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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

River guide leads a full life

Binninger  (Courtesy/Hannah Binninger)
Binninger (Courtesy/Hannah Binninger)
By William Brock For The Spokesman-Review

You run into them now and then, people doing the same juggling act as everyone else – consumed by kids, careers and the commitments of daily life – but they have another, less-visible dimension: an insatiable thirst for outdoor adventure.

Hannah Binninger is one of those people. She has a lot on her plate with one husband, two home-schooled children, two thriving businesses, and about 20 horses and mules, but she still finds time for deep adventure in distant lands.

In late June, Binninger slipped her moorings to spend 12 days rowing a heavy raft down a remote river in northern Alaska. Being that far north, the sun never set and the wind blew like it was coming from another planet. By the time she was done, she and her party of nine others were only a handful of miles from the Arctic Ocean.

“It wasn’t an easy trip,” she said of that 100-mile voyage down the Hula Hula, “but there aren’t many places like it anymore, places where hardly anyone goes.

“For me, it’s about the country, and the people, and the challenges.”

Finding the time wasn’t easy because Binninger and her husband, Jon, own Pullman’s liveliest coffee shop, Roost. Their other business, Landgrove Coffee, also keeps them busy as they roast more than 75 tons of beans every year. Their children, 16-year-old Flora and 13-year-old Clem, are their top priority, but all those horses and mules need attention, too.

Still, Binninger couldn’t refuse when Moscow-area outfitter Lonnie Hutson, owner of Sundog Expeditions, asked her to row a gear boat down the Hula Hula. She’s guided for him on the Grande Ronde, in northeastern Oregon, and the lower Salmon River, upstream of Lewiston, so Hutson was well aware of her skills.

“It’s a hard trip,” Hutson said of the Hula Hula, “but she’s a good, solid boater. She wasn’t set up to take on more than she could handle.

“She’s knowledgeable, her outdoor skills are good, and she’s very good with people,” Hutson said. “What really stands out is she’s a happy worker. In Alaska, when the weather is tough and conditions are challenging, I don’t need to be managing crew members to keep them happy.”

“Hannah was great,” added Tom Besser, a Washington State University professor who was a paying guest on the trip. “She’s super upbeat and positive, even when the wind is blowing 50 mph crosswise to the river.”

Given her talents, you’d think Binninger grew up rowing rafts down wilderness rivers and wrangling pack mules through western forests. In truth, she grew up in Vermont and spent her high school years at boarding school in Connecticut.

In 1995, she came West. The first stop was Boise, where she worked as a wildlife biologist for the Peregrine Fund. The job required a lot of early-morning driving, and that required coffee, and her favorite coffee joint was owned by a capable young cowboy named Jon Binninger. They got to talking and a romance bloomed.

After Boise, the couple embarked on a semi-nomadic odyssey through North Idaho, with stops near Sandpoint, McCall and Salmon. In those early days, they owned a small coffee roaster which they hauled around in a horse trailer. From those humble beginnings, Landgrove Coffee – named for her hometown in Vermont – was born in 1998.

In 2002, the Binningers and their wholesale coffee business finally settled for good near Troy, Idaho.

Hannah Binninger first started swinging a pair of oars in 2000, when she and Jon lived in Tendoy, south of Salmon. She gained some experience and soon began running multiday trips on the Salmon River between North Fork and Corn Creek. When she and Jon moved to Troy, the Grande Ronde and lower Salmon became her home rivers.

Though she’s good at it, rowing boats is just one of the arrows in her quiver of outdoor skills. As a marathon and ultramarathon runner, she has a solid fitness base and, as a naturalist, she knows how to pay attention in the woods. It’s a combination that allowed her to take up bowhunting four years ago and, first time out, she brought down a six-point bull elk with an arrow.

No discussion of the Binninger family is complete without mentioning its connection with horses and mules. Jon grew up running pack strings through the Idaho backcountry, and the parents are passing down the tradition to their children.

In September, all four of them saddled up and rode into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness for three weeks. They worked at a backcountry lodge, but most of their time was spent packing hunters, equipment and supplies back and forth from distant camps.

It was hard work in spectacular country, but hard work suits Binninger and her family just fine.

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