A Life on Wild Waters

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Gary Lane floating a dory for his company Wapiti River Guides
Photo courtesy Wapiti River Guides


“Once you’re a hard boater, it’s hard to go back to pushing rubber,” said whitewater guide Gary Lane about his fondness for wooden dories.

In the central Idaho recreation town of Riggins, where most whitewater trips are taken on rubber rafts, Lane stands out with his gleaming wooden dory as it gracefully glides through the roughest of whitewater.

The siren call of wild rivers has been luring Lane for over 40 years. He said it’s a lifestyle that combines his college education in wildlife management with his passion for helping people care more about their environment.

“It’s the intimate, small trips that I love the most,” he said. “Years ago, I worked for Grand Canyon Dories, and the trips were large, and sometimes I couldn’t even remember the names of all our clients.”

Lane said he wanted something different: he wanted to really know his clients, helping them learn to love the rivers as he does.

Despite having a job with the Forest Service in Oregon as a wildlife biologist when he got out of college in 1971, Lane yearned for a different life.

“I really wanted to put my body where my mind was,” he said.

While kayaking on Idaho’s Yankee Fork of the Salmon River, he asked a fellow river-rat if he knew anyone with a long season who was also conservation minded and might be looking for a guide. The name passed to Lane was the famed Martin Litton, owner and operator of Grand Canyon Dories and a committed conservationist who also loved wooden boats.

“I found the nearest phone booth and called Litton’s office,” Lane recalled. “The lady I talked to said they would call back if they had an opening, but I wasn’t too hopeful that would happen.”

A week later, Lane got the call to come work as an apprentice guide on a trip on the Snake River through Hells Canyon. After that one week, he was hired as a permanent guide.

He wound up spending five summers working for Litton, and his love for dories just got stronger while the appeal of an office job got a whole lot weaker.

“I gave up a full-time job as a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service to stay on rivers,” Lane said.

The first trips as a guide with his own business were on the Grande Rhone in NE Oregon and on several rivers in south-central Alaska. He was one of the first guides to offer drift-boat fishing trips on Alaska’s fabled Kenai River. Alaska gave him one of his most memorable experiences.

“There we were, right in the middle of the river when 20,000 caribou began surrounding us as they crossed the river,” he said. “The whole herd just parted around our raft. It was just a totally amazing experience and one I never anticipated.”

As much as he loved Alaska, Lane said he missed the warmer, drier climate of Idaho and was sure he didn’t want to live in the far north full time. He chose Riggins because of the big, brawny Salmon River, the long season for guiding, and the great climate.

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“Riggins has everything I want,” Lane said. “It’s got great whitewater, wonderful steelhead fishing in the fall and winter, awesome chukar hunting, and lots of wildlife. It’s got everything an outdoor person like me wants. In the winter you can even be skiing in an hour without ever having to shovel snow!”

Lane still has strong connections to, and has guided trips on, the famous Owyhee River in SE Idaho and the Grand Rhonde in NE Oregon.

Several years ago, my family took a four-day trip on the Owyhee with Lane. The awe-inspiring beauty of the canyons, the exciting whitewater, and the interesting daily hikes lead through slot canyons to see hidden pictographs, waterfalls, and weird rock formations made this a top-ranked family trip we’ll never forget.

Four years ago, we rafted the lower Salmon into the Snake River with Lane and our two oldest grandkids, and they still see that trip as the highlight of all the summers they’ve spent on our ranch in Idaho. Lane has a wonderful way with kids, helping them understand and appreciate the unique ecosystem of the Salmon River Canyon and Hells Canyon.

Our oldest grandson started river running with Lane when he was six, and our youngest started when he was four, which is a testament both to Lane’s ability to relate to kids as well as his serious attention to safety.

Once Lane bought a lower Salmon River gorge permit from a guide going out of business, he made Riggins his permanent home. Today, his eclectic home sits above the river he loves so much.

The Salmon River, on its run just west of Riggins as it comes out of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, is wild and rambunctious in sections, with gnarly whitewater early in the season.

The photo on the cover of Lane’s book, Idaho’s Salmon River Chronicles, shows the famed Ruby Rapids, where in May whitewater guides run monster waves to cheers of onlookers along the shores.

“When that photo was taken, I was the most vertical I’ve ever been in a raft without flipping over,” Lane said. “Every once in a while, the rivers let you through.”

His book takes you from his early life as an outdoor kid to his life as a professional whitewater and hunting guide. The book is sprinkled with terrific stories, sharing many of Lane’s personal challenges and laughable experiences.

It’s easy to read and hard to put down. The author’s enduring love of rivers and respect for nature shines through.

As he said, “Rivers are the blood source of Mother Earth, the pulse, the core of everything.”

Lane’s life is totally centered on his love of wild rivers. ISI


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