Guide Talk: Summer School on Idaho’s Salmon River
Meet Veteran OARS Guide Camilo Montaño
Camilo Montaño was fairly certain that his guiding career was over after his very first commercial rafting trip on a daily stretch of the Rio Grande in New Mexico.
That day, he wrapped his boat and swam all of his guests—a group of six 10- to 12-year-old girls. His crew quickly helped get everyone back on other boats unscathed, but as Camilo recalls, he was sure his boss was going to fire him.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if this job is for me,’” recalls Camilo. “I might be better off in the warehouse.”
Instead, when he got off the river, his boss called him over and put him on the next trip.
“I was good after that,” says Camilo. “It went fine and I got my wings under me, but yeah, that first trip was an epic adventure.”
That was nearly 20 years ago and he’s been guiding ever since. In 2008, Camilo started guiding multi-day river trips in Idaho for OARS. Now a full-time high school teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he spends the majority of his year teaching culinary and life skills, before fleeing to the mountains of Idaho each summer to be with his river family.
Below, Camilo shares some lessons he’s learned as a river guide, how he brings those experiences to his students back home, and why he keeps returning to Idaho’s Salmon River every summer.
You’re a full-time teacher, but spend your summers guiding in Idaho. What brings you back each season?
More than anything now, besides the river, I just love working with my friends. The things that I’ve accomplished have been because of the influence of the people that I work with up in Idaho, and they’re really important to me. So it’s a chance for me to take a break from school, and be on the river with people I love and trust with my life. We’re like family. That’s what keeps me coming back.
What’s one of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned being a river guide?
To be open-minded and have a growth-mindset in anything that you do. You’re going to have set-backs. You’re going to have negative experiences. But if you have a growth-mindset and can move past [those set-backs], and problem solve, you can keep moving forward and achieve your goals. We have those life lessons on the river all the time when a boat flips, when people get sick, or you have injuries. You have to deal with it, right? You can never give up. That’s valuable life experience, and that’s what I try to bring to my students, as well. We talk about having a growth-mindset and the importance of persevering and going through adversity. So I think that’s one of the bigger life lessons that I’ve learned being a river guide, period.
Do you share a lot of lessons from the river with your students?
Oh yeah, all the time. I teach culinary classes, so I show them how we cook on the river. I actually bought a bunch of Dutch ovens my first year, so we do an outdoor cooking lab. We’ve done lasagnas, deep dish pizzas, and baked cakes in them, as well.
You also started an outdoor adventure club at the school where you teach. What motivated you to do that?
The school where I teach is a Title 1 school. That means 70% or more of our students live at or below the poverty line, so most of our students live in low economic areas, and a lot of them don’t ever leave their neighborhoods. I was one of those students. So I thought an outdoor adventure club would be awesome to get them out of their neighborhoods, to get them to explore New Mexico. We have these beautiful mountains that are right behind our city – a 15-minute drive and you can be at a sweet trail hiking into the deep wilderness of the Sandia Mountains. So we do a lot of hiking. We’ve done river rafting. I’m taking them rafting again [on the Rio Grande] and we’re going to camp two nights next to the river.
Why do you think people should go on river trips?
What I’ve seen, especially from people who never experienced the outdoors and the wilderness, it changes a lot of people’s lives.
Which river has your heart and why?
Working for OARS I’ve gotten to do Grand Canyon, the Snake, Lower Salmon, Main Salmon, and Owyhee. So I’ve gotten to do all these rivers, but the Middle Fork of the Salmon, I love, because it’s a free-flowing river. It’s changing every week. I love Grand Canyon, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the same lines every single trip, no matter what. But on the Middle Fork, those lines change and keep it new and exciting. So my heart’s with the Middle Fork of the Salmon, for sure. I’m a Southwest guy, but I love being there in the summertime. It restores me and replenishes my soul for the next year.
Guides bring a lot of different personalities and talents to the table. What role do you play on the river?
When I first started in Idaho, we had so many good musicians, and we still do. And a lot of people like to dress up and paint their toenails. I don’t like any of that actually. I never have. But I’m the guy who likes to tell stories around the campfire. So I’m the storyteller. I’m from New Mexico, and we have a lot of Hispano and Native American culture, and in Idaho there are a lot of Native American topics to talk about. So that’s what I love to do – tell stories and talk about Native Americans. I’m a history buff.
What makes you especially proud to be an OARS guide?
I appreciate the values that OARS represents. When we are on the river we’re having lots of fun, but being a teacher I have realized we’re really educating people about the river. Yeah, we want to show [guests] a good time and keep them safe, but we also want to make sure that they feel and understand the magic behind these places.