Idaho’s outfitting industry has always attracted colorful characters—the ones completely at home leading a pack string down a mountain trail, or piloting a raft through one of the state’s many Class IV rapids.
This is an industry with a major impact on Idaho’s economy, its image and its outdoor resources. In fact, each year nearly 200,000 people enlist the services of these modern-day mountain men, storytellers and self-reliant MacGyver types.
The Outfitters profiles some of these men and women tasked with connecting us to the natural world; and in the process we discover why Idaho is a national leader in the licensing and regulating of this important industry.
We profile Idaho's outfitters in their element and examine the challenges they face.
Darl Allred, of Allred's Adventures, has been operating as an outfitter in the Sawtooth Mountains for nearly 30 years. This interview was conducted in 2016 near Spangle Lakes, in the Sawtooth Wilderness, about 16 miles from Atlanta, Idaho.
Is Idaho a good state for Outfitters?
Idaho is a leader in the outfitting industry. Because of our licensing board and our designated areas, we have a strong outfitting community. It makes for good neighbors.
I moved here by choice. And I was outfitting in Utah, and all it was there is a forest service permit. And I might be camping here and the neighbor camping there, and the next guy right there. Here in Idaho we have strict boundaries that makes good neighbors. So if I need help, my neighbors over in Stanley, Mystic Saddle Ranch, we work together a lot.
What is the difference between an Outfitter and a Guide?
I’m an outfitter and I’m also a licensed guide. So the outfitter runs the business end of things. We’re responsible for having the insurance, we deal with the forest service permits, we buy the groceries… we book the clients.
A guide may be along on the trip, and his responsibility is to take care of the people and provide the service; most outfitters will play the role of both.
The trail from Atlanta to Spangle Lakes has not been easy for hikers or stock. But your horses did amazingly well.
If it was easy, everybody would be here; it would be crowded. But we haven’t seen anybody else along the way, and it doesn’t look like there’s hardly been any traffic up and down the trail.
My impressions were that there could be a little trail maintenance done. It doesn’t look like it’s been done in a couple of years coming through here. Quite a bit of downfall. Some pretty bad spots to get around. You have to go up the hill and get into some pretty bad stuff.
Most of the Sawtooths is pretty steep and narrow canyons. The trails are where they’re at for a reason, because that’s the easiest way to get around. But when they’re not maintained and there’s obstacles that go around, then it puts you up on the side hills, puts you, your horses, all your guests in danger.
But these horses get used just about every day through the summer, so they’re more experienced and stuff; and they gather their feet and don’t panic.
When trails aren’t maintained, people don’t use them. So if we don’t have access, there’s no way of getting in and enjoying what is ours.
What are your impressions of the Sawtooth wilderness?
This is spectacular; this is the crown jewel of Idaho right here, probably of the United States. But every year it’s less and less people coming in and being able to enjoy this.
What kind of dog do you have?
I have a Karolian Bear dog right now; his name is Victor. His job is to keep things out of camp, whether it be chipmunks, deer coming in to get some feed, but mainly bears. But also he likes people, and so he’s easy to meet, and people really enjoy having him around and stuff.
What is the importance of Outfitting to Idaho towns?
When we had a good elk population, the small town that I live in, Garden Valley, I was the number one guy that bought fuel. The grocery store I kept going, the restaurants I kept going, the motels and stuff, we filled them up. So we really put money back into the economy, especially in the small towns around the state.
With the introduction of wolves, our elk herd has went down, so we don’t take near the number of hunters. I used to take 60 elk hunters a year, run 85 percent success. I may take a dozen now, and my success rate is down around 50 percent.
You’ve talked about movies making a difference to your business.
We need another River Runs Through it or City Slickers. If we had one of those movies, next summer my business would be great. That’s how some people get introduced to this type of a lifestyle, is seeing a movie and saying, “hey, that would be great; let’s go do that.”
Does Outfitting have a viable future?
I think there’s still going to be outfitters and things. What I’m seeing right now, it’s not the small mom-and-pop operations. A lot of the areas are being consolidated, more of a corporate type; very few outfitting businesses are owned by the actual guides, the people providing the service anymore.
I’ve got a son; he’s part of this business, but he’s also working a full time job. And that’s what I see; it’s hard for people to come in and take over a business anymore. It’s the old guys around that are pretty much debt-free; we’re the only ones surviving at this point.
How has Outfitting changed?
My generation, we grew up camping and we were out and we learned the skills of how to make a fire and how to have a nice campsite and things. And the kids these days, they don’t get that opportunity to do that.
I haven’t taken a 10 day trip in probably 10 or 15 years. I haven’t taken a seven day trip in five years. Three and five days are the most common, and probably 90 percent of the trips now are three days. So people don’t have the time. With the internet and the cell phones, people don’t like to get away where we don’t have the cell service and things.
But a lot of people still think you’re pretty lucky!
It’s more than a job. It’s a lifestyle. Look at my office. So I get to come out, spend time in country like this, I get to work with stock every day. I mean literally thousands of people through a year.
Also, we do get to educate. we’ll take a lot of first time people that have never rode a horse, never camped, never been in the back country, and open those doors for them.
This will be the only trip that they’re ever in a situation like this.
Outfitter Bill Bernt has been guiding clients down the Salmon River since 1971. Aggipah River Trips is also licensed to be on the Middle Fork and the Lower Salmon. This interview was conducted in 2016 along the Salmon River, in the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness.
When you try to explain the Salmon River to somebody from another state, where do you start? There’s a lot of history down here!
Well, it depends on their interest level. We begin to talk a little bit about what has happened here, and as we pass various points of interest, we talk about those things and what has happened, and then if people start to show some interest, we just continue a conversation. And we don't try to make a lecture out of it.
This is country that, even if you didn't see an elk, you knew there was one behind the hill somewhere. And you'd come by these old cabins where people had come into the area, and they had become part of the area.
On the Colorado you were always a visitor. And these old boys came in here, like old Frank Lantz, who spent 50 years in here, and they just got to be part of it. They might put up a little cabin and get some vegetables going and some fruit trees going, and wash a little gold out of the sand. And they didn't live very high, but they were just as much a part of the area as the elk and the deer and the bears that were around here. And that was always pretty interesting to me, more so than the Colorado and the desert country in the Southwest.
Do you remember your first trip down the Salmon River?
It was in June of 1971, and it was the highest I ever did a trip down here. Training trips were a little sketchy in those days. We had two boats. It was my first time down here, and I had, oh, probably eight people or so in my boat. We had something like 16 or 17 people between the two boats. And off we went.
And the water was higher than we knew what we were getting into. The other fellow had been down here but only in normal water, so he didn't know the river in that kind of a high stage. And we didn't know the things that you should be afraid of. The things that he was afraid of were washed out and gone; the things like Whiplash and Chittam that we needed to be afraid of we didn't know about.
On the Colorado we normally had a ratio of one spare motor for every two boats. But they didn't give us a spare, and we began to have motor troubles right away. We pulled in to work on one motor that was not running right, and it was on the first couple hours of the trip.
And the fellow that I was following was not used to big boats in big water, and he went right down through the middle of the river. And I could see, well, that's probably not the way you should do that.
So we stopped after that to work on the motor. And he was talking that, "Boy, maybe we should just tie up and just walk out before we get too far down in here." So we'd talked about it a bit. I was hesitant to get scared of something I hadn't even seen yet, although he was probably being the more reasonable about it. And so finally he said, "Well, all right. But you lead." So he was following me, until one of the motors died, and we never did get the damn thing running again. So we tied the two boats together, running with one motor.
I had been running the boats in that configuration on the Colorado, and at least we were together, so he had some idea of where we were. Except what he knew didn't matter because the stuff that he was concerned about just didn't count. Mallard was all flooded out, Elkhorn was flooded out.
Anyway, yeah, I remember my first trip down here. It rained every day. People didn't bring tents; the outfitter didn't provide tents. We had a couple of tarps. I couldn't afford a tent, so I carried a little sheet of nylon. And that was all we had to cover close to 20 people. And it had kind of slowed down to a light drizzle. It was a four-day trip.
So that was my first trip down here.What do you remember about Buckskin Bill, one of the characters along the river?
During the '70s magazine people and newspaper people would come down, and they'd write up their trip, and they'd have a mention of Bill.
We would stop there on a regular basis. You know, through the '70s, if people stopped there, they generally got pretty much of a repetitive spiel that would take about an hour and a half. He would show some of his artifacts, some of the guns he'd made, some of the pots and pans he'd made, some of the knives he'd made. And he'd tell the same stories. So it was pretty predictable. Some people got to calling him a phony. But anybody who has spent 40 years in one place may be a little eccentric, but they aren't a phony, you know; they are what they are.
But a lot of the trips that I did down here in the '70s, we would get away from that canned routine, and we could have more of a conversation.
It was kind of interesting, you'd go down there and spend a bit of time and be talking about something; come by next week, and he was ready to pick up that conversation just exactly where you were in the previous one. And it gave me an opportunity to talk to him a little bit more about some of the other characters that were here when he first came. I wish I had gotten a whole lot more information out of him, but I did get some interesting things.
He was a little short guy. Even in the heat of the summer he was always wearing a wool shirt and wool pants. You didn't really want to get downwind of him.
The old boy had read and read. He didn't have much else to do in all these years except various projects and anything that struck his interest. So there were people that knew him better than I did. I knew him better than a lot of people.
His muzzle-loading guns were of interest to me. He always had ideas, some of them pretty strange. But he had a reason for why his way of doing things was always the best.
He had a folding knife that he had made, and he always wore it in his belt in a horizontal holster. It looked to me like a damn good way to lose a knife. But he explained that that was the only proper way to carry a knife, because if you had a conventional long-bladed hunting knife hanging off your belt over your hip pocket, someday you would be walking along the face of the cliff, on a little narrow ledge, and your back would be to the wall, and you would get to the point where there was a low overhang, and when you leaned forward to get your head below the overhang, the knife would be pivoting against your butt, and it would just pivot you right over the edge, and down you'd go.
Well, that struck me as a pretty unlikely scenario, but he'd have ideas like that.
The nephew had gotten electricity in here through the hydro plant, and Bill didn't use that. Bill just had a big garden. He always had chickens around, and he had chickens laying green eggs, and he raised purple potatoes, and anything unusual like that caught his imagination. And it was interesting.
When I first heard of him, it sounded like a Robinson Crusoe sort of an existence. And if you would suspend your imagination or suspend your cynicism a little bit, and look at it in that light, it was fun to see what he was doing. And he actually did live it.
In the early days when he first came here there were a lot of people living along the river. He was not ever as much of a hermit as he was made out to be; although, in the winter when he was here, it would be very isolated. But he did try to live the way people lived in the 1800s.
It was always interesting to come up here, especially if you could get into a one-on-one conversation with him.
Is there a part of this river system that you prefer?
We do all three of the roadless sections in the Salmon. We do the Middle Fork; we do this main section; we do the lower Salmon. For the most part, we are doing the multiday trips. And it just depends. It's nice to have the variety of being able to go to the different sections in the different times of the year.
You've seen this kid running around here today, swimming and splashing and digging holes in the sand. And how can you beat a trip like this for kids? And, yet, we can go up on the Middle Fork and provide a trip for somebody that's a hard-core fly fisherman. We can go down on the Lower Salmon in the fall and do some steelhead cast and blast trips. So it's nice to have that kind of variety and also a longer season.
People ask me, what's the favorite part and what's the best part? It's a legitimate question, but I don't have any answer to it. It just depends.
I imagine each trip takes on a different “feel.” What about this one?
Well, PJ McDonald's done possibly a dozen trips with us. He did a trip in '85, and it was a long time before he came again. But then he's been coming every two or three years for the last quite a while. And his brother was on one trip before; the other two guys have not been with us before.
Where do you think the outfitting industry is, these days? I imagine river outfitting is the fastest growing part of the industry.
It was, but it's really been pretty stable for a long time. It was in the '70s when it really took off. And since then, it's been relatively stable. In the '80s, we hit that recession in the early '80s, and use dropped. You can go back and look at the records to see that. And then as we began to climb out of that recession, the use came back, sort of like it was at the beginning of the '80s. And we've been coasting along in that general level, at least in that order of magnitude, since then. So, really, it's been pretty stable.
Economic conditions make a big difference. We went through that recession in the early '80s. We had a short one in '91, and then in 2001 things slowed down. And then, of course, the more recent one has lasted so long. But, yeah, it's very, very dependent on discretionary income.
What about the regulation aspects of outfitting? Idaho has a licensing board.
I was on the State Outfitters and Guides License Board for a dozen years, so I got to see a bit of that in operation. But by the time I was involved, things had been pretty well settled. We had an executive director, and things had evolved considerably from the way it started out.
Idaho has been a leader in that kind of regulation. We have a system here where we have dual regulation. We have a permit by the Forest Service, as well as a license by the state. So we have got dual regulation. And it's also a bit of a checks and balance system. If one agency starts to get a little overboard, the other agency may or may not follow along. So that keeps things balanced to an important extent.
Are you one of those worried about this younger generation not wanting to do things outside?
Well, there's always been a lot of talk about that, for the 35 or 40 years I've been here, that this is a fad that's just going to come to an end, and nobody is going to be doing these things anymore. But if people have a little discretionary income, they still seem to be coming out here and having a good time.
Sometimes people ask if our customer base is changing. Well, I don't think it really is a great deal. But the other side of it is, when you are 22 years old, the people in the front of your boat look a little different than the same people might when you are my age. So the perspective changes a little bit. But I don't think that things really change that much.
I imagine you’ve seen people’s lives change on these extended river trips.
Yes, and, of course, one of the things is how long that different perspective will last. It's not often people have a chance to get a week totally away from television and cell phones and all that kind of stuff. It takes about three days for people to start to forget what was biting them when they left home. And if you have a short trip, you don't get a chance to get much benefit. But you get the longer trips, and then they've got the next few days to start to get some benefit from the isolation.
People at the end of the trip can be pretty emotional. How that changes things for them in the long-term, we don't have a chance to see that as much. But we've had people meet on trips that maintain their contact for many years. And there have been romances that have started out here and were permanent. So, obviously, that's a big life changer.
But as far as people's attitudes and perspective sometimes it's pretty private. Somebody might be out here for a little while and get to thinking about their job and where they really want to go with it, and that's something we might not hear about.
It seems you've managed to successfully work your family into this outfitting business.
When Stephanie was coming along on trips, when she was about the age of Wesley, she was just like any other little kid. But she was an early reader. By the time she was five or so she could work her way through The River of No Return book. And she'd pick it up, and she'd be reading stuff.
I remember one time when she was just about that age, she came up one time, "Dad, what did Jim Moore eat?" So she was interested in things here pretty early on. And through the grade-school years, she just came on trips and played.
And about the time she started high school, she decided that she was going to be part of the crew and not just playing anymore. And about that time she made up her mind that she was going to stay with this, and eventually she was going to run this operation. And she really has never deviated from that.
But John was off in the military for nearly nine years, so he was gone from things for a long time. He's a little younger than she is, too, of course. But Stephanie has been involved in things here, oh, I guess it's about 20 years since she ran her first trip down here.
So she is one of the best boatmen on the river here. She runs the sweep boat, runs the drift boat on the Middle Fork, as needed, and she's a really good boatman.
I had kind of a tough crew for a kid to break into. And she toughed it out. She worked her way up to where she is, without depending on any privilege of being the boss's kid.
We used to make a joke about an old man and a little girl out here doing trips. It's not that often that people have a chance to work with their kid to the extent that we've done things; and to not have any big wars while we were doing it.
Outfitter Mike Scott has been the proprietor of White Cloud Outfitters since 1987. This interview was conducted in 2016, near the Hemingway-Boulders wilderness.
I keep hearing that Idaho is a little different from other states when it comes to managing the outfitting industry.
Idaho is different in several ways. First of all, we have an area system, where the State of Idaho has a licensing board which regulates our industry, licenses us to specific operating areas and to specific activities.
A lot of other states don't have that; it's either done by the forest themselves, the land managing agencies, or the Fish and Game. But in our State we have a five member licensing board which is made up of three outfitters, a member of the Fish and Game and a member of the public, which promulgate rules and enforce and make policy; so it's quite a bit different than other states.
We kind of are the envy of a lot of states because we do have an area system, where in a lot of other states there could be eight or nine outfitters permitted in one particular area.
So what exactly is the area you're licensed for?
We're licensed for the White Clouds in parts of the new wilderness, and we've been operating here for 28 years now on the SNRA and probably 70% of our business is done here in the White Clouds. What it means to me? It means a lot to me, this kind of feels like home when you're in here. It doesn't feel like a job, it doesn't feel like work.
This place connects us to more than just Idaho; it connects to the whole Columbia River System, to the oceans. When you stop and think about that, when you think about the big picture of where we operate and where we live, it is important that this country's taken care of and treated in a way that it can benefit future generations and keep all of our systems intact.
What's a typical outfitting day like for you in summer?
This time of year a typical day is getting up real early, getting your horses ready, your tack ready, driving to trailheads. We're either packing people's gear in to different destinations and dropping it off, or we're actually doing catered trips with them where we go into our base camp in the White Clouds and do extended trips with them. Or our roving trips, where we take people to different destinations and keep progressing with our horses.
But this time of year, it's kind of daylight to dark every day, we're doing something; something's got to be accomplished every day.
You've been in this business long enough to see some changes.
There has been a change; our guests' needs have changed over time. We used to see people that would come on extended trips for seven, eight, nine day pack trips. You don't see that anymore.
People want to experience a lot of different things. They want to come to an area and maybe float the river for a day, and maybe do an overnight pack trip. And the internet has really changed in how people communicate with us and how they find us. Before the internet, of course, you went to a lot of sport shows and that sort of thing to try to build up a client base. But now you can pretty much do it with the internet and social media and those types of things.
So you're packing in our supplies into the new Hemingway-Boulders wilderness. What's so special about this area?
We're going to be going up West Pass towards like the North Fork of the Big Wood, that big watershed. We're going to see a lot of remote country that's not visited by a lot of people.
There's no high mountain lakes in here, which has a tendency to make for less travel on the trails. We could see some wildlife, but the time of day we're moving probably most of the animals will be lying down, but we could see mountain goats on the high peaks. But probably what makes this country unique is just the wildness of it and obviously that was recognized by Congress putting into wilderness.
What difference do you think it will make to this part of the country, that it's now official wilderness?
This trail that we'll go on today is non-motorized, so we'll have to take a crosscut with us; and any trees in the way they'll have to be removed by hand tools. It really didn't affect any motorized use; all the motorized use in the White Clouds remained intact with the legislation that was passed. It did restrict mountain bikes on a few trails, and we've yet to see how it all plays out in the management plan; that's just now starting to take place; and so within the next couple of years we will see how our camps will be managed; that's still an unknown.
A little scary maybe?
A lot, yeah.
Will the wilderness designation bring in more people?
You know, it's a little early to tell right now, but it seems like the interest for us this year is up. We're getting more phone calls for people that want to be taken in and dropped off to different destinations, and the phone calls were a lot earlier; they were way back in the winter, where typically people kind of wait till spring. It's kind of a last minute thing, and two weeks before they want to come, they call you up, “Hey can you take us in to a destination?&rdquo This year it seemed like people planned it out, and it seems like that we had more requests this year for our services.
So it might be a silver lining?
Yes and no, the old “love it to death” syndrome, but yeah, it's unknown to me. The biggest increase in use that we were seeing up until the Wilderness Legislation that was passed last year was the mountain bike use. That was probably the biggest increase in the use that we were seeing in here.
And now that's gone?
Not necessarily, they can still go on all the motorized trails. So they didn't lose but a very, very few trails, maybe 40-50 miles of trails.
I'm fascinated by the future of outfitting in Idaho and where it might be headed. What's it going to look like in ten years?
Well, the demand for outfitting is definitely here. There is a huge demand for our services, but how it all plays out with our agency partners... because we talked about how people are changing, their needs are changing, what they want to do, how they want to participate in accessing the backcountry or our rivers is different from what it was 15 years ago.
So it's going to be critical that our agency partners are able to evolve with us because, in order for us to stay on the cutting edge, there are going to be certain needs that we're going to have, and hopefully we can work through those needs.
So, if the Chief of the Forest Service were standing here, what would you tell him?
I would tell him that, right now, there is a huge disconnect within the forest. And what I mean by that is, their frontline people that are taking these positions as rangers, they're staying there two and three years and moving on. They don't have an investment in the community; they didn't come up, you might say, through the ranks on that ranger district and then become a District Ranger. They come from a different place; so when they get here, it's a stepping stone to somewhere else for them. So they don't have community involvement; and, quite honestly, it's not really a partnership anymore. The partnership thing has faded away, and hopefully we can get back to that because that's going to be essential for us to continue into the future of outfitting.
And what about this younger generation? How do we connect with them?
When you and I grew up, it was a fight to get us inside the house; we didn't have all the gadgets that kids have today that keep ‘em inside. So, yeah, I think our industry can play a huge role in getting kids in the outdoors and getting them to experience the backcountry and our rivers, and just everything that Idaho has to offer.
We're the ones that have the knowledge and the expertise to access the backcountry and our rivers and, and that's going to be critical into the future because no one else is doing these things; no one else knows how to use the hand tools to clear the trails, how to pack horses. That's not being taught in schools. River rescues, I know our river outfitters are really big into that. We're the ones that hold the keys to that knowledge.
Outfitter and guide Jon Barker has been rowing Idahos rivers for nearly four decades. For the last twenty years he’s run Barker River Expeditions specializing in desert trips on the Jarbidge, Bruneau and Owyhee Rivers.
Recently he’s added supported hiking trips through spectacular slot canyons to his desert offerings. He’s also a hunting outfitter with an emphasis on big horn sheep. He’s recorded the state record sheep and seven out of the top ten animals. We interviewed him in the spring of 2016.
How did you get into the outfitting and guiding business?
I got into outfitting and guiding primarily due to my father, A.K. Barker. We were kids, and he took us everywhere, ran the Parks and Rec backpacking program for the City of Lewiston and developed his own outfitting business on the Lower Salmon when we were still in grade school and really introduced us to everything in Idaho.
I think it was critical to grow up in an outdoor family like that. I mean, to have my father actually working as a guide and then being an outfitter and running the business to provide that outlet for us and show us not only the outdoors but how everything was done trying to make a living at that really influenced us in a heavy way, in a good way. I've got him to thank for everything, taking an interest in not doing this as a recreational weekend thing but being able to try and make a living out here and being here more and more.
When did you start rowing rivers?
I would have been rowing on those trips around '77 or so, 14 or 15 years old. We would have had our own boat kind of going along on the commercial Lower Salmon trips learning to row. And guiding. Guiding then by the time I was 18.
Why did you want to be the outfitter and not just a guide?
I've had my own business for 20 years, and I did that primarily because hunting was one of my other big passions. I wanted to be a hunting outfitter in addition to being a river guide, my father helped me establish that through the business we had, but then I took it over completely, and then I had the opportunity to purchase a business down here in the Owyhee/Bruneau Canyonlands, which is for rafting, which is what I always wanted to do, so I kept that as my own outfitting business, also.
Why did you choose the Owyhee Canyonlands? Why did it become one of your focuses?
I think I got most interested in the Owyhee/Bruneau Canyonlands primarily because we used to drive across here all the time when I was a kid. My mom was raised in Reno, and I can literally remember being a child and leaving Marsing heading up the grade towards Jordan Valley and for the next few hundred miles to Winnemucca and beyond just going: What could be out there to the right, and what could be out there to the left? …And there were these canyons out there that no one knew anything about, and that really appealed to me.
What are the challenges of putting together a trip out here?
The challenges out here are definitely the remoteness and difficulty of the roads. It's hard to get all your gear into anywhere, which I enjoy. You're not driving up on the gravel road or the paved road to the built launching area and parking, which I enjoy that remoteness and the solitude and the serenity that's out here.
The challenges can be greater on the Bruneau, Jarbridge and Owyhee just because you're dealing with the change in flows daily. You have that on other Idaho rivers, but you start with a large major river that you know we're basically going to do X on. Sometimes on the Jarbridge, Bruneau or Owyhee you're going to do X two weeks before the trip, and then ten days before the trip you're going to do Y, and then four days before the trip you're going to do Z just to adapt to what's happening in the desert and how those water flows change so quickly. So, you're changing the amount of people per boat or the gear that you can carry, adding another boat to reduce weight on the rafts as it gets particularly rocky.
How does using specialized smaller boats for these desert trips impact your planning and logistics?
Logistically, trying to arrange one of these trips, you'll spend a lot of time figuring out how much weight each boat can take, making the shopping fit what you can carry on the boats. You know, if you go and work on the Middle Fork, you're doing a Hells Canyon trip, you've got your big boats and your big kitchen boxes, and you're carrying giant buckets and all the big dutches you could ever want, and out here you just can't carry that much weight, so you've got to figure, we have X number of people and we're going to bake in these size Dutch ovens, and we're going to carry this amount of water and pump fresh water while we're there or go to a spring that we know is reliable.
That makes it a more substantial challenge to do that careful planning that will get all the equipment and all the people down the river with a lot of comfort, and you can't just throw your stuff on like you might trip after trip after trip on another river in Idaho. You've got to pay attention to a lot more detail and how you're going to get that week's trip done out in the desert.
I like those challenges where it's more of a mental challenge to get everything organized and planned. You're not doing it just by rote, the same every week. You're coming up with new ideas and reacting to the changes in the weather and water level.
What do you enjoy about these desert trips?
Mostly I like being out here where there aren't very many people. You get to show your guests something really unique and really special. Providing that to folks who have an interest in the desert Canyonlands really gets me excited. I love being out here with people who have an interest in that type of terrain.
There are a lot of challenges to outfitting and not always great financial rewards, so why do you do it?
I think outfitters do this because it's a heartfelt job that they want to be involved in and that progresses from being a guide, kind of like it did for me with my father. You're a guide, and then you want to run stuff yourself and look at that challenge. And so you start taking on a business that keeps you in the outdoors in Idaho doing stuff, but you can have a little better solid footing and basis than just continuing to guide.
The season for the Owyhee/Bruneau/Jawbridge trips is pretty short. You've got that spring, early summer time frame where you can come down here and experience the river, but that's a very small portion of the season. So, early on I started the game guiding and developed that specialized into bighorn sheep throughout the West, and so I do elk and deer hunts in Idaho and then bighorn sheep throughout the surrounding states, and that keeps me busy from the end of river season. Actually, I stop guiding before the end of river season and get all of my hunts rolling.
You mentioned you appreciate that a lot of your customers come back for multiple trips.
A bunch of our business is repeat business or people who come out and see how special the desert is and then bring more friends or family with them, and that's really what you're striving for.
People seem to understand that if you want to have a unique experience, there's only a certain time frame you can go, and you may need to bring an extra jacket or some more clothes and be prepared for some weather, but you are going to get out there and have spectacular weather some of the time, and you're going to see canyons that almost nobody else sees, very, very few people comparatively to the number of raft trips in Idaho, not many people ever get to see.
I just got off a trip with an 83 year old guest who's an Owyhee fanatic. She's been out times before and had never seen the Upper Owyhee, a lifelong Idaho conservationist and really involved in issues. That's the kind of trip that really makes it for you, to see somebody so excited about the Canyonlands and just watching her the whole trip just taking everything in and wanting to be there at that age kind of moves you and makes you feel like you're doing something good as an outfitter.
Lonnie Allen owns Three Rivers Ranch, a fly fishing lodge in Warm River, Idaho. Her ancestors settled the area in the 1920s with a dance hall. Tourists have taken keen interest in the place ever since. Allen is an outfitter, business owner and fly fisher. This interview was conducted along the South Fork of the Snake River in 2016.
Why are you an outfitter?
I think I became an outfitter in Idaho because of my family. My grandparents came from Europe in the 1920s. They were explorers. They homesteaded and started with about 60 acres. They kept purchasing until they got up to about 800 acres. They had a bar. They had a dance floor. It was a boomtown. Bootleg whiskey I think was going on at that time. It was something I had grown up with so I was a third generation when I purchased the ranch in 1987.
Lady outfitters are as unusual as you and I, two lady anglers, fishing this river together. What happened when you showed up for your first outfitters test?
I walked into a room full of men who looked like they came right off the set of Rawhide. I was there to take the outfitters test. They thought I was there to deliver doughnuts.
What does an outfitter do?
An outfitter I guess by definition is someone, a man or a woman, who chooses to help people experience the out of doors. Similar to a guide, but an outfitter is in charge of the business.
All of us are after a common goal. The common goal is to give the best experience you can for man, woman and child to experience our outdoors and do it safely and successfully.
Some of the locals don't want to share fishing holes with you. Why is that?
I think sometimes we're misunderstood as outfitters. I think we get a bad wrap. Outfitters, in general, are not here to rape and pillage and take what we can. We are here to provide an experience.
Would you ever try to outfit in another state?
We are very lucky in the state of Idaho. We have so many natural resources that we are very fortunate to share with not only our country, but other countries.
The waters we fish in Idaho are probably some of the most well taken care of and that doesn't come easy. If you take just two minutes and think about all the water that we have in this area, it's incredible. I love where I am.
You have the main ranch at the confluence of Henry's Fork, Warm River and Robinson Creek, thus the name Three Rivers Ranch. Plus you have a handful of fly shops around the state. Are you proud of what you've done with your family's business?
I am extremely proud of what I have done and what I've done because of the people I work with. I can't do it alone. I have about 50 people that work for us and they're families that are all very close. From my chef who has been there over 30 years, to my head guide who has been there over 40 years. I love them like my family. They are my family. We take care of each other. We enjoy and laugh together. I think it's just a good mix.
I believe other people who are outfitters have that same mix. Same as if you were a farmer or a rancher. There is something that is solid of the earth when people work together. We work hard and maybe it's Idaho. Maybe that's part of it. That's how we do things here.
You've been at this for three decades now. How many more working years do you have left in you?
I can't see I'm going to quit what I'm doing for at least the next 20 years. I love it. I enjoy it. I love the people. I love the guides. Until I'm physically unable, I think I'm going to hang around.
Outfitter Steve Burson is president of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. He and his wife Lorrie are owners and operators of Storm Creek Outfitters, with guiding rights in parts of the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church Wilderness. This interview was conducted in 2016.
What are your duties as president of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association?
My duties are to run board meetings. We have an executive director that does the day to day work in the office, along with an excellent office manager, so my duties are more trying to make sure we pull the organization together. We're organized by different sections, so there's a hunting section, a river section, and recreation. And I try to pull meetings together and come up with what our association objectives would be.
It's a trade organization, and we represent the business interest for the Idaho Outfitting Association. It's one of the larger economic industries in the state, so it's fairly significant. The IOGA works on Idaho state legislative issues and national levels through our national organization, American Outdoors.
Do you like being an outfitter?
I love it. For one thing, I love the wilderness. I used to have an office job, and my view from this office, as you can see, is a lot better than my old office!
I love sharing this wilderness with people; that's the main thing, whether it's people that haven't been west of the Mississippi or people that have been here for years who just want a different kind of experience. You meet a tremendous amount of very, very interesting people, so it's quite rewarding.
And do you like being the president of the IOGA?
A friend of mine kind of roped me into that deal, but I do. It's a great organization. My responsibilities are primarily working with a great team.
The organization has three main sections: the hunt section, river section, and recreation, along with a guide section. And we promote professionalism in Idaho guides. And we work together to come up with objectives for the organization, and then work with the different sections to accomplish our goals.
How would you assess the status of the outfitting industry in Idaho these days?
The industry right now is rebounding. It was pretty tough in '09 when the recession hit; especially the land based side of the business had a lot of issues financially. You know, they're very driven by access into the wilderness and trails, so that's always an issue.
But the economy is coming back, people are reaching out for more adventure vacations. And I think, as a whole, we're doing much better than we were five years ago. You know, the game in the state's doing very well right now. Fish and game we work very closely with, is doing a great job trying to manage the game. So, yeah, I think the next five to ten years look very good.
Of course, we are the whitewater state, and the river business is going just gangbusters.
How does the IOGA compare to the other states in the West?
Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association is the oldest association in the United States; it's over 60 years old right now. So in the early days, the outfitters came together to try to get the state organized, which they were successful.
And then ten years later they worked with the governor to establish the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board. So as far as the state having control in running the outfitting industry, as a professional industry, it's the oldest and probably most controlled industry within the outfitting industry in the states.
Most other states don't have that much control, so it's a free for all within the industry and with some of the clients. So I think, from a client's perspective, we're probably more regulated and more organized and do more professional trips than any other state.
We've got more public ground, so you've got access to almost 80 percent of the state of Idaho, so that, in itself, creates a tremendous opportunity.
In Idaho we have unique operating areas, so within this area of mine, I'm the only commercial operator here. When I go into an area, I don't have to worry about a lot of other people in there trying to compete for the same resource. So, yeah, it just makes it a wonderful opportunity compared to some of our neighboring states.
What do you see as the two or three major issues that outfitters, as a group, face in the coming years?
A couple of large ones. For the land based operators it's primarily access, just trying to get into the backcountry. Nationwide, we have a trails crisis. Within central Idaho it's considerably worse. So the amount of effort that it takes to keep these trails open, especially in the light of the recent fires, and so forth, is a tremendous amount of work and a safety issue.
Another one is some of the native peoples want to, maybe, shut down some of the access on the Middle Fork, and restrict public access. So that's one thing we'd like to work with people and become, you know, excellent at not only providing a trip, but also in interpretive skills and trying to really highlight what the history of Idaho is, and then do that in a very, very safe and leave no trace environment.
So talk to us about this Glamping thing you've got going.
The glamping program was my wife's idea; she came up with it, and I think it's been very successful. We're one of the first people to operate in this area, and I still think we're the only ones operating in a wilderness.
There's a big segment of the population that really doesn't want to sleep on a Therm a Rest anymore, but they still would love to be out in the wilderness and do horse rides and day trips. If we do overnight pack trips, and so forth, we can then come back to a nice meal and a very comfortable camp and clean up. And it's just a lot of fun. I mean, you get to get up, have a great breakfast, eat a lot of good food, drink some good wine. It's enjoyable to do. We meet a whole different set of guests than you would in fall season, so it's just a lot of fun.
And the summer season, typically, has been very difficult in the outfitting industry. A lot of people won't do the long term pack trips, like we used to, through the Bob and through the Frank. A lot of that is because of the trails; you just don't have the access that you can do it. So it's been a great add on or segment to our business, and a lot of fun.
What's your favorite part about glamping?
It's the people. Just a lot of conversation. You have more time. The food's excellent and I like to eat and have a glass of wine. If it's really hot, then I'll go fishing, and I'll let the other guides take people on horse rides and things like that. So being the boss, you can pick and choose the activities you want to do for the day. You get to come up here on a beautiful evening, that kind of thing. So, yeah, I like all the activities.
Mostly, you have to be in this business because you like people, and have some great discussions and things. And you get to show them places that they had no idea this kind of place was in the United States.
We'll get a lot of people who haven't even camped before, have never been to a wilderness. I mean it's their wilderness, and they don't even know what's out here. And it's very amazing to watch; if we have someone for a three or four day trip, the change in them from the first day to the fourth day, and just the way they enjoy it and appreciate it and learn a tremendous amount while they're out here, I mean, people that have been in New York City for their entire life. And we get some honeymooners that want to do the western experience, and that's a lot of fun.
Because people are totally disconnected out here.
Oh, yeah, and they've never been in their life! Some of them almost start to panic the first couple of days, and then they can relax and look at the stars and enjoy it. So, yeah, the blood pressure, if you could measure it from the first day to the last day, is a lot different.
What are some of the key activities you do with your guests?
The two main activities are fishing and trail riding. We do a lot of photography and lookout tours. We'll do trekking trips if people like to hike but don't want to carry a lot of weight. We do some overnight stuff and then come back; so you'll glamp one night in our main camp and then spend the night in the backcountry. We do pack trips over the mountains over there, and there's some really nice lakes at the top, and go fishing. We can do a pack trip from Paradise into Darby, Montana; it's called “over the top. ” That's really fun. So a lot of different stuff.
So all this behind you is your permitted area?
BURSON: Yeah, pretty much. It takes about five days to ride across it, if the trails are cleared. It's about 800 square miles, so it's a large area. It's plenty of ground.
Describe your camp here at Paradise.
The camp at Paradise is at the end of the road. It actually is at Paradise, Idaho. There's a campground there, and it's also the boat launch for the Selway River. So that's the access. One of the key reasons that people would go to the end of the road is to launch. It is the gem of Idaho backcountry rivers.
And so at the actual end of the road, we have a camp. And it's been there about 70 years. When we acquired the camp, the main footprint was the same, but we've redone all the cabins and the kitchen tents. And my wife loves to decorate, so she's done a lot of work on that to make it a nice place to stay. Great facilities, hot and cold running water, which is, you know, crazy for the wilderness.
Within that camp we have horse corals and a packing deck, which I think is the last packing deck within the state of Idaho. They used to be prevalent, very historic. It's a large tent where you can bring a string of eight mules and load them under a tent, and a deck that's easy to take care of all the cargo and gear and stuff like that.
One of the main things I like about the camp is, if we're doing any kind of backcountry work and mule packing, we have a packing deck. And that's a large tent with an alleyway you can bring a string of mules in, a deck on it where you can back pickup trucks up to it and unload all the gear. And then a place to we call it “wrap up” or “manny,” take all the gear and wrap that up, ready to load it on a mule. With a scale built in, we can weigh the loads. And it makes it much easier to load a string of mules.
The Forest Service used to have those all over the backcountry, but most of those facilities are gone today.
And you have a generator, so you have electricity. Why are you allowed to have that in the wilderness?
There's corridors through the wilderness, and they'll be exceptions; the road, for example, is a corridor, and generally it's 150 feet each side of the road.
The campgrounds back here -- the public campgrounds and outfitted camps -- there is an exclusion on the regulations that allow for you to drive there. So you can have vehicle access. If there's trees on the road, you can cut those with a chainsaw. That's part of the access. If they couldn't maintain the road with some sort of equipment, it would be a trail, and nobody could drive up to the lookout; fighting fire was a key reason,that it was done originally. And it's still used a lot by both the public and the Forest Service.
So you can charge up your cameras and cell phones. Most hunters don't expect that at camp. And a lot of people when they get there, they're pretty surprised that that facility could exist within the wilderness; so we're very fortunate to be able to have that. And we work with the Forest Service very closely to make sure we keep it within all the standards and things that they like and keep a good camp so we can continue to enjoy that.
Outfitter Mat Erpelding is co-owner of Idaho Mountain Guides and also a legislator in the Idaho House of Representatives. We caught up with him in 2016 near the rock cliffs by Lucky Peak, outside of Boise
What do you enjoy about being an outfitter and climbing around on rocks?
This is a place for people to do something their entire lives; climbing is included in that. It's a family activity. You can introduce children to it, help them grow confidence.
But then the other piece is taking people out into this environment and introducing them to the outdoor world as a way to use the authority of the resource, the beauty of the resource, to create interest in conservation, to reconnect them with the idea that we have open space for a reason, and we need to protect it.
Most outfitters don't naturally think about climbing.
Climbing was an accident. I came to Idaho State University, and didn't do well running college cross country and track, and kind of fell into climbing. And it went from being an activity that I love to a career that I've done for over 20 years; anything from expedition leadership, high altitude climbing, to doing what I do today, which is day guiding.
Are there certain climbs you're most proud of?
I've done five trips on Denali in Alaska. I've summited four times. I think that that's something to be proud of. I've climbed all over Yosemite. But the reality is, I think the thing that I'm most proud of is in my work at university level, where I used expedition leadership to train really high quality leaders that have gone on to do great things. And we used the outdoors as a mechanism for developing that ability to lead others in environments that are ambiguous or challenging. That translates directly into the business world.
So there's a higher calling to climbing. It's not just having fun?
Having fun is a part of it. That could be considered a higher calling. In today's hubbub and our economic environment, having people take the time to celebrate their leisure time in a way that's both healthy and creates a connection with the environment is a higher calling. So I think that is something that I'm really proud of, that outdoor recreation provides to the community.
I represent an outfitter and guide service that's actually an urban guide service. We're 6 miles from downtown Boise, where we have kids today who may be less connected with their natural world simply because of urbanization. And so this idea of a "nature deficit disorder" goes to getting people to come out, do activities, whether it be rafting, rock climbing, hunting, whatever the activity it is, to help them create a connection with nature. And I have a belief that that actually creates a more healthy mind and body.
Talk a bit more about "nature deficit disorder" with this younger generation.
This idea that we have a nature deficit disorder has real bearing, because young kids, when they're able to be out in open space and play, generally, seem happier and have a good time, and that builds their life moving forward.
I think the Boise School District uses the McCall Outdoor Science School for introducing kids to the outdoor world.
We know that people who experience the outdoors are more likely to have an interest in protecting it, whether it be the Ridge to Rivers System in Boise, the cliffs out here, Sawtooth Wilderness Area, any of those places. When somebody goes there, afterwards they have a special connection with it, which is what impels them to have an interest in ensuring that our environment's protected.
Have you ever seen a child change because of their involvement in the outdoors?
I think me. I joke a lot that I went to Catholic school because I was difficult to manage. But the truth is the place where I found the most solace was riding my bike in the mountains of Colorado, with my family. That was when, on the weekends, I felt the most relaxed and the most focused and the most refreshed. It wasn't playing baseball, it wasn't watching television, it was being out in the outdoors on a bicycle, with a high heart rate, doing something that you wouldn't think of. But that's when I was most healthy. And we know that that's common with a lot of kids.
The difference between football and baseball is those are not lifetime sports; those become spectator sports as you get older. But being in the outdoors, hiking, backpacking, climbing, those are lifetime sports that not only affect your health, but they affect your overall sense of wellness.
You wear two hats, as an outfitter and a lawmaker. That's got to be interesting.
It is interesting, because what should be a collaborative or a shared environment with regard to traditional uses of our public lands sometimes turns into a push pull relationship.
We know that there's room for all aspects of the economy, whether it be traditional extractive resources, and the more non-traditional, non-consumptive use, such as climbing or rafting. But the important thing is that we recognize that there is a place where we can protect the environment, we can create jobs, and we work in a way that there's enough room for all of us.
What are some of the issues legislators face in dealing with the outfitting industry?
The outfitters licensing board in Idaho has the ability to license and regulate guides, which is actually a good thing, because what it does is it creates a safety net.
Some of the challenges that we've faced have been a push to eliminate regulation on private land, which I think is a questionable practice. I think guides have a professional practice or a best practice, whether you're on public land or private land. But the private landowners didn't feel that way, and they had more sway.
But the larger issue is the struggle over making sure that we keep our lands public. This is a shared resource. So if I'm up here with private climbers, my goal is to never be in their way, never impinge on them. If they're on a route, I'm going to go to a different route. So we're second to what the public has access to. But we bring the training, the knowledge, the ability to help keep this place a little more safe for those people that want to invest in the education side of it.
And those pieces are important. But the public land fight that has been occurring in the legislature is of real concern to most outfitters.
So in some ways outfitters are the first line of defense when accidents occur in the backcountry.
So there's a misconception that guiding is just about taking people out and showing them a day and sending them home. But I would say that what our real purpose is, is to really educate people to be able to do things autonomously in a way that is more safe or approaching best practice so we mitigate or we minimize accidents.
And a lot of times guides are the first folks who are on scene of an accident, are also involved in search and rescue; so the guiding community does represent a public service. But it's also a capital enterprise. It is a way to build a career doing something that you love. And as a capitalist Idahoan, I think that that's something to be proud of.
I imagine being an outfitter requires a certain set of skills that the outfitting board expects of you.
So what the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board has as regulations would be considered a bare minimum in any other state in the country. So they represent this is the absolute minimum that you can have. It would be very uncommon that a guide service would just have the minimum.
So all of us exceed any of the standards that the state expects from us. So Wilderness First Responder, American Mountain Guides Association training, really focusing on what is best practice and how can we make sure that our clients have a great experience, find a way to really enjoy themselves, but, also, have an incident free time in the mountains.
How is the Legislature doing in regards to outfitting?
I think the legislature has done a disservice to the outfitting and guides in Idaho by having an outfitter and licensing board that's underfunded in a way that it cannot effectively guard against people cheating the system.
And the legislature could do a better job by fully creating an environment that allows Fish and Game and the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board to make sure that they're enforcing the laws, which is that you cannot pirate guide on public land. You have to have a permit, you have to have a license, you have to be bonded. And if you guide on public land without those things, there needs to be a way to enforce that. That was its whole inception.
It's very difficult for them to do that, given the resources they have. I think they do the best they can with the resources that they have. But they have been underfunded, just like education, just like any number of services in Idaho, thanks to the legislature.
Was it difficult to get permission to operate on this land here at the Black Cliffs outside Boise.
This land that we're on right now is BLM land. And the first thing I had to do was approach the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board, which is a state regulatory agency, and tell them I'm interested in guiding. So I had to fill out some paperwork. And then I had to go to the Bureau of Land Management, located out by the airport, and apply for a permit.
Because this area never had a special use permit, it really took a long time to figure out how to do the permit, how to regulate a climbing company at the Black Cliffs. So it was really an exercise in patience, because I would have liked to have been guiding right then and there, but I wanted to make sure that I went through the appropriate channels.
And so, ultimately, Idaho Mountain Guides has an incredible relationship with the BLM. We really want to help protect this resource, whether it be picking up trash, improving the trails, managing the safety equipment on the rock. And then we kind of work with the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board. But I really feel like the land manager is the agency that I want to have the relationship with, which is the BLM.
Last question: how does the future of outfitting in Idaho look to you?
The future of outfitting in Idaho is nothing but the sky. We have more free flowing rivers; we have rock all over. You have Sawtooth Mountain Guides in the Ketchum area; you have Idaho Mountain Guides down here. There's enough room for recreation to be something that is a huge part of Idaho's economy. Recreation will be, and continues to be, a made in the USA product, and Idaho should be one of those places that 300 million US citizens are coming to check out. It's a hidden gem.
Doug Tims outfitted on the Selway River and the Middle Fork of the Salmon; he also served as president of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, and the national America Outdoors Association. He and his wife Phyllis live part of each year along the banks of the Salmon River, at Campbell’s Ferry, where they have been renovating the historic site. You can read about their experiences in their book, Merciless Eden. This interview was conducted in 2016 at Campbell’s Ferry.
Why should anyone care about the outfitting industry?
I think one of the most important roles that outfitters and guides play is, they provide that cadre of wilderness-minded citizens. You know, it is good enough for many people to know it's there, but the real champions of places like that, the folks who in future years are going to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we want to continue to save these places,’ they're the folks that have been there and touched it in a very special way. Outfitting and guiding gives them that opportunity.
I had a woman once tell me that she got out of her tent in the middle of the night and looked up at the canopy of stars over her head, and her soul expanded. And that soul-expanding experience goes home with people and allows them to be the champions for wild places in the future.
So what challenges do you see for the outfitting industry in the foreseeable future?
I think the biggest challenge that outfitting and guiding faces in the future is the changes in the American public. And young people today in this digital world, they're seeing not the real natural world; they're seeing just simulations of it.
And we have to play the role of taking those young people out here and showing them what it really is about, what it really means to spend the night next to one of these beautiful rivers, to look at that canopy of stars above, and understand how important it is that we maintain places like this.
So keeping alive that constituency and support of wild places, that's our biggest challenge, and that's what needs to be our biggest role.
What role did Outfitters play in the creation of the River of No Return wilderness?
When Frank Church needed someone to take people out here, key decision-makers, members of Congress, to show them what it is we were fighting for here, he turned to outfitter Norm Guth to do that.
Norm Guth took President Jimmy Carter down the Middle Fork in 1978, two years before the Central Idaho Wilderness Act was passed. Carter went back, and the government's position on how big the Frank ought to be changed dramatically, almost doubled the size. And we ended up getting even more of that in the final version of the bill.
We’re here at Campbell’s Ferry along the Salmon River. What role did this place play in getting people through this country?
Campbell's Ferry was first settled in 1897. One of the interesting things about the place is it has seen the transition in our public lands from public domain to forest reserves to national forest, primitive area to wilderness and wild and scenic. All the lands around here have been all of those, and so it has played a role in that. We're kind of the edge. We're where civilization stopped.
But then it's also the story of all the people who came here and tried to make a go of it. It was just absolutely merciless on them. It took a toll, the number of people that died in many ways, from drownings to loss in snowstorms, that died in childbirth, the horse accidents. It took a tremendous toll on those early pioneers to try and settle a place like this.
But it's truly here because Campbell's Ferry was the northern route into what is now the Frank Church Wilderness. It was the people trying to come from the north, trying to get to the Thunder Mountain Gold Strike in 1898. And so when William Campbell came in here, he built a trail from here to the mine, and he put a ferry across the river. And that's why this place was here.
(The following is excerpted from correspondence between Doug Tims and Bruce Reichert, in 2016:)
I often say that the mission of outfitting is the same as the Forest Service: “Caring for the Land and Serving People.” The mission statement of IOGA is “Committed to the conservation and enhancement of quality outdoor experiences on Idaho’s lands and waters.” We also often say “Clean free flowing streams, quality wildlife habitat and reasonable regulations are the lifeblood of outfitting.” And one of my favorites is “Outfitters are the present day reservoir of the skills and knowledge that first allowed early explorers and pioneers to access America’s wild places.”
The vast majority of the public lacks the skill, knowledge and equipment to visit and sustain themselves in wilderness settings, so it is appropriate that the management structure for wild lands includes what is necessary to provide a professional infrastructure to deliver those services. It is good that this infrastructure ends up being an excellent contributor to the economic fabric of small towns in rural Idaho.
The way the Wilderness Act states this need is “Commercial services may be performed within the wilderness areas designated by this Act to the extent necessary for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas.” Often the focus of that statement is on recreation, but in truth, outfitting connects the public with all the six purposes the law states for wilderness: recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historical use.
I have always been proud of IOGA’s diversity and leadership in helping bring the industry together nationally. Where many states have outfitter groups that represent components of outfitting, IOGA has long represented all outfitting services to the public, whether delivered on the back of a horse, in a raft, at a guest ranch or one of the myriad of recreational activities like snow skiing, backpacking, hiking, climbing, etc. When the national organization came together in 1990 it was in many ways modeled after IOGA.
Finally, the experience that the public has while on an outfitted trip is critical to outfitting’s long term success. As taught to me by my friend Richard Clark, our guests go through a “freeze, thaw, freeze” process during an extended trip into the wilderness. During the thaw period we have an opportunity to educate them and help them find an expanded way of looking at the natural world. We help them connect to nature, find refuge from the challenges and burdens of modern life, experience challenge and risk, build new skills, and find a sense of community with their fellow travelers.
Jake Howard was the executive director of the Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board for the State of Idaho when we conducted this interview in 2016. He has since retired.
Let's start with the difference between an outfitter and a guide.
In Idaho an outfitter is a business entity. And sometimes it's a sole proprietor, mom and pop operation; but in many instances, it's a corporation. And then that business entity will employ people, designated agents who basically are the operator of the business, and then they hire, employ guides who provide the services to the public for the business entity.
So the outfitters can fire the guides, but the guides can't fire the outfitters?
That's exactly right. And the outfitters are responsible for the guides' activities and what they do.
And I'm guessing there's more turnover among guides than outfitters.
Yeah. The business entities don't turn over significantly. We have about 400 outfitters that we license every year, and we maybe have ten sales or outfitters going out of business. And we license about 2,000 to 2200 guides every year. And within the river industry we have a fairly good turnover; it may be 30 percent or so. And the hunting outfitting industry, the land based outfitters that provide hunting and recreation, trail rides and that, it's significantly less; it's not that high at all.
So why does the licensing board exist?
We were organized about 60 years ago. We were one of the very first licensing boards in the United States. And several other states have developed licensing boards similar to what we do. But our purpose is to oversee the outfitting and guiding industry for the benefit of the public: the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
And then we have a conservation requirement. We very closely with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Game Department and Department of Lands. We work very collaboratively with those agencies to fulfill the mission assigned to us by Idaho law.
So Idaho is a leader in this area?
I think we are. Many states don't license outfitters and guides. And we probably go a little further than other states. Some of our neighboring states license outfitters, but they don't license guides.
And then we also assign unique operating areas, where the other states will let multiple outfitters operate in a given area. And then we limit the number of boating outfitters, the outfitters that provide whitewater trips or fishing on Idaho's rivers or lakes; we limit the number of them.
For an example, we just went through a rulemaking to set the number of outfitters that can operate on the South Fork of the Snake River. We did that collaboratively with the BLM and the Forest Service. And the legislature just adopted an updated rule.
Outfitters, particularly the land based outfitters, have unique operating areas, and particularly for elk and deer. We do a little bit of overlap for bear and cougar. There are some issues that we've had with predation in the elk population that we've worked together with the Forest Service and the Fish and Game Department in the Clearwater National Forest, Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest. And we've allowed some overlaps up there for outfitters to hunt bears and cougars to help reduce the predation on elk calves.
So what is a typical incident that would involve the licensing board? What do you find yourself primarily dealing with?
Oh, it's mostly with the guides. There's substance abuse issues, and there will be an occasional physical altercation. Every year, out of the 2,000 guides we license, we may bring 15 or 20 to 30 guides in on various things. But, typically, it's a substance abuse/drug related issue. Occasionally, we'll have an outfitter who will be caught operating out of the area, or they endanger the public safety. We just had an outfitter at the last board meeting that was operating out of his area. And the board put him on a five year restrictive probation and fined him a fairly significant fine. So that's the kind of stuff we deal with.
So you really are working to protect the public versus the outfitter?
Yes, absolutely. Our concern is, first of all, the outfitted public, and then the public at large. There's a mutual benefit to the state of Idaho to properly manage the resource and work collaboratively with the agencies to make sure that the public in the backcountry is protected.
Now, with that being said, often outfitters are out there to help the public that are not outfitted public. Somebody gets in harm's way, the outfitters will provide services to those people. An outfitter has got first aid training, and their guides have got first aid training. And they have the equipment and horses or boats to deal with it. But they're there for the public benefit. It's to help the public. And, oftentimes the public is paying them a fee. But they work with the public at large. They provide a public service.
Would you want your son or daughter in the outfitting industry?
Actually, my son is involved in the backcountry industry. But I would tell them, first of all, they have to be "people" people. They have to provide customer service and be attentive to the public that they serve, and it's not always their paying clients.
But I think the other thing is that they need to be ready to go to work. Outfitting and guiding is very hard work. You're in the backcountry, it's very demanding, you're providing services to people that need services, and it's hard work.
And then, also, they have to deal with the regulatory agencies, the Forest Service and BLM, and need to understand the processes they have to go through to be federally permitted and licensed by the state. And, you know, it's so I would tell them that, you know, first of all, you have to be people oriented. You have to be prepared to work pretty hard. There's certainly opportunity in the backcountry to get yourself into trouble.
So what kind of training does an outfitter or a guide have to go through?
The outfitters have to undergo a background check. We do a criminal background check on everybody, the outfitters, you know, the designated agents, and then the guides.
And the outfitters, the designated agents operating for an outfitter, have to pass an exam. There's a fairly extensive exam they have to pass. They all have to have first aid training. They have to have training in the backcountry. If they're providing hunting services, they have to be able to skin an elk or skin a deer. Or if they're on the boat, they have to be able to take care of the fish.
But there's an application they have to submit and we review. And, if we have questions, we bring those questions or concerns to the board, and the board makes a decision on what to do.
What's the fastest growing part of the outfitting business?
I wouldn't say it's really anything fast; but it's changing. I would say the dynamics of what we do are changing. The boating and the whitewater is probably becoming a little bit greater focus. Hunting seems to be you know, we had the impact of the wolves. There's been resource issues. But I would say the boating industry, the fishing industry. Whitewater trips are certainly the leading part of what we do. About 60 percent of what we do is whitewater boating and fishing; and then about 40 percent is hunting and that type of activity.
So what are the one or two things that seem to trip people up when they look at outfitting in Idaho?
I think there's confusion between the Outfitters and Guides Board and the Outfitters and Guides Association. The board is the regulatory board, that oversees the outfitting industry. And the Outfitters and Guides Association is, essentially, an industry advocacy group.
I would say the other thing is that the public perceives the outfitters and the guides out there hunting and fishing and doing things for themselves, and that's hardly the case. They're out there providing services to the public.
There's a very significant tourism economic package that goes along with the outfitting industry. We've got communities like Riggins and Challis and several other smaller communities that are significantly involved with the outfitting industry.
But, it's a public service that the industry provides. It's not something that they're doing themselves, and hunting and fishing and benefitting from; they're out there working hard.
I'm curious where most of the outfitters live and work.
The lion's share of the outfitting industry is probably focused around the Salmon River, the Snake River, in Central Idaho. And then we have a smattering of outfitters in Southern Idaho. And the Panhandle. But the vast majority of the industry is either boating on the Salmon or Snake River or they're big game land based outfitters that are 30 miles north or south of the Salmon River.
Our responsibility, from an administrative law standpoint, is we have the ability to take action on a licensed outfitter or guide. But with somebody who is operating without a license, then we work together with the law enforcement community, and we file a criminal complaint and prosecute them criminally.
The Fish and Game Department is a very good partner in helping us deal with the illegal activity in Idaho, as is the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and the local county sheriffs.
What would you like to see happen in the outfitting industry?
Well, I would say that one thing that's going on is the industry is moving from the mom and pop to the corporate, and out of state interests are buying up a lot of the industry in Idaho. And, being a native Idahoan, I would like to see the mom and pop part of the industry stick around for a while.
And that's not to say that the corporate people aren't providing a good service and that they're not providing it through people in Idaho; they are. But it's just the dynamics are changing, much like the society we live in. I would say that would probably be the thing that kind of jumps out at me. I don't know if it's a problem; it's just something that's happened in the 15 years I've been here.
I imagine there are controversies between outfitters and the do-it-yourself boaters, for example.
Absolutely. And that's part of the work that we do with the federal agencies. I mentioned the rulemaking that we did on the South Fork of the Snake; it was to make a determination on how much activity would be appropriate. The South Fork is probably one of the most sought after rivers in the Northwest.
And so part of that process that we went through was to make a determination on how much commercial activity we would allow on the South Fork. And it turned out that we pretty much have left it the same. We've clarified it some, but we've eliminated the powerboat opportunity on the South Fork.
But, otherwise, the number of outfitters and the guides that are on the South Fork is about 10 to 12 percent of the total use of the South Fork. We're going to leave that the same. In other words, we did not go through the rulemaking and decide to reduce the number of opportunities on that river, other than just simply eliminating the powerboating.
I don't know if I'd call it a conflict, but there's certainly competition for resources. And as our population grows and the rivers get used, that competition is going to continue, and it's going to become more and more of a concern to this board, as well as the Forest Service, the BLM and the Fish and Game Department.
Grant Simonds is the Government Affairs Liaison for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. We caught up with him during a spring rafting trip in 2016 on the Owyhee River.
What is the role of outfitters and guides?
Idaho's professional outfitters and guides are experts at providing safe, fun, and memorable experiences for those who choose an outfitted trip. We take a lot of experience, as well as inexperienced, folks on excursions throughout Idaho.
The industry is attached directly to the Idaho rural economy providing significant input into Idaho's rural economy, and the industry is very diverse in Idaho ranging from float boating, jet boating, hunting, fishing, summer activities such as trail rides, guest-ranching, winter activities. That sets Idaho aside in terms of the diversity of outfitted activities.
Access is very important to the industry. If you can't get there, then you can't provide a trip for those that want to enjoy Idaho's outdoors. Outfitters contribute to maintaining that access through trail maintenance, their fees are also used to maintain put ins, takeouts, so that's very important for all of outdoor recreation.
You spoke of access. Talk specifically about whitewater rafting and desert access.
I was a member of the Owyhee Initiative work group that the Owyhee County commissioners convened back in 2001, and my focus on that group was appropriate access for not only the outfitted public but all recreationists.
And so we have maintained appropriate access to the Jarbridge, to the Bruneau, to the various forks of the Owyhee, and BLM has been good about maintaining these Class VI roads to four wheel drive standards.
What are the primary guided activities in Idaho?
Idaho is blessed in that we have over 3,000 miles of whitewater rivers, more than any other state outside of Alaska. And so whitewater boating is the largest segment of our industry, followed by hunting, fishing, and all the other activities that outfitters do. People ought to think about putting some of these Idaho places on their wish list or on their bucket list, because you don't have to go very far to enjoy something fairly spectacular, whether it's from South to Central to North Idaho.
Talk about how Idaho's guides are regulated. How many guides and outfitters are there in Idaho?
Guiding in Idaho is highly regulated both by the State of Idaho Licensing Board. There are requirements, specific requirements, for becoming a licensed guide. And guides are the employees, and outfitters are the owners, and so guides must work for an outfitter. That's how the state law reads, in essence.
There's about 380 licensed outfitters across the state. About 120 of those are attached to water, another 120 or so or more attached to the land base. By that, I mean big game hunting. And then there's a large segment of outfitters that are in what I call recreation. That would be summer trail rides, winter activities, guest ranching.
And then on the guide side, there's about 2,000 licensed guides that work for outfitters and provide these safe and memorable experiences. The key to a successful outfitting business is having highly trained quality guides. They are the ones that make the trip memorable for folks.
On the public land side where most outfitters operate in the State of Idaho, then outfitters must be special use permitted by the Forest Service and/or the BLM. We do have some outfitters that operate on private land, and most of them choose to be licensed, because they want that credibility, and so there are some magnificent private land outfitted opportunities in Idaho, too.
How many thousands of people do you think are guided through Idaho every year?
There's about 200,000 folks enjoying Idaho outfitted trips annually, and we estimate that that contributes about $100 million to the outdoor recreation/tourism economy, most of it related to rural Idaho.
I mean, we have 4.8 million acres of designated wilderness. We have a lot of roadless backcountry, and we also have outfitted opportunities right next to highways. And so outfitters provide that conduit to get out and enjoy a guided experience without needing to maintain all of the equipment, all the knowledge, where to go, why to go there, and that's what somebody who is seeking, say, a guided hunt is looking for.
Sum up how Idaho guiding is part of the legacy of the state. It's part of Idaho's fabric.
Outfitting and guiding in Idaho has a long history going back to actually Sacagawea was probably our first guide, if you will, and then the era of the mountain man, and then we get Captain Gulicke who took trips on wooden scows down the main Salmon River back in the first part of the 20th Century. And from there jet boating evolved and float boating, particularly after World War II, using surplus military rafting equipment, and on the hunting side people have been hunting big game with outfitters, since the late 1800's, and so there's a long tradition of outfitting and guiding throughout Idaho.
Behind the Stories
Some like to point to Sacajawea as Idaho's first ‘guide.’ If pressed, I'd share the honors with the Shoshone Indian known to us as “Old Tobe.” After all, it was Chief Cameahwait, Sacajawea's brother, who offered Tobe to Lewis & Clark, to guide them north to the Lolo trail.
That was 211 years ago. Since then outfitting and guiding has become a cherished Idaho tradition. That's because outfitters and guides have the skills and knowledge to help urban folks access the state's wild places. In fact, each year nearly 200,000 people use the services of Idaho's outfitting industry. That’s a huge number, one that translates into $100 million dollars to the Idaho economy.
When I was first presented that number by the Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association, I had my doubts. But put into the bigger picture of an Idaho economy hovering around $65 billion of goods and services, $100 million does make sense.
And the nice thing is that this outfitting business really benefits rural communities, where most of Idaho's outfitters reside.
Another thing I learned is that Idaho really is a leader in the licensing and regulating of the outfitting industry. That's something I heard from just about every outfitter we surveyed; it was a source of pride. Some states don't license outfitters; some states license only outfitters but not guides. Some states concentrate only on hunting and fishing; some states don’t limit the number of outfitters in a particular area. Idaho does seem to have it figured out.
“It's the oldest and probably the most controlled industry,” said Steve Burson of Storm Creek Outfitters, the current president of the IOGA. “Most other states don't have that much control, so it's a free-for-all within the industry and with some of the clients. We're probably more regulated and more organized and do more professional trips than any other state.”
But, like so many businesses dependent upon discretionary income and catering to the whims of the public, you get a sense that the outfitting industry could be in for some rocky times. For one thing, every major economic downturn seems to severely impact outfitters. I guess that trip-of-a-lifetime can always wait a year or two if the money is tight.
And then there's this younger generation, so in touch with virtual reality that they don't seem to have much interest in the real beauty this state has to offer. Books have been written on the importance of getting children into the outdoors; in fact, it's become something of a national priority; and who better to lead the charge than Idaho's outfitters and guides!
Outfitters like to see themselves as partners with the Forest Service and the BLM; these agencies are the caretakers of most of Idaho's public lands, and outfitters must follow their rules.
“It's going to be critical that our agency partners are able to evolve with us,” says Mike Scott of White Cloud Outfitters, “because in order for us to stay on the cutting edge, there are going to be certain needs that we're going to have; and hopefully we can work through those needs.”
But I'm not so sure that these land managers always see outfitters as their partners. We kept hearing that the communication between outfitter and forest ranger, for example, could use an overhaul. Let's hope this happens, but the tendency for land managers to move every 2-3 years to another forest doesn't bode well for that partnership.
It took a trip to an old homestead on the Salmon River to get what I think is the best definition of what a good outfitter or guide can do for people. Doug and Phyllis Tims have been renovating Campbell's Ferry, a once valuable link to getting miners to the gold fields back at the turn of the century. Doug spent 27 years as an outfitter, staring down the high waters of the Selway River and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. He was also president of the IOGA, the outfitter trade organization.
When the Outdoor Idaho crew visited Campbell's Ferry this summer, here's what Doug had to say about outfitting:
“I had a woman once tell me that she got out of her tent in the middle of the night and looked up at the canopy of stars over her head, and her soul expanded. And that soul-expanding experience goes home with people and allows them to be the champions for wild places in the future.
“So keeping alive that constituency and support of wild places, that's our biggest challenge, and that's what needs to be our biggest role.”
Now that’s a mission statement most of us can get behind!