By Kelsey Helfrich

If there is one quality, good or bad, that my granddad taught me, it’s persistence. Truly only one of the many qualities that he taught me, I’ve come to realize that persistence was at the center of my relationship with my granddad; persistence in following my dreams, persistence in proving myself in a man’s world, and persistence in trying to get his attention and approval. Sometimes quick to say no, I was too persistent to give up after just one turn down. 

Early on, before I learned the importance of this quality when it came to dealing with my granddad, I sulked away with my tail between my legs more than a few times. One time that comes to mind was on my first trip ever rowing my own boat on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I was a naïve 15-year-old girl, helping out alongside the seasoned guides on one of my granddad’s commercial trips. It was the fourth night of the trip and we were staying at Woolard Camp. As it can happen in that country, a storm came rolling through the canyon sometime in the middle of the night. I had set up my bed on the upper bench of the camp, out in the open, with no interest in using a tent. I was a river kid and growing up on the river, I never used tents. Unfortunately, I also hadn’t learned to think ahead about the ‘what ifs’ of a storm and also didn’t have so much as a tarp to cover up with.  Deep in sleep that night, I woke up to the rumble of thunder, strong winds, and a few large drops of rain on my face. Those few drops almost instantaneously turned into a torrential downpour and I found myself alone and scrambling for a solution to my problem. I started to run for the boats, however the winds were blowing the hot coals from the fire straight up the only trail that I knew of to get down to the boats.  I knew my dad was sleeping by his boat and I was hopeful that he would have an extra tarp.  

As I ran around with my sleeping bag in my arms, attempting to keep it dry, I looked over and noticed my granddad’s nice little green Eureka tent set up about 30 yards away. Running for the tent, I thought for sure this was going to be my saving grace. Standing at the door, I shook the side of the tent and called out for my granddad. I could hear him rustling around and grunting as he opened the zipper just far enough to stick his face out and look at me.  Relieved that he woke up, I smiled nervously and said “Hey Granddad, it’s raining really hard out here and I don’t have a tent. Would it be alright if I crawl in your tent until it stops raining?”. I’m not sure that there was even a pause in conversation before he furrowed his brow and simply said “No!” as he zipped his tent back up and left me standing in the rain, dripping wet. I laugh now as I look back on that night and there is still little about it that surprises me. Defeated, I turned and headed back to my bed.  I would have to figure this out on my own.  I ended up spending the remainder of the night curled up, inside my big dry bag to stay warm while all of my stuff got rained on. 

I never did ask Granddad about that night but I’m sure he is still laughing about it and knowing that I was just a “squirrely little twerp” and he was teaching me to not only toughen up but to think ahead next time. This was just the beginning… As I got older and did more and more river trips with Granddad I began to learn that if I am more persistent, in a polite and joking way, he would finally give in to me on the things that truly mattered. He would be willing to do things as long as he made it clear that he didn’t really want to do it.  We just needed to twist his arm a bit.  

This perfectly applies to my Granddad Dave’s very last river trip. As he got older and started talking about only having a few more years left in him to do river trips, I persistently began reminding him that he could keep going and ride in the front of mine or my dad’s boats. To this I always received a hard and fast “Nope. If I can’t row, I won’t go”.  I knew that he truly meant what he was saying but deep down, I also knew how much being on the river meant to him.  I never gave up hope that one day he may change his mind, so you can imagine my excitement when, one day, he finally agreed.  I have a feeling that my Grandma TerBear had something to do with this too. 

He agreed to go along on our last trip of the season on the Rogue River in 2015.  It was the perfect trip for my Granddad and Terry (TerBear) to join and everything came together for an unforgettable trip.  We had great weather and the fall foliage was spectacular.  Granddad and TerBear rode in my dads boat for the first two days of the trip and you could tell they were all having a blast together. It was a sight to see! With my Granddad and Terry fishing side by side in the front of the boat and my dad at the oars, they were catching lots of fish and reliving great river stories that just never get old. Every time we would pass by them you could not only hear the fun, you could see it in their faces. They were all right where they wanted to be.  Floating along, their relaxing and happy demeanor would periodically come to a screeching halt at the first sight of the white strobe-like flashing wing beats of Mergansers flying up the river.  Throwing down their fly rods and grabbing for their shotguns, those mergies didn’t stand a chance with those three in the boat. All three are excellent gunmen and love the sport of shooting mergansers on the fly. 

There were so many amazing memories on that trip but one of the best was watching my granddad trade with my dad to row the boat through Blossom Bar Rapid.  The run was flawless and he took half as many oar strokes as any of the other boatmen.  So impressive at any age, let alone at the age of 84.  Tune into our next newsletter for more on that story. 

Of all of the memorable moments from that trip, my favorite came on the last morning.  My Granddad made his way down to the boats from the lodge and stepped into my boat instead of my dads. A morning on the water with just me and my granddad.  It is hard to express how happy that made me.  I had been persistent about asking him throughout the trip if he was going to ride with me but I honestly didn’t know if he really would.  Believe it or not, this was the first and only time we were ever in a drift boat together. We worked and enjoyed lots of river trips together, however we were always in different boats.  As a kid I would ride with my dad and once I was twelve or so I was always rowing my own boat. 

My excitement for this opportunity was quickly accompanied by anxiety and pressure.  I wanted more than anything to make him proud.  At this point I had been rowing a boat on the Rogue for over 18 years and guiding there for 12 years but this just felt so different. Never wanting to let him down, I was determined to show my granddad a smooth, dry and successful morning on the water.  As we pushed off from the shore and headed towards the Bluff Hole my granddad just couldn’t help but harass me a little bit. With a mischievous little smirk on his face he started asking me about my choice in flies and reminding me that I better not splash him anywhere on this section of the river.  Just his way of showing his love, Granddad’s teasing was his favorite way of starting our conversations. I could feel the pressure building in my own mind as we pulled into our first fishing spot of the day.  He had just finished letting out his line when his reel started to sing and we had a nice half-pounder steelhead on the line.  Before long we had caught at least 10 fish in this one spot.  We had found a honey hole!  With each fish he caught, I relaxed a little more.  I could have stayed there for hours but I also knew that with my granddad’s declining health, fighting these fish was likely wearing him out. Not wanting to hurt his pride, I suggested that we keep floating down river to catch up with our group.  He gladly agreed.  Floating along, we laughed and talked, enjoying the scenery and enjoying each others company. He shot a few ducks along the way but mostly he was just relaxed.  He was taking it all in and reflecting back on the years he spent on that beautiful river.  

After a few miles, we approached the Coon Rock Bridge, another fun area to fish.  I said “Hey Granddad. You ready to catch some more fish?” to this he smiled and said “How about we catch a big one and then head for the barn.”  The pressure was back on. We hadn’t seen very many adult steelhead all trip but we knew there were a few around.  As I positioned the boat for our next fishing spot, I looked to the sky and said silently “Come on, help me out here. Please, if anyone is listening, help me catch him a big fish. If there is anyone out here who deserves it, it’s him”. Well, someone must have been listening that day. Within minutes, I watched my granddad set the hook on a beautiful big native steelhead. It was a moment that took my breath away.. This gorgeous fish jumped and ran, putting up one hell of a fight.  I did what I could to follow him with the boat to help my granddad gain traction on him.  It took a while to bring the fish into the boat but, of course, my granddad fought that fish perfectly.  As he got him to the boat, I scooped him up in the net with a sigh of relief and excitement.  I carefully removed the hook and let the fish rest in my net in the water to regain some strength.  We admired his size, color and strength, while enjoying the success of the catch.  We were both all smiles.  If I could have kissed that fish and told him thank you without my granddad thinking I was crazy, I probably would have.  As that beautiful fish swam out of sight I couldn’t have been more thankful for this experience and the opportunity to spend quality time with such a great man.  Neither of us knew it at the time, but that day together on the Rogue would end up being not only my granddad’s last day on the river, but also the last fish he would ever catch.  

Reflecting back on everything my granddad taught me and our many river miles together, I feel so blessed to have spent his last day on the water with him.  He was so set on “If I can’t row, I won’t go” but in the end I think our persistence paid off.  To see the Rogue River one last time gave him the opportunity to reflect back on over 70 years worth of memories from one of his favorite rivers. Each turn of the river, inspiring more stories to share with his family and friends.  What a wonderful way to wrap up a lifetime of running rivers. It is hard to express my gratitude for this great man. The things that I learned from him, both directly and by example, have helped shape me into the person and outfitter that I am today. As the years pass without him, I miss him dearly and wish that he could see all that we have done with the family business.  I think he would be very proud.  Looking forward I hope to continue to make him proud and pass along those lessons to my kids to carry on our family legacy.

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