Outfitter and guide Jon Barker has been rowing Idahos rivers for nearly four decades. For the last twenty years he’s run Barker River Expeditions specializing in desert trips on the Jarbidge, Bruneau and Owyhee Rivers.
Recently he’s added supported hiking trips through spectacular slot canyons to his desert offerings. He’s also a hunting outfitter with an emphasis on big horn sheep. He’s recorded the state record sheep and seven out of the top ten animals. We interviewed him in the spring of 2016.
How did you get into the outfitting and guiding business?
I got into outfitting and guiding primarily due to my father, A.K. Barker. We were kids, and he took us everywhere, ran the Parks and Rec backpacking program for the City of Lewiston and developed his own outfitting business on the Lower Salmon when we were still in grade school and really introduced us to everything in Idaho.
I think it was critical to grow up in an outdoor family like that. I mean, to have my father actually working as a guide and then being an outfitter and running the business to provide that outlet for us and show us not only the outdoors but how everything was done trying to make a living at that really influenced us in a heavy way, in a good way. I've got him to thank for everything, taking an interest in not doing this as a recreational weekend thing but being able to try and make a living out here and being here more and more.
When did you start rowing rivers?
I would have been rowing on those trips around '77 or so, 14 or 15 years old. We would have had our own boat kind of going along on the commercial Lower Salmon trips learning to row. And guiding. Guiding then by the time I was 18.
Why did you want to be the outfitter and not just a guide?
I've had my own business for 20 years, and I did that primarily because hunting was one of my other big passions. I wanted to be a hunting outfitter in addition to being a river guide, my father helped me establish that through the business we had, but then I took it over completely, and then I had the opportunity to purchase a business down here in the Owyhee/Bruneau Canyonlands, which is for rafting, which is what I always wanted to do, so I kept that as my own outfitting business, also.
Why did you choose the Owyhee Canyonlands? Why did it become one of your focuses?
I think I got most interested in the Owyhee/Bruneau Canyonlands primarily because we used to drive across here all the time when I was a kid. My mom was raised in Reno, and I can literally remember being a child and leaving Marsing heading up the grade towards Jordan Valley and for the next few hundred miles to Winnemucca and beyond just going: What could be out there to the right, and what could be out there to the left? …And there were these canyons out there that no one knew anything about, and that really appealed to me.
What are the challenges of putting together a trip out here?
The challenges out here are definitely the remoteness and difficulty of the roads. It's hard to get all your gear into anywhere, which I enjoy. You're not driving up on the gravel road or the paved road to the built launching area and parking, which I enjoy that remoteness and the solitude and the serenity that's out here.
The challenges can be greater on the Bruneau, Jarbridge and Owyhee just because you're dealing with the change in flows daily. You have that on other Idaho rivers, but you start with a large major river that you know we're basically going to do X on. Sometimes on the Jarbridge, Bruneau or Owyhee you're going to do X two weeks before the trip, and then ten days before the trip you're going to do Y, and then four days before the trip you're going to do Z just to adapt to what's happening in the desert and how those water flows change so quickly. So, you're changing the amount of people per boat or the gear that you can carry, adding another boat to reduce weight on the rafts as it gets particularly rocky.
How does using specialized smaller boats for these desert trips impact your planning and logistics?
Logistically, trying to arrange one of these trips, you'll spend a lot of time figuring out how much weight each boat can take, making the shopping fit what you can carry on the boats. You know, if you go and work on the Middle Fork, you're doing a Hells Canyon trip, you've got your big boats and your big kitchen boxes, and you're carrying giant buckets and all the big dutches you could ever want, and out here you just can't carry that much weight, so you've got to figure, we have X number of people and we're going to bake in these size Dutch ovens, and we're going to carry this amount of water and pump fresh water while we're there or go to a spring that we know is reliable.
That makes it a more substantial challenge to do that careful planning that will get all the equipment and all the people down the river with a lot of comfort, and you can't just throw your stuff on like you might trip after trip after trip on another river in Idaho. You've got to pay attention to a lot more detail and how you're going to get that week's trip done out in the desert.
I like those challenges where it's more of a mental challenge to get everything organized and planned. You're not doing it just by rote, the same every week. You're coming up with new ideas and reacting to the changes in the weather and water level.
What do you enjoy about these desert trips?
Mostly I like being out here where there aren't very many people. You get to show your guests something really unique and really special. Providing that to folks who have an interest in the desert Canyonlands really gets me excited. I love being out here with people who have an interest in that type of terrain.
There are a lot of challenges to outfitting and not always great financial rewards, so why do you do it?
I think outfitters do this because it's a heartfelt job that they want to be involved in and that progresses from being a guide, kind of like it did for me with my father. You're a guide, and then you want to run stuff yourself and look at that challenge. And so you start taking on a business that keeps you in the outdoors in Idaho doing stuff, but you can have a little better solid footing and basis than just continuing to guide.
The season for the Owyhee/Bruneau/Jawbridge trips is pretty short. You've got that spring, early summer time frame where you can come down here and experience the river, but that's a very small portion of the season. So, early on I started the game guiding and developed that specialized into bighorn sheep throughout the West, and so I do elk and deer hunts in Idaho and then bighorn sheep throughout the surrounding states, and that keeps me busy from the end of river season. Actually, I stop guiding before the end of river season and get all of my hunts rolling.
You mentioned you appreciate that a lot of your customers come back for multiple trips.
A bunch of our business is repeat business or people who come out and see how special the desert is and then bring more friends or family with them, and that's really what you're striving for.
People seem to understand that if you want to have a unique experience, there's only a certain time frame you can go, and you may need to bring an extra jacket or some more clothes and be prepared for some weather, but you are going to get out there and have spectacular weather some of the time, and you're going to see canyons that almost nobody else sees, very, very few people comparatively to the number of raft trips in Idaho, not many people ever get to see.
I just got off a trip with an 83 year old guest who's an Owyhee fanatic. She's been out times before and had never seen the Upper Owyhee, a lifelong Idaho conservationist and really involved in issues. That's the kind of trip that really makes it for you, to see somebody so excited about the Canyonlands and just watching her the whole trip just taking everything in and wanting to be there at that age kind of moves you and makes you feel like you're doing something good as an outfitter.