Adventure Dream Jobs: Livin' Life on the River

Willi Cannell makes a living enjoying the thrilling beauty of Idaho's Salmon River every day.
River Guide Willi Cannell of Solitude River Trips
Willi Cannell, living life on the Salmon River © Kat Cannell
By Kitt Doucette

Willi Cannell spent his childhood in Maine, playing in the sawdust of his father’s classic wooden boat workshop and exploring the coastal waters. When his family relocated to central Idaho when he was 10, Cannell fell in love with the area’s expansive wilderness, jagged mountains and free-flowing rivers. Working his way through the ranks of the river-guiding hierarchy over the last ten years, Cannell and his wife Kat recently purchased Solitude River Trips, committing full-time to life on the river. As an avid fly fisherman who lives by the motto “You live and you learn … to stay in Idaho,” Cannell couldn’t be happier. What do you do for a living?

Willi Cannell: I own Solitude River Trips, which is a wilderness fly fishing and whitewater rafting outfitter on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Middle Fork flows deep (and sometimes shallow) through the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness in the heart of Idaho.

River Guide Willi Cannell of Solitude River Trips
Does your office look like this? © Kat Cannell

How did you get the job?

Like many guides on the Salmon River, my first job was as the sweep boat "swamper." The sweep boat is a very unique and historic riverboat design that still has a functional role on select rivers across the west. Sweep boats are large (20-25 feet) and used to carry large amounts of (usually stupidly heavy) necessities for camping on multi-day wilderness river trips, like tents, cots, coolers, drinks, ice, entire kitchens, dutch ovens, chairs, dining tables, etc.

My rear sweep caught a chunk of bedrock which hauled the entire blade, arm and handle straight off the back of the boat ...

Unlike normal rafts, which have oars on either side to propel the boat left, right, forward and backward, the Sweep Boat has two enormous iron "sweeps" running off the front and the back which help the driver get the boat "tracking" in the right currents and eddies. The only thing a sweep boat needs to be able to maneuver is swift, consistent gradient and current. With this current they can be maneuvered nimbly through surprisingly technical waterways like the Middle Fork. It's always handy to have a swamper aboard to help out when things get ... exciting.

That's how I got into this lifestyle, and I haven't left yet. If someone wants to try this eccentric work experience, they can call me.

River Guide Willi Cannell of Solitude River Trips
Willi Cannell on the Solitude sweep boat © Kat Cannell

What do you do in a typical day?

Solitude River Trips has a long river season: early June to late September. Throughout that season, my job changes a fair amount, although I'm always on the river. In June we use the extreme mountain runoff to share the whitewater experience with our guests. As the season goes on and the water drops, we shift to more fishing/rafting combo trips, and eventually in September our trips are exclusively fly-fishing.

I honestly believe that the more people truly experience wilderness, the better this world becomes.

So on a given day, I might be rowing a fishing raft and guiding people to some of the best native cutthroat trout dry fly fishing in the West, or I might be behind a paddle boat punching through the wave trains, or maybe getting behind the sticks on the ol’ sweep boat. But the most important part of any wilderness river trip is an all-around unforgettable outdoor experience, which means a lot more than just floating the river. From cooking awesome meals to checking out new hikes and vistas and exploring pictographs and old pioneer homesteads, every day is full of new wonders in such an enormous and rugged wilderness area as the Frank Church.

River Guide Willi Cannell of Solitude River Trips
Willi Cannell guides a group through the rapids © Kat Cannell

What’s the best part of your job?

Hands down the best part of my job is watching people walk away from my trips completely changed after six days on the Middle Fork. I honestly believe that the more people truly experience wilderness, the better this world becomes.

The worst?

Setting up and taking down an entire gourmet bed-and-breakfast every single day and moving it 20 miles downstream. It can be a lot of work.

River Guide Willi Cannell of Solitude River Trips
Wrapping up a day on the river © Kat Cannell

What's been your wildest day on the job?

One day I was driving a sweep boat through The Chutes, aka "Snow Hole" (the rapid is created by a huge avalanche couloir that funnels into a bend in the Middle Fork), which is a long boulder dodge with a very particular entrance line. I was nearly out of the first cut at the entrance when my rear sweep caught a chunk of bedrock which hauled the entire blade, arm and handle (most of that being made of iron), straight off the back of the boat, breaking the fastenings into the boat.

At this point the boat is spinning recklessly out of control as I try to haul this 100-plus-pound piece of metal and wood back into the boat. Gear is flying off the sides into the rapid as we ping-pong into just about every rock in the rapid. At one point the boat lodged up on an enormous boulder and stuck there at about a 50-degree angle. I thought for sure she was going to flip until the boat started vibrating, then quivering, then jerking back and forth (meanwhile I'm still trying to secure my rear sweep arm). Finally a surge of water released us from the boulder as we headed downstream to fetch half of that night’s camp out of the eddy at the bottom of the rapid.

What would you be doing if you didn’t have this job?

Fly fishing.

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