Guide of the Month: Kurt Killgore, Killgore Adventures

As an Idaho based company, NRS is proud to sponsor the Redside Idaho Guide of the Month Award.

Interviewed by Emerald LaFortune
Photos courtesy of Killgore Adventures

Name: Kurt Killgore

Job Title: Co-Owner, Killgore Adventures

Hometown: Whitebird, ID

Current Location: Whitebird, ID

 

Can you tell me a bit about the history of Killgore Adventures?


Basically, I didn’t really plan on it. I bought a jet boat a long time ago. I worked at a car lot in Lewiston, Roger Motors and my boss was a jetboater. I’d go with him. Then I went up river with my buddy one time and we were fishing, his boat was all shined up and he wouldn’t pull in anywhere that wasn’t a sand bar… and there’s no sand bars. We kept twisting around and snagging sturgeon lines so I bought a boat within ten days - it was one that got traded in on the car lot.

We started going on the weekends as friends and family and I took to it pretty quick, I was really into it. Each weekend I’d go a little father and all of a sudden you get a lot of friends and the boat got too small. So my Mom, Dad and I - that’s when the partnership started. We decided to buy a twin engine, 27 foot boat and that’s how the partnership started. That’s when I started running the big water on the Lower Salmon and running to the dam [Hells Canyon Dam]. I got decent pretty fast.

We bought the guide license, I kept getting propositioned all the time. Friends would say, “Hey my family’s coming into town, if I give you $500 bucks can you take ‘em.” And I’d have to say no because that would be an illegal outfitting operation. But that’s what turned the light on. My Dad said, “Why don’t you buy that license that’s been for sale for 10 years?” We thought, we can be legal, do a fishing trip or two. We started thinking about the potential for tours, my Mom put up a website. My Dad and I were on a job in Montana and Mom called and said, “You’re going to have to come home. We got six people who want to go on a jet boat tour!” So I drove home that night, did the tour, I didn’t know what to say, the lunches were a mess… but it went over really well, how can you not have fun? I drove all the way back to Montana and the next night Mom called again and had six more people for a tour.

The next year we really ramped up our marketing and it went over pretty slick but I had a lot of help from my Mom being smart and savvy in business, my Dad being mechanical and me being just good at driving boats. We had a great team. The very next year I did enough to make it a career. We bought a triple engine boat and went for it. We were really nervous when we did that, it took me eight months to get that loan. We were nervous, this boat fits 50 passengers can we make this happen? Sure enough, we kept at it and it’s worked out, we’ve been going at it every since.

What’s the current status of Killgore?

Now, here we are sixteen years later and things have gone well. We’ve diversified into other things. We’ve had such success in the jet boat tour and fishing industry that now we’re going multi-sport. If my friends show up from out of town we do the wild river tour to the dam, we might fish after the tour and catch a sturgeon. Day two we go to Riggins and go whitewater rafting and then day three we go up into the high mountains and show ‘em what the area looks like from above. So now we’re going to do that for our customers. We have a whitewater license and we’re also going to do guided RZR tours. We don’t want folks getting into trouble up in that high country in their rental car or who knows, we’re going to take care of all that for them and pack lunches, show ‘em the cool lakes and it’s a totally new activity in our area.

We’re also building a big headquarters in the place of our run down fruit stand. Our rafting trips will end there with a big BBQ dinner on the beach and folks from the highway can also stop in for groceries, ice, cold beer, lunches, and more. We’re also going to be doing tube rentals and shuttles. So they’ll be something for everyone. Now Killgore Adventures wont just be a company it’ll be a place.

Exciting new expansion and growth! It’s great that as folks that really are from Whitebird you can show folks the full, comprehensive snap shot of the Riggins and Whitebird area.

Exactly, you touched on something that’s really powerful for us. We’re locals. I’m fourth generation on one side and my grandmother is a Nez Perce, born on the reservation. She’s still alive, she’s almost 100 and she still lives right here in Whitebird. We’re as local as you can get. I love competition and think it’s a good thing. Sometimes other companies copy our straight up wording and to combat that I say, you can use the same words - but you can’t say you’re us. People like knowing we’ve been here forever. It’s cool because especially older folks really care about that. It’ll be really cool to show people things I’ve known about my whole life, especially up on those RZR rides.

Touching on that, what was it like growing up in Whitebird?

It was really fun, to be honest! I’ve been an outdoorsman my whole life - hunting and fishing. But I didn’t realize how fun it was until I left. To me it was normal but now… when I was in my twenties I didn’t appreciate it as much. We were doing a lot of business and so many people every day. People would say, “Oh my god you’re so luck you live here.” And I’d be like, “Yeah yeah, stay seated, or whatever.” [Laughs]. But now that I’m not such a punk I appreciate it a lot more. I’m trying to really dig in here, through business, real estate because I know it’s a great area. It’s amazing - the mountains, all the public land and these two powerhouse rivers side by side. It’s unmatched, really.

As a jet boat guide, tell me what’s going through your head when you approach big water like Granite or Wild Sheep rapids on Hells Canyon.

Well I guess the biggest thing, the thing I’m most proud of my whole career is my safety record. I’ve got to knock on wood right now! I have 100 percent safety. The biggest thing is judgement. There’s certain times when I think, “This isn’t worth it.” I know I can run it. My daredevil days that’s what I did, that was the fun part. But now I just look at my passengers and think, “Okay I’ve got a grandmother here, a kid here…” I weigh all that.

Really, the physical running of it, I’m on autopilot now. One of the big things I learned as I got better and better was getting set up far ahead. You don’t want to enter a rapid and then start thinking, “Oh yeah I should’ve been more here or there.” At this point, I’m where I want to be so much sooner than I used to be. Even when I was in my twenties I thought I was pretty good but I relied on really aggressive moves and quick thinking to get me through. Now I’m so much earlierthat I’m already set up so it makes it easier. Some of those rapids, I see these guys get in ‘em and go full throttle in the whitewater. I’m not that way any more. I let the rapid come to me. When I get in there I let it all happen, it’s by feel. But I’m on autopilot, I think I’ve run all that more than anyone. It’s all I run and I’ve run it sixteen years straight! I get a lot of time up there. Hours driving are irreplaceable.

It’s so interesting you talk about setting up earlier, relaxing and avoiding going full throttle. It’s the same thing when you watch float guides. Seasoned guides, instead of trying to power through things, set up early and relax more.

I try to be smooth. You can try all you want but sometimes you’re going to have a rough run. But sometimes I have to create excitement too! I can run Granite and not get a drop on anyone. I can do the run I like, which is so smooth I almost bore you but the customers want excitement so I pick my spots to give ‘em that but it’s going to be safe.

What’s your favorite part of being a guide?

The lifestyle and the camaraderie with my crew. We have to put on the show when folks show up, we’ve got 50 plus guests. It can be stressful to handle all that but the best part is hanging out with my guys. I like the seasonal aspect too - when I’m done, I’m done. But also the cool factor - being able to do what I do and work where I work. The biggest thing for me is that I’m one of the few that makes a living doing this. It’s all I do.

It’s good to be able to focus in and not just have a seasonal hustle. Cool too because as far as those triple engine whitewater jet boats, there aren’t many boats running that kind of whitewater in the world. Not to inflate your ego [laughs] but it’s a unique job!

On the flip side, what’s the most frustrating part of guiding?

Well, every time we go up the river I’m the one in the big boat. In a way, that’s our whole business and I can’t have it go wrong. I don’t have many people I trust to drive our big boat. That’s the thing that wears on me a little, I don’t trust many other people to do it. I know they probably could but I’m a terrible back seat driver guy and I like to make sure our trips go well. I’m kind of stuck in that boat. Balancing business with regulations and government has also been hard. But actual guiding - there’s not much I don’t like. Every day now, I’ve got my program so dialed that doing a tour is pretty easy. When I was younger and learning I’d be worried. Do we have all the lunches? Do we have our fuel? But now, I don’t know, it’s pretty smooth.

Have you ever thought of moving on from guiding and why didn’t you?


Yeah, when we were having fears with regulation, I was nervous with having all my eggs in one basket. So I decided to diversify - we’ve always been into farming and agriculture - I put my attention into that and bought some ground in New Meadows. We run a bunch of cattle. The past four or five years I’ve been building that, it’s fully functional. We run long horn cattle which are really cool looking. And I’ve tied that into tourism so our customers get to see our cattle operation and our roping arena. It ties more into the fact that our customers know that we’re local. They see cowboy hats and they drink wine and watch us. I thought about getting out - if I do, that’s what I’d do full time. I’d just drift off into the sunset, hopefully [laughs].

Who along the way has inspired you or encouraged you in your guiding career?


I didn’t get taught by anyone. We just bought that boat… I guess I would have to say Daryl Bentz. I looked up to him as being a complete badass.

Of Bentz boats?

Yeah, we bought our boat from Daryl. That’s not why I got into guiding but once I was getting deep into the jet boat world, that’s who I thought was the top of the top. I got to be pretty good friends with him. What’s interesting about that is that the Bentz family is actually from Whitebird. He helped me with a few things when I had to start running the big boats. When we built that boat he helped me in designing it which was a big help.

Other than that, I’d have to say my mom and dad. They’re really smart, real hard workers. Their work ethic and having them in my back pocket was awesome. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be what I am right now by any means.

On that note, how do you stay connected to your family and friends with the busy guiding schedule?

Well anymore my friends know I’m really busy and if they want to come see me they have to go on my tour! Which is not a problem, a lot of my buddies do that and we’ll hang out afterwards. People come and stay at the motel and RV park, we’ll have good times there. I can also plan around non-motorized days which is every other week I get Monday - Wednesday off. If I’m off, a lot of times we go rafting in Riggins which is nice because I don’t have to drive!

In your opinion, what are the best ways for float boaters and motorized users to co-exist on Idaho’s rivers?

I gotta say, it’s funny how much controversy there is around that topic but it’s not so much an issue on the Snake River because I get along with the commercial outfitters. What I bear in mind is you gotta realize who is coming at you. Commercial boats - I know when it’s OARS coming down river and they know it’s me, we don’t even think. It’s not a big deal to get past each other. I usually always come off plane to be nice. We all have to understand that private raft trips they just don’t know. But you know, being cool and a wave and a smile goes a long way. I just want folks to know that sometimes I have to get going, I’m full of older folks and we don’t have a restroom on the boat. Eventually we’ve got to get to the dam! But just overall courtesy and trying to be polite.

And safety, as a jet boater you just can’t go by someone at a high rate of speed and be close. It’s scary. We used to do those classes down at Heller Bar. They’d put us in a raft… this one time Bentz, I and another guy got in this tiny raft and they had a big Beamer boat come straight at us. It’s our buddy driving the boat and he was headed right towards us at a high speed and I gotta say, it scared me. We almost flipped, it was a good learning experience. I realized they don’t always know that you’re not going to hit them, even if you know you’re in control.


Any memorable fish, trips or stories? I’m sure there are dozens but any that stick out?

I guess… I could name any story you want here. But what’s cool is that a lot of people tell me after their tour that it was the best day of their life. In my twenties, like I said, I’d say, “Yeah yeah, watch your step.” But now I think it’s pretty cool, it’s nice to give people that kind of experience. It’s amazing to me that it’s not a bigger deal. I get folks that have been to Glacier or Yellowstone and afterwards they can’t believe what they just did.

What advice would you give an aspiring jet boat guide?

I guess… it’s a tough one. It’s tough for someone like me to hire anyone until they’re established. I rarely take anyone from scratch. If they’re serious they need to find a way to get their own boat and start proving themselves. Then they have some basic fundamentals before I get ahold of ‘em. I’ve trained a bunch of guys but it’s nice when they have some time under their belt.

Is there anything else I should know about your business, about guiding, about the Whitebird area?

Well, the only other thing we do that’s interesting is hunts on our private ranches. But… let me think. I kind of gave you the whole run down! I guess. The big news is that we’re going multi adventure and we’re doing something that no one else is doing. And our roadside tourist deal with food and a huge cooler… it’ll be like Whitebird’s version of CostCo.

I'm looking forward to stopping in this summer. Will it be opening soon or are you giving it another season?

The hope is for mid June. I guess, the bad news is that my Mom has stage four lung cancer. It’s been a living nightmare and it’s been really stressful to think about losing my Mom for one and also to think about how to function a business without her. So we’re behind schedule but we decided to go ahead with the expansion.

I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure she’s irreplaceable in many ways and also happy to see the business continue to grow and thrive. It’ll be finished when it’s finished and you have to take that time you have with loved ones.

Yeah, exactly. I’m just a few weeks away from being in the boat every day so I’m trying to enjoy this time.

From Redside and the Idaho guiding community, we hope she has peace and we know she’s lucky to have you and your dad. Also, she must be proud for all your business does for a small town like Whitebird.

Thanks. Yeah, we have employees right now but we’re really growing with the rafting, road side stand, tubing… we’re really set up to hire a lot of people in a small area. It’s fun because like I said I really enjoy handling all our customers with our crew. I typically hire people I like, you know. It’s good in one aspect because we have a lot of fun but sometimes, in my younger years we have too much fun - have to remind ourselves to stay at the task at hand.

But better than the alternative of not having any fun at all! Customers pick up on a crew that doesn’t like each other.

Yup, it’s funny because now I’m older and I hire younger people and I’m 37 so now I’m the old guy, which is weird! But I like it because I can tell stories like crazy and they’re new and they keep me young.

They remind us we guides do live a pretty good life.

Yup.


Good luck to Kurt and Killgore Adventures on their upcoming season!

Know an Idaho guide that goes above and beyond? Nominate them for our Guide of the Month award by e-mailing info@redsidefoundation.org.

Thanks to NRS for supporting our Guide of the Month Award! Each Guide of the Month receives a $100 NRS Gift Card.