What Happens on the River Stays on the River

What Happens on the River Stays on the River

Episode 1

By: Luke Baugh


The other day I heard someone say “what happens on the river stays on the river”, and then another voice piped up with “yeah, right”. A frank discussion ensued and after hours, if not days, of deliberation, I’ve come to some conclusions about the meaning of the term and would like to share my first experience in the dusty and at times void arena of river guide morality. This insightful investigation into the ethical framework of river etiquette should be considered subjective, and is admittedly and by no means exhaustive. It is merely intended to shed some light on the topic for some of our less fortunate river runners who exist on the fringe of the culture, or for our younger paddlers who have yet to come into contact with the experiential knowledge needed to savor the escapist mentality of the river runner who has, in fact, done something on the river which needs to be forgotten. Alas, like any good river trip this writing starts with a poorly articulated safety briefing. So now that we’re all sufficiently confused and/or excited with a hint of “what the fuck is going on”, let’s presume our collective journey into the foray of this particular river ethic.


I will, in future writings, present a numbered outline for those of you who are working class professionals that also paddle; ye engineers, accountants, and so forth. As well, I’ll present, if possible, some pictures and an online order form for a coloring book with a complimentary 8 pack of Crayolas for the rest of us guides who don’t understand how the fuck the raft even floats or hold air, but we don’t seem to mind our own ignorance. And we’re off!


Like some of our river running compatriots, I am very good looking despite not having all of my teeth. I’m 36, identify as a male and sexually behave as a straight man (just throwing that out there) most of the time. I started rafting at the age of, well, if you count inner-tubes (do we count inner tubes?), like 5 years old. Charming, I developed into a teenage boy, and at the ripe age of 14, when my voice was just starting to turn from the sound of a middle aged woman to a weak and insecure young man, I started spending a large amount of time around river guides.


At 14 I took my first guide training trip at 70,000 cfs on the Salmon River, with a few people from Australia (what the fuck they were doing in Idaho I have no idea, but I was 14 and their accents were cool). The first rafting company I worked for was years later because even in Idaho we have standards (except when it comes to sheep).


When I turned 21 I fell asleep in a patch of poison Ivy while at a Bon Fire; yes, in Idaho “Bon Fire” is capitalized to present its importance and majesty as an officially sanctioned event. It was my second year guiding and I had been sleeping on rocks next to the river most nights, been fired once or twice for showing up late or hung over, and earned a few scars on myself as well as had a few dents in my ammo can… showing all who took notice that I was well on my way to being legit. I had had my first flip and I had a continual pocket of sand wedged between my butt cheeks. I was living the life which was meant for me.


The poison ivy incident marked a decidedly uncomfortable time in my guiding career as I started running multi-days in early May (which is cold in Idaho) and wore a wetsuit. My wetsuit did what all wetsuits do and swirled the stank (river guide plural and expressive for “stink”) and poison ivy juices around so eventually I was like a giant human scab. Needless to say I wasn’t getting laid anytime soon, and to top it all off I had been in an unfortunate van surfing incident months earlier and busted out my top front teeth. Suffice to say that at this time I was left to contemplate my existence as a river guide alone, and my 2 person tent became a study room for me and a small collection of books on river guiding, maps, and eastern philosophy.  I took the opportunity as a time to contemplate my occupation and the finer points within it, not the least of which is the ephemeral concept that what happens on the river stays on the river.


I know what you’re wondering. Can poison ivy attack your penis? Yes, it can. Moving on.


I ran a few multi-day trips and got my foot in the door with the local mult-day outfitters on the local rivers; Hells Canyon, Lower Gorge, and Main Salmon. I felt confident that my name was on that torn out piece of paper with a bunch of names on the left column and phone numbers on the right… which then of course had the occasional name crossed out after the guide attached to said name crossed some kind of line. It was only a matter of time before my name was called and I got an opportunity to show my stuff on a multi-day trip. For those outside the industry, multi-day guides are arrogant pricks. They think they are better than day trip guides (which, as a mult-day guide, I can tell you that we are), they consider themselves “career” guides, or “industry pros”, and don’t follow the same bottom feeding tendencies as day trippers who spend their evenings wallowing in hazes brought on by overindulgences in R&R and local women –or worse- female river guides. Well that’s what I thought. I was wrong, and here’s how I found out.


The Seven Devils Saloon was on it’s 5th owner in about as many years and we had covered the walls with enough graffiti and tore the green turf on the pool tables by having drunk girls from Boise dance on them to the point that no one would really enter the establishment unless they were either one of the guides or were with a guide that took them down the river and were ushered in as “VIPs” which meant they were to be coaxed and boozed until then felt reconnected to the glory days of their youth and bought all of us drinks with the credit card at the bar.


Anyway, I sat at the wooden bar and ordered my beer (at that time happy hour beers were 50 cents; I drank a lot of beer). About 3 beers in the phone rang at the bar and the barkeep (some washed up Harley rider who was likely wanted by the law) handed me the phone. It was my older brother (also a guide). He said that he’d been offered a job on Hells Canyon but didn’t want to take it and that the opportunity was up for me. Right quick I called the boss at the aforementioned company… for the purposes of anonymity lets call this company “River Dream Adventures”. The boss said to show up the next day so I sobered up and got there at 7am for guide call.


I was ushered into Hells Canyon half way through on a 5 day trip, at a place called Pittsburg Landing, a 45 minute drive on a scary as fuck dirt road that meanders into what is literally the deepest gorge in North America (fuck you Grand Canyon guides). I was put on the trip with two more evenings remaining. Apparently the gear boatman was a great musician but a poor camp concierge and was having trouble keeping up with the amount of work needed to set up camp for 15 people from Boston who had never been camping. Go figure.


My first night we camped at a place called Tryon Creek and it rained cats and dogs. Not literal cats and dogs but you know, heavy fucking rain. So, that night the guides all stayed up with the two college age astronomically sexy female offspring of the gent who’d purchased the trip for his family and friends. With the patriarch asleep we were no longer needing to impress the person who could ruin our lives with a negative review, so we beat on pans, drank whiskey, and sang poorly to Bob Marley, Ben Harper, and other such standard issue riverside musical notes. Getting to sleep that night around 1pm I was feeling good about life and doing my job.


Next morning I packed camp and ate the mandatory “pig in a blanket” given to me by the senior guides. I was sent down river ahead of the trip with my gear-boater to snag the following nights camp.


Our chosen camp, The Imnaha River confluence, comes in on river right about 5 miles upriver from the confluence of the Salmon and Snake Rivers. I have to say it’s one of the prettiest and largest river camp spots I’ve seen. An old mining town used to exist in this tight canyon and you can imagine how many hookers and drunk people lived their days there… fittingly we camped right next to their ghosts that night and sang loudly and poorly as only river guides can do in such a place.


Around 10pm the guitars came out along with my instrument of choice, a 6 quart pan which I beat like Def Leppards drummer with a new prosthetic arm. We sang into the night and drank cheap whiskey like champions. Some kid who’s older sisters were the ones that looked like they belonged in Playboy, had too much to drink and fell asleep in his camp chair only to urinate out his board shorts and drench one of the guides Chacos in said urine. Well, urine is sterile so we just let the kid sleep and continued banging and singing into the night until the evening came to an abrupt crossroads at around 2am, when we’d sung “Burn One Down” for the fifth time, and had run out of tunes and whiskey.


We sat there on the rocks smoking cigarettes and then one of these hot as hell girls held my hand and touched my leg. It changed my life. Mind you I had been smitten with poison Ivy and had been living the celibate life for the better part of half a summer, so this hand holding, to me, was akin to a high end call girl at the luxury suite at Bellagio. I wasn’t dumb, I knew what my options were. My poison Ivy had, in the meantime, healed. It was getting late and my tent was within clear view, with the sound of the river in the background, the parents of this prowling temptress safely asleep a hundred yards away. The moonlight sprinkling the rocks and the top of my meticulously crafted 2 person tent. She wasn’t dumb either. Not only was I incredibly good looking, but I had a new denture which in the dim lighting made me look entirely normal, and since I had come in half way down the river I clearly hadn’t been claimed by any of the other guests on the trip. I was in high heaven friends.


Then it dawned on me. I had been waiting for this career opportunity for a long time, and this particular outfitter was one I really wanted to work for. My hand slipped away from hers and I watched her perfectly formed ass bounce back to her assigned tent with exceptional taughtness. I had made, what I considered at that time, the “right” decision. This, my friends, is where I went wrong.  


The next morning the lead guides (who I was trying to impress) started cooking the final breakfast and we all gathered for the obligatory 5-10 minute bullshit session and coffee drinking “guide meeting”. The oldest guide there, our trip leader, watched as the two blonde girls awoke, came out of their tents, and put on their respective hoodies to prepare for the walk into the dining area for their final meal of the trip. “I can’t believe no one got to touch those titties”, he said.


I told him I had the opportunity and had let it pass me by the evening prior. He looked at me as though I’d found the cure for cancer and fed it to the dogs. He didn’t slap me, but insisted that is what I deserved. Instead he sat me down, and in front of the other guides scolded me sternly but articulately, and summarized the lecture with the words “what happens on the river stays on the river”.


To be continued……