Behind the lines…Pilgrims on the Platte

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    There isn’t much sporting about the typical job interview, but when they involve tryouts, that’s a horse of a different color. No, we’re not about to enter Oz with Dorothy, Toto, and their entire entourage and meet the actual “Horse of a Different Color,” we’re about to enter the muddy waters of the flooding South Platte River in Saratoga.

    I’d just graduated from the University of Wyoming, signed my first teaching contract at Niobrara County High School in Lusk, had a new car, no debt, and a summer job waiting in Riverton that paid a whopping nine dollars an hour.


    That doesn’t seem like much today, but in modern terms, it equates to over $33 an hour as a construction worker at the Water Treatment Plant in Riverton.

    Add 10 hours a week of overtime at $49.50 per hour and my friend Frank Schmidt and I were in “Tall Cotton” (a term my dad used often in reference to good times that came from his Eastern Arkansas roots.)

    Still, a guy can look, and at 23 years old, there were plenty of opportunities to look in the halcyon days of the greatest energy boom Wyoming ever, and will likely ever again, experience in the late 70s until Three Mile Island and Chornobyl sent the state into the whirling tailspin that is impossible to predict.

    Frank and I weren’t looking for oilfield work, other construction jobs, or anything in agriculture. We knew we had a good thing with Alder Construction out of Salt Lake City, but as avid outdoorsmen, a chance to earn a few bucks in the wilderness was a temptation.


    One afternoon Frank came back to our apartment with a 3×5 notecard he’d taken off a bulletin board in the Student Union.

    If you’ve seen a few winters, you remember how bulletin boards worked. Somebody put up a notecard or maybe a piece of paper and you wrote down the information, usually a phone number.

    Frank was always working for an edge and anytime he found something interesting to buy or apply for, he didn’t write it down, he just took the card with him to eliminate the competition.


    The notecard in question had a phone number in Saratoga, and the enticing message, “River guides needed for the summer season.”

    River guides? What could be better than getting paid to fish, camp, and float the mighty North Platte River? We called the number that night.

    It was May, and we were about to graduate but had one more weekend in Laramie, we spent it instead on the stretch of the Platte from Saratoga to where it intersects with Interstate 80.


    The man, I think his name was Ken, asked a few questions. Where were we from, did we have any rafting experience, what did we know about fishing, cooking in the outdoors, or the wilderness in general? We failed the question on rafting experience since we didn’t have any, but he was pleased with everything else we had to say and told us to meet him in Saratoga on Thursday for a three-day, two-night tryout on the North Platte.

    Frank had a 1968 Ford pickup that he rarely used, and I had a new 78’ Ford Fairmont so we loaded all our wilderness gear into the trunk of my car and headed west.

    We would have taken the Snowy Range Road where we spent much of our time during the school year, but it was still snowed shut.

    Our gear was impressive, OK, not so impressive. It consisted of a couple of polyester sleeping bags, a cast iron frying pan, a pair of those old-style plaid thermoses, and fishing gear. I had a seven-foot, single-piece fiberglass road and a Pflueger open-faced reel with an assortment of spinners, spoons, and snelled hooks. We each had frame packs, mine a five-dollar special from a Laramie pawn shop, and Frank’s an even better deal at just three bucks.

    When I look at the wide variety of gear 20-somethings take to the lakes and rivers these days it amazes me. Their tackle boxes, coolers, camp stoves, electronics, and fishing poles easily fill the bed of a pickup truck. How did we do it and catch so many fish on the primitive supplies we took to the field? Ah, another time, and another place, where prosperity was replaced by ingenuity.

    We arrived with about a dozen other guys eager to float the river and get a unique summer job.

    Ken had five inflatable rafts, the big kind. There were a couple of 17-foot monsters, with the others around 12 feet each.

    The idea was to keep the raft in the main channel, away from sand bars, piles of driftwood, and sharp rocks along the banks.

    The river was high, but not that fast, and I found it easy to control the raft with a pair of oars set in oarlocks on one end. Just pull or push in tandem to move the raft and pull each oar in different directions to turn in the current or point it towards shore.

    Most of the competition were “Pilgrims” guys from New Jersey, New York City, or California who desperately wanted to impress everyone else. We encountered these types at UW often, they were always dressed to impress, with the latest boots, pants, and jackets and always wearing safari-style hats. We generically called them “Rexall Wranglers” a take on the more popular term, “Drugstore Cowboys.”

    They weren’t much competition, but one guy, from somewhere in Northern Montana, was a true outdoorsman.

    He worked a Dutch oven like a magician and made lunch for the entire group the first evening. He pulled out a plastic bag of dove breasts, threw them in the Dutch oven with a mixture of spices and vegetables and they were incredible.

    We dazzled the boss with eggs, bacon, and sliced potatoes in our frying pan the next morning, but it didn’t compare to those dove breasts.

    The tryout was easy, and the competition cut itself with several guys caught smoking weed and letting their raft drift along uncontrolled as it lazily spun along the bank and hung up on sandbars.

    Another couple of guys, obviously friends, spent the first two days dead drunk on top shelf Johnny Walker Red.

    We reached the pull-out by I-80 the final morning and hoisted the rafts out of the river and onto a waiting trailer. Ken ask Frank and me to stay, treated the Montana kid like a long lost son, and kept another guy.

    He offered us the job.

    We hesitated in accepting. He’d seen this before, “You guys already have jobs don’t you.”

    We admitted to the construction job waiting for us in Riverton and asked if we could work weekends.

    “Nope, it’s full time or not at all,” Ken said.

    He went on to say, “I always find a couple of guys like you two every summer.”

    He wasn’t angry, just reserved, and now a long time after that memorable weekend I can see why.

    The college kids you want to hire already have jobs, the available ones usually don’t have the desire, skills, or discipline required to make good employees.

    It’s a more common lament of employers these days than ever before.

    The only constant is the river. I see rafters on the North Platte occasionally when driving I-80, and spot them in Saratoga when traveling there in the summer months. It always takes me back.


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