We all know how it feels when we try to have a conversation and it’s interrupted by the familiar ding of an incoming text message. Or when we are in class / at the movies / falling asleep / in a work flow / driving / exercising / eating dinner / getting romantic / etc. and someone’s phone interjects with a little reminder, alert, alarm, or otherwise “urgent” communication from the world beyond. It usually doesn’t feel very good when someone you love breaks eye contact with you to sneak a glance at their screen – their distraction is perhaps indicative of secret or unconscious priorities. Our disappointment when a device distracts attention away from real-time human interaction is legitimate and valid, even though we all– with very few exceptions – are guilty of allowing technology to diminish, compromise, or completely eclipse the increasingly elusive focused human conversation. If we aren’t exceedingly careful, we might allow technology to direct and distract us away from our responsibilities, from books, and from our daydreams.
To be clear: I’m writing this on a laptop, on a Paco Pad on my buddy’s floor a few hours north of home. And because I don’t have WiFi here, my phone is by my side, still glowing from freshly-checked email and social media and news. We rely on technology in most moments of our modern lives, we celebrate and revere it, we look forward to what it will do with and for us in the future. I am in no way meaning to disparage the science and brilliance behind super-streamlined contemporary communication: we live in remarkable times. As with most things that cause cultural distress, it’s the human factorthat is concerning: how we as individuals and as societies choose to employ the technology; to what extent we allow it to permeate the corners of our existence; and whom and what we allow it to interrupt or redirect.
Now consider technology in the context of a river trip.
Why do people escape to rivers? Chances are it’s to feel the power of natural forces, to share meaningful moments with family or loved ones, to revel in the beauty of wild places, or to inject a dose of whitewater and adrenaline into our sometimes-stagnant lives.
Sure, technology has a place on the river. We use phones and radios to coordinate logistics, provide an extra measure of safety, and to take the photos that will preserve these memories indefinitely. But let’s return to the reasons why we go on river trips:
How can whatever’s on your screen compete with the beauty of a wild river corridor? Put it down and look up in all directions. Listen to the sounds all around you. Truly feel the sun and water on your skin. Acknowledge what’s real and immediate.
Why would you allow your phone to compromise the fleeting moments of togetherness with your family or friends? Stay focused: be genuinely present with your people. Observe their smiles, offer them encouragement if they’re nervous, thank them for sharing the river with you. Ask questions of your guide, and even laugh at their jokes if you’re feeling generous.
There’s nothing that compares to the immediacy of running whitewater.When you are lined up on the tongue of a big rapid, everything else falls away. The only thing that matters is the now, your group’s cohesion as a paddle crew, and your ability to stay focused when air and water and rocks all conspire together toward chaos.
The selfies, the text messages, the Instagram updates, and the news beyond the canyon walls lose all significance when we are truly present on the river. There’s no time for distraction. And, furthermore, why would you ever hope to distract yourself from the unparalleled joy of sharing rivers with people you love?
If you crave true disconnection, we recommend you join us on the Lochsa River this spring. No cell service, no neon signs, all wilderness and whitewater.
Celebrating 10 years of changing lives in tandem
If you’ve been rafting on the Lochsa anytime in the past ten years, chances are you’ve been lucky enough to witness the synergy of two remarkable whitewater professionals. Mat McGrath and Ian Haddad have been guiding Zoo Town Surfers trips on Idaho’s Wild and Scenic Lochsa River for a decade now. And it’s worth noting that their ten-year Lochsa anniversary coincides directly with the 50th anniversary of our nation’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Sheer coincidence? Yeah, definitely. But we still think it’s pretty rad. (Also: Coincidence that Mat’s name is spelled with only one “t,” so that MAT and IAN are both three-letter words?? We think not!)
Here, we get a little closer to Mat and Ian in order to learn what makes these two rafting machines tick, and how they manage to orchestrate a big-water rafting show that runs as smoothly as a pool of graceful synchronized swimmers.
My name is Mathew Eben McGrath but everyone calls me Mat. I was born and raised here in beautiful Missoula, Montana and continue to live here with my lovely wife Jana and dog Mesa.
Call me Ishmael. (Ian’s great too.) I live in Missoula with my wonderful girlfriend Julie, our ornery cat Lonestar, and a plant named Earl.
How would you describe your guide style?
MAT: Describing my guide style is tough. I would say I’m a pretty hard charger. I like to keep the raft moving downstream and the crew engaged with the river. For me there is nothing better on the river than seeing nicely spaced rafts coming through some great whitewater. Tight lines and looking good.
IAN: Go big! On the water and bigger on the lax layover days where I can make a big Dutch oven of lasagna.
How did you get your start as a raft guide?
IAN: I used to work at an outdoor retailer that sold many types of watercraft. I first bought an inflatable kayak and then a one-man pontoon boat for lake fishing about fourteen years ago. These were the first crafts I took out on the Blackfoot and then Clark Fork through Alberton Gorge. A couple years later I bought my first full-sized raft so I could enjoy the water with my family and friends. A little over ten years ago, I was introduced to Justin Walsh. He was the owner of Bearpaw River Expeditions and he invited my good friend Mat and me to come out the Lochsa and try paddling some real whitewater. I like to joke around that this happened one weekend ten years ago and I’ve been back every weekend since, but there is some truth to that. He made monsters out of us.
MAT: I’ve been working on the Lochsa since 2008. I was lucky enough to have a great friend that also owned a rafting company. I had no idea what I was missing and after the first run in 2005 I was hooked. I never stopped trying to get on trips or hop in whenever a spot opened up. I learned a lot just following around some great river runners and doing it the hard way time and time again. I feel really lucky to have found the Bearpaw crew. It was a good, tight group that really made me the rafter I am today.
Describe the role of the river in your life.
IAN: The river has absolutely changed my life. It was like an avalanche that sweeps down into the water, creating a new rapid with unseen challenges and unforeseen turns. I’ve met some of my best friends on the river and it has opened doors to new opportunities I had not imagined. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles to places I had never been just to get a taste of the waters there. Without the river I would not be the person I am today and I couldn’t be happier to hear her siren’s call.
What is your favorite river and why do you love it?
MAT: It’s tough to pin my favorite river since there are so many enjoyable moments on every trip; maybe that’s what draws me to the water. Nothing beats the hard-hitting waves of the Lochsa. Except maybe the fun busy water of the south fork of the Clearwater or maybe the scenic beauty and remoteness of the Selway. Even the 6pm evening float down the Clark Fork, right into town. I feel there are so many opportunities and options around us to ever pick just one.
IAN: Lochsa, baby! With it being in our backyard and its one day epic whitewater, it’s pretty hard to beat. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have the passion that I have for rivers in general. Plus, it’s a great place for a brisk swim…
Why do you think it’s important for people to get out on the river, either on raft trips or by learning to kayak?
MAT: I feel the river should be experienced by everyone. It’s a great way to get outdoors and see some of the most amazing places on earth. It’s an easy way to camp and a great way to hang with the family. It truly brings people together. There is so much to learn from the river. The power and beauty can be seen everywhere the water cuts into the earth. It teaches respect and humbles you: the energy of water rushing over the rocks or the quiet meandering stretches through canyons.
IAN: Honestly, I could say it’s the adrenaline pumping whitewater. Or the camaraderie with your mates on shore. But more than anything its connecting with nature. I still remember the first few times I pushed off on the Blackfoot River and I was surrounded by nothing but water and trees. I imagined a satellite zooming in on me, then pulling way back until I was just a dot and then gone completely. If I had the ability to be anywhere else, I realized just how lucky I was to be right there, right then. I would choose no other place to be. With all of the strife in the world it’s easy to be caught up in the daily stresses. The river allows me strip that all of that away and truly live in the moment. Enjoying what I have right in front of me and I know it can do the same for others.
How do you help your clients let go of the “real world” and fully experience the river?
MAT: Sometimes I think it’s hard to get people into the river mindset. When you’re only out for a day it can be a real struggle to let go of the stresses and problems of their day-to-day life. I think getting them engaged with the water and keeping work talk to a minimum is always key. I like to talk about other trips or vacations. Anything except the fact that the trip always ends eventually and we all return to “the real world”. I think trying to blend into the crew and just be an additional part of the conversation rather than a tour guide is a great way for people to open up and really start enjoying the their time on your raft.
IAN: I’d like to think that I bring them the passion for the river that I’ve felt for years, and hopefully impart some of it onto them – the true joy of showing them that in this moment is the only place they need to be.
If you could impart one piece of wisdom to your guests before they come rafting with you on the Lochsa, what would it be?
MAT: If I had only one recommendation for new folks on the Lochsa (and most other rivers) it would be to dress warm. Wear the fleece and wool. Bring the poly and the socks. It’s hard to have fun when you’re cold and it’s easy to cool off on the water. Dress for the water temp (usually cold round here), not the air temp. Being comfortable on the water shouldn’t be second or third on the checklist.
IAN: One piece of wisdom for guests: Bring multiple pairs of wool socks! Also: NO COTTON!
What or who inspires you?
MAT: The list of things that inspire me is endless. So many amazing people helped shape me into the person I am today. I owe a lot to the OG Bearpaw crew Justin Walsh, Jeff Wieber, and Adam Montgomery for the early days teaching me a lot on and off the river. We had a lot of good times during some pretty epic seasons. Shreder and all the entire Zootown crew for keeping the passion alive and working hard every trip. It takes a team to run good river trips and it’s nice to be surrounded by a solid crew.
IAN: My mom. My Dad. My Grandparents. Justin Walsh. Mat McGrath. Jason Shreder. Kelsey “Tex” Richardson. Kev Kev Donachie. Clay Ordway. Johnny Stackhouse Watson. Ian Fodor-Davies. The whole NRS crew. Marty Smith. Martin Litton. Kenton Grua. Edward Abbey. Santa Claus (he’s so fast!). Every man and woman who’s ever had the courage to take their own boat down a river to find what they are capable of! And, of course, Julie Erickson, my inspiration to come home after every trip.
BONUS Q: What’s your favorite meal to cook on the river?
MAT: Cooking on the river for me is all about the Dutch oven. It makes even the simplest meals delicious. One of my all-time favorites is the Cottage (Shepherd’s) Pie. It’s a one pot meal that’s easy to prep and is always a crowd pleaser. You can prep the potatoes and veggies ahead of time (recommended of course) or do the instant thing. Brown your beef (my meat of choice). Don’t drain; instead pour a gravy packet in and stir. Pour your veggie mix on top of the meat. Now fill to top of veggies with gravy. Spread your potato mixture nicely on top and coat with some cheese if you like. Once you start cooking let it go – don’t open the lid! Your dinner should be ready in 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of your D.O. Enjoy!
IAN: Dutch oven Lasagna…duh
I moved to Missoula for graduate school a few years back. I had a few old, dear friends who lived here already, wonderful people I knew from my days of guiding cold river trips in my home state of Alaska. One of those friends used to fall out of touch every spring for days or a week at a time, emerging only briefly for a text message flurry with friends and family before vanishing again. He was disappearing to the Lochsa River, just on the Idaho side of the state line, about two hours from Missoula. It seemed he wanted to spend every possible moment at the Lochsa, and I couldn’t quite grasp from far away the supposed allure of this place that continuously stole him away.
That first year at the University of Montana, as a Master’s candidate in Environmental Studies, I read about the evolving history of federal protections for wild rivers; learned to view healthy landscapes as expressions of ecological connectivity; and fell deeper in love with this place that inspired intellectual creativity and tireless commitment to community.I explored the mountains around town and reveled in the common love of learning and recreation and celebration among friends. I was completely sold on Missoula.
That first spring, as the rivers began to run and the afternoons grew warmer, I went kayaking as much as possible on the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork, a canyon just west of town with violet cliffs, splashy whitewater, and big sandy beaches. And it was also in the early spring that people started to talk about the Lochsa – the buzz was palpable, like a low rumbling in the belly of our town, a frequency on which all local kayakers and their loved ones vibrated. The idea of paddling the Lochsa grew into something really big in my head. I read the American Whitewater description a dozen times, trying to string together the legendary rapids that defined a stretch of river I’d never seen. I listened to friends describe it – everyone with their own anecdotes for good and bad and really bad runs through Grim Reaper, Split Creek, and Bloody Mary. I watched a few YouTube videos of hapless rafters getting surfed and then trashed by the surging froth of the venerated Lochsa Falls. I read about the different water levels, and how some rapids get bigger with more water while others wash out. I grew nervous and intrigued by the Lochsa, anxious to see it, captivated by the lore of its whitewater and its distinction within the history of river conservation in our country.
The Lochsa flows freely – it’s not dammed anywhere along its course – and its water levels are therefore determined by snowmelt, rainfall, and discharge from tributary creeks. It flows 70 miles from the mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness toward Lowell, Idaho, where it meets the Selway River – together they form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. The Lochsa, as part of the Clearwater River system, was designated a waterway worthy of federal protection in the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Clearwater system was one of the eight original rivers promised strategic guardianship by Congress via the Wild and Scenic Act.
Lochsa, to the Nez Perce people, is a word that implies rough water. To the Salish, it is Ep Smɫí, which means “it has salmon.” To anyone who’s spent significant time there, Lochsa often comes to mean something like “home.”
Missoula’s community of female kayakers is anomalous: there are more highly skilled, highly supportive lady boaters here than anywhere I’ve lived or paddled. Each year a grassroots event called Ladies on the Lochsa brings local girls together to run the river with encouraging friends, abundant sequins, and cute ripper boys transformed into enthusiastic shuttle bunnies. The first time I saw the Lochsa was with this group of girls.
My friend and I got there the night before to camp and scout the river. En route to the Lochsa, you lose cell reception just outside of Lolo, Montana – of A River Runs Through It fame – and you don’t get it back. You drive up and over Lolo Pass, and as you crest the pass you start to tumble away from Montana and into Idaho, where the speed limit drops and the local highway patrollers are ready to slap speeding out-of-staters with hefty tickets.
The entire length of the whitewater section of the Lochsa is roadside: it parallels Highway 12 and its major rapids can be scouted from pull-outs along the road. The pullout above Lochsa Falls turns into a lawn chair circus over Memorial Day weekend; the spot at Pipeline surf wave is a cedar-shaded roadside sanctuary for neoprene-clad hydrophiles. The good news is that, on a bad day, a boater can haul herself out of the river and up to the road, tail between her legs or simply relieved to inch closer to a warm truck or cold beer. On a good day, motivated kayakers can make multiple laps on their favorite sections of the river, hitching rides or setting quick shuttles, as most of the traffic on Highway 12 in the spring is Lochsa traffic. Everyone is going boating. The corridor beckons to river lovers within a five-hour radius of the Fish Creek put-in.
The next day, on a drizzly Idaho morning, I ran the river for the first time, surrounded by 17 incredible women, some of them Lochsa newbies like me, and others – Cheyenne, Alley, Jess, to a beautiful few – veterans who called the river home. Brooke Hess, the freestyle phenom who got her start at Zoo Town Surfers so long ago, showed me down her river that day, coaching me as well as one can when the rapids get loud and my heart beats into my ears. I drank the water that day: I was indoctrinated into the clan of Lochsa lovers, people who go to Lochsa to refill their souls, to lose touch with mechanized reality, to let go of time (the Montana-Idaho time change is persistently challenging and so often it’s just disregarded), to spend days and nights with a community of river people who share profound reverence for a wild waterway where cell phones don’t work, dog-friends run free, and the high mountain snowmelt runs crystal clear.
I now have my own collection of Lochsa anecdotes that I feel lucky to share in wistful conversations about this fabled forest paradise. I’ve had my own good days on the Lochsa, some bad days, and a couple of really bad days. But mostly I’ve had really good days, where all my favorite friends share meals and hugs and high fives; where sunshine sparkles through veils of morning mist; where communities of rafters, kayakers, river-boarders, surfers, cat-boaters, Forest Service rangers, and packs of smiling river dogs converge in a springtime wave of gratitude for one superlatively wild river.
Thank you to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System for continuing to advocate for and protect waterways of ecological, recreational, and historical importance. To sign American Rivers’ petition to protect 5000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, go here. Join us on the Lochsa this spring as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
What do premature wrinkles, rancid polypro, sandy kisses, and rock-solid communication have in common?
Human relationships are hard. But for the paddling partner who’s also my special human, it must be extra tough.
When I get scared, I get grumpy. If plans change at the last minute, as they often do with boating, I get grumpy. When I get hungry, I get grumpy. (“You’re telling me you didn’t bring any snacks?”)
I don’t like it when my layers are still wet from the day before. And when I get cold, my partner is the first one to hear about it. (“Can I please borrow your pogies?”) Although I can feign toughness with the best of river guides, when my special human is around, I am decidedly less stout.
There are a lot of challenges:
Sometimes my special human-slash-paddling partner gets his lefts and rights confused, which is clearly a significant communication deficit when we are running whitewater together.
One time, he forgot his sopping wet dry suit in the rooftop box on his car for a month. That’s disgusting and I told him so, but I have admittedly committed similar offenses.
Another time the roof rack fell off of my car on an interstate at night, going 70 miles per hour, with his brand new playboat attached. Significant cosmetic damage was sustained to both already-battered vehicle and sparkling new kayak. I was visibly shaken, and he had the compassion to wait a day before inspecting the extent of the injuries to his boat.
On my first time down one difficult run, I didn’t make a move and slid backward through a blind slot between giant boulders. I had no idea what was at the base of the drop and I was terrified. I yelled his name as my boat fell over the lip and I landed in the pool beneath it, unscathed. He was there, waiting, his eyes as big as plates. We had both hated the way his name sounded as I yelled.
Sometimes he wants to paddle things that are beyond my skill or comfort level, which means I get left behind or I am unhappily demoted to photographer. This, above all the other things, is the biggest challenge for me to accept and overcome.
At a springtime whitewater festival near our home, I asked him to show me down a section of whitewater that was definitely a step up, but for which I felt ready. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea, and I was, consequently, furious. The next day, as I spent the morning ruminating on his choice to disregard my wishes, he secretly ran that section multiple times, seeking out the smoothest, most straightforward lines. After his full day of competition that afternoon, he showed me down the run. His lines were excellent; I barely got my face wet. My heart swelled.
At that same festival, before his own race, he had stayed and watched as I competed in a slalom race for people who aren’t ready or willing to run gates in hard whitewater. He cheered me on. I took third place and was uncommonly proud.
It’s nice to celebrate the victories together and to encourage one another when things go wrong; to cuddle in the tent when we’re cold and wet; or to remind each other to re-up the sunscreen when our noses start to get pink. There’s no substitute for the comfort of my special human’s hand on my shoulder when we are scouting a big rapid. And quesadillas for dinner, together, after we have worked or played all day on the river, taste better than any fancy five-star meal in the city.
There are few experiences that couples share that are as potentially transformative and instructive as running (or not running) whitewater together. Navigating the swirling emotions and physical challenges inherent to the sport will put any relationship to a series of unique tests. The trust that should exist between paddling partners is tremendous; factor in our individual insecurities, fears, expectations, and the unjust pressure we place on our special humans, and a powerful maelstrom emerges.
There’s also the beautiful, simple connection that comes from running rivers with our loved ones. We see each other at our strongest and at our most vulnerable, each of us dancing with a force so much larger than ourselves.
The river is quick to put us in our places and remind us that the petty things don’t matter as much as we often think they do; it moves with the grace I hope to emulate within my relationships.
A love born on the river is a special thing indeed. Over the years, many inspiring, intoxicating river people have flowed into and through my life, and for the most part, the love we’ve shared on and for the river hasn’t waned, but rather simply changed: morphed and meandered, as the river does with the passage of time. Some of us marry and raise families, others remain married to the river, or to memories, or to a fluid and dynamic future free of attachment or obligation.
Just as the river itself cannot be controlled, I wouldn’t dare try to tame or subdue the singular spirit of river-borne love. For all its challenges, I simply wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ladies, let’s talk about peeing in the woods. More specifically, let’s talk about peeing on the river. Or off the back of a raft. Our guy friends have it easy; as women, we have to put a little more thought into our river adventures.
When nature calls on the river, remember this timeless adage: “Dilution is the solution to pollution.” With few exceptions, most visitors to Western river corridors are encouraged to pee directly into the river. If there are no bushes or bends to protect your modesty, try to “face your danger:” squat facing the crowd to avoid mooning any unsuspecting onlookers. Resist the strange temptation to wade into the water and pee through your shorts, as this practice will result in an odor that won’t earn you many friends on a multi-day river trip. On the rare occasion where your guide can’t or won’t pull the boat over to shore, you might be compelled to pee of the side of the raft. Just ask your crew to avert their eyes, dangle your rear end off the tube, and hold on to the rope that runs around the perimeter of the boat. And if you’re serious about your river recreation, you might consider investing in a SheWee, otherwise known as a Lady J.
Always clarify your outfitter’s policy on managing solid waste. River guides would much rather explain (multiple times, if necessary) their #2 system than have you guess and botch the job.
THE MONTHLY VISITOR
When your menses coincide with your river trip, it feels best to be completely self-sufficient. Put some tampons inside a little Ziploc bag. Tuck another Ziploc bag inside the tampon bag. The inner bag is for your waste; the outer bag is to keep it all dry and contained. Put the whole package in a little dry bag or a pocket in your lifejacket. Keep it clean within the well-sealed outer Ziploc, and properly dispose of the inner Ziploc (with used tampons, applicators, and plastic wrap) when you get back to the outpost or to camp that night.
LOW BLOOD SUGAR
You need snacks. And plenty of them. Don’t let your blood sugar plummet. We burn a lot of calories on the water, and you need to regulate your blood sugar. Don’t let hanger interfere with your fun.
COLD FINGERS (and toes and noses and…)
Ladies often get colder than our male counterparts. Plan ahead, and bring cozy clothes for on and off the river. Synthetic fabrics (like fleece) and wool are best, as they dry quickly.
The river brings out our natural beauty, so there’s no need to apply makeup before you go rafting! Mascara will run, curls will fall out, straightened hair will get curly, and we all end up looking like drowned rats. It’s best not to look like a drowned rat with lines of melted mascara streaming down its face.
Never let any dude tell you you’re not strong enough to (a) paddle up front, (b) pull yourself back in the raft, or (c) pull his ass back in after he’s tumbled overboard. Girls are often better paddlers than guys because they (in general) take instruction better and are more responsive to paddle commands. They often have better coordination and flexibility, which are huge assets in a paddler. Be aggressive when you paddle, flash your gorgeous smile for the camera, and go crush some waves with the best of ‘em!