He’s got one of the most unique jobs in the world…
Ned Perry didn’t necessarily set out to be a sweep boat driver on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, but when a mid-trip injury made it too challenging for a colleague and veteran sweep captain to drive the boat, being in the right place at the right time got him hooked. Now, Ned—who’s been guiding for OARS since 2006 and the company’s primary sweep boat driver since 2010—is one of approximately 35 people in the world who calls this unique Idaho tradition his job. We talked to him to find out more about sweep boats, the history behind them and what it’s like to navigate these massive 4,000-pound boats downstream.
What exactly is a sweep boat and why are they used on commercial rafting trips?
They take all of the gear so you don’t have to deal with baggage boats. It’s an absolutely enormous raft. The one we have was built in 1978 by Firestone Tire Company.* The boat sitting on the ground is about 4- to 5-feet tall and instead of oars, there are sweep arms off the front and the back.
What’s the history behind these boats?
They were used quite a bit on the Salmon for running lumber down to places that didn’t have access to lumber. They would build it out of lumber, fill it with lumber and run them down to Riggins or Lewiston. Then, that’s how a lot of the mining on the Main Salmon got started. People would build a sweep boat, run it down to where they wanted to start their mine and then disassemble it and build a cabin and have a go at mining. It would be a one-way trip. That’s where the “River of No Return” Wilderness got its name.
These days they’re only used on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, right?
The only place they’ve had success being run commercially is on the Middle Fork. In its 100 miles, there’s continuous current the entire time. That’s what allows them to maintain what’s called sweepage. When they’re moving, they gain mobility. The faster you’re moving, the more mobile you are.
Tell us what an average day on the river is like for a sweep boat driver.
The sweeps take off in the morning and you go by yourself all day. You usually shove off around 8 to 8:30 a.m. because if you get in the winds, they become really hard to handle.
When I shove off in the morning, I’ll head straight down to camp and try to get there as early as I possibly can. They’re a challenge to stop, especially if the water’s high so I just go, go, go. You have to have the river basically memorized and you can never set the sweeps down and chill out for a minute because the boat has to be constantly driven and pointed in the right direction. It’s very intensive while you’re driving it.
I try to get to camp by 1 p.m. Then I’ll unload the boat and get all the stuff I’ve brought with me set up so that when the passengers show up their bags are piled up, the chair circle is made, the kitchen’s half set up…everything at the camp looks like it’s set up.
What does it take to captain a sweep boat?
There’s the misconception that you need to be this really big, burly, strong guy because it’s a huge, heavy boat. When it helps to be big and burly is when you screw up. When you get stuck, it’s horrible, and it’s really hard to get unstuck. You got a 4,000 pound boat stuck on a rock and you’re by yourself so it involves some clever pushing, a mechanical advantage, whatever you can do. It can be a total nightmare. Some of the most exhausting days of my life have been brutal sticks on the sweep boat. But it’s not a strength game, it’s a finesse game.
Have you had any mishaps you’ll never forget?
There’s been a bunch, but the most challenging day I have ever had on the sweep boat was at a rapid called Hell’s Half Mile. I got stuck on the entrance…drove the nose right up on this rock in the middle of the river. I spun and my stern caught on another rock. So I was sideways and the whole front of the sweep was a foot out of the water up on this rock. It took me about an hour and 45 minutes…pushing on the boat, pulling the boat. It wasn’t moving at all. I was finally able to winch the sweep boat off the rock with a come-along. At that point, it turned into this really windy day. I still had 10 miles of challenging low water and proceeded to get stuck in a number of other places. It was absolutely brutal. That day I pulled in at about 4 p.m. I was just about in tears and remember laying down and hugging the ground I was so happy to be at camp.
Then it turned out the rest of the trip had a pretty epic day. They didn’t show up until 6 p.m. because another sweep who had left a little while after me had gotten stuck on the exact same rock in Hell’s Half Mile. That company had the whole river dammed up. It was just a wild day on the river.
When you push off from shore each morning, what’s going through your head?
That’s one of the best moments. The Middle Fork runs right from the center of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, which is the largest wilderness in the lower 48 states. To be out there running a wild river in the middle of the wilderness, by yourself, and knowing what excitement you have ahead of you for the day, I love that.
So you enjoy being out there all alone?
There are times where you can get a little into your own head, but for the most part, it’s amazing. You get a lot of good time to reflect. A lot of times, you just stare up at the canyon walls. I’m a people person but I think it’s been really healthy for me. This job has taught me to enjoy my alone time.
*OARS retired its original 1978 sweep boat built by Firestone Tire Company after a successful June 24, 2016 Middle Fork Salmon trip.
Photos: Ashley Peel (top), Justin Bailie (middle), Ashley Peel (bottom)