At school, on the trail and in his writings, Verne Huser was a teacher.
But being on the river in a raft or canoe was his favorite classroom of all.
One of the earliest guides on the Snake River whose career spanned five decades, Huser died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Salt Lake City. He was 90 years old.
Huser was an outdoorsman, an adventurer, a prolific writer and English teacher. He was a naturalist and scholar, but above all he was a conservationist, championing free-flowing rivers and preservation of wild country and wildlife.
He floated more than 100 rivers in 25 states and three Canadian provinces, and he wrote eight books about rivers and edited two anthologies of river stories.
“His knowledge of the flora and fauna was always so strong,” said Leith Barker of Barker-Ewing Scenic Trips, for whom Huser guided for 11 seasons. A float trip with him was “almost a nonstop dialogue,” she said. “He could go from one subject to another without missing a beat.”
Huser began guiding on the Snake in 1957 for Grand Teton Lodge Co., where he roomed with Frank Ewing. When Ewing and former fishing guide Dick Barker began offering their own scenic floats and formed a partnership in the 1960s, they hired Huser as their first guide. Huser would jokingly refer to himself as “The Hyphen” in Barker-Ewing.
When not on the river, Huser taught English at Jackson-Wilson High School and wrote columns for High Country News, the Jackson Hole Villager and Jackson Hole News.
In the mid-1970s he gave up guiding on the Snake to pursue work in writing, education and environmental mediation. He taught at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico and spent three years on the faculty at the University of Washington. He ran rivers around the United States and Canada and chronicled his journeys.
Nearly every summer he returned to paddle the Oxbow Bend of the Snake, his favorite stretch for wildlife. In the 1990s he came back to guiding for Barker-Ewing in Grand Teton National Park, and over five seasons — in his mid-60s — he guided more than 500 trips.
He lived in a teepee on the Barker property in Moose and kept a typewriter and desk inside the teepee. He eagerly shared his knowledge of history and the natural world with young guides a fraction of his age, showing them how to identify wildflowers such as the showy fleabane daisy and scarlet gilia. With his snow-white beard and hair, he was the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Snake.
“He seemed timeless,” said Reed Finlay, who began learning from Huser as a shuttle driver and went on to guide for 25 seasons. “There was no one like him, and there’s no one like him now. All those people are moving on or have passed away.”
Huser published two guidebooks on the Snake: a mile-by-mile guide with Buzz Belknap in 1972 and the more comprehensive Wyoming’s Snake River in 2001.
“His whole life was the river, and everything else followed,” Finlay said.
Among his noteworthy river trips were the Atchafalaya in Louisiana and the Tatshenshini and Alsek in British Columbia and Alaska. He had a particular interest in Hells Canyon, the Columbia and upper Missouri; later in life he led historical tours along the route of Lewis and Clark. In 2004 he published On the River with Lewis and Clark, for which he retraced much of the route by boat.
The era of the Corps of Discovery and the mountain men held great fascination for him. Sometimes on festive occasions he would don a buckskin jacket, pants and moccasins, along with a mountain man-style cap.
“His depth of knowledge and passion for wilderness was just unequaled,” said his son Paul Huser, who followed him into guiding on the Snake. “He always said he was born 150 years too late. He had a fantasy of how the world used to be.”
Through his river adventures, writing and activism Huser became acquainted with the likes of Edward Abbey, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and historian Roderick Nash. Locally, he befriended conservation pioneers Mardy, Adolph and Louise Murie and Frank and John Craighead, as well as Reginald and Gladys Laubin, from whom he learned much about Native American culture.
Huser was a leader in the Western River Guides Association and helped form Jackson Hole’s first conservation organization, called ENACT, in the late 1960s. He lobbied for protection of the Snake under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — sometimes toting a clipboard for rafting clients to sign a petition — some 40 years before it finally received such designation.
“He was exceedingly energetic,” said Patty Ewing, co-founder of the rafting company with her husband, Frank.
Town Councilman Arne Jorgensen, whose mother, Jean, was Huser’s first wife, said Huser was a bridge between conservation pioneers who tended to be scientists and the recreational activists of today.
“He recognized how to engage people based on something more than science or an emotional connection to wilderness,” Jorgensen said. It was an approach to conservation “shaped by your own actions rather than an academic one.”
Finlay called him “the last of those 1960s idealists” who helped galvanize support for legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, with “the idea that if you bring enough voices to the government, things can get done.”
In his writings Huser often struggled with the intrusion of humans in wild places, even passengers on his own float trips.
Paul Huser said his dad believed strongly in the ideal of wilderness. “Wilderness was sacrosanct, for itself and not for any other reason, not for people,” he said.
Huser remained in good health until suffering a stroke about five years ago. A year or two before that, he joined a group of friends including Frank and Patty Ewing, Rod Newcomb, Brent Eastman and Dave and Reade Dornan atop Teton Pass, and they walked down the Old Pass Road to Wilson.
“It was a year of incredible wildflowers, and Verne knew every one of them,” Patty Ewing said. “It was a delight to be with him.”
Over the years Huser was a featured speaker at the Summit on the Snake educational symposiums hosted by the Snake River Fund. Whether speaking at an event, in the classroom or on a float trip, he routinely elicited laughs — and groans — with his liberal use of puns (see obituary on page 11B).
“What did the fish say when it swam into the concrete wall?” he used to quip. “Dam.”
When visiting Jackson Hole, Huser was easily identifiable from the New Mexico license plates on his old pickup truck. The custom plates read: “RIVERNE.”
Eric Barker of Barker-Ewing recalled that Huser, ever the wildlife enthusiast, would get so excited at spotting evidence of beavers chewing on willows and cottonwoods along the river that some of the boatmen called him by the nickname “Fresh Cut.” So for such an avid naturalist to pass away on the evening of a full moon Native Americans called the Beaver Moon, with a lunar eclipse to boot, was “an auspicious or poetic departure,” Barker said.
Huser found magic in moving water, and the energy of life itself. As he wrote in a column for High Country News in September 1973 about a spectacular float trip on the Snake:
“We landed at Moose, gently, reverently, respectfully, quietly, all of us with a greater appreciation for the wild world and a greater insight into our own souls.”