Michael Slavin, the CEO of the home-loan startup Privlo, grew up in a one-stoplight town on the Idaho/Montana border. It was a remote place, and incredibly homogenous: Slavin still remembers the world-upending day he learned that “there weren’t just Christians.” But what it lacked in diversity, Slavin’s home had in abundant natural beauty. In particular, Slavin grew up around river sports like white-water rafting. “I was two months old, my first time on a raft,” Slavin recalls.
As Slavin got older and more experienced in his river navigating, he got a job as a river guide. As it happened, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, right near Slavin’s home, was one of the most desirable stretches of river for vacationing river enthusiasts. This meant that Slavin was welcoming, on a weekly basis, much of the country’s business elite and their families. One week might be the CEO of the most effective garbage company; the next might be a leading neurosurgeon; the next might be someone affiliated with the Human Genome Project. “It serialized me in interviewing successful business owners from all walks of life,” says Slavin.
But that wasn’t the main lesson the river taught him, says Slavin. To understand what rivers mean to him–and to his business philosophy–you have to go back to frightening day in 2000. Slavin was 21, and he was leading group of six guides and 22 guests down the Middle Fork. It was the height of summer, with forest fires coursing through much of Idaho, but the trip outfitter had decided the Middle Fork would be safe.
The outfitter was wrong.
On the fourth day of the trip, the party entered a deep canyon, passing the last accessible air strip–a point of no return. As Slavin rounded a bend, “a crazy thing happened,” he recalls. The river started to suddenly change colors. It turned blue, then red, then orange. Looking up, Slavin saw a huge black cloud engulf the canyon; sun was filtering through the clouds, providing the light show. “It was so gorgeous,” recalls Slavin of that moment.
Slavin turned to look behind him, and saw a flicker of light, as though someone was flashing a signal to him with a mirror. “That’s strange,” he recalls thinking. Then suddenly, he saw about three acres of trees go ablaze–“in a matter of seconds,” he says.
He has since studied the mechanics of wildfire: how the hot air rises, how the wind picks up, how new air enters, and the fire grows hotter and hotter in a terrifying cycle. “It becomes a self-feeding inferno,” he explains. Within minutes, it seemed, the entire hill was set ablaze. “You hear the phrase ‘like wildfire,’ but you don’t understand until you’re in the middle of one,” he says.
As the party advanced, small objects began to plummet into the water. Were they birds? Slavin leaned in for a better look. They were chunks of huge mahogany bushes, in fact, which were exploding into pieces, then plummeting into the river like balls of flaming coal. “I thought, ‘This is really not good.’”
There are two kinds of people in this kind of situation, Slavin says. Those who overthink and mentally collapse, and those who realize there’s simply no time to think, only act. Slavin had several charges on his raft, including minors. He had to keep them calm. “Isn’t this cool?” he told them. “Let’s play a game, and make some smoke masks.”
He and the other guides steered rapidly through the inferno, keeping an eye out for hazards, and hoping the flaming debris wouldn’t hit them. “Everything was on fire, literally everything,” he says. Smoke blacked out the sky, and they navigated by the light of the flames.
Then, they got lucky: they found a sand bar that happened to be backed by a cliff, offering a natural shelter. They set up camp, cooked dinner, and had a guide stay watch through the night, in case the fire encroached. The group survived. “It’s wonderful, now, that we made it through alive,” says Slavin.
That was the lesson the river taught him, more than anything: how to survive a critical, potentially deadly, situation. In the midst of chaos, “some wilt up, and others flourish,” says Slavin. “You have to surround yourself with the latter.” And he, at least, has to find new ways to introduce those thrilling, critical, and even dangerous situations each year.
Few river experiences match the challenge of rafting through an inferno. But Slavin and his pals have found one. They engage in a particularly extreme form of a sport called “creeking.” Left unchallenged by well-traveled rivers, Slavin and his friends seek out the small, wild creeks that only come alive for a brief window in the early spring, when the snows melt, forming the gushing creeks that serve as seasonal tributaries to major rivers. “You’re exploring new rivers and creeks for the first time,” Slavin explains. “As you crash down creeks, it can be pretty critical, and pretty dangerous.” These flash-in the-pan creeks are so remote and difficult to access that Slavin and his friends have custom designed a jeep with massive tires that can drive over 10 feet of snow.
“It’s not for everyone,” he emphasizes. “I’ve been in situations where I could’ve died.” Nowadays, he at least takes a few modest precautions, like walking the length of a creek the day before he rafts it, taking a chainsaw to fallen branches that could otherwise pin and drown him the next day. He’s broken bones: arms, legs, jaw, ribs, a shoulder blade. He’s had amnesia and concussions.
But he finds it vital to his life, and to the spirit of entrepreneurship and risk that is central to his work. He needs that annual test of mettle, he says. He needs to experience of passing a point of no return, and having nothing but his and his comrades’ wits, skill, and bravery to bail him out.
“Everyone has butterflies in their stomach,” he says. “You just want to make sure the butterflies are flying in the right direction.”