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Our 40th Anniversary: The History of Mad River Boat Trips

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For our company, guiding new people down the Snake River each day is more than just letting them crush rapids. The Snake has so much to offer: beautiful scenery, flourishing wildlife, and exciting water flow. But what most people don’t realize is how much history lies in this land, this river, and this company. For 11,000 years, the Snake River’s inhabitants have contributed to the writing of its incredible story. We are humbled and thrilled that Mad River has been a part of that story for the last 40 years. The year is 1976. Breck O’Neal and his wife Susan decide together that it’s time for them to make the move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Grand Canyon river guide Breck has always enjoyed the outdoors, and was no stranger to life on the river. Confident that he will turn that passion into work, Breck applies for a job with a local rafting company in the town of Jackson. Working for one company and then another, he realizes he has much bigger plans for navigating the Snake. After just one year of living in Jackson, Breck purchases Denny Becker’s Parkland Expeditions’ commercial boat permits. And with that, Mad River Boat Trips is born.

The growth of his company was downright impressive. Breck’s early decision marketing the company created over time what we like to call The Mad River Difference. Back then, what made him stand out from other commercial companies were his meal trips and overnight boat trips. When asked why other companies don’t offer these trips, Breck would explain that there is less money and more hassle in these longer trips and that they require a lot of planning in comparison with the regular whitewater trips. Breck’s main goal in his river trips was to provide an educational experience and an increased appreciation for the outdoors. Our customers can still enjoy a rafting trip that includes a Dutch-oven cookout at Blind Canyon in the Snake River Canyon.

a group of people posing for a photo in front of a bus

In 1978, Breck made another move that stood out from other companies in the area. Mad River hired the first ever female whitewater guide in the Snake River Canyon, Jan McDonald. Jan made a name for herself on the river, and still today, Mad River’s female guides are inspired by her confidence and strength. When deciding which rafting company to use for a Good Morning America special, supermodel Cheryl Teiggs learned the story of Jan McDonald and chose Mad River. Jan is as much a star in the film as Cheryl. Taking hold of the oars, Jan steers the raft through the canyon for the cameras while she and Cheryl discuss piloting a raft. On one calm stretch of the river, Jan turns the oars over the Cheryl and lets her try her hand river guiding. The end of the clip has the two women discussing the trip and the Lower Valley Power and the Light Dam proposal for the Snake. If Hollywood needed an expert on the river, they came to Breck. Mad River has been featured in several films including: A River Runs Through It, The Mountain Men, The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, CBS Mini-Series Dream West, CBS Movie Killing at Hell’s Gate, ABC Movie The Mighty Niagara, as well as a series of commercials. But even though we’re movie stars, we haven’t forgotten our main goal: to share with others our love for life on the river. We’ve worked our fame into our customer experience. Inspired from the storyline of The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, Mad River created the D. B. Cooper Getaway Special, which is the wildest ride anyone can take down the Snake. We’re the only commercial company to run this two-man boat, and its guaranteed to return those brave enough to board with soaking clothes and racing hearts. Each river runner gets the greatest thrill on this stretch when paddling through the biggest and most popular rapid known as Lunch Counter. Many people hike down from the highway to simply watch from the rocky shore as boatmen attempt to get a good line through the rapid.

Back in the 70’s, kayakers often talked about riding the big waves of Lunch Counter like a surfer rides the waves of an ocean, but no one had actually done it. That is until local Mike Fitzpatrick decided to give it a try. He got on his board, floated up to Lunch Counter, and paddled hard. The ride was brief, but he was successful. Mike, better known as “Fitz”, has since mastered this surf, and likes to do it with his son in their free time. Fitz has been guiding for Mad River for a long time, and he still has the title of “mentor” for many of our new guides.

a group of people riding skis on a raft in a body of water

Every customer is let in on a little piece of the great river history by simply showing up for their trip. Inside the Mad River Boathouse, the River Runners Museum provides a walk through river history with its stories, pictures, timelines, and maps. Hanging from the ceiling of the Mad River Boathouse are rafts, canoes, and boats dating back to as early as 1825, each with its own spectacular story of its days on the river. We intend to keep this piece of history in the customer experience, so that they realize how lucky all of us are to be running the Snake River. Over the last 40 years, Mad River Boat Trips has taken vacationers, locals, and families down the Snake River.

Breck O’Neill created something very special here at Mad River. Although he has traveled across the globe to a new adventure, he definitely left the company, his baby, in good hands. Mad River is more than a business, it’s a family. Employees remain friends long after they stop working on the river. The respect for our management team is unwavering. The trust we put in our guides is beyond compare. We have each other’s back like a family would, and that is truly reflected in the work we produce. Appreciating the history behind our summer job makes it all the more valuable, and getting to share that with you is what makes our work feel more like our passion. Come, enjoy a river trip on the Snake River with us. We guarantee it will make memories that last a lifetime!

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