Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2009



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back country skiing Embedded at Mount Everest Base Camp, Grayson Schaffer was on assignment for Outside magazine when he shot this self-portrait in May 2012

Grayson Schaffer

Outside magazine senior editor

By Ralph Bartholdt

Chimney rock
The Schaffer family, circa 2002, at home on the farm in Sagle, from left: Grayson, Christine, Matt, and Ethan. Courtesy Photo

When Grayson Schaffer says a Colorado elk hunt he documented "ended tragically," your mind flashes to the story of Hendrik Coetzee, a South African kayaker who died when a crocodile dragged him to the bottom of a Congolese river. The story, written by Schaffer, appeared in Outside magazine (March 2011).

The word tragedy sends your mind on a roller coaster to the deaths on Mount Everest in 2012 when Schaffer was embedded with climbers, and it ticks off his experience ice-locked in frigid Chilean waters, or a brush with the reaper while kayaking in Madagascar.

Tragic means someone died, terribly perhaps, as deaths occur on Everest, in darkest Africa, or at the bottom of the world.

You don't consider a bull elk, pierced cleanly with an arrow and trailed without being recovered by the hunters as the kind of event that registers as a tragedy for Schaffer. He is an outdoor journalist after all, who covers extreme, often death-defying sports as senior editor of Outside.

Yet, it is this perspective in which Schaffer understands the moment in real time and gives it the respect it's due, that makes him the level-headed voice of the edge. His is the calm and observant narrative in a place where often prevails a seeming carefree abandon in the face of danger; where the practitioners of extreme sports, to the layman, seem mostly nuts.

The 32-year-old Schaffer grew up in Sagle near Dufort Road. His father, Matt, had carried out U.S. trade policies for the Carter administration and later worked for private firms arranging foreign trade before moving the family – Grayson, his older brother, Ethan, and mom Christine – to northern Idaho from Washington, D.C.

The family farm was a place where the nearest kid lived a mile away, so Schaffer made do with childhood adventures of his own. He spent most of his free time outdoors and grew to love the sports many Bonner County residents enjoy. He skied at Schweitzer, rock climbed, kayaked and fly fished. Hunting came later, and bird hunting is a recently developed passion.

Schaffer attended Sagle Elementary and Sandpoint Middle schools and then enrolled at a New Hampshire boarding school for high school. He returned to northern Idaho each summer to spend the days fishing, kayaking, sniffing the Selkirk air and writing. After earning a degree in economics at Pomona College, his journalistic ambitions and photography prowess blended with his Idaho-outback skills and the combination of grit, know-how and talent led to journalism internships at National Geographic Adventure and, later, Outside, where he has worked for almost a decade.

You got your basic taste of the outdoors from your formative years around Sandpoint. Tell us about that.

Dad was a Carter guy, and we moved from D.C. in 1989. He ran a consulting shop out of his office on First Avenue in Sandpoint for 10 years, helping U.S. companies expand overseas. He made a run for the U.S. Senate in 1992. I believe it was the open seat vacated by Steve Symms and won by Dirk Kempthorne. Dick Stallings ended up being the Democratic nominee. We lived on a bend in the road at Sagle; there's a pond on it. I grew up on the farm along Highway 95 where the nearest neighbors with kids were a mile away, so we entertained ourselves with BB guns, forts, anything else kids in North Idaho do to entertain themselves. I got interested in kayaking when I was 15. I got a job as a swamper at River Odysseys West and worked for them summers swamping at Hells Canyon and the Salmon River Canyon, the Lochsa and Moyie. And I kayaked the creeks around Sandpoint, spending a lot of time kayaking the upper section of the Pack River. Idaho is the whitewater state. There are creeks and rivers with drops to run everywhere you look.

You eventually combined your journalistic ambitions with your outdoor pursuits. What was the progression?

After earning an economics degree from Pomona College, I spent a year in D.C. and a year back in Sandpoint. For most of 2002, I was in Sandpoint freelancing and doing kayak expeditions and just writing. So by the time I was done with college, I spent most of my time kayaking. I went to Ecuador and Costa Rica during college semester breaks, to go kayaking. In '02, I spent a month in Kyrgyzstan with a group of kayakers out of Missoula. I was writing for Paddler, or Canoe and Kayak, and I think it was around that time that I did the kayaking story for Sandpoint Magazine. I interned first with National Geographic Adventure Magazine in late 2001-2002 in New York, and after I was done with that, I went back to Sandpoint for most of the following year, hanging out and writing. Then I interned at Outside in the fall of '03 and never left.

What other outdoor sports did you pursue growing up around Sandpoint?

I started climbing in Laclede, top-roping out there. I spent more time seriously climbing while attending college at Pomona in Southern California, climbing at Joshua Tree and the more famous climbing areas around Bishop. In Sandpoint (as a boy) I spent a lot of time skiing. We had season passes to Schweitzer. I spent every day that I could up there. I would get a ride into town and hitchhike from town, or the bottom parking lot. Somewhere around this time, when I was 15 or 16, an old-timer out of Sandpoint named Harlan Walker taught me to fly fish. That's something I have kept up with this whole time. He and my dad and I would drive to Bozeman, and to Hardin, Mont., to fish the Big Horn, the Yellowstone and the Clark Fork. Around Sandpoint we would drive up to fish the creeks around the Kootenai Valley and into the Moyie. One summer I got a float tube and spent most of the summer kicking around Round Lake and Jewel Lake.

What is the most memorable piece you've written, which still comes back to haunt you?

That would definitely be a story I wrote for Outside (titled) "Consumed." It's the story of Hendrik Coetzee, a kayaker and world traveling man who did a lot of long solo kayak missions down dangerous rivers, especially in Africa. In December 2010, on a trip in the Congo with a couple guys from the Pacific Northwest, the three were kayaking side-by-side down the Lukuga River when a 15- to 20-foot crocodile came out of nowhere and took Coetzee. The story culminated in the croc attack, but it's more about the amazing life he had bouncing all over Africa. The time I was writing that story was a really intense experience. I was working 18 to 20 hours a day trying to get into this guy's head. I was speaking with close friends, family and the girlfriend and trying to process this really intense incident, figuring out how to internalize that, and keep it at arm's length, so I could write clearly about it. It was a difficult exercise.

You spent two months at Mount Everest Base Camp covering this year's expeditions for Outside magazine ("Take a Number," October 2012). Before going did you ever entertain aspirations to climb Everest?

I hadn't given the mountain much thought in the real sense. I rock climbed a fair amount in college but hadn't really climbed much in the last two years. When this opportunity came up, I was more interested in being at Base Camp and finding interesting people who had sacrificed so much to be there. There are people who climb for its own sake, people who climb for charity, people who climb as a publicity stunt. They all coexist there, and there are a ton of incredible stories to be told at Base Camp. I hadn't much thought of it before the assignment, never having been there, all the different types of people who go to climb that mountain. 

What did you glean from that?

When I first got there, everything seemed fairly orderly. Even though a lot of the uncertainty of climbing the mountain had been removed, it was still an orderly enterprise run by professionals. There are mostly competent people there. After the whole disaster thing struck, I started to think that a lot of the lessons that should have been learned since the 1996 disasters really hadn't been learned or absorbed by and large by local outfitters and the Nepalese government.

You have recently become a bird dog-owning pheasant hunter. Tell us about that.

Growing up we always had a chocolate lab that we found at the Dufort dump. She was never much of a hunting dog, so I never hunted much growing up in Sagle. A local guy from Sandpoint took me up to the Kootenai Refuge at Bonners Ferry to hunt. I don't think we shot a single duck that day, but it kind of put the bug in me, to get into it. While at Outside, Mike Stewart of Oxford, Miss., introduced me to a different mentality of raising dogs. These British Labradors are smaller, more docile dogs – there's one sleeping under my desk right now. They are also totally capable of picking up ducks and flushing pheasant. To me, hunting is mostly about the dogs: having a nonhuman … having an animal that can run faster, smell better, hunt harder, yet who is actually willing to work with you. There's something gratifying about that. We've been going up to North Dakota (to hunt pheasant) for the last couple years.

Does working at Outside give you an outlook or philosophy that you didn't have before your tenure there?

What strikes me the most is how accessible a lot of this stuff is to anyone who wants to do it. For a lot of this stuff, the only thing required is to commit to learning basic skills. Whether it's sports or travel, the stuff we write about is very attainable for most people; it's just a matter of making time and making fitness and travel part of your lifestyle and pursuing work that allows this sort of thing. We run a story on the best companies to work for each year. It turns out there are ways to earn a living that also offer a great lifestyle. 

Where do you go from here, and what would you tell aspiring journalists who want what you've got?

In the immediate future I'm making the transition from being an editor where most of what I do is work with other writers, to the writing side. I'm transitioning to writing mostly my own stories and taking pictures. I would tell aspiring writers to write every day and to really love it. Most of what I see coming from younger writers is that they have fallen into the trap of trying to impress people. Write something that is true, like reporting facts. Condense true stories into a nice narrative. It's one of those things that's really simple once you get it, but really difficult while you're working on it.

How is your family? Do you get back to Sandpoint much?

We lost dad in 2006. He always managed to make a lot of time helping to coach our baseball team. He took us to tournaments and dragged me all around between flying all over the world working with big companies, so he definitely managed to achieve an amazing work/life balance. That is definitely something I aspire to. He definitely had an influence. I don't think too much about it. I am more critical than sentimental. My mom, Christine, and brother, Ethan, live in the Seattle area. My brother and his wife run an organic farm called Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley. It's a partnership with the University of Washington to help migrant farm workers become farm owners. I haven't been back to Sandpoint in three or four years. I need to get back there.



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