Seemingly timeless, yet forever incrementally changing, the Pacific Northwest’s coursing rivers are iconic to this rain-soaked region—natural geological wonders, alive and evolving with the flora and fauna that coexist on a timescale beyond human comprehension. These pristine waterways flow from the peaks of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, providing critical resources for all manner of life along their meandering courses and myriad tributaries, sometimes placid and calm, other times turbulent and downright violent. That’s the power of nature—energy translated through an aquatic medium, pulled downstream by forces felt but not seen.
Far from the city lights and snarled traffic of Portland, Oregon, a diverse group of outdoor lovers gather at a wooded 20-acre property near Grants Pass to prepare for a four-day river rafting trip. Men and women, Gen X to Gen Z, East Coast to West Coast—the dedicated guides of Northwest Rafting Company are organizing supplies, gathering food, and loading rafts onto a trailer. They’re about to embark on a river rafting trek with three families that have never met. Their job is to navigate the river, keep their guests safe, and show them an amazing time. Their mission is to create meaningful connections, form lifelong memories and new friendships, and engender a deeper understanding of and respect for our natural world.
Northwest Rafting Company was founded in 2009 by outdoorsman and longtime river rafting guide Zach Collier. From the beginning, the company has operated with a dual purpose: to show people a good time in the outdoors and advocate for protecting and preserving this pristine natural environment for generations to come. Today, with commercial operations on the Rogue River, the White Salmon River, the Owyhee River, the Illinois River, the Chetco River, and two international river treks in Bhutan and Chile, the Northwest Rafting crew upholds this legacy, working long, physically and socially demanding 16-hour days to ensure the guest experience is second to none.
“River time is when people put away their phones and watches and just be present on the river, in the moment. It opens people up for spontaneity,” says Northwest Rafting River Guide and Food Dude Tate Tomlinson. Kicking off her second season as a guide this spring, Tate brings a family legacy of river rafting and her bright, fun-loving personality to every task and interaction on the river. Not only is she responsible for the guest experience and safety, she also plans and preps each trip’s food, ensuring that all the ingredients for every meal are in the right place along the river when it’s mealtime.
“The river has transformed me without a doubt. I’ve learned more about myself and the Earth’s energy on the river,” Tate explains. “I’m my best self when I’m on the river, away from modern distractions and open to connecting with people and nature and appreciating all the little moments. It helps to come to the river with an open mind and being ready to step outside your comfort zone with a try-it-all mindset. There’s no way you can walk away from the river without being transformed in some way.”
Northwest Rafting Guide and Operations Manager Michael Hughes has been guiding with the outfitter for 14 seasons. He’s seen it all on the river, from natural high-water events reshaping the river bank to an eagle fighting an osprey for a fish in mid-flight. He returns year after year, not only for the camaraderie and the active outdoor lifestyle but also for the never-ending excitement and unknown that comes with working outdoors.
“Joy and gratefulness, that’s what I feel when I’m on the river,” Michael says. “Without people long before me saying this is a special place to protect for future generations, I wouldn’t have this awesome job. Even when the wind is blowing upstream hard at my face, in the worst of weather, I’m still there doing a job that I love. It’s hard work, but I always get to have fun in a ton of different ways. There’s always something new, learning different things, meeting new people—the river brings people together in a really positive way; it’s super powerful.”
Michael takes the history, legacy, and preservation of this region to heart. Sharing this sentiment with all the guides and crew at Northwest Rafting Company, he hopes to instill a recognition and deeper appreciation of nature into all the lives they collectively touch.
“I hope that our guests have fun and feel welcome and safe. It’s the crew and the guide’s job to take a few different families that don’t know each other down a river for four days and show them a really good time. If they get done with a trip, and it’s the best trip ever, mission accomplished,” Michael says. “But there’s also a deeper mission, to connect people with nature. Some people don’t realize they can pitch a tent, sleep outside, or even raft down a river; they’ve never done it before. They also aren’t aware that fish and wildlife are affected by what they do in life. Now, they can learn about how to recreate outdoors, river conservation, and how to respect nature by leaving no trace. The more people are outside recreating, it shows we’ve done a good job.”