When Interpretation Goes South
Over the years I have witnessed and participated in the famous Western propensity to spin yarns about almost any subject. “Where is the hole?” is our version of the age old Snipe hunt. And though tourists may expect some measure of abuse at the hands of “the locals,” I’m keenly aware that the captive audience in my raft is experiencing something truly magical for the very first time, and hopes to learn something from it. My job? I’m a Barker-Ewing boatman. Which means that, in addition to navigating the river safely, I’m also an entertainer. And a tour guide. And a teacher. And it serves me well to remember this.
I confess to having occasionally invented a tale or let loose a pun in a less-than-ideal situation – a habit I may have picked up from one of the many experienced purveyors of bad taste who ply these particular waters. If I’m lucky enough to spot a river otter from the raft, I’ll share loads of information about their habitat and behavior. But I also might mention that otters are rarely sighted, due to the meandering characteristics of this riparian environment. By which I mean that we’re floating one way, while the otters are swimming the otter way. Boom! Yes, puns are the lowest form of humor. And my poor captives never seem to see them coming.
Years ago, I was enjoying a meal at a local outdoor restaurant and overheard a question from a curious customer: “What’s that white stuff on top of the mountains?” The answer of course is snow. The answer I heard from the waiter that day was, “It’s a herd of termites, and they’re migrating over the mountains to eat all of our trees.” This led to expressions of horror all around, and declarations that the Park should “do something about this situation.”
Okay, so I laughed when I heard this – and you probably would have too. But at the same time, I had to take a moment to remember the impact that my position as a leader and a guide has on the folks around me. People ask me questions because questions are a time-honored method for gathering information. One of my middle-school teaching colleagues is fond of reminding the kids in his classroom that “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” Turns out he’s right. There are only stupid answers.
I study the history, geology and environment of this amazing corner of Wyoming whenever I have the time. I do it because if fascinates me, it grounds me in Jackson Hole, this amazing place that I’m lucky enough to call home – but it also give me the tools I need to share this region with the thousands of people who join me on the Snake River every year. They’ve come here to experience something truly special. And by embracing their curiosity and sharing my expertise, I make each trip down the river truly special for myself as well. I’ve run those ten miles between Deadman’s Bar and Moose more than 2,500 times. But each time, it’s brand new.