Many river runners say there is no better way to experience a river than by dory. Beyond their stout, thoughtful design, these wooden boats hold a soulful connection to the river and a heritage of western exploration. And for many whitewater dory lovers, there’s no better place than Idaho. The Gem State’s miles of wild free-flowing rivers are home to the country’s deepest gorges and some of the most iconic big-water rapids in the American West.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the first commercial dory trips in Idaho, OARS is pleased to present Dory Land, a new film that is at once a celebration and a love story to Idaho’s rivers and guides. The film by Logan Bockrath takes an inside look at the community built in Idaho around wooden boats and free-flowing rivers over the last 50 years.
In 1972, renowned conservationist and Grand Canyon Dories founder Martin Litton asked river guide Curt Chang if he’d like to take some boats and a crew to run the Snake River through Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America. After an initial scouting trip, Chang launched Litton’s Idaho dory operation out of his family’s backyard before eventually building a boathouse in Lewiston.
“My job was to introduce our Grand Canyon dory boats to Idaho’s legendary rivers and share Idaho’s wild rivers with our guests,” Chang said. “We came and started running trips. There was nobody out here. The mail boat was the only jet boat that we saw.”
After their start in 1972, business doubled every year. To keep up with demand, Chang recruited his ski buddies as river guides. They crashed in his backyard, with one guide fixing up and sleeping in an old chicken coop. “The neighborhood definitely went downhill when we arrived,” the now 74-year-old Chang laughed. “The people here didn’t know what to make of us.”
Fifty years later, Chang and OARS continue to carry on the legacy of dories in Idaho and throughout the Western U.S. In 1987, Litton sold his Grand Canyon Dories operation to OARS founder George Wendt. The Idaho operation remained separate until 1991 when Chang ultimately sold the business to OARS. Since then, he’s stayed at the helm to help manage the company’s Idaho outpost and foster the next generation of dory guides.
While the lure of wild rivers is what called Chang to Idaho and the dories are what brought him there, Chang said that it’s the people that have kept him going for more than five decades.
“The crew is what’s inspiring. The people who we get to work with are just amazing young people,” Chang said. “That’s the thing that’s kept me going. Their job is taking care of guests. My job is taking care of them. That’s the fun of it for me.”
“He’s one of those people who expects a lot out of you,” said Hillary Mosman, OARS Idaho Assistant Manager, who’s worked for Chang for more than 16 years. “It has been really special for me to have someone in my life who believed in me and pushed me to do things that I didn’t know I was capable of.”
Chang has fostered a community of river guides, leading ultimately to a family of boaters who care deeply about rivers, running good trips, and the legacy of dories in Idaho.
Watch Dory Land here
OARS operates on stretches of the Middle Fork, Main and Lower Salmon rivers and the Snake River through Hells Canyon, all which lie within the present-day state boundaries of Idaho. Idaho boundaries overlap the usual and accustomed areas (or traditional lands) of Native American tribes, including the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribes, the Coeur d’Alene, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Shoshone-Paiute. In 1969, OARS became the first exclusively non-motorized rafting outfitter authorized by the National Park Service to run trips on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. Today OARS caters to active travelers of all ages and abilities with more than 75 unique itineraries worldwide, including one-day and weekend escapes. Each year the company contributes to regional conservation organizations around the globe via voluntary donations and annual fundraising events, and in partnership with their guests, OARS has contributed more than $6 million in donations and fees toward the preservation of the environment and to various conservation initiatives since the company’s inception. For more information on OARS’s eco-friendly adventures, visit www.oars.com.