Guide Talk: You Wish You Had His Life
I recently caught Eric Riley, O.A.R.S.’ Wyoming Regional Manager, on the phone from his home in Jackson Hole. But as I quickly found out, this longtime guide and whitewater kayaker is rarely there. He does what the rest of us wish we could do for “work”—travels the world and has incredible adventures.
But he’s no slacker if that’s what you’re thinking. Besides running sea kayaking and rafting trips for O.A.R.S. in the Tetons, Riley is also a wilderness medicine instructor and runs his own company called Swiftwater Safety Institute that takes him everywhere from Alaska to Asia to train other whitewater guides. And when he’s not working—which he seems to do just to support his next big trip—he’s traveling to some great surfing destination, paragliding spot, or river you’ve never heard of. You wish you had his life. Or, at least I do. Meet O.A.R.S. Guide Eric Riley…
You’ve been with O.A.R.S. for more than a decade. What led you down this path?
I grew up in the Boise area and I started boating in the Payette drainage. Up in Idaho that’s what you do. That’s how I got my start.
How did you get into whitewater kayaking?
A friend of mine, Jesse Sears, another longtime O.A.R.S. guide, got me into the pool for a roll session. That was probably the winter of 2001. We didn’t work on any mechanics. We didn’t work on a damn thing that was appropriate. He just showed me how to roll really quickly using kind of bad technique as I would later find out in life. Then, the next time I was in a kayak was the following summer on the Payette. And right at the put-in, I rolled. I was really good at that but didn’t have any other skill. I didn’t know how to paddle. I didn’t know how to brace. I didn’t have any other technique so it was really quite humbling. The first rapid you come to is called, “Whitewater 101.” And yup, I swam. I think I was probably cussing out Jesse the whole time for not really teaching me what I needed to know—how to brace, paddle, how to stay up right, you know.
Yikes! What other kinds of gnarly wilderness situations have you gotten yourself into?
We were just up in Alaska to do this real cool packraft adventure. Just a day trip. We were doing about 33-miles combined—river miles and hiking—and we blew the take-out. We had to stay the night out there, and this is dense grizzly bear country. It was a little scary. You should have seen some of these grizzly tracks. They were absolutely huge. Yeah, sketchy. We built this shelter out of driftwood, had to sleep in our dry suits, got a little fire going…and we survived. We had bear spray and a really big hand gun, so at least we had that stuff, but you feel kind of silly when it’s happening. But good stories around the bar, you know?
You clearly live for whitewater, but I know you’ve guided a lot of sea kayaking trips. What do like about sea kayaking compared to whitewater?
You get to think about whatever you want to think about and let your mind wander. On a nice early morning, when the sun is just rising and you’re on glassy water, it’s just paddle stroke after paddle stroke and you reach these super, incredible spots. When you’re whitewater rafting, you’re always thinking about your next move. Looking around for your buddies, making sure everything is good. You don’t get to take in these huge canyons or wherever you might be. And that’s what I really like about sea kayaking, especially being in the Tetons. You get these views—you can’t even describe them, they’re amazing. It reminds me of a place in Switzerland I’ve visited before with the mountains and the lake. It’s just super sweet.
Tell me about some of the other cool places you’ve visited?
Alaska kind of holds my heart. The rivers up there, and the wildness and remoteness, it’s hard to find that in other places. And I was on the O.A.R.S. Bhutan trip and got to row a gear boat through some of the toughest whitewater I’ve ever been on in a raft.
What’s something you can’t leave home without?
My shark taser. It’s not really a real thing, but in my head it is. Growing up in Idaho, not even going into the ocean until I was like 15, and watching jaws WAY too much—I hate sharks. And I love to surf, but it takes me like two weeks to get comfortable in the ocean every time I go back. I always go surfing with Bram Role [another O.A.R.S. guide]. He’s always giving me a hard time and saying like, “Hey man, got your shark taser today?” And I need one. I’m freaked out.
Do you have a best-trip-ever story?
Panama. The Rio Cangandi. It was a 4-day packraft trip where we had horse support. We traveled over the continental divide, encountered salt water crocs, poisonous arrows, native Kuna Yala tribes and were welcomed as guests at a ceremonial dinner. Our terminus was the Carribbean Sea. Coolest river trip in the history of river trips!