AFLOAT THE CLARK FORK, Mont. – The walls of Kyle Brock’s office are 200 feet high, the ceiling sky-blue, and there’s running water – about 4,000 cubic feet of it per second this time of year. A classroom teacher at West Valley High School nine months a year, Brock stretches his athletic, 6-foot-5 frame outdoors during the summer as owner of Wiley E. Waters, a rafting outfitter on the Spokane and Clark Fork rivers, catering to individuals and groups of up to 65, including corporations, schools and special-occasion parties.
S-R: How did you get into rafting?
Brock: When I was in college, I went on a five-day trip down the Snake River from Hells Canyon Dam to Heller Bar, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. After I became a teacher, I got bored during the summer and decided to start a rafting business.
S-R: How did you learn your river skills?
Brock: Just boating with a lot of other people. I ran the Snake River a couple of times, asking questions of people doing the oaring. Then I went and did a lot of rafting on my own on more and more challenging rivers: the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Lower Salmon, the Selway, the Lochsa.
S-R: When did it occur to you rafting could be a part-time career?
Brock: In 1994, I bought two boats, a dozen PFDs (personal floatation devices) and a dozen paddles, and ran trips through Spokane Parks and Rec as well as on my own. I probably had a total of only 50 customers that summer, but it paid for my equipment, plus a little extra, and I thought, wow.
But when I first started the business I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no background in marketing, so it took a few years to get going. Gradually my bookings increased and my equipment improved, to where this summer I’ll have around 2,000 customers.
S-R: How has the rafting business evolved since you started?
Brock: It’s a lot more cutthroat. I’ve had guys work for me and then start their own business and do the same thing we’re doing. It’s a much more competitive business now.
S-R: Has the sport of rafting changed during that time, too?
Brock: Yes. The equipment keeps getting better. All my boats are top of the line self-bailing boats. And we’re seeing a broader range of customers. But I think there’s still lots of opportunity for team-building floats and kids camps and business-related trips.
S-R: What is the age range of your clients?
Brock: As young as 5 and as old as 90.
S-R: How many people do you employ?
Brock: At the peak of the season we’ll have nine or 10 employees, all of them guides.
S-R: What qualities do you look for when hiring?
Brock: The safety of the customer is first. Guides have to demonstrate they know what they’re doing. Then, safety of the equipment. And personality, as far as how they communicate with others and are able to show others a good time.
S-R: How old are they?
Brock: Anywhere from 16 to 35.
S-R: Do they do this for the money or the fun?
Brock: Both. They get their wage from me, plus whatever tips they get. So it’s common for them to make $100 to $125 a day.
S-R: Is rafting dangerous?
Brock: Not if you’re well trained and you have all the right equipment. When people don’t respect the water – when they get in a real small raft or they don’t wear PFDs or don’t have training – that’s when it becomes dangerous.
S-R: Do you insist your customers know how to swim?
Brock: No. It’s preferred, but their PFD should keep them safe if they get tossed out of a raft. We show them the proper floating position, and we never float the river with only one raft.
S-R: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Brock: The organizing. I live with my phone. One day I got 96 calls.
S-R: Has the recession affected your business?
Brock: Inflation has affected it more than anything. Gas prices are outrageous. I have four rigs that I have to keep filled up. It seems I’m going to the gas station every other day.
S-R: How has this season been?
Brock: It’s been fair. We had such a high-water year that I had to cancel 90 customers at the beginning of the Clark Fork season because the river was too dangerous.
S-R: What’s your favorite rafting trip?
Brock: Commercially, that would be the Clark Fork. It offers a beautiful deep-canyon gorge with all the rapids and wildlife. Personally, the Selway, the Snake and the Middle Fork.
S-R: How much longer will you do this?
Brock: Probably another 10 years. I’m hoping then I can sell the business, retire and do all the fun stuff that other people do in the summer.