gig rowing the baggage boat for an outfitter that ran wooden dories, learning all he could from the experienced guides he followed down the river.

It’s hard for Bill to describe what it was about rivers that so captivated him. “It was just so exciting,” he finally says. That excitement led Bill to start NRS in 1972, but that story of Bill Parks the businessman has been well documented while stories of Bill the boater remain the stuff of campfire fables. Around NRS we’ve all heard bits and pieces of Bill Parks river lore, but what has always been missing is the truth. Until now.

Legend #1
There’s a story about Bill running a river somewhere in Central America. Supposedly, the group had ammo cans on their rafts and some of the local military thought you all were banditos or something…

Bill: Well yes, this was a river trip in Central America on the Usumacinta River, which is not a particularly difficult river. I had been warned to be really careful on the Usumacinta because the area was full of military and militia. So I had called the outfitter up in Pennsylvania who had organized the trip and they said, “Oh no, that’s the other end of the country. You don’t need to worry about it.” So I fly down and am picked up at the airport—boom—immediately we were stopped by the military. And like a lot of rafters at this time, this group had 50 caliber ammo cans for dryboxes filled with their photography gear. The soldiers took somebody’s ammo can and marched them back to the outpost. As it turns out, the only reason the soldier escorted this guy away was so he could steal the guy’s watch out of the ammo can. But luckily, another guy in our group had spent a lot of time in South America and was very fluent in Spanish and he talked to—or bribed—the soldiers until we were released.

Usumacinta River 1970s

At night, we would see the militia marching around our hotel. We hadn’t even gotten on the river yet. Needless to say, this didn’t start the trip off well. So, we get on the river and nothing happens on day one. That first night at camp we could hear the howler monkeys—and the bombs. I saw a P51 come by going one direction, you could see the bomb down below, and when it turned around and came back—boom—no bomb. They were bombing the guerrillas.

The next morning, I’m paddling in front of the rafts in an inflatable kayak. I must have been a quarter-of-mile in front of the others, but it was flat, it wasn’t a problem. And as I’m paddling I see three people on the riverbank upstream. I yell out, “Buenos tardes,” or “Buenos noches,” or something, trying to be friendly and then I realize they have AK47s in their hands. They’re the guerrillas. And here I am, the yankee—the gringo—and they’ve probably just been bombed. And so one of the guys steps up and I see him put a round in the chamber. Now, I’ve been in the military so I know what leveraging a round in the chamber means, and I think, “Oh shit. I’m dead.” And then the current turned me so I didn’t have eye contact with him; I was facing away. Obviously—and luckily—he didn’t shoot, but later when the other group came by, they didn’t see anybody. And I was like, whew, I literally just dodged a bullet.

Legend #2
Another story claims Bill used to carry NRS catalogs with him to pass them out to people he’d see along the river. And one time, he was going down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, headed to camp, and he passed a group who’d already set up camp and none of them—males or females—had on clothes. Bill told the his group, “You guys go find camp, I’m going to go pass out some catalogs…” 

Bill: Well that’s not quite true. But it’s very close. We were passing Whitey Cox camp on the Middle Fork and no one in the group had any clothes. True. But you know, this was the middle of the 70s, and yes I dropped off a catalog or something to them. But the interesting part of the story was while I was in that eddy, a commercial group called River Adventures West or something floated up. And the logo along the side of their rafts said, “Float RAW.” But when they came around the bend and saw all these naked people they didn’t know what to do because they certainly weren’t a group that was comfortable floating raw.

Legend #3
There’s a story about somebody watching Bill run a rapid—story goes it was Whiplash on the Main—and later used cantaloupes or melons to refer to his anatomy…

Bill: Here’s what happened. This was in 1980, the week before Memorial Day. We called the ranger station and the river was running at three-and-a-half feet. We were snowed in, it was before permit season, and so we flew into Indian Creek. By the time we got there, the river was up to four-and-a-half feet and it was hot. And as it got hotter and hotter, the river went up about a foot every night. We had to camp as far as we could above the high-water line, but we’d still get up in the morning and our kitchen table would be in water. So we’re heading down the Middle Fork and as we turned the corner at the confluence of the Main, we passed two guys in a River Rider 14, who didn’t seem very knowledgeable. But the rivers were so high that most of the rapids had disappeared, so I didn’t think much about their safety.

By the time we got down to Salmon Falls, which normally requires eddying out and scouting from a rock, we could just paddle up and put our hand on that rock, so it was getting noticeably higher every night. I don’t remember the exact sequence but I know that we were camping at Yellow Pine or Ponderosa and as we were pulling gear out of the boats to camp, that River Rider 14 floated by upside down. We dropped our gear and two of us rowed out, got a hold of the raft and pulled into another camp below ours. The good news, when we turned the boat over there was nobody in it.

I don’t remember the exact details, but apparently, some people staying at one of the ranches up above the river saw the two guys come out of their boat and were able to hike down and help the two guys out of the water. And they somehow all ended up at our campsite. So our original group of four boaters and two boats became six boaters and three boats. The new guys warned us about Whiplash, which they thought was only a couple hundred yards downstream. I walked down to scout, but even though I thought I had walked substantially farther than they said, I didn’t see it. So, I walked back up and we headed out, I was leading. I don’t know how far we went but all of a sudden, the whole river was turning to the right, running up against a vertical wall and then shooting down and there’s this huge sort of maelstrom in the middle and we were right in the middle.

Whiplash at normal flows has a big sandbar upriver that you can set-up camp but that campsite was nearly under water. Later we’d speculate that the river was probably running around 85k or more that day. And here I was in the middle of the river and I just thought, “What can you do?” Obviously, we couldn’t get out. And so what happened was just pure luck. I didn’t have a choice. We ran straight down into the wall and then we pulled off about five or six feet and made it down to where the rivers parted unscathed. It turned out to be a simple line but it was pretty nerve-racking

So the question of the cantaloupes had to do with the fact I hadn’t noticed that a commercial group, with their big 16 and 18-foot boats, had been lining down the left. And as they were preparing for this rapid, I just come sweeping around the corner and go straight through, which gave me the reputation—you can guess the cantaloupe idea referring to the size of certain parts of my anatomy—amongst the outfitters on the Main and the Middle Fork as being a really go-for-it, take-amazing-chances kind of boater and that was the furthest thing from my mind. I absolutely did not deserve it because it just happened.

But the thing I remember most from that trip was a real downer. Remember, we had those two extra guys with us. And since all the passengers on our boats were actually skilled boatmen, someone from our group rowed the River Rider and the two not-so-skilled boatmen rode as passengers in our rafts. Once we made it through Whiplash, there was one final rapid of the day and I had put a beer aside for the end. When I went to look for my beer…one of the new guys had drunk it.

Legend #4
And finally, something about a rough time in Potlatch Canyon in an old fiberglass kayak?

Bill: Oh yes, this was in ’74 maybe. I was just beginning to kayak and we had heard somebody had been down Potlatch Canyon in inner tubes on Memorial Day. If someone could do that, how bad could it be in kayaks? There was a lot of snow when we put on. So much snow, when you’d catch an eddy, you couldn’t get out of your boat. Around 4 o’clock, it started to get dark and we didn’t know how far we were, but we were a long way from getting out. I could see what looked like a road up above the canyon, so we left the boats and hiked out.

We went back the next weekend to get our boats and we brought some people from the outdoor program with skis to help. We had to use ropes to pull the kayaks up a hundred feet, pull them across the bank and then drop them back down and so on. At one point, I was lowering my boat down something broke and I started sliding. I tried to steer around the person below me and I ended up hanging both the bow and the stern on rocks. When somebody came up and grabbed the boat to pull me off, the boat broke in half.

It didn’t break completely in half because the fiberglass across the bottom was there. But, it broke enough to be useless. I went through my options in my head—duct tape and patch? or ditch?—and the “I’m out of here” won. I have no idea how I got across the river, but I did and I walked out. It was a pretty long hike in pretty deep snow. But I made it back to the highway and I stood there—my paddle in one hand, my lifejacket and helmet still on—thumbing. This pickup flew by me going 60 and when he was 100 yards past me, he hit the brakes like “What the hell was that I just saw?” He backed up and ended up driving me back to Moscow and drops me off about two miles from home. So I walked through the suburbs of Moscow—still carrying my paddle, still wearing my lifejacket and helmet—and then I said this is enough, I’m not going back for that damn kayak. So I sold it to somebody for $15 as is, where is, and made them go out and get it…

Editor’s note: In celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act we’ve partnered with leading outdoor industry brands and conservation organizations to fight for free-flowing and wild rivers. With hopes to get 5,000 more miles of rivers designated Wild & Scenic, we’re gathering river stories from across the country to tell the biggest story of all: wild rivers matter. Learn more at 5000miles.org and share your river story with us.