Oregon’s original solitary river runner
Photo courtesy of theUtah History Research Center

Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom was Oregon's original river runner.

In the 1930s, a poor gas-station attendant named Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom started crafting boats from trees around his Coquille home and using them to run some of the West Coast’s wildest rivers. In the process, he made history and became the country’s most famous whitewater boater.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about a Grants Pass man who rafted all 157 miles of the Rogue River — from Lost Creek Reservoir to the Pacific Ocean — by himself.

His name is Kirk Sager, and it’s believed he’s the first person to finish the run without taking his boat out of the water once, a feat made possible by the recent removal of Gold Ray and Savage Rapids dams.

The story took an unexpected turn after it was picked up by the Eugene Register-Guard, though.

People started buzzing about a man named Buzz.

Sager’s quest seemed to kick-start memories of another river-running Southern Oregonian — a man who, for a brief period, became the most famous whitewater boater in the United States.

One phone call that typified the response came from the South Coast hamlet of Coquille, where a nice lady posed this question:

“Do you know the story of Buzz Holmstrom?”

I did not.

The nice lady referred me to a book titled, “The Doing of the Thing: The Brief Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” by authors Vince Welch, Brad Dimock and Cort Conley

Local river enthusiasts might know the story, considering the authors came to Grants Pass 10 years ago for a promotional float of the Rogue River. But in light of Sager’s solo accomplishment, it makes sense to look back again at a man who became nationally renowned for his solitary river trips.

The book is 288 pages, and anyone interested should check it out themselves. But the story goes something like this:

In the early 1930s, a poor gas station attendant named Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom started crafting boats from trees around his Coquille home and using them to run whitewater rivers.

His first journeys were down the Rogue River, from Grants Pass to the Pacific, where during his first trip (1934) he wrecked at Black Bar Falls and was taken in by Hal and Bea Witherwox, who were in the process of constructing Black Bar Lodge.

Buzz improved his boat design for his next Rogue trip (1935). This time he made a successful run and even got a seal of approval from river legend Glen Wooldridge, who tested his boat by running Tyee Rapid.

It was just the beginning for Buzz.

His next trip took him down the Idaho’s Salmon River, known then as the “River of No Return,” in 1936.

Those trips paled in comparison to his next accomplishment, which earned him nationwide attention. In 1937, Buzz crafted a new boat — for each trip he designed a new model — and headed out for the Green and Colorado rivers.

Since John Wesley Powell had first explored the rivers in 1869, few had attempted the wild, dangerous and utterly remote 1,100 miles of whitewater that slice through the Grand Canyon.

Yet Buzz hauled his new boat from Coquille in a broken-down jalopy he bought for $10, and put on the river Oct. 5, 1937. He was the fifth to finish this fabled route, which drops more than 5,000 vertical feet, but he was the first to run it alone.

The best part of the book chronicles his adventure through the most epic landscape and rapids our country has to offer. The authors draw heavily from Buzz’s personal journals, and the result is an intimate portrait of the man himself.

Part of what makes Buzz so appealing is his background. Unlike Powell and other river runners who were part of scientific surveys, Buzz was not financed. He came from a poor family and simply decided to try something, not for glory but rather for, as the book’s title suggests, “the doing of the thing.”

Buzz’s personality also is appealing. He’s both humble and friendly to the point that he’s beloved by almost everyone he meets on the river. At the same time, Buzz remains complicated and aloof, at times prone to depression and self-doubt. After becoming the first person to run the Green-Colorado rivers solo, he became a national celebrity, but loathed the fame. He failed miserably in half-hearted attempts to cash in on his accomplishment.

In between river trips, Buzz typically ended up back in Coquille, working at the same gas station that employed him before his adventures, or working other menial jobs that left his feet itchy and mind wondering.

Buzz made a few other notable trips. He became the first to run every single rapid, without portaging, on the Green and Colorado during a second journey. Even more impressively, he crossed the entire United States on rivers that included stretches on the Columbia, Snake, Yellowstone, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Allegheny and Hudson.

Through it all, the reader becomes attached to Holmstrom, always wishing that he could find a stable job or settle down or find peace. And that makes the ending even more heartbreaking.

At just 37, after a stint in the Navy during World War II, he died of an apparent suicide.

The circumstances of his death are the most troubling aspect of the book. Buzz was employed on a survey as a river boatman on the Grande Ronde River near the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon. He apparently became flustered by his task, by dangerously high water, overloaded supplies and his inability to effectively maneuver a new style of boat he had little experience running. One night he left the group and headed into the woods.

He also brought a shotgun.

The reader is left with a puzzling series of motives for the death that include depression, mental illness, fear of failure and even conspiracy. What is clear, however, is that Buzz never was able to find balance between the extreme highs of running America’s wildest rivers and lows of real life.

The best way to judge his life probably comes from a poetic journal entry he made in the Grand Canyon, at the tail end of his most famous solitary journey.

“... the bad rapid — Lava Cliff — that I had been looking for, nearly a thousand miles, with dread — I thought: once past there my reward will begin, but now everything ahead seems kind of empty and I find I have already had my reward, in the doing of the thing. The stars, the cliffs, and canyons, the roar of the rapids, the moon, the uncertainty and worry, the relief when through each one — the campfires at night, the real respect of the rivermen I met and others ...”

— Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom, Nov. 21, 1937

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