The Accidental River Guide

5 Min. Read
Rafters throwing their hands up while rafting Idaho's Lower Salmon River

An Idaho Guide Finds Community and Connection on the River

I became a river guide by accident. It began when my boyfriend at the time persuaded me to join a Grand Canyon rafting trip as his assistant. He’d asked several times, but I was always busy, until one fall I ran out of excuses. The experience was as magical as only a first trip down the Canyon can be. The landscape was terrifyingly beautiful, the rapids adrenaline-inducing, but it was the laughing, silly, heartwarming people that truly captured me.

Mia on a Grand Canyon rafting trip with friends
Mia Clyatt, the author, bonds with the crew on her first Grand Canyon rafting trip

There were three female baggage boaters on the trip, and they all gave me a turn on their oars. I slowly fumbled and learned how to push a heavy raft downriver while I listened to the stories they spun. I became particularly close with an Idaho river guide, who told me of the clear water and rugged beauty of the Frank Church Wilderness, and the feisty dories taking on spring high water. After the trip, the ladies took me to a gear store in Flagstaff and bought me my first ammo can, a guide’s personal storage cubby. Laughter in their eyes, they told me, “We know you’re going to be a river guide.” I was touched, but told them firmly that I had other career plans.

The following spring, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about my time in Grand Canyon. I decided I would apply to OARS Idaho, and if I got the job, I could afford to take one summer off from my career track. The Idaho manager called me a week later. I was so nervous I left a cast iron pan on the stove and set the fire alarms off during our interview. I blamed my roommates, and after disabling the alarms, managed to ace the interview.

Mia guides a paddle raft through a splashy rapid on the Lower Salmon River
Mia guides a paddle raft full of guests through a splashy rapid on the Lower Salmon River | Photo: Rob Aseltine

In June of that first year I pulled into the OARS warehouse in Lewiston, parking my truck next to a beat-up Subaru. A petite girl with long red braids walked around the car and introduced herself. Caroline, another new guide, would become one of my best friends, a foundational person in my life who’s influence I cannot imagine living without. My rookie class also included Hunter, Hannah, and Dan.

My first two trips, I shared a baggage boat with Hunter, who I call anytime I have a spiritual quandary or a mad biking adventure in mind. Dan and I argued most of our first year, and now we always chose to cook together so we can debate philosophy and review books. Hannah was shy, but it was masked by a grace and strength that I admire to this day.

As the summer flew by, I fell in love with the Salmon River. I’d been to beautiful places before, but what drew me in completely was the community, and the way they accepted me so wholeheartedly. Maddie showed me how to row my first dory, and how to stand up for myself. Seneca was my mentor, and still is today. Zach and I would talk shop, and always will. Mallory periodically wrestled (tackled) me without warning, now she gives me business advice and talks me through challenges. Rose showed me all the kayak lines on the Middle Fork Salmon, and has since watched my back in foreign countries and endeavors into new sports.

Peaceful evening in camp along Idaho's Lower Salmon River
Peaceful evening in camp along Idaho’s Lower Salmon River | Photo: Rob Aseltine

Perhaps part of what makes the guide community so close is the simple life we lead on the river. Every morning we wake up and think: Where are we going to eat today? Which camp will we sleep at tonight? And in the time in between, we mostly think, what will the river or Mother Nature throw at us today—a boat-flipping rapid, unrelenting winds, extreme heat, or maybe a thunderstorm? Tackling each day as it comes and challenges that may arise makes me feel grounded. But it’s really about the flow of river life bringing forth what’s truly important that makes living life easy.

I’ve made some of my closest friends on the river, and I’ve felt a deep sense of belonging in this community that has led me to spin the axis of my life around guiding for six years and counting.

I am so grateful for the river, and the lessons it teaches me. Each year I try to bring more of river life into the off-season, striving for the simplicity and clarity that comes so easily every summer.

A group of OARS Idaho guides poses for a photo on the Lower Salmon River.
A group of OARS Idaho guides pose for a photo along the Salmon River | Photo: Rob Aseltine

As myself and many of my fellow guides transition out of the carefree days of our twenties, we look to each other for our next steps. We begin to buy homes and build families, not in the towns we grew up in, but in the places we can be with each other and with the river. We talk about how to guide once we have kids, and about building businesses or careers that will allow us weeks off in the summer to guide.

For me, the river has become not simply a seasonal job, but a map for how to build the rest of my life, and a foundational community to spend it with. I’m so grateful to be an accidental river guide.

Mia Clyatt

Mia Clyatt is a professional river guide, ski patroller and an advocate for wilderness. She loves good food, good company, and open ranges.

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