A woman rows up to the beach at Indian Creek, the low water put-in for the Middle Fork of the Salmon. She’s in a dark green boat and her large sunhat and sunglasses cover her face.
Forest Service, I think as I give a brief wave, then go back to adjusting the straps on my raft. Then I remember former OARS guide, Elise Otto, is river patrolling this season. I look up again.
“AAAAAAHHHHHLLLLLIIIIISEEEEEE,” I yell while hopping up and down, hoping I’m not mistaking her for a different sun-shirt-clad oarswoman.
She grins, responds in a more professional and less embarrassing way than my outburst, and we say hello in a personal flotation-deviced hug.
In 2015, Otto spent the summer months working for the U.S. Forest Service, the managing agency of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, as a member of the River Patrol. River Rangers are “on-the-water” representatives, whose responsibilities include campsite and historical site maintenance and monitoring, public outreach and education, removing major hazards from the river channel, facilities and trail maintenance, and logistical support for a variety of management projects including weed control, wildfire, and fisheries.
“We’re working to make sure that people have the best experience with the smallest impact on the land,” she explained when I caught up with her over the winter. “Usually the best way to do that is to have an open discussion with people on the river and keep the conversation positive.”
Otto’s relationship with the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness began when she was stationed on a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River as a fisheries technician for the University of Idaho. Since then she’s spent at least part of every summer in the Frank Church, three of them guiding for OARS Idaho.
When asked how commercial guiding prepared her for river patrolling, Otto said, “My experience at OARS definitely did a lot to prepare me for working for the Forest Service and provided me with some amazing role models.”
“Never before had I worked for a company with so many women in leadership positions,” she added. “Both the women and men at OARS taught me so much about what type of leader and follower I want to be.”
“Beyond that, I learned about rowing, reading water, and simply how to organize and lead a smooth trip,” continued Otto. “I truly learned from the best.”
In addition to the hands-on skills, however, Otto credited OARS for helping cultivate the conservation ethic she brought into her position as a River Ranger.
“Barry Dow, Nick Grimes, Erika Unhold, Bill (Bronco) Bruchak, Ned Perry, Ashley Brown and many others…OARS is so lucky to have so many intelligent, knowledgeable and capable people on the river,” she said. “I only hope I can someday match their knowledge and love for the Frank Church and their willingness to share both with others.”
Working with the Forest Service, Otto has continued to learn about the intricacies of land management in Central Idaho—everything from salmon populations to how new wilderness areas manifest themselves and are received by surrounding communities.
When I asked her if there is anything she misses about commercial guiding, she replied, “I miss watching people transform from being ambivalently on a vacation to actually falling in love with the place, just like I fell in love with the Middle Fork the first time I floated it.”
“That is the most amazing thing about the places that OARS works,” she continued.” They are capable of changing people in ways that never cease to amaze me.”
“I also miss all the amazing food,” she added with a smile. “Sometimes I dream about those Dutch ovens full of brownies.”
Like most people who love the Middle Fork, when I asked her to reveal her favorite stretch of the river, she took a long pause. It was an unfair question.
“I don’t think I can say,” she said. “If I play favorites, who knows what rock or rapid will get jealous?”