Daryl Bespflug and Linda Irvine have been running their commercial rafting operation, Kootenay River Runners, for more than one third of a century. During their time in business, the couple have adapted, adjusted, and carved out their business in the same way the churning, centuries-old rivers they boat on each day wind through the landscape.
“We only keep going because our staff is so great,” insists Linda.
Linda and Daryl met in Banff in 1973, where Daryl, and avid whitewater rafter, was working for Rocky Mountain Rafters.
Lured by the Kootenay River, the couple soon moved to the Columbia Valley, where they believed people would be excited by the chance to raft the Kootenay — one of only five rivers being rafted in Canada at the time.
Their prediction was correct. Starting with just one van and one raft, the adventurous activity soon caught on, and soon Linda and Daryl were guiding locals and both Canadian and international visitors down the flowing waterway.
Bearing the same name today, Kootenay River Runners now has 18 employees and a fleet of 10-15 boats running on busy days. Behind the scenes, staff log 300 kilometres of driving on logging roads each day to shuttle the boats.
Sifting through their records, Daryl and Linda predict they’ve ushered about 250,000 people down the Kootenay and Kicking Horse rivers and Toby Creek during the past 35 years.
Things weren’t always smooth sailing during the couple’s earliest years of owning the business, although their biggest problems centred around their first bus.
“During those first few years, the bus broke down on the first trip of the year, every time,” Linda said.
Once, when Daryl was driving to pick up some of their first customers, the hood of the van flew up and smashed the windshield.
“I picked up the visitors with no windshield,” Daryl remembered, chuckling. “I couldn’t really explain that, but they didn’t mention anything. They were international visitors though, and I think they just thought it was part of the great Canadian experience.”
Once they smoothed out their mechanical curse and mastered guiding the Kootenay River, Daryl and Linda decided to expand to the Kicking Horse River when their customers started asking for more whitewater.
Daryl was no stranger to the churning currents of the Kicking Horse: he made the first descent of the river on May 1st, 1980. There is an article in The Golden Star documenting the descent, with a photo of Daryl mid-rapids wearing jeans and no helmet.
Daryl and Linda’s venture on the Kicking Horse was successful, and later they expanded further to Toby Creek. Despite all the years and all the mileage they’ve logged, Linda and Daryl both say their favourite part of running their business is seeing what joy their trips bring to adults and children who may be experiencing such wilderness for the first time.
The couple’s passion has carried over to many of their customers who originally rafted with them in the early years, and who are now bringing their grandchildren and children for a trip down the river.
Daryl, who still guides, and Linda, who oversees the office, say their bubbly staff have kept them passionate about rafting during their 35 years in business.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm, energy, and skill, in our office. They keep us young,” Linda said, laughing.
As for plans to continue, Daryl said simply, “Yeah, why not.”
Daryl and Linda have two daughters, Amy and Cara, who both grew up helping with the business.
For more information about Kootenay River Runners, go to www.raftingtherockies.com.