IRU guide education reaches thousands

IRU Conservation Associate Ava Isaacson gives a presentation about wild salmon on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

It was a cool mountain morning in May as 10 or so raft guides gathered at the McCall, Idaho headquarters of Canyons, Inc., one of dozens of outfitters operating week-long river trips in the heart of Idaho’s wild salmon country.

It was more than a run-of-the-mill staff meeting. The guides were gathered to hear a special presentation by IRU Conservation Associate Ava Isaacson, who traveled to McCall to talk about wild rivers, wild salmon and the best classrooms in Idaho.

“River guides know how to maneuver tricky waves, holes and rocks,” Isaacson told the guides. “You know how to provide guests with information to enhance their experience and build a sense of place. River guides know, better than anyone, the river is the best classroom.”

Since early May, Isaacson traveled to every corner of Idaho meeting with dozens of outfitters and hundreds of raft guides. She talked with guides in Clarkston, Stanley, Riggins, McCall and Salmon, and floated 100 miles with a crew on the free-flowing Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The point of this far-reaching two months of intensive work was simple: Isaacson was there to teach the teachers, who collectively have the ability to reach thousands of people in the course of a summer season.

“Each guide spends their summer with hundreds of people on Idaho’s rivers, which are the most appropriate and profound places to talk about what makes Idaho special—and what we have to lose,” Isaacson said. 

For a week in early June, Isaacson joined guides from Rocky Mountain River Tours on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Though she’s a native of Idaho, it was her first time on the Middle Fork.

“That trip brought together a group of people from all over the country who became a small, but perhaps representative, fraction of the 10,000 people who float the Middle Fork every season,” Isaacson said. “We were 17 guests and a handful of guides—all of whom were all ears to the story and plight of Idaho’s salmon. It really underscored the power and importance of this program.”

The backgrounds of people on Isaacson’s Middle Fork trip were diverse and illustrate the variety of voices needed to effect change for Idaho’s endangered wild salmon:

  • A retired Palouse wheat farmer whose son left the farming life behind to become an expert river guide,

  • A woman who used to be a quadriplegic basketball player now celebrating her ability to walk on her 50th birthday with family and friends,

  • Longtime friends from South Carolina and Utah crossing the Middle Fork off their bucket lists,

  • Families from Los Angeles and Seattle celebrating a recent retirement,

  • A hydropower dam operator from Colfax, California,

  • An experienced Oregon river runner who wanted to share the majesty of the Middle Fork with her daughter.

“Everyone on the trip was captive to the wild river and surrounding wilderness,” Isaacson said. “It was the perfect opportunity to talk salmon. And the Middle Fork is particularly important because it’s the last stronghold of salmon habitat where there are no hatchery fish and wild salmon are truly wild.” 

Back in McCall with the guides from Canyons, Inc., Isaacson talked about salmon history, ecology, declines and dams. She shared about the “magic and majesty of salmon.” Perhaps most important, though, the importance of what she asked them to do seemed to click.

“They got it,” Isaacson said. “Most of them became IRU members, and all of them seemed committed to taking the story of Idaho’s wild rivers and wild salmon out to their riverside classrooms and clients.”

Thanks to all the outfitters who worked with IRU this spring to bring the message of Idaho’s wild rivers and wild salmon to your guides and clients. Special thanks to Rocky Mountain River Tours for giving Ava a seat on your Middle Fork Trip and the opportunity to talk about wild salmon on the banks of one of the nation’s finest wild rivers. 

Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Photo by Ava Isaacson.