Fabled Prince Helfrich dead at 63. All outdoors was his domain.
When he was 16 he lived a week in the wilderness, eating berries and small game because forest rangers were unable to reach his fire lookout with supplies. As a young man, he fed an entire Snake River boating group off deer and other game he bagged with a 22-caliber rifle after a food boat capsized and was lost.
In his lifetime he navigated more than 50,000 miles of the West’s Wildest rivers – and capsized once.
Prince Helfrich, the famed river and hunting guide who crammed a multitude of outdoor adventures into his 63-year lifetime, died Tuesday morning. Ill with cancer since January, he had rallied his strength for a last outing on his beloved McKenzie River in mid-April.
That outing, for two days of fishing, capped a river running career in which Helfrich pioneered boating on a long list of untamed streams.
Helfrich was the first guide to run the Deschutes of Central Oregon, the Owyhee and British Columbia’s Clearwater. He was among the first to boat the Rogue, the Blitzen and the lower stretches of the John Day.
He repeatedly mastered the Snake’s turbulent Hells Canyon and navigated the Middle Fork of the Salmon , the fabled “river of no return” more than 20 times.
His life’s one boating spill was more embarrassing than serious. Sitting in quiet water and intent on helping a companion unsnarl a fishing reel, he let a gentle back-current pull their boat beneath a small waterfall.
But Helfrich the man was more, much more, than just a skilled oarsman. Those who knew him best described him as educated, articulate, personable and a tireless batter where causes of conservation and the environment were concerned.
“He loved to see people have a good time, especially the Eastern dudes,” said Arthur Larsen of Eugene, a long time friend and fellow boater. “He could talk to any kind of people. He was tremendously intelligent and tremendously successful, in the full sense of the word.”
Helfrich was born in Central Oregon, near Prineville, in 1908. His family moved to the McKenzie River area when he was seven and his boyhood was spent in the woods and on the water.
While a young man, he worked in logging operations and was employed by the Forest Service. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 1929 with a degree in geology, but elected to return to the McKenzie area rather than take his skills elsewhere.
He had begun work as a river and hunting guide during his college years. By the mid-1930s he was heavily engaged in that work. His pioneering efforts on the West’s whitewater streams earned him a national reputation. The great and the not-so-great lined up to ride the swirling waters with him.
His most famous boating passenger was Herbert Hoover, who fished the McKenzie River with Helfrich as his guide both before and after his term as U.S. president. There were others over the years, including Supreme Court Justice William Douglas and the Col. Jimmy Doolittle of World War II fame.
In the early years, when guiding did not provide a sufficient income to support his family, Helfrich ran massive trap lines in the Cascades along the McKenzie, the Deschutes and the Willamette. He spent winters alone in the blizzard-ridden Cascades or boated 60 miles a day to check river-based trap lines.
He gave up guiding hunters about 25 years ago and confined his efforts to leading groups on wild rivers and fishing expeditions. He admitted that the hunters had strained his patience.
“I got pretty fed up with these people,” he told a reporter five years ago. “They were careless with guns and they showed poor sportsmanship. They wanted to shoot everything in sight. They were always wandering off and getting lost. I spent half my time combing the woods for lost hunters, afraid they might shoot at me. “it wasn’t worth it.”
By the 1950s Helfrich had acquired a reputation as a public speaker and a conservation activist. He turned up frequently at legislative hearings when virgin timber tracts were threatened by logging interests.
Helfrich was a charter member of the McKenzie River Guides Association and helped organize the first McKenzie White Water Boat Parade in 1938. But he joined other guides in calling for discontinuation after two drownings occurred in the 1970 running.
A private funeral service for Helfrich will be held Friday at Poole-Larsen Funeral Home in Eugene. The family has suggested that contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Prince Helfrich Memorial Fund, in care of the funeral home, for the benefit of area conservation projects.
Helfrich is survived by his wife, Marjorie; three sons, Dean of Springfield, David of Vida and Richard of Leaburg, and a daughter, Diane Kaldahl of Corvallis.