Halfway to Halfway and Back
By Brian E. Clark
For years, veteran rafting company operators Dick Linford (above) and Bob Volpert would gather at the Marin County pub known as Sam’s Anchor – not far from the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge – to share lunch, a few beers and tell tales about running whitewater streams in the West and beyond.
“We always said we should put together a book with all our stories,” mused Linford, who grew up in Wyoming and New Mexico. “We had that same discussion for a long time, but we never got around to doing anything about it.”
Then Linford, who had lived in the San Francisco Bay area for decades, moved to Bend, Ore. in 2006 and took a writing class called “The Story You Came to Tell.” The instructor told Linford he had the makings of a book, which got him off the proverbial dime.
The result, Halfway to Halfway and Other River Stories, included essays from Linford, Volpert and other present and former guides. It dealt with the culture surrounding guiding, the characters drawn to rapids in deep river canyons and the unusual occurrences that happen to them. Not all take place on whitewater streams, however, and few, if any, deal with death-defying escapes or perilous encounters with moose or bears.
It was published in 2012, sold several thousand copies and prompted the pair to produce a follow-up, Halfway to Halfway and Back, (Halfway Publishing, $19.95 trade paper (318p) ISBN 978-0-692-13625-6) which came out this past summer. Both anthologies are available in bookstores and on Amazon.
Linford, who grew up in tight-knit Mormon communities, moved to Northern California after he graduated from high school and enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. His goal was to play football for a major university and perhaps beyond. But after a year of getting knocked around as a self-described mediocre left guard and playing for what he calls the “worst team in the school’s history,” he abandoned that dream.
“I was a captain in high school and thought I was big stuff,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I found out pretty fast that I wasn’t.”
So Linford focused on his studies and transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, he landed a teaching job in San Leandro and met fellow teacher Joe Daly, with whom he would start the ECHO River Trips.
“While at Cal, I got involved with its sailing club,” Linford said. “Then when I started teaching high school, I began backpacking with the Sierra Club. When I read about rafting trips, I thought, man, that sounds wonderful.”
He called an outfitter and talked the owners into hiring him as a guide because there was no way he could afford a trip for himself and his wife on his meager teacher’s salary.
“By the time I’d reached the first rapid on the Stanislaus River called Cadillac Charlie, I knew I’d found my place,” he said. “My life had changed. It was like ‘bingo! This is it. This is what I want to do.’
“Then for years, when I’d start a multi-day trip after all the planning and loading, and we’d push off from shore, I’d ask myself where in the world would you rather be? And the answer was ‘no other place.’ I just loved being out there.”
As he got older, though, the trips became less about the excitement of the rapids and more about the people.
“Watching them unwind and get into the rhythm of the water and relax was always a special thing. An extended river trip is as much a social event as it is anything else. And I always told our guides, these folks are guests in your home, so show them a good time.”
Linford ended up managing that first company’s California operations the next summer. He got Daly a job and the two began tossing around the idea of starting their own outfit for several years. The result was was ECHO and it was 1972.
“Wow, that’s nearly half a century now,” said Linford. “We picked the name ECHO, I think, because it sounded, perhaps, like the solitude of being out in the wild.”
At ECHO’s highpoint, its 100-plus guides (many of them part-time), were running 19 stretches of whitewater rivers from California to the Northwest to Alaska – and even one in Montenegro explained Linford, who said he and Daly gave up their teaching jobs in the 1970s to run the company.
“For the longest time, I was scheduling everything, and I’m not that organized,” he said, chuckling. “At one point, a guide called to tell me he was supposed to be on three trips at the same time. Eventually, l was more than happy to unload those tasks.
“In the 1980s, when whitewater rafting was at its peak and you could sell trips on any water that moved, we were like kids in the candy store. We wanted to run everything. But we were tied to our desks. I only got in 12 river days one year and to make matters worse, we weren’t making much money.”
When a guide who’d earned an MBA from Stanford University did an audit for ECHO and told Linford and Daly they were losing money on many of the trips they offered, they began downsizing, selling off or simply giving up required permits and focusing on rivers that were profitable.
By 2009, the pair had begun winding down their involvement with ECHO and sold the company to its manager, Zach Collier. He moved the outfit to Hood River, Oregon and changed the name to Northwest Rafting Company (nwrafting.com) to better reflect its geographical focus. Its main rivers these days are the Rogue, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Illinois, and Chetko (all in Oregon and Idaho), though Collier also offers trips in Bhutan and in Chile on the Rio Futalefu.
(My long-time kayaking buddy Mark Lorenzen and I – plus his 14-year-old son, Joe – spent a delightful four days this past summer paddling the mostly Class 3 (fun and exciting, but not dangerous) Rogue this summer with a Northwest crew. The canyon and surrounding forest were stunning, the rapids were fun, the food delicious and the guides were friendly and skilled. Clearly, Linford and Daly have transferred their baby into good hands.)
Linford grew up in a literary family. He father published more than 160 short stories in Western magazines and a novel he wrote was turned into a movie starring Kirk Douglass.
“But we had a dysfunctional household and my dad was always in his room typing,” he said. “So for a long time, I believed writing was an indulgent and selfish thing to do. I couldn’t consider writing until I’d retired. Then I took that class in Bend and loved it.”
In the first book, Linford and Volpert both penned eight stories while others wrote the remainder. After it was published, acquaintances contacted him and offered their tales.
“But having a good story and putting it on paper in a manner that people will want to read are two different things,” he said. “It was hard to tell some people that their work didn’t make the cut. And that, sadly, has affected some friendships.”
He said the quality of writing in the second anthology is better and includes work by Callan Wink, who has been published in the The New Yorker, and Adam Tennis, who edits Sun Valley Magazine.
The new book has 41 essays in it, and some of them are by Linford and Volpert again. Falcon Press wanted to publish the second book, Linford said, but he and Volpert kept it in-house because they didn’t want to give up editorial control.
“We could have filled it up with accidents, narrow escapes and horror stories, but we didn’t want to do that.,” he said. “ We didn’t want to write about epic expeditions, crashing whitewater and acts of terror because that’s already been done. We wanted to tell the offbeat, poignant stories about interesting characters and relationships that reflect the world of the river guide.”
The second tome book got a good review from Publishers Weekly this past fall and has him thinking about a third volume, though Linford said Volpert has told him he’s done with the project.
Linford, now in his 70s, continues to get out on rivers a couple of times a year, often on a trip or two with former guides. He also rafts on occasion with clients he met more than three decades ago.
“And you know what? When we get together, we tell some of the same old stories and act like we haven’t heard them before. Some things never change.”