2008 A Family Affair
by Scott Sandsberry
YAKIMA -- Mark Zoller was a third-grader on the 1973 afternoon his father came home from a long work day overseeing the family's small chain of Portland-area restaurants and made an announcement.
"I got a new job today," Phil Zoller declared. "I got my guide's license."
Says Mark, "I honestly remember thinking, 'We're going to starve.'"
The Zollers didn't starve. Instead, they thrived, because Phil had raised his boys to be just as he was: outdoorsmen, river men and, above all things, resourceful.
"As a child I thought all kids were out in the woods and on the rivers having adventures just like us," says Mark, now a 44-year-old living in BZ Corners, a riverside hamlet overlooking the White Salmon River.
"We did wild things. We grew up doing harebrained things. My dad was different, and I didn't recognize that until I was in junior high."
Thirty-five years later, Phil Zoller's one-man fishing-guide business has morphed into a family-wide, river-borne cottage industry with three generations of Zollers working in two distinct operations that, combined, entertain nearly 10,000 guests a year.
Phil's oldest son, Tracy, 46, runs Adventure Fishing on the Klickitat River with his wife, Lori. Their oldest son, Levi, is already an experienced and quite busy guide at 21, having become a licensed guide at 16 -- the same age Tracy was when he became the state's youngest licensed steelhead fishing guide.
Mark, Tracy's younger brother, is now the owner-operator (with his wife, Sherri) of Zoller's Outdoor Odysseys, an outgrowth of the rafting business Phil started six years after he traded the restaurant business for life on the river. Mark's two top guides? His daughter Rachel, 22, and son Zachary, 20.
As for Phil, well, he's off the river now. He's the range manager on a hunting preserve in northeast Walla Walla County, raising pheasants and chukars and taking clients out to hunt them. At 66, after what he figures was "about 50 thousand miles of rowing driftboats and rafts," his shoulders had simply had enough of pulling oars.
"It's like a treadmill with a driftboat," Phil says. "You're holding the boat back against the river and it's going out from under you; you might float eight miles, but you've rowed the boat 15. It all adds up."
Not that Phil and his sons weren't always up to the task.
Phil had already been a de facto guide -- "a pirate outfitter," grins Mark -- for four years before he became licensed. He took clients to wherever the steelhead were biting in southwest Washington. It might be the north fork of Lewis River one morning, the Toutle the next, maybe the Kalama the day after that.
"You wanted perfect water," Phil says. "If you had perfect water conditions, you will have steelhead; they will be there."
And no current was too difficult for Zoller to find them. His son's friends typically referred to Phil Zoller as Sasquatch or Grizzly Adams because of his robust beard, his long hair and the muscular girth Mark describes as "370 pounds of brick."
In 1974, an Oregon rafting outfitter asked Phil if he'd be willing to guide a raft during a trip through Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Phil had never rafted before, but he said sure, why not.
"You've got to remember," Mark says, "if you know how to run a drift boat well, you can take a raft almost anywhere."
So Phil took the job guiding the second raft behind the lead raft, and brought Mark along as a go-fer. On the second day, one of the paying clients asked Mark, "Is this your first rafting trip ever?"
" 'Yeah, and my dad's, too,'" Mark recalls answering. "The look I got from my dad was the 'you're about to go swimming' look. But Dad was by far the best boatman on that trip."
Still, fishing remained the family business, and Phil's Guide Service was always busy. To keep other guides or anglers from learning his destination and crowding up his fishing spots, Phil wouldn't even tell his clients what river they'd be on the next morning. Just be at the meeting place by 5 a.m., he'd tell them, and I'll take you to where the fish are.
On May 18, 1980, Phil was going to be on the Toutle River, where his clients had been hammering the steelhead all spring. But that day, he wasn't quite feeling himself, so instead of driftboating the Toutle, he opted to take his jet boat on the Cowlitz.
That morning, of course, Mount St. Helens erupted, turning the Toutle into a deadly torrent of mud.
"He would have died," Mark says. "He would be gone."
Instead, the Zollers' river acumen simply created a new chapter in the family history ... and made Tracy a little bit famous.
Not long after the eruption, with media from around the world fervently attempting to chronicle the devastation, Phil Zoller saw an opportunity. Absolutely confident on any manner of river, even flows of volcanic mud infused with treacherous logjams and debris, he took some media members down the Toutle on his driftboat, and their footage created significant publicity for Phil's Guide Service. More "scenic tours" of the damage ensued, and the Zollers' reputation spread.
A Sports Illustrated article featured photographs of Tracy "in his baby-blue driftboat rowing through huge, chocolate-covered waves," Mark recalls. "Everything was brown because of so much silt, and here's this 18-year-old kid rowing driftboats through the aftermath. Tracy was a remarkable boatman. Still is."
Which is why, when Phil Zoller decided in Mount St. Helens' aftermath to check out the possibilities of a rafting business on the White Salmon -- the steelheading business on the Toutle now just a a muddy memory -- Tracy made the first raft trip downriver, an 18-year-old manning an oar raft down a whitewater river he'd never been on.
But Phil knew his son was capable. "He met me at Husum (at the bottom of the run)," Tracy recalls, "and said, 'What was it like?'"
This was still in the infancy of whitewater rafting as a tourism industry, but the Zollers made it work. Tracy even started up his own rafting business on the side, and built the business on pure chutzpah.
"I became the vacuum cleaner salesman for whitewater rafting. I'd walk into CEOs' offices and say, 'Next year you're going to do an employee picnic with Whitewater Adventure Rafting," Tracy says, laughing. "It was weird, I know -- nowadays you wouldn't even get past the front door. But back then, things were different."
Actually, it was pretty much the Zollers who were different. They always had been. When Tracy's business outgrew his dad's, he sold his rafting company in 1997 to Phil, who sold it four years later to Mark, an inveterate risk-taker -- not when guiding clients, but whenever he was on the river by himself.
"Mark loved the water, he loved kayaking," says Tracy's wife, Lori. "Sometimes we'd have to go looking for Mark."
Tracy laughs at those memories. "You know how when you're a kid, you just live life on the edge? Well, (Mark) would come back from the river missing a shoe, one time he came back without a kayak. He really did live on the edge."
Now, though, Mark is the steady businessman, running a sprawling, successful rafting operation. The Oregon rafting company that had hired Phil for that Hells Canyon back in '74? Mark bought it four years ago, to acquire the company's river-running permits.
Mark runs the family rafting company with a passion that attracts not only clients, but employees. Yonah Wente and her husband Zack St. Clair, were restaurant owners in rural Virginia when they happened to book a rafting trip three years ago with Mark's crew on the White Salmon. Now St. Clair is one of Mark's guides and Wente helps handle the client booking.
"What sucked us in was Mark's attitude," Wente says. "His enthusiasm for getting us on the river made us really want to come, and after meeting him and seeing, hey, that's just who he is, it made us want to come and work for him.
"Good people suck other people in, and here we are."
Tracy, meanwhile, is full-time with his first love, fishing -- steelhead year-round except for the August-to-October king salmon season.
"I knew when I was just a kid that this was what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "I'm thankful. It's not an easy way to make a living, that's for sure, and I'll never get rich. But you know what? I'm rich because I get to do what I like."
As for Phil Zoller, he enjoys watching each ensuing generation of Zollers take to the river just as he did. Tracy's youngest son, Ben, is already rowing drift boats at 13.
"He can take me fishing," Phil says. "Next time I go over, he will take me fishing. I'll be his passenger.
"It's a story that doesn't seem possible, that those boys stayed with that. But they did.
"It's a tradition."