Curt Chang stands knee-deep in the Snake River next to his blue and white dory, Poi’pu. He straps in some gear and turns the chrome buckles on the hatches. Three bright yellow OARS rafts wobble in the current alongside him, guides bustling over the inflatable crafts, tying down sleeping pads, water jugs and waterproof bags for the five-day trip on the Snake River through Hells Canyon.
“Okay, my goal is to only fill it up to here,” Curt says, indicating a spot about six inches from the top of the dory’s gunwale.
He flashes a bright smile and the river guides laugh. They know it’s unlikely this veteran river runner will flip or fill his boat with water. Curt has been rowing dories in Grand Canyon, and on the Snake and Salmon Rivers for more than 50 years. The 74-year-old has more experience than all the guides on this trip combined. He knows better than anyone that anything can happen on the river.
The year 2022 marks five decades since Curt, who was born and raised in Hawaii, first arrived in Idaho and started running dories—the beautifully curved wooden boats common in Grand Canyon—on the area’s rivers. Since then, he’s grown from a rascally river guide into a sharp manager who oversees every aspect of OARS’ Idaho operation. He’s seen generations of river guides come and go. All have learned a lot from his quiet tutelage.
“He’s one of those people who expects a lot out of you,” says Hillary Mosman, OARS Idaho Assistant Manager, who’s worked for Curt for over 16 years. “It has been really special for me to have someone in my life who believed in me and pushed me to do things that I didn’t know I was capable of.”
Idaho Dories: The Beginning
As the group pushes off from beneath the Hells Canyon Dam, Curt falls in line with the loaded rafts and one other dory. He draws easily on the oars, drifting into the current and maximizing the river’s power.
From under his wide-brimmed straw hat and polarized sunglasses, he looks up at the steep basalt canyon walls more than a mile high that create the deepest river gorge in North America.
Poi’pu, the name meaning “rough water” in Hawaiian, bobs through the small whitewater waves.
Not far downstream, the trip’s largest rapids are waiting and roaring.
Curt is a dory legend. He started his career rowing dodgy inflatable rafts on California’s Stanislaus River before joining a Grand Canyon trip with Martin Litton, the famous conservationist who’s often credited with saving Grand Canyon from dams, and who founded Grand Canyon Dories. Litton eventually hired Chang for the 1969 John Wesley Powell Centennial trip on the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River.
This trip was successful enough for Litton to hire Chang as a guide the next summer, then as a trip leader for the next three years. Curt was once tasked with taking a naval surplus survival raft, partially constructed of a rubberized cotton fabric, through the canyon. The sketchy boat folded in half in Lava Falls and sent Curt and his passenger flying. When they climbed back aboard, they found the boat’s floor had ripped away and was dragging on the river bottom.
“Nobody ever took another boat like that,” Curt laughs. “It was a historic one-timer.”
As Curt’s skills as a guide progressed, he gained responsibility as a trip leader, running Litton’s dory trips in the “Big Ditch.” During his first few years, Chang helped photographers and writers, who were documenting the movement to protect Grand Canyon, run the river. He got to know Litton better, too.
He was there when Litton famously flipped three separate dories in Crystal Rapid, one after another.
“He was super entertaining and completely driven,” Curt says. “There were some really interesting moments when he would say ‘oh yeah, we’re going to do this’. And he would just go for it. That day at Crystal when he flipped three boats was the epitome of that.”
Moving to Idaho
Near Wild Sheep Rapid, the first Class IV on the Hells Canyon trip, Curt and the other boats pull over to scout. From the bank, they can see the roaring waves and shallow boulders on river left. The group of guides discusses the best line and settles on dropping to the left of a big midstream boulder and rowing across the current to hit the big hole from the right. They load back onto the boats and pull into fast water one-by-one.
The first dory, piloted by a fourth-year guide named Ulli, cruises through the rapid, maneuvering diagonally and exiting cleanly through the tail waves. In front of Curt, Liza, a first-year river guide, shoots her gear boat from left to right and snaps through the big drop with a solid splash. With a single passenger and not much gear, Curt’s light dory enters the first section at an angle. He leans back on his long wooden oars. Poi’pu responds immediately, lining up bow first towards the truck-sized whitewater. His line draws dead into the boiling heart of Wild Sheep.
Curt’s first trip to Hells Canyon came after Litton helped protect the area from further hydroelectric development. Just before Congress deemed this section of the Snake River a national recreation area, Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories requested a permit to offer river trips. After a quick scouting trip, Curt was sent by Litton to run the operation.
“We came and started running trips. There was nobody out here,” Curt says. “The mail boat was the only jet boat that we saw.”
Building a Business
After their start in 1972, business doubled every year. Curt recruited his ski buddies as river guides. They crashed in his backyard. One guide fixed up and slept in an old chicken coop.
“The neighborhood definitely went downhill when we arrived,” Curt laughs. “The people here didn’t know what to make of us.”
In 1979, Curt and his father built the Lewiston boat-house where OARS Dories now operates. They rented the front half of the building to a tenant, but eventually expanded into the whole space. A few years after building the boathouse, still under the umbrella of Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories, Curt and his guides received a double launch permit for the Salmon River and started running commercial trips on the Lower Salmon, and then the Main Salmon, too.
For a kid from California, the roaring Snake and Salmon were impressive. The flows could match and exceed the Colorado. Curt remembers standing on the banks of the Salmon in 1974 feeling the ground shake and watching the flow top 140,000 cfs, enough water to move huge rocks and tons of sediment.
The Snake and Salmon Rivers turned out to be fierce challenges for dory captains. Customers who’d experienced Grand Canyon and were looking for another adventure would jump on a plane to Lewiston. The Snake also proved to be a good training ground for guides and guests who were hoping to take on the Colorado.
Kevin Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile, described these rivers as “highly technical” and “studded with the kind of rocks that could peel open the bottom of a dory like a can opener.”
Famously, Emerald Mile, the dory at the center of Fedarko’s book, was almost completely destroyed in Wild Sheep Rapid a couple seasons before the record speed run in Grand Canyon.
“This whole scene was crazy cool,” Curt says. “The flows weren’t that much different than the Grand Canyon. It was a good fit. The fact that you had all these big rivers here in Idaho was super impressive to me, coming from California.”
Curt smiles as the dory charges into the dark green hole of Wild Sheep Rapid. The line appears to be perfect, a straight shot through the center of the boiling current.
But somewhere after the first drop, a wall of water rises up like the Great Wave off Kanagawa and slams into the starboard side of the little craft. In an instant, Poi’pu is on its side and tipping further. Curt and his passenger are underwater.
The dory rides through the rest of the rapid upside down. The passenger avoids the overturned boat, tail waves crashing over his bright yellow helmet. Curt is under the dory in darkness, his head comfortably situated in an air pocket. He pops out in calm water and looks upstream. His straw hat and sunglasses are gone, but there’s no damage to Poi’pu or its crew. In 50 years, Curt has flipped fewer than five times.
“I thought those tail waves were a little more friendly than they were,” he says later with a soft smile. “We had a little slap bang over-she-goes kind of deal.”
The river outfitter business around Idaho flourished through the 1980s. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Curt ran into challenges. Litton retired and sold Grand Canyon Dories to OARS. The Idaho operation was not included in the sale. Curt took over the business with his family.
“We ran it for three years without the Grand Canyon association, and that was hard,” Curt says. “We had built the business off people coming from Grand Canyon to Idaho for their next trip. And the opposite, as well.”
Curt had the idea to sell Northwest Dories, the new name of his Idaho operation, to OARS. The sale would effectively reunite his small business with a larger company and allow him to focus on running trips.
He pitched the idea to OARS founder, George Wendt. Curt worked from OARS headquarters in Angels Camp, California, selling Idaho trips and teaching the staff about their enterprise. It took some convincing, but OARS eventually bought Northwest Dories.
“At the time in 1991, that seemed like a crazy idea, but I’m sure glad we made that jump,” Wendt said in a 2014 interview. “Curt has continued to run dories in Idaho, and there has been a real good cross-flow of passengers.”
Perfecting the Operation
In 1995, with the backing of the larger company, OARS Dories was able to acquire a new permit for the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, now one of the company’s most popular trips.
As Poi’pu drifted upside down in the calm pool after Wild Sheep Rapid, Curt grabbed the dory’s flip line and hauled on it with all his weight. Poi’pu is named for a beach on Kauai where Curt spent time as a kid. The beach has now been built over by condos.
Just as in Grand Canyon, dories in Idaho are named for beautiful natural places that have been lost to development or industry. In 50 years, the dories haven’t changed. OARS Dories is still using several of the same dories that were brought from Grand Canyon in 1972. They’ve seen many repairs, but the majesty of the river crafts remains. Other than the boats and the rivers, almost everything else about the trips has changed.
With the new ownership, marketing and customer service under OARS, Curt could turn to perfecting the logistics and itineraries for trips. Every season the crew tweaked things to make trips on the Snake and Salmon Rivers smoother and more fun.
Improving the food on trips was a priority. Early on in Grand Canyon, boaters took mostly canned food and a few hearty vegetables. Bread would be stuffed into army surplus drybags that weren’t exactly dry. Curt remembers drying slices of bread on the rocks, turning them into hard crackers. Now, Curt orders wild salmon directly from Alaska and ground buffalo (for burgers!) from a ranch in Wyoming.
With much tugging and hauling, Curt’s white and blue river dory eventually turns over. The water sloshes in the hull at almost exactly the level Curt jokingly predicted it would at the start of the trip. After a few minutes of bailing, Poi’pu sits high and proud on the surface again. Curt locks the oars back in place and dips the blades in the water like nothing ever happened.
When asked to reflect on the flip, he chuckles a little and gives a practical account. He could’ve rowed farther to the right to avoid the waves, he says. But that line might not have been any fun, he adds.
Now in his seventies, Curt still loves being on the river. He’s proud of the business he built. But he’s kept working for other reasons. A couple days later and 20 miles down the river, Curt bustles about camp adjusting knots on boats tied up in the shallows. Ulli, the trip’s leader and other dory captain, watches Curt’s ropework carefully. Curt beckons him over and quietly shows the young guide the adjustable way he secures the boats, so he can make quick changes as the river rises or falls.
Curt still loves guiding and always enjoyed the guide/guest interaction. But the size and complexity of the OARS Idaho operation has kept him busy. He’s found satisfaction in working with and teaching generations of staff.
“The crew is what’s inspiring. The people who we get to work with us are just amazing young people,” Curt says. “That’s the thing that’s kept me going. Their job is taking care of guests. My job is taking care of them. That’s the fun of it for me.”
Like this story? Watch out short film, Dory Land, which takes an inside look at the community Curt Chang has built in Idaho around wooden boats and free flowing rivers. Here’s a sneak peek…
Photo credits: Dylan Silver, OARS Archive