Oregon washington whitewater
My first raft! Tracy (older brother) and I did yard work all summer long to make this monumental purchase.

My initiation into guiding whitewater rafts started with the Oregon Washington whitewater scene at a very young age. My father, Phil Zoller was a whitewater pioneer in the Pacific Northwest and because of that myself and my brother Tracy went on a multitude of river adventures as young boys. One of the most memorable was a three-day trip down the Deschutes River in Central Oregon where my Dad declared, “it’s time for you boys to be doing this on your own”. So, Dad loaded up the family raft with Mom and our little brother Matthew. Dad put Tracy in the rower’s seat of our home-made wood driftboat and sat me in the cockpit of an inflatable kayak and away we went. I was 12 years old and Tracy was 14. Even though Tracy and I did great and turned running whitewater rivers into our livelihood, Mom is still angry at Dad. Almost 50 years later she is still mad. I know she is because she told me just a few months ago.

Growing up in southwest Washington right on the Oregon, Washington state line (Columbia River Gorge area) gave me an amazing selection of rivers to go run on the weekends and maybe a time or two when I supposed to be in school. Dad being a river outfitter always had plenty of drifboats on hand that Tracy and I could run off with and not once did he get upset with our use of the equipment or ever deny us the privilege of using his gear. One day when I walked out of Columbia River HS there was Tracy’s red pickup truck in the parking lot with a trailer and two driftboats stacked on the trailer ready to hit the river as soon as the bell rang. That was our lifestyle.

In the early 80’s Tracy and Dad started the first ever whitewater rafting company on the White Salmon and Klickitat Rivers. Now days the White Salmon is known as the best of the Oregon Washington whitewater rafting scene. Dad and Tracy quickly gained traction and started growing their business fast in those early years. Everyone loves a technical, splashy rafting trip that is only a short drive from Portland, Oregon and not a bad of a driver from Seattle, Washington. The White Salmon River was and still is perfection.

It was then in 1985 that Tracy gave me a call and said, “I need you to guide a raft for me on the Klickitat River this Saturday”. Here is the problem with that. 1) I’d never run that section (the whitewater section) of the Klickitat before and 2) I’d never guided a whitewater raft in my life. I had plenty of experience on the oars of a drift boat in some pretty choice water but never in a raft. 

When I presented the two above items as means of protest against the idea, Tracy just declared that “If you can run a drift boat you an easily run a raft and as far as knowing the water, just stay on my tail!”. So I did it. Full disclosure: I was the most scared person in the raft that day. I stayed right on Tracy’s tail end, I made up river stories, told a few true stories and kept it right side up just like it should be. And as a bonus I got a $5 tip! 

Oregon Washington whitewater
The early professional guiding years. About 1986 back when I had great hair!

At the end of that day on the Klickitat River I told Tracy thank you for the days work and I don’t ever plan on doing it again. He protested because he said he really needed me to guide on the White Salmon River the next weekend! Because I had so much wisdom at that very young age I agreed only if I could get a practice run in early in the morning and then I’d run the afternoon trip with paid guests. It seems the rest is history. I’m now almost 60 years old and I’m still going at it. Guiding rafts became not just easy but it was so much fun to entertain people from all over the world and to show them something unique and beautiful not to mention having some exciting fun along the way. Now I’m heading into my 39th season as a whitewater guide enjoying the Oregon Washington whitewater fun and I’m truly thankful every day for the opportunities it affords to be with people and to enjoy this amazing creation we call the White Salmon River.

Oregon Whitewater Guide
Mark Zoller has been guiding whitewater rafting trips on the White Salmon and Klickitat Rivers since 1985. He lives in and loves the Columbia River Gorge