Guide Talk: The River Sage

4 Min. Read

Ask Curt Chang for some sage advice on life and you’re apt to get a quote from Steve McQueen: “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.”

It’s what you’d expect from a man who’s run the free-flowing Salmon River some 200 times. Curt oversees OARS’ operation in Idaho, where he’s worked for more than four decades fostering the tradition of dories. Meet one of the wisest men we know…

Curt Chang: The River Sage

How long have you been a part of the guiding community and what drew you to the dories?

I started guiding in 1968 on the Stanislaus River in California. My father made a trip down the Grand Canyon with Martin Litton in 1967 and came back so impressed with the adventure that he told me not to pass up the chance to go. My first trip in the canyon was in 1968. It was all by the seat of our pants then. Martin was busy with many other projects, and river outfitting in general was in its infancy. So basically, I was in the right place at the right time and had the good fortune to be a part of something truly special. For the next four years I helped recruit and train friends to be river guides as Martin took his growing enterprise to the next level and formed Grand Canyon Dories.

When did you make the leap from river guide to manager?

It was 1972 when Martin heard there was an opportunity in Hells Canyon to get a commercial permit. Martin asked me if I would like to take some boats and crew to Idaho to start a second area of operation for Grand Canyon Dories. We made an initial trip up to scout the Snake River through Hells Canyon. With that, we started up the Idaho operation out of my family’s backyard in Clarkston, Washington. Then we moved to Lewiston, Idaho just across the Snake River and our operation grew quickly. For each of the next four summers, we ran twice as many trips as the year before. We added more rivers, built our own shop and warehouse, and continued to grow. Twenty years later, Martin retired in 1991, and after 3 years of operating as a small family business, I decided to offer my services and business to George Wendt. That decision has been another stroke of good fortune and I have been happy to be a part of a larger family of river aficionados for more than 25 years.

Dory in Idaho's Hells Canyon

What is one of the most useful lessons you learned being a boatman for Martin Litton?

I learned all my big water boating skills in those early years in Grand Canyon, by making mistakes, being patient and paying attention. Martin was the ultimate inspiration; we as guides were the “get it done” team.

What makes the rivers of Idaho unique from other regions?

Idaho rafting offers a lot of big rivers with the largest percentage of public lands of any state outside of Alaska. Even in the late summer, when river flows are lowest, the huge drainage systems of the Snake and Salmon Rivers always have plenty of water. The nearly pristine wilderness areas and lack of large population centers set the stage for the best of the best in whitewater rafting.  The Salmon River system is at the top of that list as a natural free-flowing river.

Middle Fork Salmon River Rafting, Idaho | Photo: Justin Bailie

Many of your guides are second-generation river guides or people who did river trips with OARS with their families growing up. Why do you think parents are compelled to send you their kids?

I hope they remember how we pride ourselves in our family attitude and commitment to what we do and how we work together. We aren’t in this for the money and we all share a passion for free-flowing rivers and natural wild land conservation. The process of getting to know people from all walks of life, going with the flow of the river, sleeping under the stars, that makes a lifelong impression on most of those who share the life of a river guide. That experience can be so meaningful that you have to share it with your kids.

What are a guide’s most important skills?

A river guide’s most important skills are: paying attention to details like reading water, people and weather; taking on physical challenges; having a good sense of humor; and an ability to care for others.

What is it that you think people take away most from a dory trip?

My hope is that they learn what amazing water-craft dories are, and how much fun it is sharing time with strangers who turn into best friends on trips longer than three days.

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