ong before he began rafting four seasons ago, Robert "Bobbo" Marsh, or the master of fire and water as I like to think of him, had a 30-year career with the U.S. Forest Service. He traveled the west coast as a wildland fighter, topping out with a management officer rank.
Bobbo began flatwater kayaking recreationally through classes at Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe eight years ago. After hanging around the shop and helping customers in his free time, he earned a spot in the rentals department and eventually became a kayak instructor. Wanting to tackle whitewater, he started building a Cataraft (Cat) during the winter of 2013.
At the age of 66, in his first season, on his Cat's maiden voyage, Bobbo ran the Crooked River just below Prineville Reservoir Dam, the Upper and Lower Mckenzie River, the Upper North Umpqua River and the Santiam River.
"Those were good stretches of water to teach myself how to read the river, how to not get hung up on rocks, how to oar." With an expression of gratitude he shares, "John Hise and Hank Hill at the shop taught me a lot! Hise told me the three rules of rafting, face your danger, row away from danger and don't F it up!"
In seasons two and three, Bobbo added multi days on the John Day River (Clarno to Cotton Wood) and the Lower Deschutes (Warm Springs to Maupin) to his repertoire. During his Lower Deschutes run, he faced his greatest whitewater challenge to date: Boxcar, a Class 3 rapid.
Bobbo remembers, "The first time I went through Boxcar we didn't scout it because the lookout isn't convenient. You have to walk a half mile out of your way. I got the wrong angle going into the hole, got knocked out of my seat and my right oar hit the water, which knocked it out of my hand. I felt like I was going to go into the drink, but I recovered. It didn't hurt me, but I wasn't prepared. The force was so great. The water is so strong."
On our most recent trip down the Lower Deschutes, this fall, I had the privilege of seeing Bobbo's rematch with Boxcar. He totally styled it. "It was more fun the second time," he reflected. "I still hit it wrong, it's a much stronger current there than what you would expect. This time I knew what I was doing, so I lifted the oars up, and they didn't get knocked out of my hands and that helped a lot. I know each time I run it, it will get better."D
uring the same trip, on the Warm Springs side of the river, Bobbo pointed out what he called "fire scars." Reading the landscape, he noted where the fire had jumped the river and where the remnants of air tanker retardant had fallen. "Now the grass will come back stronger and the Junipers are gone," he said with a smile.
I asked him if there are parallels between firefighting and river rafting. He explained the safety protocol is similar, however, the relationship that one forms with fire versus water as a force of nature is very different.
Bobbo noted, "When society started controlling wildfires, that is about when society started damming rivers too. When I fought fire, I felt I was taking charge of a situation that needed to be overcome and controlled. At the end of the day, I felt good about it; I felt an accomplishment. The river is a totally different force of nature; for me, I know I can't control it. I am going to let it be a force that controls me. I respect the river and fire both, big time. Fire, because I had to, and the river because I choose to. Trust me, I know these things!"
Adding to his post retirement wrap sheet, Bobbo has spent more than a decade at Pilot Butte Middle School, where his sons Travis and Austin attended. As a football and track coach and as the current athletic director, he has become an important force in the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, of youngsters. Bobbo also hasn't missed a single game in 12 years as football team ball boy at Mountain View High School.
One thing that strikes me about Bobbo is not that he is 70 years old and rafts Class 3+, keeping up with folks a quarter of his age. What's really amazing is that he thinks none of that is impressive—nor his other accomplishments. His sole focus and greatest aspiration is to take his three-year-old granddaughter, Winslow, for a trip on his raft when she's old enough.
If you want to see footage of the master of fire and water himself, Bobbo, running Whitehorse, class 3+ rapids on the Lower Deschutes and hear more words of wisdom, check out https://vimeo.com/236118550.