Guide of the Month: Mat McGrath, Zootown Surfers

Interviewed by Emerald LaFortune

Name: Mat McGrath

Hometown: Missoula, MT

Job Title at Zootown Surfers: Lead Guide

Job Title during NOT Lochsa Season: Bicycle mechanic and nordic ski technician at Open Road Bicycle and Nordic Equipment

What got you started on the Lochsa?

I first fell in love with the Lochsa in 2005 when a good friend offered up a cheap trip to a crew of mutual friends.  I remember hearing the "safety talk" on the side of the river and thinking to myself "what have I gotten myself into".  Of course our raft along with a couple others quickly turned over in the falls and the yard sale started.  As I crawled out onto shore with 3 paddles in hand all I could think about was how much fun it was and I couldn't wait to try it again.  I continued to show up and paddle for small group trips whenever they needed the bodies.  I was hooked.  I showed up every weekend with high hopes of getting on the water, I slowly learned the names of all the rapids and all the lines, by the time I was asked to officially work the spring of 2008 I knew I was hooked on the Lochsa and would never miss a day.

What was your first commercial run on the Lochsa?

I had a pretty memorable first run.  We were up top at White Pine for the 30 mile epic trip and I was super nervous. It was a high water day and I knew it was gonna be a big day.  We were doing great having a blast knocking off the river miles when it was time to tighten the PFD straps and run Castle Rock and Triple Hole. As we successfully made our way around the giant rock at the bottom the crew started to celebrate, the boat hit the eddy line and rocked sharply to the left.  A young lady was smashed out of the boat and into the "champagne" water by her boyfriend sitting opposite her. I quickly reached out to pull her in and when she looked up she had gotten her front tooth broken out. We pulled the trip over and began patching her up best we could.  She was an allstar and never complained once, rafted 20 more miles, ate lunch as best as she could and continued to show back up for 3 or so years with a bigger and bigger crew. Her name was Wendy and I'll never forget that trip.

Do you guide on other rivers besides the Lochsa?

I do some guiding on the Alberton Gorge after the Lochsa has tapered off but mostly look forward to some private trips with my wife and friends. After a good Lochsa season I'm usually ready to hang up the drysuit for some board shorts and single day whitewater trips turn into long multi days and sandy beaches. 

How is the Lochsa different to guide than other rivers?

I think the Lochsa is so special to me because of the "fun" factor that can't be found on other rivers. Big waves and crushing holes followed by good swims and large pools to pick things up in. You get the beauty of the Selway Wilderness on one side with pristine clear creeks running in and the safety of the road on the other side. While the wild side of the river can attract the person looking to go big and swim it also provides a scenic side that is great for the family. There isn't a bad level on the Lochsa either, from 3000 CFS in the preseason in April, to the 20,000 CFS in May/ June and everything in between. There is always a good run to be had out there.

Who inspires you as a guide?

I have had many inspirations as a guide over the years from my good friend and former boss Justin Walsh, who taught me many life lessons on and off the river. Jason Shreder from Zootown surfers and his passion to be out on the water and share his love for it with anyone and everyone. So many names come to mind of people I have met along the way that have shared the same love of rivers and passion for adventure. 

Favorite Lochsa Falls memory?

One of my favorite Lochsa falls memory happened a while back. It was another high water day out there and we had 4 or 5 rafts on the water. As we worked our way down the river we had begun to collect quite the road crew following us and watching the show from the road. As we approached the falls we began to come up on another large group but they were working towards the left side "sneak" and the road crew was letting them know there disapproval with loud boos and screams. The Zootown Crew not missing a beat, lined up and began dropping into the "meat" of the falls one by one knowing we all had each others backs. As we passed by the other group the road crowd erupted into cheers hooting and hollering with approval. It was a moment of great pride for every guide working that day!

Does conflict ever arise between you and your coworkers? If so, about what? How do you approach/mitigate it?

I think conflict is going to arise all the time out on river trips. You have to be flexible out there and realize its not always gonna go the way you wanted it to. We at Zootown strive to always maintain the good attitude on the river and just kind of deal with whatever happens to arise at the time. Once back at the headquarters as we slosh gear through the wash cycle we can break down what happened out on the water and talk through the days problems in a way that is productive and understanding. We aren't trying to finger point or be little any person we just try and get everyone back on the same line and work towards being even better on the next trip out. I think that amount of time where everyone can talk face to face and no one is a boss or underneath anyone in the totem pole really gives us an opportunity to learn from our own and others mistakes.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become a Lochsa guide?

My best words of advice to a new guide is to show up ready to do anything. Always stay busy and never ask if there is something to do. There is ALWAYS something to do.  Other than that having a team attitude and a good set of rain gear always helps.

Have you ever thought of moving on from guiding? Why did/didn’t you?

I think at some point everyone has to move on from the guiding lifestyle.  I think the lifestyle can add strain to relationships and you miss out on a lot of other river opportunities being committed to a single river during prime runoff. The body can take a serious beating and sometimes its hard to make it through a season staying healthy and injury free.  I don't think I will ever lose my love for the Lochsa itself but when you lose the passion to share it I think its time to move on. 

Why Idaho?

Idaho...the whitewater state, beautiful hot springs, amazing trail access and pristine wilderness. What's not to love?

Anything else I should know about your work, guiding, Idaho, etc? 

Our mission is simple at ZooTown Surfers:  We want to share our passion for spending time on the rivers by creating experiences and opportunities that will bring out the best in you.  Any day on the water is a good day.

Thanks Mat and have a great season!

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