Outfitting Way Out West
By Amy Larson
Kidd Youren was on a horse with his dad the day after his birth, and claims he’s been an outfitter ever since.
Garden Valley’s peaks, peaceful fields, South Fork of the Payette River and nearby natural hot springs provided ample playground. Kidd’s grandpa did some casual guiding and ran some cows, his great uncle outfitted, and Kidd’s dad turned it into a full-on business.
When as an eight year old Kidd was asked what he wanted to do for a living, he talked with his dad, who said the answer was easy. Choose something you like and find a way to get paid for it.
“I want to do what you do,” Kidd told him.
Kidd moved around to Nevada, British Columbia, and Canada, but ultimately wanted to return to Idaho.
Between hunting seasons, Kidd team roped and rode broncs and bulls. As a senior competing at the Silver State International, the last bull he rode smacked him in the side of the face, shattering an eye socket, his nose, knocking out teeth, and displacing sinuses. Conscious, Kidd made it out of the arena and back to his host’s house before realizing he had a serious concussion and ‘sort of passed out’.
“I’ve been through plenty,” he grins, during an interview I drove to on location deep in Idaho backcountry, set up by the folks at truTV and kept top-secret while filming.
The rugged, dark-haired, sun-tanned Kidd told me, that by high school graduation his friends were going to college or getting their own places, but Kidd used his savings to put a down payment on an Idaho hunting area, passed the state test with a near-perfect score, and got his outfitter’s license, making him the youngest outfitter in the state, a distinction he still holds today.
Brothers Matt and Harry, who now work with Kidd, have just as much grit and are just as tough as their brother. Both have been duly initiated into outfitting life: Each was bitten by a bear.
“Harry’s been bitten by the same bear three times,” Kidd laughs, “He once shot at this big, mean female bear running at him, and his gun jammed. The bear hugged him and they rolled downhill. The dogs kept her from tearing Harry apart, but she ripped his shirt and he was bleeding. The wounds weren’t very deep, almost like a cat scratch. He got pretty lucky on that one.”
Kidd’s run-ins have been with cougars, and he’s got a couple of claw scars to show for them.
“I wasn’t with hunters, but with my dogs. A cougar grabbed one of them and was pulling him apart. I got in there to get him. I’ve climbed up trees and pulled on cougar’s tails to get ‘em out, so I just didn’t think anything of it.”
Pairing up with a city-type gal might have created difficulties for Kidd, since outfitting life isn’t for everyone.
A family that had been in Idaho off and on for four generations was the answer, with an ancestor that was the very first outfitter on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, a drift boat adventurer who ran huge rapids, not knowing what kind of water waited around the corner. The man’s great-granddaughter, Kelsey Helfrich, an only child whose father raised her to do everything a son would, took her first trip down the Middle Fork when she was two. Her parents told her she could do anything she wanted, and encouraged her to try different things. Her outdoorsy mother has no problem getting hands dirty or throwing hundred pound bags over her shoulder and hiking uphill. Outfitter women are independent, since their husbands are often gone for weeks at a time, but she still taught Kelsey to retain a feminine image.
“You can run with the boys,” a blond, athletic Kelsey told me, quoting her mother, “and you can act like the boys, but you don’t have to look like one.’”
Born in Oregon, Kelsey spent every summer in Idaho with her Middle Fork river guide grandpa, and became an accomplished guide and member of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. It wasn’t unusual for grandfather, child, and grandchild to be together on the river.
She’d seen Kidd Youren briefly at IGA meetings, but hadn’t spent time with him. The two communicated online, and Kidd invited Kelsey to participate in bear or cougar hunts multiple times. Kelsey, living in Utah and enjoying the skiing, wasn’t sure she wanted to drive into the Idaho wilderness to hunt with someone she didn’t know.
Later in the year, Kidd worked on trails along the Middle Fork where Kelsey was guiding. He told her he knew she was going to be there, that he’d love to see her, and to keep an eye out. On the river, Kelsey looked up the hillside and saw a group of men all lined up.
“Blue jeans, no shirts, cowboy hats, all working on the trail. I called out, ‘Hey, you guys!’ and they said, ‘Yeah?’ and I shouted, “We’ve been lookin’ for you.’”
Kidd jumped on his horse and rode ahead of the group, then surprised them by appearing mid-river around the corner in his blue jeans, cowboy hat, and Aviator sunglasses, situated on a gorgeous paint horse.
The rafters said, “Oh. My. Gosh. Who is that?”
The men visited the girls’ camp that night, respectfully removing their hats. Kidd brought an extra horse, one he’d stolen from Harry, and asked if Kelsey wanted to go on a ride.
“Yep,” she said, “I think I do.”
There was something there. Sharing similar upbringings, Kidd and Kelsey understood each other. It was a match made in outfitter’s heaven, and together the two created opportunities for those wanting to hunt, fish, and have fun.
“I don’t even call it work,” Kidd says, “If I want free time, it’s ‘cause I wanta go rope, or travel somewhere with my wife. But mostly…it’s just bein’ outdoors.”
Coming from an outfitting family compares to being raised in a different culture when communicating wilderness smarts to those unfamiliar with ways of the woods, and translation can take some skill.
“I never knew any different,” says Kidd, “although I spent some time traveling around. When my sister lived in Italy, I spent a month there.”
“It is hard to explain what I do. Do you want me to explain it?” Kidd offered.
He says that being a hunting outfitter is basically going hunting with someone and providing everything needed, including being that person’s eyes and ears when they don’t know what they don’t know.
“It’s more on the spot stuff, calling it as I see it. I can help, since I can tell where elk or deer are going to go, and can call them with just my mouth. I watch and stay one step ahead of clients. You’re pretty much taking care of them that whole week, making sure they don’t get bit by a rattlesnake or something. The things I’d take for granted that some don’t even know to watch for.”
Clients range from rookies to hard-core hunters.
“They’re all different. I learn stuff from, them, too.”
Kelsey agrees, adding, “The general public are out of their element, so you watch for them, making sure they don’t go down a wrong trail, or slip and fall into the river.”
She explains things in a much more detailed way than if talking to fellow outfitters. To simply say, ‘When you hit the trail, head upriver’ might not fly, since that could be confusing, so she tells clients to throw a stick it the river, and then follow that stick.
With the GPS, many don’t keep track of which direction is north, south, east, or west anymore, but for guides, it’s paramount. Kelsey shares that knowledge.
“Look at a hillside. The grassy side is south, the one the sun beats into more often. And you can tell the north side because of the trees, where the sun doesn’t hit as much.”
Working with women is one of Kelsey’s specialties, and she has an all-women’s fly fishing group that comes up yearly.
“Fly fishing is something that I think should be more popular among women. It doesn’t require much of a killer instinct, yet women still get out there and push their limits. It’s a meditative, spiritual thing when you’re casting, watching that fly land, then seeing the fish swim up and grab it. You catch a beautiful fish, take a picture, then maybe do a catch and release and watch it swim away. I get every level, but love beginners arriving with a fresh mind, totally open. So many women are raised not to do those things, which is really too bad.”
Some tend to be nervous and uptight when arriving at the Youren ranch, which is a wonder after over an hour’s soothing drive on gravel roads through high desert Idaho’s glory. “America the Beautiful” must have been written with this type of country in mind, with its layers of hills crisscrossing each other, rambling river running along the road, the occasional cluster of houses and ranches, and an abundance of yellow, purple, and white wildflowers.
Granted, the client has never been there before, doesn’t know what’s going on, and isn’t in control of everything. Some families arrive with kids angry about not having access to Gameboys, phones, cell service, or electricity, but disconnecting from technology, reconnecting with others and the surrounding beauty is part of the deal. At the ranch, multiple hunting dogs, four-wheelers and side-by-sides can be seen, waiting to be put into service. By lunch the first day, clients visibly unwind, an incredible thing for the Yourens to witness.
On the water, Kelsey shares knowledge of the birds, elk, and deer to be seen, and it’s also often easy to spot big horned sheep.
“A bear will always den on north-facing slopes, because that’s the last place the snow melts,” smiles Kelsey, “Clients will take home tidbits that make their experience more fulfilling, instilling a passion that sticks with them forever. If some legislation comes through about opening the area up to roads, or preserving certain places, they’re more likely to want to do what’s right regarding access to them without degrading the resource. The more people we introduce, the more we protect our rights to access them.”
But education is just the beginning. The Yourens are responsible for the comfort and safety of each hunter or fisherman, starting with the hospitality angle. On a typical river trip lasting up to six days, or on a bear or cougar hunt, every two guests have one guide making that sets up their camp. Guests are greeted by hors d’oeuvres, cool beverages, family-style dining tables with linens, and the encouragement to sit, relax, find the nearby hot springs, fish, have fun and enjoy the outdoors. The guides do the cooking, setup and taking down of tents and cots or preparing of cabins, and hauling of possessions to the next day’s camp.
“It’s a lot of work!” says Kelsey, then adds, “We work hard, and we play hard.”
That work pays off as clients become friends. Kelsey was both a waitress and bartender during off-seasons, and knows how to cater.
“When you do that, though, you get to go home at day’s end,” she says, “With outfitting, you’re with people night and day. It’s different, but it’s a lot more fun. You get to know people that way.”
Relationships are built on trust, since outfitters are solely responsible for clients’ protection in the river, and from cougars and bears. They’ll be the go-between, risking their lives to defend patrons.
“You have to have a little bit of crazy in ya to do what these guys do,” Kelsey laughs.
Crazy, maybe, but they’re also conscientious. Hunters get the chance to see the animals up close when they’re treed. While some are intent on taking the animal, others might decide just seeing them in that setting is enough, and get to make that call. Picky about what animals are taken, the Yourens believe using hounds for treeing is the most humane method when hunting. Treeing the animal allows approach to determine its age, gender, condition, and if it’s recently born offspring. Many states won’t allow use of hounds, which could mean cougars are spotted, shot, and run 300 yards from the hunter, who then can’t find it. Or, a female gets shot and it’s later discovered she had kittens.
“If you tree a female with kittens,” the Yourens say, “you leave her alone. We shoot mature males, because males kill all kittens if they can. That sends females back into heat since they don’t have a season. When taking a male, you’re saving up to ten kittens from being killed and protecting the animal population.”
If an area is overpopulated, the Yourens might take a few females, if they’re near a town, not wanting lots of cougars where people are. There’s a science to it.
“It’s great to let people know about those things,” says Kelsey, who informs guests as they float downriver. She’ll focus on bird life or stories of Sheepeater Indians, a branch of the Shoshones, nomads that stayed in one place, used the resources there, and then moved on, following salmon upriver in the summer, then moving hundreds of miles downriver in the winter to follow elk, deer, and sheep. Four or five feet deep ‘hogan holes’ are still visible along the river at the former camps, with multiple Indian writings of big horned sheep or pregnant women, all with tally marks, keeping track. Guests enjoy trying to decipher what it all means.
Beyond being an educator, Kelsey admits outfitters have to be part mind reader to keep everyone happy. Guides get cheat sheets for every client on where they’re from, if they’re allergic to bees, or have gluten or dairy intolerance, and customize trips to clients’ needs.
Kelsey mentions how fun it is to notice the physical changes occurring in people who are letting go of their stressors. Kidd’s secret weapon for encouraging clients to unwind is his humor.
“Some people show up already relaxed, but if they’ve never been hunting with me before and don’t know me,” he says with a sparkle in his eyes, “they might be tense, because it’s something new to them, they don’t know what they’re getting into. I use my sense of humor to help them relax, and adjust that, depending on what they’re like. I’ll give a hard time to those who can take it, with a little bit of teasing here and there. If they tease back, we’re good to go. In a short amount of time, they’re having fun, and have fun the whole week.”
Kelsey adds, “I love seeing families that barely speak to each other when they arrive get off a day trip telling adventure stories. Some might spend time looking at Indian writings, fishing, scouting around. When they come together at lunch or the end of the day, they can’t wait to share, and the stress on their faces is drained. By the second day, clients have caught fish, or treed a bear, and the way they sit in their chairs changes. It’s like…okay, I’m on vacation. That’s my favorite part. For us, it makes all the hard work totally worth it.”
Couples benefit, too. With no distractions, nothing to pay for, and one option on where to eat for dinner, issues fade as nature becomes a soothing balm. The only decisions to be made are which tent they’re going to sleep in, or if they want to go to the hot springs or go fishing. As pairs sit out in the sun soaking it all in, the Yourens look at each other and think, “It’s happening again.”
Many who have never repeated a vacation in the past can’t wait to get back to Idaho for this one.
“I want this same date in two years,” the Yourens are frequently told.
They and other Idaho outfitters have seen parts of the state most will never see. The Frank Church Wilderness is 2.3 million acres of untouched land, the largest wilderness area in the continental U.S., and the Yourens float 100 river miles right through its center while gradually dropping 3,000 feet. Scenery changes from lodge pole pines in the Sawtooth forest to Ponderosa pines, then sagebrush, then into the Impassible Canyon, the third deepest in North America, where the sheer, white granite walls and emerald green, crystal clear water is astounding.
“It’s gotta be my favorite place in the world. It’s magical. Every time I go, it gives me goosebumps,” says Kelsey, “That’s why we’re standing up, wanting to protect these places. We wouldn’t be spending over half the year here if we weren’t passionate about it.”
Kidd and Kelsey, both on the Board of Directors for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, work closely with the Forest Service and BLM, and have a legislator that keeps track of things for them. The Yourens are a special kind of outfitter, one of the reasons they attracted the attention of a new truTV reality show that airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/ PT called “Way Out West,” which features three friendly-rival outfitting families that have been at it for nearly 150 years: the good old boy Bullocks, the wardrobe-conscious Korells, and the daredevil Yourens, filmed right in Idaho and airing in July. It’s the first TV reality series to be filmed in Idaho backcountry, putting the outfitters’ lifestyle on a national platform.
Kelsey and Kidd have a few tips for those who want to get to know Idaho:
“It’s steep,” Kidd says, “lots of mountains, and really pretty. It’s got lots of fresh water rivers, and is the last free state where you can still do just about anything you want. I can still pack a gun, I can still hunt bear with my dogs. I’ve lived all over, but this is where my roots are.”
Kelsey adds, “Don’t judge it from the Interstate going right through the desert. We have so many mountains. If you flattened the state out, it would be bigger than Texas. We have more wilderness area than anywhere in the lower 48, and all of that is protected. If you take the time and effort to experience these places, you’ll get what Idaho has to offer.”