A Day in the Life of an Idaho River Guide

What it’s really like to be a river guide…

5:45 am – I wake up, my hands are numb and it’s pitch black dark. I peek my eyes out of my sleeping bag, slowly stretch out my sore fingers and massage my palms. I hear the river and hear the hiss of propane heating our morning water. This time of day is sweet like chewing on my favorite candy. The campsite is quiet and I get to stretch awake while Idaho does too – the pinks and oranges of sunrise rising up with me.

Being a river guide has taught me to function for at least an hour before coffee – a skill I never thought I’d have. I chop fruit, set up morning drinks and start prepping breakfast. I give out good mornings as the crew and guests wake up and start another river day. Finally, I enjoy my first sips of coffee.

7:00 am – Does anything taste better than bacon on the river? I don’t think so.

8:00 am – Pack up time. I dismantle stoves, wash dishes, fold chairs and pump boats. Everything fits under the deck of my boat in a special place, like a game of life-sized Tetris. If I’m rowing a dory I sponge the water and sand off my boat. If I’m on a raft I cinch straps and tie off their ends. All river guides have their superstitions and mine is that if my boat looks good it will feel good in the upcoming rapids.

River guide on the Main Salmon River, Idaho

9:30 am – Crew meeting! Time to touch base with my crew and talk about the day to come…and if we think a hippopotamus could mutate into a flying alligator. Yes, we do talk about things like this.

9:35 am – I try to simultaneously row, apply sunscreen and brush my teeth. Varying levels of success.

Morning on the water – Have you heard the story of the anadromous fisheries on this river? Morning is my favorite time to talk about the culture and ecology of the Salmon River and also take quiet moments of reflection. If we’re going to stop for a hike to pictographs or an old homestead, I try to fit it into our morning schedule.

10:55 am – We pull over to take a look at Big Mallard Rapid. You know what we don’t tell you? Even the most experienced boaters get nervous. We know the power of the river and although we’re well-trained and competent, I take a minute to visualize our lines and make a good luck offering to the river. Respect for the river and the wilderness we travel through is the cornerstone of a guide’s relationship to the water.

River Guides Scouting Big Mallard Rapid on the Main Salmon

11:00 am – We push off into the eddy above Big Mallard…

:15 seconds later – Pure focus and pure joy. I’m not sure how else to describe running a rapid. The roar of the river vibrates up the shaft of the oars and into my arms. I’m not thinking about the motion in my body, just reacting. This is a feeling that river guides live for.

:30 seconds later – That was fast and I am SOAKED! My heart is still pounding and I’m grinning. I couldn’t stop smiling if I tried.

Noon – Lunch! Slice tomatoes, chug water, repeat.

12:05 pm – As I prep lunch I’m thinking, “I will NOT EAT ANY COOKIES.”

12:06 pm – “Okay maybe just one…or six.”

12:07 pm – “…with peanut butter.”

Water fight on Idaho's Main Salmon | Photo: James Kaiser

Afternoon on the water – Water fight! The hot sunny hours of the afternoon are the perfect time to cool off with a jump in the river or a game of “jump off the sandbar into the water like your favorite safari animal” (I do a great cheetah). The afternoon is all about making sure everyone stays cool, keeps their stoke high and enjoys the long summer afternoon light.

4:00 pm – When we arrive at camp it’s time to set up home again–an un-Tetrising of the morning pack up. I sometimes joke, as I team carry a 50-pound commissary box, that guiding is a better workout than Crossfit. No, it’s not really a joke.

4:32 pm – I stop moving for the first time since 5:44 this morning. I sit on my boat and give myself a few moments to watch the river pass peacefully.

4:35 pm – “Sure I can grab you a cold drink from the cooler! Who wants to play a game of horseshoes?”

Horseshoes on the Main Salmon River, Idaho

5:30 pm – Call me Emeril. Pulling food from coolers and dry boxes, we start prepping dinner. This is my chance to practice my Iron Chef skills. (I’ve learned more skills for grilling the perfect steak, steaming broccoli to perfection and crafting Dutch oven lasagnas than I ever have in a restaurant. Bam!)

6:45 pm – You know what tastes better than bacon on the river? Dutch oven lasagna on the river.

7:45 pm – Thigh deep in the river trying to scrub baked cheese out of the bottom of a Dutch oven…

8:15 pm – I’m washing THE FINAL DISH. Wait, there’s one more?

8:17 pm – Okay – THE FINAL DISH!

8:20 pm – Where have all these dishes been hiding?!

Campfire on the Middle Fork Salmon River

8:30 pm – Kicking back with fellow guides and new friends is the best. We huddle our chairs around the campfire and tell ghost stories, listen to recounts of the epic inflatable kayak flips earlier that day and meditate on a few songs from the musical types in the group.

9:30 pm – I roll out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag and try to write a letter but my eyes grow droopy beyond, “You shoulda seen my line today in Big Mallard…” The sky is on fire with stars, my arms are as noodle-y as our cooked lasagna and I whisper jokes and goodnights to the crew spread out on the boats around me. Sleep comes fast, but not before I send a “thank you” up into the Idaho sky for another busy, fun, rewarding, tiring day as a river guide.

 

  • Scott

    What is the saying – Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life? . . . I’ve been rafting for 49 of my 60 years . . . guided for two years . . . most sublime guiding memories I have, even when pumping up boats (back in “the day”) at Potash, just after midnight and after taking off a Westwater trip that same day . . . covered with mosquitoes 🙂

    • Emerald LaFortune

      Love that saying Scott – it is a pretty sweet gig.

  • Sandy Williamson

    I did the same in CA 1970-74 with ARTA. OARS was a new competitor then. Thx for writing. Boat men $25/day. Head boatman got 5 more and had to dump portapotti.

    • Emerald LaFortune

      Thanks for saying hello Sandy! I’d love to hear more of your stories – funny how some traditions stay the same (TL’s dump groovers!)

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