Behind the Stories

The Outfitters

By Bruce Reichert
October 1, 2016

Outfitter Bill Bernt on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Courtesy of Stephanie Bernt Ellis
Bill Bernt on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Courtesy of Stephanie Bernt Ellis


Outfitter Mike Scott in the Hemingway Boulders wilderness | Photo by Tim Tower
Outfitter Mike Scott. Photo by Tim Tower
Some like to point to Sacajawea as Idaho's first ‘guide.’ If pressed, I'd share the honors with the Shoshone Indian known to us as “Old Tobe.” After all, it was Chief Cameahwait, Sacajawea's brother, who offered Tobe to Lewis & Clark, to guide them north to the Lolo trail.

That was 211 years ago. Since then outfitting and guiding has become a cherished Idaho tradition. That's because outfitters and guides have the skills and knowledge to help urban folks access the state's wild places. In fact, each year nearly 200,000 people use the services of Idaho's outfitting industry. That’s a huge number, one that translates into $100 million dollars to the Idaho economy.

When I was first presented that number by the Idaho Outfitters & Guides Association, I had my doubts. But put into the bigger picture of an Idaho economy hovering around $65 billion of goods and services, $100 million does make sense.

And the nice thing is that this outfitting business really benefits rural communities, where most of Idaho's outfitters reside.

Guide Cory Ward of Storm Creek Outfitters preparing for the 22 mile trek back to civilization, in the Frank Church wilderness | Photo by Bruce Reichert
Cody Ward of Storm Creek Outfitters. Photo by Bruce Reichert
Another thing I learned is that Idaho really is a leader in the licensing and regulating of the outfitting industry. That's something I heard from just about every outfitter we surveyed; it was a source of pride. Some states don't license outfitters; some states license only outfitters but not guides. Some states concentrate only on hunting and fishing; some states don’t limit the number of outfitters in a particular area. Idaho does seem to have it figured out.

“It's the oldest and probably the most controlled industry,” said Steve Burson of Storm Creek Outfitters, the current president of the IOGA. “Most other states don't have that much control, so it's a free-for-all within the industry and with some of the clients. We're probably more regulated and more organized and do more professional trips than any other state.”

But, like so many businesses dependent upon discretionary income and catering to the whims of the public, you get a sense that the outfitting industry could be in for some rocky times. For one thing, every major economic downturn seems to severely impact outfitters. I guess that trip-of-a-lifetime can always wait a year or two if the money is tight.

Outfitter Mat Erpelding with client on Black Cliffs outside Boise. | Photo by Peter Morrill
Outfitter Mat Erpelding. Photo by Peter Morrill
And then there's this younger generation, so in touch with virtual reality that they don't seem to have much interest in the real beauty this state has to offer. Books have been written on the importance of getting children into the outdoors; in fact, it's become something of a national priority; and who better to lead the charge than Idaho's outfitters and guides!

Outfitters like to see themselves as partners with the Forest Service and the BLM; these agencies are the caretakers of most of Idaho's public lands, and outfitters must follow their rules.

“It's going to be critical that our agency partners are able to evolve with us,” says Mike Scott of White Cloud Outfitters, “because in order for us to stay on the cutting edge, there are going to be certain needs that we're going to have; and hopefully we can work through those needs.”

But I'm not so sure that these land managers always see outfitters as their partners. We kept hearing that the communication between outfitter and forest ranger, for example, could use an overhaul. Let's hope this happens, but the tendency for land managers to move every 2-3 years to another forest doesn't bode well for that partnership.

Outfitter Darl Allred heading into Spangle Lakes in the Sawtooth wilderness | Photo by Tim Tower
Outfitter Darl Allred | Photo by Tim Tower
It took a trip to an old homestead on the Salmon River to get what I think is the best definition of what a good outfitter or guide can do for people. Doug and Phyllis Tims have been renovating Campbell's Ferry, a once valuable link to getting miners to the gold fields back at the turn of the century. Doug spent 27 years as an outfitter, staring down the high waters of the Selway River and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. He was also president of the IOGA, the outfitter trade organization.

When the Outdoor Idaho crew visited Campbell's Ferry this summer, here's what Doug had to say about outfitting:

“I had a woman once tell me that she got out of her tent in the middle of the night and looked up at the canopy of stars over her head, and her soul expanded. And that soul-expanding experience goes home with people and allows them to be the champions for wild places in the future.

“So keeping alive that constituency and support of wild places, that's our biggest challenge, and that's what needs to be our biggest role.”

Now that’s a mission statement most of us can get behind!


Campbell's Ferry, on the Main Salmon River. 
| Photo by Peter Morrill
Campbell's Ferry, on the Main Salmon River. photo by Peter Morrill

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