Dreaming of a Job Outdoors? This Guy Works as a River Guide in Idaho

Hardy Bender, 26, steers a raft on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.
Hardy Bender, 26, works as a river guide for Hughes River Expeditions on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Hardy Bender

It’s difficult to get in touch with Hardy Bender.

It’s not uncommon for weeks to go by without hearing from him. And then, out of the blue, a text will pop up with some variation of, “Sorry I’m just now getting back to you! Just got some signal.”

But hey, what else can you expect when someone spends four months out of the year running rivers in Idaho?

Bender, 26, works as a river guide on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, a 100-mile stretch of undammed whitewater and scenic Idaho wilderness.

When picturing the life of a river guide, you might imagine a carefree lifestyle full of rafting, fishing, swimming and flat-out having a good time.

And while, yes, river guiding is definitely full of fun and adventure, Bender insists that it’s way more than just a summer vacation. He says that everyone thinks “we’re all a bunch of hippies,” but this job has required more work than he’s ever done in his life.

Going into his fourth year with Hughes River Expeditions, Bender is getting ready to kick off another summer season on the Middle Fork. He took some time to share his experiences as a river guide with me — before he disappears into the land of no cell service.

All in the Family

Bender knew from a young age that he would end up on the river one day.

He grew up taking whitewater rafting trips to Idaho thanks to his father, Bob, who worked as a river guide in Utah for 10 years.

During his time as a guide, the elder Bender met Jerry Hughes, the founder of Hughes River Expeditions and the younger Bender’s current boss.

Hughes also met Bob’s brothers — they were guides, too — when he was running rivers in Utah for Hatch River Expeditions in the late ‘60s. Like most relationships forged on the river, a lifelong friendship was born.

“I tend to hire people who I know, and they tend be kids of the people… I used to boat with,” says Hughes. “When [Hardy’s Uncle Ted] found out Hardy was doing this, he said he would give up five years of his life to be in Hardy’s shoes.”

Seventy years old and still guiding trips from time to time, Hughes says that his river outfitting service, which is now in its 42nd year of operation, is very much a family-and-friends type of business.

As for Hardy, between regular trips to the whitewaters of the West and growing up on the more docile Dog River in Mobile, Alabama, it was pretty much inevitable that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and find himself in this occupation.

“It kind of took me a while to bite the bullet and move out [to Idaho] because it’s kind of scary just moving out West without knowing anybody,” Bender says.

What Does It Take to Run Rivers?

Close up of Hardy Bender near a river
Bender has been a guide on the Salmon River in Idaho for four years. His boss is a friend of his father, who was a river guide in Utah for 10 years. Photo courtesy of Hardy Bender

You need more than a desire for adventure and a worn-in pair of Chacos to work this gig.

While you technically don’t need any prior qualifications to be hired by an outfitter, you do have to go through pretty rigorous training and obtain certain certifications and licenses before you can hit the rapids.

At Hughes, you don’t earn that coveted title of “river guide” right out the gate — first you work as a “swamper.”

“So the swamper is a trainee, somebody that hasn’t gotten their guiding license yet or is in their first summer,” says Bender. “They either don’t get paid or they get paid a lower wage.”

And what does the swamper do, you ask? A lot of the grunt work.

They help load the gear boat, which runs ahead of the guest boats, and unload everything at the campsite each day. They also set things up, including tents, the kitchen area, tables and the camp toilet.

Bender says that at Hughes they usually don’t let anyone run guests until they’ve worked on the river for a full season.

When swampers transition into guides, the state of Idaho requires them to be officially licensed.

Guides must also take certain safety courses, like Wilderness Advanced First Aid, Wilderness First Responder and Swiftwater Rescue.

Safety certifications are extremely important in this occupation. It’s easy to forget about the dangers when you’re picturing the thrill of the whitewater surrounded by untamed wilderness.

These rivers are forces of nature, and when accidents happen out in the backcountry, with no cell phone service or access to highways, it can mean life or death.

Bender recalls a trip from when he was 14 that emphasized just that. While stopped for camp, a young woman fell from a “20 to 30 foot” cliff and was badly injured.

“My dad, my uncle and his friends took care of her all night long,” says Bender. “Watching them do that really opened my eyes a bit and made me think ‘Maybe I do want to be a rafting guide; there seems like there’s so much more to it.’”

Mother Nature, Take the Wheel

River Guides generally work six to seven days a week for four to five months on a schedule dictated by Mother Nature.

The job is seasonal, usually running from June to September in Idaho. Hiring for river guides really amps up as the season approaches. The recreation industry, which includes whitewater rafting, grows an average of 68% from January to July in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Everything from the length of the season to how much time is actually spent on the boat each day depends on the river and, more importantly, the winter snowpack.

At the beginning of the season, the water is much higher and moving more quickly. As time goes on and the snowpack melts, the river becomes more dependent on its tributaries, meaning lower water and slower speeds.

For the first part of the season, Bender and the rest of the Hughes crew put their guests in the river at Boundary Creek and do a six-day float down the Middle Fork. With the water moving so swiftly, guests spend less time rafting and more hiking or sightseeing.

Bender recalls last season when Idaho had a huge winter and the snowpack was, in his estimation, the biggest in quite some time. He’s right on the money: According to the the Idaho SNOTEL Snowpack Report from April 2017, the Salmon Basin index of median snowpack was a whopping 146% of normal.  

“Those days the water was moving an average of about 17 miles per hour, so we were only on the water for 45 minutes to an hour each day,” says Bender. “We were really boogieing.”

After spending six days floating down river, the crew drives everything four hours back to the warehouse in Stanley, Idaho, cleans the equipment, takes the next day off, then starts the process all over again.

Bender says that later in the season, when the water is slower, they’ll typically leave camp between 9:30 and 10 a.m. and arrive at their next camp around 4 or 5 p.m., covering 12 to 20 miles a day.

“It’s a full day on the water and we’ll stop at least once everyday and do a hike, look at pictographs or do some geological talks,” Bender says.

It’s still a six-day trip, but since the water is so much lower, the crew has to put in at a different location. Hughes sends the guests into the backcountry on bush planes while the guides take the boats through the dangerous, shallow waters on their own.

Because of this extra step, the guides lose their day off.

“During that part of the year, we have no days off and it’s an eight-day rotation,” says Bender. “You get one night off back in town, then the next day you’re back on and rafting everyday for about two months.”

This is one the hardest things about working as a guide. When you’re basically living on the river for four to five months with hardly any time off, you don’t often get to see your friends and family.

Always on Duty

On top of the physical work of guiding and ensuring guest safety, river guides have additional responsibilities.

During an extended trip out in the wilderness, guides are pretty much always on duty. Whether it’s talking to guests, answering questions, teaching someone how to cast a fishing line, or telling them facts about the surrounding area, a good attitude and the ability to captivate people are essential skills.

This isn’t a chore for Bender, because getting to meet a new crowd every week is his favorite part of the job.

“I love talking with my guests and playing with them on the boats and telling them about the history and geology of the canyon,” says Bender. “It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to work in pretty much the crown jewel of wilderness in America, and I just try to let them know how special this place is.”

Apparently, his message leaves an impression, because Hughes River Expeditions has a large number of return guests, according to Bender. He also says that he keeps in touch with a lot of people throughout the offseason.

Another thing that probably keeps the guests coming back? The cooking.

Just because these trips are out in the backcountry doesn’t mean everyone’s eating granola bars and campfire hot dogs for six days straight.

The menu includes blueberry pancakes, French toast, dutch oven nachos, steak and lobster, dutch oven chocolate cake and the famous Hughes 40 Mile Stew. Are you drooling? So am I.

After a long day of rafting and hiking, these guides set up a kitchen, cook their guests a full meal and do all of the clean-up afterward. Talk about always being “on.”

“I think that people who want to do [river guiding] have to realize that for four months they’ll be sleeping in a tent 85% of the time, taking care of people, cooking — everyone becomes a better cook when they work on the river — cleaning and conversing with people from all over the world,” says Hughes. “The crew is a group of hard-working, athletic men and women who love being around people and outdoors and running rivers.”

Making a Living

If you’re working on the river four months out the year, what do you do the rest of the time?

Bender heads farther north to the small resort town of McCall, Idaho, with a population hovering around 3,000.

He finds odd jobs around town to keep him afloat during the offseason, like contract work or ski lift operation. Basically, he likes jobs that let him snowboard as much as possible.

During the spring, Bender and the other guides will also do some work at the warehouse in Stanley to prep for the upcoming season.

So, what kind of compensation do river guides get for all of their hard work?

Pay ranges vary, depending on the type of guide — hourly, day trip or multi-day trip — and by the outfitter. Bender is paid a daily rate for trips, and hourly for warehouse work.

Although Bender doesn’t expect to get rich in this profession, it’s more than enough for his lifestyle. But for others, and possibly Bender down the road after he starts a family, finding more permanent work in the offseason is necessary.

Hughes says it’s pretty common for guides to work for him while they’re in school, drift off to start a career after graduation and then come back to guide in the summer after securing a steady, flexible position.

“Several of the people on our crew have other careers, like school teachers, or even doctors and lawyers,” says Hughes. “Some of them are carpenters or builders… One of our guides is a partner on a Caribbean sailing business.”

Those who just can’t quit the river when the season is over can consider flying south to places like Texas or South America for the winter to find other guide work.

Bender says that teaching school is a good, complementary career for guides, so they can have steady work but still get the summers off to hit the river.

With a degree in Management Information Systems from the University of Alabama, he’s tossed around a few ideas about how to combine the two things he loves: technology and the river. He says that working in the IT department for a school district could be an option for him down the road, or maybe joining the ranks of an outdoor tech company.

Some people just fall in love with the Salmon River and stay for a lifetime. Hughes says that he has people on his crews that have been guiding on the Middle Fork for 20 to 30 years.

Does Bender foresee himself joining their ranks and guiding trips decades from now?

“Ya know, I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “For now, I just know that it’s in my future for the next couple of years, and I’m going to keep going until I can’t do it anymore.”

Kaitlyn Blount is a junior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Alex Mahadevan contributed to this post.