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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

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"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.

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