With 50 years behind them, Lewis and Clark Expeditions is still paddling
JACKSON — James Peck and Karen Youngblood had fantasies of a celebratory summer paying homage to the 50th anniversary of Lewis & Clark River Expeditions, a business the married couple has jointly run for the past 28 years.
But with COVID-19 still running amok, a large gathering just didn’t feel right. And life, as it happens, got in the way.
There’s been record demand for the whitewater and scenic float trips offered by the family-owned shop on North Cache Street. For the first time in the company’s half century of operation, it was not possible for visitors to roll into town and impromptu book seats for a float down the Snake River.
“We keep a waitlist, and that’s unprecedented,” Peck told the News&Guide from his office last week. “It’s totally new. We had empty boats all the time in 2019.”
Not this year. Families have had to wait at least a week, and in some cases up to 10 days, before securing spots on a boat, Youngblood said.
“And we’re honestly less busy than some other companies that are better marketers than we are,” she said. “They’re potentially booked for the rest of the summer.”
While the market for a splashy float down the Snake River canyon or scenic float on a mellower stretch has vastly changed, there are some constants that remain for Lewis & Clark’s operations. Every day of the week its 13-foot vessels are out on the water, propelled and positioned by the muscle power of their occupants. And not the guides, but the clients themselves wielding paddles.
“Somewhere early on Rod Lewis had this fantastic idea that people should paddle the raft,” Peck said. “Nobody in Teton County was paddling rafts at that time. All of the rafts were center-mount oar frame boats, and everybody just went along for the ride.”
“Rod introduced the participatory experience,” he said, “and it revolutionized the way rafting went from that point forward in this area and, really, everywhere else.”
Over the years, major competitors in Jackson Hole picked up paddle rafting as an option. But then they gave it up.
“In an interesting twist, as of this summer Lewis and Clark is the only company left in Teton County that runs paddle rafts,” Peck said. “Every other boat on the Snake River — including several of ours — is a paddle-assist raft, where people are paddling but the guide is also rowing with an oar frame at the back.”
Rod Lewis, now 76, launched Lewis & Clark as a 20-something Californian who’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to have one last adventure before leaving the world. So he chose Jackson Hole to start a business. It was a place he’d gotten to know since age 6, when his father took him on a roadtrip to Yellowstone National Park in a 1949 Chevy.
“They wrote me off,” Lewis told the News&Guide, “and that spring [of 1971] I started the business.”
The cancer diagnosis was wrong. And with the help of his brothers he cobbled together some rafts, and Lewis & Clark began operation out of a “teeny” rented office next to Merry Piglets on Crabtree Corner. (His “partner,” Clark, is just a nod to the famous Western explorer, William.)
“I lived there for a couple years, behind the desk,” Lewis said. “There was just enough room to put my head against one wall and my feet against the other.”
Business initially was slow. A well-known Star Valley man, Lewis recalled, had died in the Snake River canyon a few years before, and locals were “shy” and afraid of the rapids. The main commercial floating game at the time was in Grand Teton National Park, where he also landed a permit for scenic floats.
“It was difficult to get someone to run the whitewater,” Lewis said. “It was just in its infancy, a really, really small industry.”
A float at the time cost $40 a head, which translates to nearly $270 adjusted for inflation. Competition in Jackson Hole heated up, and prices came down.
“When I got out of it 17 years later, it was down to $15 a person,” Lewis said. “There was a guy here in town, Breck O’Neill, who thought he could lower the price and take the rest of us out of business, and he damn near did.”
Lewis, who still works daily at his Rent-A-Raft shop at Hoback Junction, was a colorful figure and prone to out-of-the-box and sometimes controversial ideas. He waged a long fight with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and others to take clients down the Snake River canyon in a jet boat.
“I had nine competitors who didn’t want my motorized boats on the river here,” he said. “They tried to take it away from me, and I appealed it through the federal process.”
The business venture never prevailed. Jet boat rides weren’t permitted commercially, and then in 2013 private motorized watercraft were banned from the Snake River through Jackson Hole from April 1 through the Labor Day weekend.
By the time Lewis sold for $250,000 to Don Perkins in 1987, he’d grown a new side hustle that delivered whitewater photos to Snake canyon river runners into a full-fledged business. That’s a story in and of itself. At one point images were delivered to Jackson via racing pigeons. More than one of the birds was claimed by then-endangered peregrine falcons that were being reintroduced into Jackson Hole, a saga told vividly in the first-ever episode of Wyoming Public Media’s podcast, “HumaNature.”
Of the company’s three owners, Perkins had the shortest stint running Lewis & Clark. By 1994 he sold to Peck and Youngblood. They bought around the same time that Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon starred in “The River Wild,” a big-screen thriller that had a major influence on the whitewater rafting industry, Peck said.
“There was a huge surge in interest in whitewater rafting after that movie came out,” he said. “I’ve heard people say that interest in whitewater nationwide has been on a steady decline ever since.”
Lewis, Peck and Youngblood all cited the people they have worked with, both guides and office staff, as the most redeeming part of a career spent in the whitewater business in Jackson Hole.
“It’s really been a great way to make a living in this community,” Peck said. “It’s a great life.”
Lewis listed off some of his former staffers he looks back fondly on: Pete Lawton, Walt Berling, Kurt Heck, David Owen and George Bement, among others.
“We had really outstanding young people,” he said.
Based on what Lewis sees today, the little river-running business he started 50 years ago is still run by some good folks.
“Down there at West Table, I always wanted my guys to have the boats in the same place, have all the paddles out in the same place, all the lifejackets laid out the same way,” Lewis said. “It’s really something: After all these years they’re still doing it the same way. That’s a delight, to see them carry forward with that.”