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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Bill Bernt

Outfitter Bill Bernt has been guiding clients down the Salmon River since 1971. Aggipah River Trips is also licensed to be on the Middle Fork and the Lower Salmon. This interview was conducted in 2016 along the Salmon River, in the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness.

Bill Bernt on the Salmon River, 2016. Photo by Peter Morrill.

Bill Bernt

When you try to explain the Salmon River to somebody from another state, where do you start? There’s a lot of history down here!

Well, it depends on their interest level. We begin to talk a little bit about what has happened here, and as we pass various points of interest, we talk about those things and what has happened, and then if people start to show some interest, we just continue a conversation. And we don't try to make a lecture out of it.

This is country that, even if you didn't see an elk, you knew there was one behind the hill somewhere. And you'd come by these old cabins where people had come into the area, and they had become part of the area.

On the Colorado you were always a visitor. And these old boys came in here, like old Frank Lantz, who spent 50 years in here, and they just got to be part of it. They might put up a little cabin and get some vegetables going and some fruit trees going, and wash a little gold out of the sand. And they didn't live very high, but they were just as much a part of the area as the elk and the deer and the bears that were around here. And that was always pretty interesting to me, more so than the Colorado and the desert country in the Southwest.

Do you remember your first trip down the Salmon River?

It was in June of 1971, and it was the highest I ever did a trip down here. Training trips were a little sketchy in those days. We had two boats. It was my first time down here, and I had, oh, probably eight people or so in my boat. We had something like 16 or 17 people between the two boats. And off we went.

And the water was higher than we knew what we were getting into. The other fellow had been down here but only in normal water, so he didn't know the river in that kind of a high stage. And we didn't know the things that you should be afraid of. The things that he was afraid of were washed out and gone; the things like Whiplash and Chittam that we needed to be afraid of we didn't know about.

On the Colorado we normally had a ratio of one spare motor for every two boats. But they didn't give us a spare, and we began to have motor troubles right away. We pulled in to work on one motor that was not running right, and it was on the first couple hours of the trip.

A young Bill Bernt on the Main Salmon. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

A young Bill Bernt on the Main Salmon. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

And the fellow that I was following was not used to big boats in big water, and he went right down through the middle of the river. And I could see, well, that's probably not the way you should do that.

So we stopped after that to work on the motor. And he was talking that, "Boy, maybe we should just tie up and just walk out before we get too far down in here." So we'd talked about it a bit. I was hesitant to get scared of something I hadn't even seen yet, although he was probably being the more reasonable about it. And so finally he said, "Well, all right. But you lead." So he was following me, until one of the motors died, and we never did get the damn thing running again. So we tied the two boats together, running with one motor.

I had been running the boats in that configuration on the Colorado, and at least we were together, so he had some idea of where we were. Except what he knew didn't matter because the stuff that he was concerned about just didn't count. Mallard was all flooded out, Elkhorn was flooded out.

Anyway, yeah, I remember my first trip down here. It rained every day. People didn't bring tents; the outfitter didn't provide tents. We had a couple of tarps. I couldn't afford a tent, so I carried a little sheet of nylon. And that was all we had to cover close to 20 people. And it had kind of slowed down to a light drizzle. It was a four-day trip.

So that was my first trip down here.

What do you remember about Buckskin Bill, one of the characters along the river?

Buckskin Bill, Bill Bernt and guest, 1970's. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

Buckskin Bill, Bill Bernt and guest,
1970's. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

During the '70s magazine people and newspaper people would come down, and they'd write up their trip, and they'd have a mention of Bill.

We would stop there on a regular basis. You know, through the '70s, if people stopped there, they generally got pretty much of a repetitive spiel that would take about an hour and a half. He would show some of his artifacts, some of the guns he'd made, some of the pots and pans he'd made, some of the knives he'd made. And he'd tell the same stories. So it was pretty predictable. Some people got to calling him a phony. But anybody who has spent 40 years in one place may be a little eccentric, but they aren't a phony, you know; they are what they are.

But a lot of the trips that I did down here in the '70s, we would get away from that canned routine, and we could have more of a conversation.

It was kind of interesting, you'd go down there and spend a bit of time and be talking about something; come by next week, and he was ready to pick up that conversation just exactly where you were in the previous one. And it gave me an opportunity to talk to him a little bit more about some of the other characters that were here when he first came. I wish I had gotten a whole lot more information out of him, but I did get some interesting things.

He was a little short guy. Even in the heat of the summer he was always wearing a wool shirt and wool pants. You didn't really want to get downwind of him.

The old boy had read and read. He didn't have much else to do in all these years except various projects and anything that struck his interest. So there were people that knew him better than I did. I knew him better than a lot of people.

His muzzle-loading guns were of interest to me. He always had ideas, some of them pretty strange. But he had a reason for why his way of doing things was always the best.

He had a folding knife that he had made, and he always wore it in his belt in a horizontal holster. It looked to me like a damn good way to lose a knife. But he explained that that was the only proper way to carry a knife, because if you had a conventional long-bladed hunting knife hanging off your belt over your hip pocket, someday you would be walking along the face of the cliff, on a little narrow ledge, and your back would be to the wall, and you would get to the point where there was a low overhang, and when you leaned forward to get your head below the overhang, the knife would be pivoting against your butt, and it would just pivot you right over the edge, and down you'd go.

Buckskin Bill along the Salmon River.

Buckskin Bill along the Salmon River.

Well, that struck me as a pretty unlikely scenario, but he'd have ideas like that.

The nephew had gotten electricity in here through the hydro plant, and Bill didn't use that. Bill just had a big garden. He always had chickens around, and he had chickens laying green eggs, and he raised purple potatoes, and anything unusual like that caught his imagination. And it was interesting.

When I first heard of him, it sounded like a Robinson Crusoe sort of an existence. And if you would suspend your imagination or suspend your cynicism a little bit, and look at it in that light, it was fun to see what he was doing. And he actually did live it.

In the early days when he first came here there were a lot of people living along the river. He was not ever as much of a hermit as he was made out to be; although, in the winter when he was here, it would be very isolated. But he did try to live the way people lived in the 1800s.

It was always interesting to come up here, especially if you could get into a one-on-one conversation with him.

Is there a part of this river system that you prefer?

We do all three of the roadless sections in the Salmon. We do the Middle Fork; we do this main section; we do the lower Salmon. For the most part, we are doing the multiday trips. And it just depends. It's nice to have the variety of being able to go to the different sections in the different times of the year.

You've seen this kid running around here today, swimming and splashing and digging holes in the sand. And how can you beat a trip like this for kids? And, yet, we can go up on the Middle Fork and provide a trip for somebody that's a hard-core fly fisherman. We can go down on the Lower Salmon in the fall and do some steelhead cast and blast trips. So it's nice to have that kind of variety and also a longer season.

People ask me, what's the favorite part and what's the best part? It's a legitimate question, but I don't have any answer to it. It just depends.

PJ McDonald and friends relaxing at a campsite on the Main Salmon, 2016. Photo by Peter Morrill.

PJ McDonald and friends relaxing
at a campsite on the Main Salmon,
2016. Photo by Peter Morrill.

I imagine each trip takes on a different “feel.” What about this one?

Well, PJ McDonald's done possibly a dozen trips with us. He did a trip in '85, and it was a long time before he came again. But then he's been coming every two or three years for the last quite a while. And his brother was on one trip before; the other two guys have not been with us before.

Where do you think the outfitting industry is, these days? I imagine river outfitting is the fastest growing part of the industry.

It was, but it's really been pretty stable for a long time. It was in the '70s when it really took off. And since then, it's been relatively stable. In the '80s, we hit that recession in the early '80s, and use dropped. You can go back and look at the records to see that. And then as we began to climb out of that recession, the use came back, sort of like it was at the beginning of the '80s. And we've been coasting along in that general level, at least in that order of magnitude, since then. So, really, it's been pretty stable.

Economic conditions make a big difference. We went through that recession in the early '80s. We had a short one in '91, and then in 2001 things slowed down. And then, of course, the more recent one has lasted so long. But, yeah, it's very, very dependent on discretionary income.

What about the regulation aspects of outfitting? Idaho has a licensing board.

I was on the State Outfitters and Guides License Board for a dozen years, so I got to see a bit of that in operation. But by the time I was involved, things had been pretty well settled. We had an executive director, and things had evolved considerably from the way it started out.

Idaho has been a leader in that kind of regulation. We have a system here where we have dual regulation. We have a permit by the Forest Service, as well as a license by the state. So we have got dual regulation. And it's also a bit of a checks and balance system. If one agency starts to get a little overboard, the other agency may or may not follow along. So that keeps things balanced to an important extent.

Three generations on the Salmon River, Bill Bernt, Stephanie Bernt-Ellis, Wesley Ellis, 2016. Photo by Peter Morrill.

Three generations on the Salmon
River, Bill Bernt, Stephanie
Bernt-Ellis, Wesley Ellis, 2016.
Photo by Peter Morrill.

Are you one of those worried about this younger generation not wanting to do things outside?

Well, there's always been a lot of talk about that, for the 35 or 40 years I've been here, that this is a fad that's just going to come to an end, and nobody is going to be doing these things anymore. But if people have a little discretionary income, they still seem to be coming out here and having a good time.

Sometimes people ask if our customer base is changing. Well, I don't think it really is a great deal. But the other side of it is, when you are 22 years old, the people in the front of your boat look a little different than the same people might when you are my age. So the perspective changes a little bit. But I don't think that things really change that much.

I imagine you’ve seen people’s lives change on these extended river trips.

Yes, and, of course, one of the things is how long that different perspective will last. It's not often people have a chance to get a week totally away from television and cell phones and all that kind of stuff. It takes about three days for people to start to forget what was biting them when they left home. And if you have a short trip, you don't get a chance to get much benefit. But you get the longer trips, and then they've got the next few days to start to get some benefit from the isolation.

People at the end of the trip can be pretty emotional. How that changes things for them in the long-term, we don't have a chance to see that as much. But we've had people meet on trips that maintain their contact for many years. And there have been romances that have started out here and were permanent. So, obviously, that's a big life changer.

But as far as people's attitudes and perspective sometimes it's pretty private. Somebody might be out here for a little while and get to thinking about their job and where they really want to go with it, and that's something we might not hear about.

Bill Bernt with his two children, on the Main Salmon. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

Bill Bernt with his two children, on the Main Salmon. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

It seems you've managed to successfully work your family into this outfitting business.

When Stephanie was coming along on trips, when she was about the age of Wesley, she was just like any other little kid. But she was an early reader. By the time she was five or so she could work her way through The River of No Return book. And she'd pick it up, and she'd be reading stuff.

I remember one time when she was just about that age, she came up one time, "Dad, what did Jim Moore eat?" So she was interested in things here pretty early on. And through the grade-school years, she just came on trips and played.

And about the time she started high school, she decided that she was going to be part of the crew and not just playing anymore. And about that time she made up her mind that she was going to stay with this, and eventually she was going to run this operation. And she really has never deviated from that.

But John was off in the military for nearly nine years, so he was gone from things for a long time. He's a little younger than she is, too, of course. But Stephanie has been involved in things here, oh, I guess it's about 20 years since she ran her first trip down here.

So she is one of the best boatmen on the river here. She runs the sweep boat, runs the drift boat on the Middle Fork, as needed, and she's a really good boatman.

A young Stephanie Bernt on the Salmon. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

A young Stephanie Bernt on the Salmon. Courtesy Aggipah River Trips.

I had kind of a tough crew for a kid to break into. And she toughed it out. She worked her way up to where she is, without depending on any privilege of being the boss's kid.

We used to make a joke about an old man and a little girl out here doing trips. It's not that often that people have a chance to work with their kid to the extent that we've done things; and to not have any big wars while we were doing it.