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The Redside Foundation: Addressing the Mental Health Challenges of Being a Guide

Fear, pain, grief, and uncertainty sometimes aren't a good look for professionals who spend their summers surrounded by mountains, pristine glacial runoff, huckleberries, and fly fishing.

The Redside Foundation: Addressing the Mental Health Challenges of Being a Guide
Observers might think guides have a perfect life of outdoors, adventure, camaraderie, and scenery. But the seasonal work can also cause insecurity, anxiety, and substance abuse. (Andrew Burr photo)

Note to readers: The following content contains discussions of suicide and self-harm. These topics can be triggering for some individuals and may evoke strong emotional responses.

We lined up along the riverbank, all six guides, fly rods ready, playing it cool. We waited for the start whistle, volleying good-natured trash talk and boasting with unruffled poise that got us this far. Far, geographically, isn’t that far. At least not far from our home base in West Glacier, Montana. It’s a jaunt upriver at Rainbow Bend, the final campsite before the Spruce Park series of Class IV rapids on the Upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River inside the Great Bear Wilderness. To most of our clients, it’s as far from their regular lives as they could imagine. It’s another planet. On this, the last night of a week-long wilderness whitewater fly-fishing trip, our clients from all over the country watched us from the camp bluff, ready to cheer on the guide they’d each picked to win this friendly post-Dutch-oven-dinner casting competition. “Show us how it’s done!” they shouted.

When the whistle blew, we started casting, and, watching my coworkers skillfully stretch their lines across the wide eddy, I thought again about what got them this far upriver with such capable paddles. I glanced over at my stepson, Killion, throwing an ambitious backcast between two lodgepole uprights behind him.

He was the youngest guide on this trip, and as a rookie on the Upper Middle Fork, he’d been forced to drink from a waterfall of on-the-job learning. How far he’s come since I first met him seven years ago! Tracking with most river pros I know, he was likely born with a wild hair and an extra twitch for adventure. His innate characteristics of kindness, eagerness, curiosity, and humor meld with the skills he’s harnessed to be good at this tough job . . . perseverance, patience, communication, and preparedness. Those are words I’ve heard clients use to describe him. “Come on, Killion!” I teased as his fly nicked a tree branch. “Don’t eff it up!”

The whistle blew again, this time to end the casting contest, and third-year whitewater fly-fishing guide Mat Talbird emerged victorious. We clamored around him to razz and congratulate him, then scrambled up the bluff to join our clients who cheered and slapped him on the back, with most of them saying, “I knew it!”

The stoke high, I lined up the guides again . . . this time in a half-circle in front of our clients who were now seated in camp chairs, forming the other half of our circle with the campfire in the middle. I announced that since our clients now knew we could cast, we wanted them to know us at a deeper level. I asked them to consider supporting charitable causes that mean a lot to us. Then, each guide named a nonprofit organization in need of support and explained why it’s important. Our clients listened intently. “I was incredibly moved,” says client Mike Barone.

“We were able to get up and share something about ourselves that the clients didn’t know,” says Talbird. “They could see that we care about something beyond ourselves, and something bigger than our river trip. It’s huge to show them how we are all connected.”

When it was Talbird’s turn to address the clients about his chosen nonprofit, he asked them to support The Redside Foundation. He explained how the organization champions the health and strength of the professional outdoor guiding community by offering mental health care and substance use disorder care.

“Wait, mental health care for guides?” one client in his 20s said. “What do you mean? I wouldn’t think that would be a thing.”

This client’s reaction to the concept that river guides could ever feel sad, stressed, or unsettled is common. When clients talk about us, they say things like, “He knows that river like the back of his hand.” “You should see her manage those rapids . . .”

“The way they work together as a team is incredible! The guides are awesome!”

“The guides are authentic, comfortable in their own skin, honest, introspective, and, most of all, have a deep passion and love for nature,” says client Mike Barone. “We see them as the protectors of our beautiful environment and we as clients are lucky to share their knowledge and visceral enthusiasm.”

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Those things are all true. River professionals are among the finest people I’ve ever met. But to truly understand guide life is to look at the wide screen of how far they’ve come to land in the center seat. Beyond simply moving up the ladder from scenic floats to wilderness whitewater multi-days, moving through guide life is a rock garden with both familiar and foreign features, shaded corners, celebrations, and dead ends. Dark pixels are in this big picture, and we rarely speak about them—or even process them. Perhaps it’s because fear, pain, grief, and uncertainty aren’t a good look for professionals who spend their summers perched on a PVC pedestal in the middle of God’s country, surrounded by those famous purple mountains majesty, pristine glacial runoff and, for God’s sake, huckleberries!

Every day, multiple times a day, we are told that we have the perfect job in the perfect place doing the perfect thing with the perfect people. And who are we to argue, as privileged as we are in so many ways?

Maybe there’s guilt in knowing not everyone can be here. Speaking up in a general setting can be mistaken for whining, and younger guides especially are often accused of being spoiled, entitled, and weak. So, experts say, many will crop the image to perfection and let the reality stay out of frame. The Redside Foundation exists because of this reality and presents guides with healthy solutions to their troubles.

Dark Places

“I saw a need in the guide community before I ever heard about The Redside Foundation,” says Talbird. “As professionals, we approach the outdoors differently. When we’re working, we are not on vacation and it’s not our hobby. We love what we do. But it can come at a cost.”

A group of people sitting around a campfire in some evergreen wood, listening to a man speaking.
A week of fishing on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the Great Bear Wilderness ends with a casting contest, and a guide request to support worthy charitable causes. (Hilary Hutcheson photo)

Nine years ago, I started leaving the Flathead River for ten days in August to guest-guide for Rocky Mountain River Tours on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness. It’s a place, and a company, that longtime Idaho guide and angler Telly Evans called home many years before I got there. Evans stood out in the river community as a fierce friend, a passionate ecological interpreter, a native fish expert, and a practical jokester with legendary selflessness and generosity toward all humans and animals. Evans’s friends say his broad smile hid a pain that would eventually take him from them, and his beloved river.

“When we lost Telly in 2010, the community was really taken aback by it,” says Jenni Chaffin, cofounder and current board of directors president at The Redside Foundation. “We just kept thinking, what can we do to keep this from happening?’”

His suicide served as a reminder that pain has a way of cementing itself just below the surface, out of sight from clients, coworkers, and managers. Evans’s friends wanted to champion his spirit in other guides by protecting their health and well-being. So, that same year, they created The Redside Foundation, named for three things: Redside Rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho’s native sockeye salmon, and Telly Evans’s big red beard and sideburns.

The Redside Foundation founders knew the organization could make a difference because they’d witnessed the success of a similar nonprofit in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Whale Foundation offers support services that promote, restore, and celebrate the health and well-being of the Grand Canyon river guiding community.

The Whale Foundation was inspired by the life of Curtis “Whale” Hansen, from Hazelton, Idaho. A longtime Colorado River guide, he’d reached legendary status among his river teams, much like Telly Evans. And, like Evans, Hansen made no sign that he would end his life.

The Whale Foundation helped The Redside Foundation get set up as a nonprofit. “Once we got established we started developing programs,” says Jenni Chaffin. “We are meant for anyone who falls under professional outdoor guiding, not just those who work on the river. We wanted all guides to have access to help and support if needed, and that’s whether you work in hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, jet boating, skiing, hiking, climbing . . . .”

Friendly Voice

The Redside Foundation offers a cost-free, confidential helpline through which guides can reach a caseworker who can schedule them for up to eight sessions with a local or telehealth therapist at no expense to the guide. In its first eight years, call volume grew exponentially, and since then has experienced steady growth.

“Finances are already a big point of stress for guides,” says Talbird. “They don’t want to pay for something they don’t even know will help. Most guides I know don’t go to the doctor for anything. Physical health care isn’t at the top of the priority list, so mental health care is even lower. But taking away the cost issue will help us get there.”

Client Mike Barone is an insurance professional and says, “Given the average age for guides being younger, many likely do not have health insurance and if they do, coverage on individual policies have very limited benefits for mental health and substance abuse. It’s the perfect storm when combining the nature of the work with the lack of resources.”

“One of the important things that we try to stress is building a provider network that knows the guiding lifestyle and the history of it,” says Chaffin. “Because it’s such a unique profession, not everyone knows the outside stressors or the current day-to-day challenges that go along with it. So, having that initial barrier gone just helps ease guides into talking about what they’re struggling with.”

“I think a lot of guides don’t work with a counselor because they don’t think the counselor will ‘get it.’” says Talbird. “We can get frustrated when someone trying to help simply doesn’t know what it’s like out there. We’re sleeping with one eye open outside in bear country, making sure our clients are safe and comfortable and having a great time. We’re securing an unforgettable vacation for people from all over the world who each have unique needs. So we have to be on. We’re giving them everything we have, we sincerely care about them, and we don’t even really know them. We are the last to go to sleep and the first to wake up, and in all kinds of weather and changing conditions.”

A man high-fiving a smiling woman on the banks of a river next to several rafts.
The Redside Foundation offers a confidential helpline for guides, eight sessions of free telehealth therapy, and an online library of mental health resources. Their network of guide liaisons working in the outdoor industry act as ambassadors for the program. (Andrew Burr photo)

Brhe Zolber is a former river guide turned licensed clinical professional counselor who serves as director of behavioral health at The Redside Foundation and is often the first point of contact for anyone who calls the helpline. “Fellow guides can tell them they should call, their outfitter could tell them they need to, but actually reaching out is a very personal decision,” says Zolber.

Zolber says a major theme among those calling the helpline is transition. “They’re questioning, ‘Do I keep guiding?’ ‘What do I do next season?’ Guides are transitioning in and out of trips and between relationships with their winter crew and summer crew, leaving each one and coming back—and all of those transition points are hard,” says Zolber.

Multi-day wilderness crews rely heavily on each other as a team, scouting rapids and running downstream safety procedures, setting camp and loading and unloading boats, cooking, cleaning, problem-solving, entertaining guests, and looking out for each other. They are fueled by the beauty of their surroundings, the power of the water, and the harmony of unspoiled nature. But at the end of the season, that team breaks up. And the topography changes—maybe to Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska; all lovely places, but they’re not the Flathead River.

“When the season is over, you really feel the loss of not being on the water,” says Talbird.

And you’re about to lose your river family, housing, food, and employment. The unknowing is the worst. All summer long we know what we’re doing. It’s our job to know what we’re doing. But as soon as the season is over, it’s like we have this uncertainty.”

As a fly-fishing guide, Talbird says, there’s a lot of uneasiness centered on natural resource degradation.

“You don’t know if the fish will even be there next year,” says Talbird. “Or the bugs. You don’t know if there will be any water. Or maybe there will be too much water. Or maybe the water will be polluted, or there’s wildfires, or a train car is falling into the river.”

Chaffin says eco-grief has become increasingly serious as climate change destabilizes river ecosystems and economies. The Redside Foundation plans to host an eco-grief conference providing tools for dealing with workplace angst driven by injuries to the environment. When an office space is in chaos, caused, for example, by wildfires, floods, droughts, extreme weather, and loss of habitat, Chaffin explains, it’s challenging to maintain the confidence and positive outlook required in guiding.

The Redside Foundation also provides a financial coaching service, in which guides may discuss personal finance topics like managing debt, what to do with tip money, 401ks, IRAs, retirement savings, or investing.

Other services offered through the organization include an annual health fair, a job board, an annual rendezvous, and opportunities for grants and scholarships. A library of online resources is housed on The Redside Foundation’s website (redsidefoundation.org), free to view at any time. Among the information bank are readings on anxiety, grief, sleep, depression, sun exposure and skin damage, overuse injuries, substance use issues, and finding and maintaining good mental health. The organization strengthens connections among these resources and potential participants through guide liaisons appointed to guide community epicenters.

Ella Luepke is a trip leader at Glacier Raft Company and a guide liaison for The Redside Foundation. As a conduit between The Redside Foundation’s services and outdoor professionals who could benefit from them, Luepke distributes the organization’s information among the river community and provides feedback to The Redside Foundation staff and board on the state of the guiding union.

“Many of my coworkers are happy to know that these mental health and substance use disorder resources are available, even if they never need to use them,” says Luepke. “I pay close attention to how The Redside Foundation’s services are being used at Glacier, and let the organization know what guides need most and whether there’s something in the offering that’s missing or can be developed further. Sometimes we need different resources based on current events, like the pandemic, or housing crisis.” Guide liaisons set a tip-of-the-spear example of ethical standards in the guiding community, exemplifying the effort behind healthy choices.

Drug and alcohol use is another common theme among those who call The Redside Foundation’s helpline. Many callers to the helpline cite struggling with overuse. Zolber says some callers talk about how their substance dependency might be linked to financial strain and mental health issues, while others want to know how to talk to a friend in recovery. Some are looking for prevention tips in advance of becoming drug and alcohol dependent, and others are looking for local rehab facilities. The highly trained professionals on the other end of the line know that any call might be centered on mitigating self-harm, or suicide prevention.

Two men on the side of a river, one with his arm around the other. Backs to the camera.
Pain has a way of cementing itself just below the surface, out of sight from clients, coworkers, and managers. Knowing The Redside Foundation is properly set up with downstream safety takes some of the weight off. (Andrew Burr photo)

In discussing the issue of substance use disorder, one coworker told me he feels it’s worse in the off-season since multi-day whitewater river guides get a dopamine hit every day provided by Class IV whitewater and the thrill of running it clean. And when the season ends, there’s a crash, and often a need to replace that stimulant. Another guide told me the culture of substance use among outdoor adventurers blurs the line between enjoying a cold beer after work and waking up next to a pyramid of cans.

When guide life gets heavy, the gin-clear glacier water may feel like black tar and oars like solid iron. The guide making the heavy lift may never tell anyone. Knowing The Redside Foundation is properly set up with downstream safety takes some of the weight off.

Now that I think about it, contemplating how far we’ve come is like a client asking every 15 minutes, “How deep is the water here?” “About that deep,” we wink as we dip in an oar or a guide stick. When I look upriver, I think, well, we’ve come this far. All forward.


Hilary Hutcheson started guiding as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she guides on the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana.




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