Tight times for small local operators in Idaho’s river rafting industry

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River roared with spring flows as rafting outfitter Willis McAleese dissected the currents for his guides and showed them the best way to maneuver their rafts safely through the high water. White water rafting is an exhilarating sport and those manning the oars have to be highly skilled. This training trip is just one way outfitters throughout the west are getting ready for the spring and summer season.

But will there be enough clients to keep rafting companies afloat? Are white water and wilderness river rafting headed down the river-of-no-return or is it going to be the go-to vacation?

“This could be one of our toughest seasons on record,” said McAleese of Pocatello. “All of us in the industry are going to have to be creative and adapt to a new reality, highlighting that the rafting experience is the safe, clean, healthy adventure people love.”

From Idaho to Maine, rafting companies are working to make rafting safe and secure for families in light of COVID-19. There are an estimated 700,000 white water rafters and millions of leisure rafters enjoying the water each year in the U.S. It is one of the fastest growing outdoor sports.

Idaho’s outfitters and guides are monitoring government policy changes, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and following state and federal mandates regarding COVID-19 and will utilize industry-approved testing. Their survival and success means keeping customers safe and confident that they can enjoy their rafting experience.

Rafting Middle Fork Salmon River Wilderness

The friends and family concept

Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters is trying a friends and family concept on some of their raft trips to see if it gets potential rafters out of the house and on the river. The friends and family model involves setting up certain trips with a discount for families and friends. Knowing who you are traveling with is most important to some rafters despite the fact that most of their rafting trips consist of less than 20 guests scattered between four of five boats allowing for social distancing.

Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters is implementing strategies to prevent any spread and outbreak of COVID-19. Health screening will still be required but an intangible level of security comes from of knowing who is on your trip in advance.

Good health practices key to success

COVID-19 has hit Idaho’s commercial rafting companies hard. Trips that normally fill by May have openings. Travel bans linger, putting families on lockdown reassessing spring and summer travel plans and recreational spending. That can mean more cancellations for outfitters.

The airline industry that transports many of Idaho’s aspiring white water rafters from across the U.S is struggling to survive. Some people are averse to the idea of traveling through airports and sitting in airline cabins is not appealing when their is concern that COVID-19 could make a comeback.

Mark Singleton, executive director of American Whitewater, says, “The COVID-19 pandemic is serious stuff. Make the health of others your No. 1 priority. Be part of the solution to keep the delicate balance that ensures river access.“

Good advice for Idaho’s multi-million dollar river rafting industry. Over 12,000 rafters went down the highly regulated Middle Fork of the Salmon River last year. Rafting clients come from all over the U.S. and world seeking the thrill of a trip down the massive white water of the Snake and Salmon Rivers or simply a day trip on the Payette River.

So how does a small family-owned rafting company like Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters with roots to Pocatello survive the COVID-19 crisis? Provide a great product and think regionally.

McAleese believes there is a robust and untapped market in Idaho and neighboring states. An example is the family from Boise that recently booked a trip with him when their international rafting trip to Chile was canceled. Another big plus is that most of Idaho’s rivers are less than a two-day drive from all of the neighboring states. Riding in the family car is far less threatening than airports and airplanes in terms of disease contact.

The biggest plus for rafting

Rafting biggest plus is the outdoor experience and limited number of people contacted. Once on the river, contacts are minimal and the air is fresh. Compared to the potential exposure on a seven-day cruise filled with 2,000 people or a trip to Disney World with thousands of children, a raft trip is a boat ride in the woods.

Harry Morse is currently a freelance writer living in Pocatello. His articles have appeared in national hunting and fishing magazines. The majority of his career he worked for Washington, Idaho and California Departments of Fish and Wildlife as an information officer. He has travel broadly an enjoys photography, fishing and hunting.

Post Author: By Harry Morse

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