The Ever Affable Gary

This is NOT a eulogy. Just my remembrances of one of our more notable river guides from yesteryear.

Year One of Orion we might have rafted 100 people between July 4th and whenever we mothballed our boats at the end of the season.

In Year Two we took ten times that many guests on the Skagit, Suiattle and Wenatchee Rivers and there were a couple of trips we were forced to ‘dig deep’ for guides beyond the five original partners. I mean, when you resort to a mountain climber, a park ranger, the wife of one of the partners and the Dean of Leisure Studies at WWU to fill out your guide roster, it was clear the time had come to recruit and train up some guides.

Consequently, in Year Three, we requested space at Western’s job fair, I donned my most corporate attire and interviewed prospective employees. Our objective was to settle on - at least - five worthy folks who we figured would make exceptional guides.

Gary Renspurger was one of these select interviewees.

Frankly, I was in awe of him. He was my senior, he was once a survival specialist and instructor for the military and he had a countenance and demeanor that could easily silence any blowhard. And yet, his affability and gregariousness stood out over all and it is what made him a legendary figure in the Orion universe.

Even back then, the top of his head was as smooth and shiny as a bowling ball, just as it is now. In addition, he sported a voluminous beard that rivaled all of the great beards of history from the abolitionist, John Brown, to the lead singer of ZZ Top, just as he wears it now. His eyes would twinkle when he smiled or laughed, which I remember him doing often.

I don’t know how many shots Gary took at running Boulder Drop Rapid on the Skykomish during his active guiding days - which were all before the advent of self-bailers - but I know during two of those attempts he cleared his raft of guests at House Rock but he managed to stay in the guide seat. In each episode, caught on film, his bear-like girth belies his mountain goat agility to remain on a sideways vertical raft in the midst of whitewater chaos.

I guess he had not been lying about his survival skills.

Last fall, Gary joined me for a river trip on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah. It was a pleasure to be boating with him again because of his calm disposition, generous nature and ‘no-fucks-left-to-give’ attitude. He lives some portion of his life in Hawaii these days and, if anyone was ever suited to the “aloha” culture, it would be Gary. He has always been the master of balancing responsibilities with independence and freedom and leisure.

It had been a few years, or decades, since he had last boated, so I made sure to give him the biggest oar boat available. I envisioned this would be to his advantage in the towering waves and whitewater of Cataract Canyon. If I had known Cataract Canyon was experiencing historically low water levels, I might have reconsidered that decision. As it turned out, the larger oar boat was a greater challenge in the narrow, boulder-choked channels.

But, like the rafting Houdini he had always proven to be, he snaked his raft through with only one breath-taking moment and without any serious mishap.

Gary’s son, Seth, was the first of a growing crowd of Orion offspring. He did not follow his father’s footsteps in becoming a commercial river guide, but in all other aspects, he appears to have learned a great deal from his father about living the good life without selling your soul.

I have snapshots of Gary getting intimate with his raft and the immovable object known as House Rock, but, in my mind, what I remember from his guiding days was him teaching me the joys of throwing horse shoes on the white sand beaches of the Lower Salmon, the pleasure he and Josh Adler took in mud baths on Desolation Grey Canyon, his messianic fervor - short-lived - over an instant food product called Royal American he convinced me to support on a Grand Canyon trip, his ability to tell a great story and his general imperturbability.

That imperturbability might have been the mushrooms but I’d like to think it was because, long before he ever reached the shores of Kauai, he already embodied the spirit of ‘aloha’.

Look it up. ‘Cause that’s Gary.

As Georgie White once exclaimed, “They just don’t make customers like they used to!” Gary might agree.

He even has his guide stick secured!

His boat wasn’t always attracted to large boulders.