River Guide Quickfire: Meet Emerald LaFortune
Name: Emerald LaFortune
Hometown: Moscow, Idaho
Guide For: O.A.R.S. on Idaho’s Salmon and Snake Rivers
Do you remember your first experience on a river?
My first experience on a river was car camping on the Salmon River and stuffing sand down my diaper (ha!). My first experience with whitewater was a family trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. I was seven and decided I was going to walk around every single rapid because I was so scared. After a torturous scramble around Sulfur Slide, my parents (former guides) knew they had to put an end to this. They didn’t tell me the next rapid was coming up. By the time I saw the horizon line it was too late. After the drop, I looked at my dad and said, “That was FUN!” I still tell that story to guests who are nervous about the whitewater.
What role do rivers play in your life?
Rivers have always been like a fifth member of our family. I remember BEGGING to go to Disneyland and my parents saying, “Nope, sorry, we’re going down the Salmon again!” At that age I was so mad, but now, I’m grateful. My dad taught me to row, taught me to watch water and taught me to love being on the river. When he passed away, my family turned to those rivers to help us process our grief. Rivers are where I go when I’m joyful, when I’m sad, when I’m working and when I have time off. I don’t know how to describe it all! What role don’t rivers play?
How long have you been a guide and why do you continue to do it?
This is my fifth year guiding and I continue because of the people I get to work with. Some of our guides have over 30 years of guiding experience (that’s way more knowledge than can be packed into any guidebook!). I learn something new from my coworkers every time I run a river. Also, I have an Environmental Studies background and my goal has always been to work on river conservation issues in Idaho. To me, guiding is one of the most powerful conservation tools we have in protecting the integrity of our remaining wild landscapes. I’ll be honest though—when I came into guiding, I was eighteen—I started guiding to meet more cute boys that liked whitewater boating! Luckily it’s about more than that now.
What’s your favorite river-related activity and why?
Eddy playtime! The Salmon River has camps with these great, giant sand beaches with slow-moving water. For kids it’s the ultimate playground. We build sand castles, run and jump into the water, play on the SUPs or inflatable kayaks…it brings me back to when I was a kid on the river. I love seeing young people dig in (literally) and explore my favorite place.
Are you the rapids or the raft?
Most days I feel more on-level with the groover than either of those two magical things.
If you could communicate one thing about the importance of rivers, what would it be?
Over half of our bodies are water. We can last only days without drinking water. Water grows our food. For many of us, rivers are our church. The importance of rivers goes beyond just recreation.
What are some of the current challenges facing our rivers that you notice?
For Idaho, I think our greatest challenge has been losing our anadromous fishery of wild pacific run steelhead and salmon. We have a great fish habitat in the far-inland reaches of Idaho, but the wild fish simply aren’t making it through the multiple Snake and Columbia River dams. I think it’s important for us to not pretend our rivers are “healthy” or “natural” without those fish. Our challenge is to figure out how to balance our value of cheap hydropower and supply barging with the needs of one of the greatest fisheries on earth.
Any parting wisdom or advice?
There’s a lot of pressure in the adventure world today to “see it all.” If you’re willing to take advice from a 24-year-old, I say travel the world and experience other cultures but also never be afraid to visit the same place over and over again. Having a deeper, “home” knowledge of a place is special too.