A reflection of a lifetime spent on rivers, and how these bodies of water build community.


The Yampa River flows along the Colorado-Utah border in one of the most remote wilderness areas in the United States. In 1988, at the age of 15, I stood on its banks as a participant in an Outward Bound program for fledgling river guides, there to learn the techniques needed to safely navigate the river by raft.

The Yampa is a desert river framed by soaring sandstone canyon walls and a vast dry landscape that runs through Dinosaur National Monument. It is the sole tributary left in the Colorado River Basin to flow freely without a dam and is considered by many people to be the birthplace of environmentalism.

Starting in the 1950s, two proposed dams were set to destroy Dinosaur National Monument forever. Thankfully, due to the tenacity of the Hatch family (the founders of commercial river rafting) and David Bower from the Sierra Club, the dam projects were defeated and the movement for wilderness preservation was born.

A group of students from Evergreen Junior High School paddle the Yampa River on an Outward Bound trip in Colorado.

On this particular day in 1988, it was my turn to guide the raft through a rapid called “Big Joe.” Along with my friend Josh Timon and other fellow students, I used rocks and sticks to draw the rapids as I explained my strategy for success and glory. I was given command over the 16-foot, light gray army- issued raft and six paddlers as we navigated the crashing waves and boulder-strewn river channel. My new language, the vernacular of a river guide, included terms like “all forward,” “dig it in,” “take a break,” and “high side.” This course was my introduction to the community of river people and was the trip that forever changed the trajectory of my life, giving me a lifetime connection to a fly rod and paddle as I experienced the tens of thousands of river miles to come.

Over the next 35 years I gravitated toward clean air and mountain rivers, guiding throughout the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Montana and Idaho, across the deserts of Utah and reaching deep into the heart of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I explored remote regions of Alaska and the far reaches of Argentina, Bali and New Zealand, and pioneered first descents on the Tibetan Plateau. Despite the various languages, scenery and cultures I encountered, all these rivers bound the people I met along the way in a network of river folk—people who inhabit the waters, embrace the natural world and foster deep friendships. To live a life on the river is to live a life in a community, and that community comes in many forms: fishing guides, whitewater and kayak guides, explorers and outfitters, and conservationists. All these groups are forever connected by a common love for the life in and around flowing rivers.

Boundary Expeditions guides pose for a photo during training on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

This is a window into that community, told through my own lifetime spent living at 3 mph.

3 mph: a term co-authored with my friend Jeff Saad on a 6-day river trip on the Main Salmon River. It encompasses the fact and feeling of life on a river. On average, a river flows at 3 mph. This is also the average pace people walk, and per many scientists, it’s purported that humans are meant to operate at this speed. Life at 3 mph embodies a need to slow down, connect with nature, connect with friends and family, “stop and smell the roses” and separate oneself from the fast- paced world that surrounds us. Learn more at boundaryexpeditions.com.

Guide Jose Capparros, right, and angler Cameron Scott landing the prized Goldan Dorado fish at Pira Lodge.
Noel Pollack ties flies at his Argentina Delta Fishing Lodge.


I was in middle school the first time my father took my brother and me fly fishing, a time before fly fishing was mainstream. Fly fishing requires a patient and gentle touch; the angler must connect with the river and learn to mimic insect patterns to entice the fish to bite. A perfectly presented fly pattern will yield an exciting rush as a fish takes the offering, performs an acrobatic dance on the end of the line and eventually wriggles back into the stream upon release. This bears a softness that feels more poetic than sport.

Fly fishermen are a community of introverts who nerd out on the science of entomology and are often found in some back room in their home tying complex fly patterns. Successful fishing guides have these things in common: patience, persistence and sunglasses tan lines from hours of staring at the surface of the river. In Argentina I met one of the legendary guides of the Southern Hemisphere, Noel Pollack. A famed dorado angler, Pollak runs the Delta Lodge, nestled in a bend of the river just outside of Buenos Aires. Pollack has been on a quest to perfect the art of fishing for golden dorado for nearly a quarter of a century and is arguably the foremost Yoda-like expert on this prized golden fish.

After a particularly slow day of fishing, Pollack offered some fatherly advice: “Welcome to the dorado world,” he said to one perplexed angler who didn’t land a fish. “Trust me that when it finally happens, it’s so, so special.” Days later our group explored the northern reaches of Argentina with Jose Capparros, a guide trained by Pollack. Capparros took us up remote stretches of rivers flanking the Iberá Marsh, one of the largest wetland complexes in the world. The skills Pollack and Capparros taught our group allowed for magical moments of connection with the golden dorado, the fish of a lifetime. The advice and wisdom imparted to me over the years from anglers like Pollak and Capparros now gets passed along to guests at my river company as we teach them the art of the fly and work to get them their first trout.

Eric Ladd rows the first descent of the Waimea rapid on the Salween River after following Jason Moore through a Class V rapid. PHOTO BY KYLE GEORGE


After years of running the backyard rivers around Colorado, my close group of river guide friends sought a more complex, expedition-style trip. Through a mix of fate and luck, our paths crossed with Pete and Travis Winn, a father/son duo from Grand Junction, Colorado, but transplanted to Lhasa, Tibet. The Winns had spent 10 years of their lives dedicated to historic first descents of remote Himalayan rivers. Travis also had ambitions of working with the Chinese Government to create awareness and protection for these cherished Asian watersheds. We hatched a plan and the Winns helped us organize the first descent of a 200-mile section of the Salween River in the high plateau of Tibet. The logistics of running such first descents is every bit as involved and as complex as climbing peaks like Everest. The chance to run a first descent of a Tibetan river in 2007 within a watershed as large as the Colorado River was truly once in a lifetime. Months of planning, tens of thousands of pounds of gear, a precarious drive over an 18,000-foot mountain pass, and willingly entering an unknown canyon at flood stage set the tone for the expedition. We set up base camp at one of the oldest monasteries in Tibet and lived with 40 monks while we made plans for how to handle the expedition and the historic monsoons that had caused the river to flood.

As much as the opportunity to do this first descent was an honor, it was a tremendous responsibility, as the dangers and remoteness of this expedition were real. The largest rapid on the river consisted of 20-foot-plus breaking waves and holes, large enough to engulf a school bus. I ran second on the rapid behind Jason Moore, who grew up rowing as a lifeguard on the Atlantic Coast and applied big water ocean techniques to navigating the Waimea rapid (aptly named after the famous surf break in Hawaii). Moore and I continue to train guides today and apply lessons learned from that historic first descent, which has not been run since.

The people who inhabited the banks of the Salween included Tibetan monks and remote villagers who had never had contact with the Western world. These people lived right beside the Salween but had never seen a floating craft on the river. One can imagine the reactions when five rafts with colorfully dressed rafters and kayakers floated into their village shoreline. We met a yak farmer in his mid-80s who had lived in the canyon his entire life, with no contact with the outside world. As we took over his beach on a much-needed rest day, we shared stories through our interpreter about life’s journeys, including how his children had all departed the canyon, leaving him alone with his yaks and his river. While the technical, big-water descent of the 200 miles was harrowing, the river people we met were the soulful highlights of the expedition.

Tibetan Villager and yak herder on Salween River. PHOTO BY TONI GREISBACH
A river family develops lasting lifetime friendships, Sean Glackin, Jason Moore and Troy Paulson on an enjoying a rainy day on the Salmon River.


The profession of guiding people on the river is truly a heartfelt career, one which yields more deposits in the soul than the bank. Spending repetitive days floating down a river is a means of connecting with the natural world in an unparalleled way—with the added privilege of sharing this experience with guests.

In 2017 I had the opportunity to join a unique family of river folk when I purchased Boundary Expeditions, an outfitting company on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Middle Fork is a river unlike any other in the Lower 48 and is consistently rated among the top three rivers in the world by National Geographic. Trips on the Middle Fork are unique in that they are fully immersive trips of nearly a week spent in deep wilderness. There are no roads nor cell service but ample amounts of hot springs, gin-clear water, star-filled skies and legendary riverside campsites.

Guides spend more than 80 days a season sleeping outdoors and living on the river’s edge. They not only help transport guests safely across 100 miles of this river but also share magical moments like catching their first native cutthroat trout, soaking in natural hot springs or drinking water straight out of bubbling springs. A personal Middle Fork highlight of mine was spending a week on the river with former First Lady Laura Bush and her close girlfriends. The First Lady was an inspiration on many fronts as she graced the river with her class, dignity, stories and humor. Flanked and watched closely by her Secret Service detail, I navigated the rapids with the added pressure of keeping this national treasure safe.

The Stevens Brothers launching river trip with Boundary Expeditions – #axeals. PHOTO BY SETH DAHL
Eric Ladd rowing First Lady Laura Bush through Middle Fork of Salmon. PHOTO BY SETH DAHL

Another incredible person who became part of my river family was Diana Yupe, a direct descendant of the Lemhi Shoshone Tribe who most recently worked as the Native American interpreter for the Salmon-Challis Forest Service/ Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Salmon River. Yupe was stationed at a guard post alongside the river, a place our groups would often stop for lunch. On a given trip, Boundary Expedition guests got the opportunity to sit on the bank with Yupe and hear stories about how her tribe settled in this canyon to live among its rich salmon-filled waters and protect and cherish this place. Yupe always concluded her interpretive talk by blessing the rest of our trip with a Native American verse. Sadly, Yupe passed away in the spring of 2023.

A life of river guiding is tough on the body, but the connections made with guests and fellow guides often become lasting, family-quality relationships. The Boundary Expeditions guide family has become a testing ground for all my life, business and river guiding skills. The outfitting business has given me an opportunity to share my love for this life and this place with hundreds of guests and annual trips with three generations of my immediate family, all creating lifelong memories.

Three generations of the Ladd Family celebrating another successful fun of the Middle Fork of the Salmon.


My Montana home is built on the banks of a fork of the Gallatin River, now centered in one of the most iconic and fastest growing regions in the country. The Gallatin’s headwaters are in Yellowstone National Park, and it’s a prime example of a river that deserves care and protection. Enter the Gallatin River Task Force, a nonprofit that focuses on ensuring the river’s health and success for future generations, overseen by a board of directors of which I am a member.

Regional groups like the Gallatin River Task Force, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and national powerhouses like American Rivers have staff, efforts and donors dedicated to the preservation of watersheds throughout the country. They’re executing amazing work focused on counterbalancing the pressures brought about by human growth and climate change. For me, after a life spent on rivers, this work has become a tribute to these places that define me and my community.

Several months ago I walked along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with Scott Bosse, an American Rivers regional director. Bosse and I reflected on his decade-plus effort to get legislation written and passed. It’s called the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act, a bill that would forever protect 20 amazing Montana waterways, including the Gallatin River.

Southwest Montana river advocates join a Headwaters Legacy Committee meeting with Rep. Ryan Zinke to discuss river conservation efforts. The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act will protect 385 river miles within the pristine Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by designating segments of 20 streams as parts of the National Wild and Scenic River System. More information on MHLA can be found at healthyriversmt.org.

Later I sat in the office of Montana Sen. Steve Daines with the latest version of my river family: seven conservationists banded together in D.C. to lobby for the MHLA. Coincidentally, the office was decorated with photos of the very rivers we were lobbying to protect. In fact, each of Montana’s four delegates claim to love and cherish the rivers and lands of Montana, making it seem easy and apparent that this bill should fly through the D.C. red tape.

The MHLA has 80 percent support among Montanans, landowners and state and county officials, as surveyed by the MHLA staff. This legislation is widely supported as a strong piece of legislation that will save these rivers from being “loved to death.” Montana Sen. Jon Tester has especially been a champion of conservation in Montana, and on that same D.C. trip, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke showed particular interest in the bill’s merits and shared stories about his passion for paddling the great rivers of the Treasure State.

As we walked toward the Lincoln Memorial later that day, we discussed the fate of the MHLA bill. On those famous steps, invoking our passion, we hatched a goal of getting the MHLA bill introduced in 2023, knowing we would need to reignite the voices of the Montanans who support this bill to help get it passed this year.

Eric enjoying river trip with wife Kaley, niece Teagan Ladd and faithful river dog, Black “Betty”.


Running in parallel with my river career has been my family’s connection to the movie A River Runs Through It, the film adaptation of a novella, both of which changed southwest Montana forever. So it seems fitting that a key character in the film, The Reverend himself, also known as actor Tom Skerritt, came into my life in 2022 with a mutual desire to create more awareness and protection for rivers. Skerritt’s storied movie career has brought him back to the Gallatin River waters, a river made famous by A River Runs Through It 30 years ago. Skerritt and his wife Julie have dedicated resources and time to creating a movie about river conservation and have teamed up with my company to produce the Wildlands Festival in summer 2023. The latest chapter of my river story now includes a three-day festival, the largest river conservation gathering in the country, with incredible artists like Lord Huron and The Foo Fighters performing in August with proceeds being donated to river nonprofits.

It seems fitting that many of the people I have met through my river career will be at the August concert. The river has brought many people into my life, and I have developed some deep, lasting friendships. On a summer night we will stand united in our respect and love for Montana’s rivers and deep reverence for the incredible watersheds across the globe that have taught us many life lessons. A wise person once told me that to fully protect and appreciate something, you must first fall in love with it.

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it” – Norman Maclean

Eric Ladd has spent a lifetime on rivers and is dedicating the rest of his time giving back to them. Ladd is the publisher of Mountain Outlaw.