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Behind the scenes of a river outfitter: The River Guide Trifecta

Rafting the Snake River

I took a group of nearly 20 family members on a Snake River raft trip in western Wyoming. Here's a view of the big waves, water fights and a bald eagle from the front seat.
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I took a group of nearly 20 family members on a Snake River raft trip in western Wyoming. Here's a view of the big waves, water fights and a bald eagle from the front seat.

Years ago, I heard Idaho CEOs say that if they had a choice, they would hire a former Salmon River guide over someone who was not, without hesitation. At the time, I knew what the Salmon River was. I’d heard the term “river guide.” But I did not understand what all three words together meant, and it seemed like some sort of code.

Twenty-plus years later, I now have an inkling of what those CEOs were talking about.

I recently floated the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with Aggipah River Trips, one of the oldest and most highly regarded outfitters on the river. After six days of watching four guides plus a “swamper” (who operates the “sweep boat,” a large raft to carry gear — more on that in the future), I was impressed. I spent a couple of days riding with head guide Stephanie Ellis, who runs the company with her father, Bill Bernt. (Idaho Public Television’s “Outdoor Idaho” will do a segment on Oct. 13 about four Idaho outfitters. Bill Bernt is the featured river outfitter).

I will do several “behind the scenes” pieces on this outfit. Today I offer the Salmon River Guide Trifecta: three characteristics good guides need — technical skills, a remarkable work ethic, and the ability to interact with smart guests. And being a world-class storyteller doesn’t hurt.

Technical skills

Because the water level, current speed, and rock presence in the Salmon River changes daily (thanks to snow run off, rain, dumps of rocks or logs into the river), guides must navigate many conditions. Know-how in rowing, paddling and steering is the foundation.

Making the trip exciting (as in getting wet) without being dangerous (as in being thrown out of a boat) is a crucial balance. It demands skill and vision, forward and peripheral. Sounds like what good leaders need as well — technical knowledge and skill but an ability to see outward and around, working with available resources and environmental conditions, not against them.

Work ethic

Many of us work long days. But these guides combine mental work — reading and negotiating the river — with physical work that most of us don’t have to do.

They are up by 6 a.m. to organize breakfast (eggs cooked the way guests want, bacon, baked muffins, orange juice and coffee) by 7.30. After guests finish a leisurely breakfast on tablecloths, with real plates and silverware, the guides clean up: They boil/wash plates, pots and silverware; and they pack up and load coolers, boxes, tables and chairs, the water filter, and of course, “The Groover” (a portable toilet). They load hundreds of pounds of gear into the sweep boat and row boats.

Then they switch gears to become guides for the next eight hours, steering and paddling through rocks and rapids. Guests who row and wear gloves often endure blisters day after day. Guides who row without gloves have blister-free hands. The secret: They “barely touch” the paddles, working with the river, not fighting it.

Dinner is a repeat of breakfast with unloading, cooking a gourmet meal (steaks, baked potatoes, cherry cobbler, wine), and cleaning up. The guides finish by 9.30.

Connect with guests

Aggipah’s niche tends to be serious river lovers and rafters. Those customers want to learn about the river — its history, geology and culture. That requires guides who are mature, educated and able to interact with smart guests. Guides who are surly; who don’t know about the history, animals, rapids or fish; or who want to party into the night need not apply.

This did not surprise me until I thought about it. The guides must do the technical part, but they are also the face of the organization. With word of mouth as a key marketing approach, interactions are crucial.

What I had not expected was the ability to tell captivating stories. Bernt, daughter Stephanie and son John are masters. Stephanie has published a story in a collection of guide stories, all of which are compelling.

The wilderness, with no noise except the river, insects and wind, is a great place to spend your time. Getting good at storytelling is the challenge.

Perhaps that’s the takeaway for business organizations. Yes, the trifecta characteristics are key (technical knowledge, work ethic, and people skills). But as organizations increasingly try to convey vision and ideas, storytelling is a necessary talent. Perhaps teaching leaders how to do that is a new opportunity for river guides.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University, nnapier@boisestate.edu.

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