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