Three Rivers, Many Hours
Triad River guides master their art
Story by Ian Ferguson
Triad River Tours operates on three rivers – the Skagit, Sauk and Suiattle – that encompass a wide variety of environments, and by running trips in those diverse settings, Bellingham’s newest rafting company caters to more than just the adrenaline-seeking set.
Opened last October, Triad offers exciting whitewater trips, but they also lead calm water tours meant to provide clients with a meaningful connection to nature.
Eagle watching, vineyard tours, wine tasting and yoga during the day, dutch-oven cooked dinners and beachside campfires at twilight – these aren’t the activities of your typical rafting company. The goal in offering a fuller variety of experience, founder Luke Baugh said, is to facilitate a relationship with nature for people who don’t always have a chance to seek it out.
Baugh aims to reach people who don’t get outside much: city people, retirees and those who have occasionally thought about getting out on a river, but have shied away for various reasons.
“A lot of people have a moment when they think, ‘Maybe we’ll go river rafting this weekend,’ but they don’t,” he said. “It might be because rafting seems dangerous, or because they think they won’t enjoy it. We want to eliminate all that doubt. There’s something on the river for everyone.”
How do you eliminate all doubt? By mastering your craft. Baugh and the guides at Triad take the 10,000 hour approach to guiding: spend enough time dialing-in your profession, and you will eventually become a master.
“My lead guide is on the river right now,” Baugh said. “They’re swimming in January. They don’t take seasons off or many down days. They’re on the river as much as humanly possible, and because of that, they’re solid.”
Becoming a Triad River Tour guide is no Sunday float. Baugh said 20 guides applied and went through training last season, and Triad didn’t hire a single one.
“Our guides don’t graduate from training easily,” he said. “They have to be extremely confident with Swiftwater rescue techniques, but more importantly they have to prevent accidents from happening by controlling the risk. It’s running the river a lot, and getting to know specific sections very well. I really believe in the 10,000 hour approach, especially in river guiding, where people can die.”
Only with trustworthy guides can a company begin to foster relationships with their clients, Baugh said.
“Rivers promote a certain level of trust in nature,” he said. “Our role as guides is to help build that trust. Over the course of a trip we strive to catalyze a stronger relationship with the environment among our clients, and it’s funny how often that translates into a deeper intimacy among those sharing the experience, whether it’s a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, or a group of friends.”
With six experienced guides, top-of-the-line equipment, a 40- passenger bus named “Igor,” and a partnership with Mountain River Outfitters in Idaho, Triad is poised to open a relatively untapped river system.
“On the west side of the Cascades, the rafting world is very underdeveloped,” Baugh said. “The Sauk is a magnificent river. You can go up there on a Saturday, and there’s no one up there.”
Baugh can’t believe some of the wildlife he’s seen on the Skagit. In the fall, you can look down into the clear water and see hundreds of salmon mating. In December, Baugh said Triad clients and guides counted 153 bald eagles that were feeding on the salmon.
Baugh has a certified environmental educator on staff. “We learn as much as we can, so we can talk about the area’s geology, biology and human history,” he said.
And Triad’s approach to whitewater? “I would bet my left butt cheek we do whitewater as well as anyone around,” Baugh said. The Idaho native has been a licensed river guide for 13 years, and has guided rafts down rivers from east to west coast. He is a yoga instructor who brings an eastern, Zen-like philosophy to his company.
“Yoga and river rafting are not that different,” he said. “The sense of calm is similar, and it can be really beneficial to anyone who’s stressed out or overworked. It’s the people who work a lot who probably need a connection with the water the most. You get people who haven’t really done anything with their children in nature, and that’s when our job is most rewarding. The hope is to build a company that exists for the greater good, not just the adrenaline rush.”
Visit Triad River Tours at triadrivertours.com or call 360/510-1243 for more information. X
Jason D. Martin is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide and the operations director at the American Alpine Institute. In addition to working as a mountain guide, Martin is a freelance writer.