Beloved guide Nels Niemi dies at 83


October 19, 2023

Photo courtesy of Colin Arisman

"Go boat with a bunch of your friends. Try anarchy. Have a wonderful time!"-Nels "Nelbert" Niemi.

Beloved river guide and longtime Haines summer resident Nels Niemi (83) died in a single car accident on Oct. 10 in Arizona. He was on his way to a San Juan River trip. This week he was remembered for his intellect and wit, and as a mentor, adventurer, good friend and unforgettable character.

"It was like he came from a different time period. Nels could have been on Shackleton's crew," former Chilkat Guide Jeremy Bell said.

Bart Henderson and Niemi were in the small cadre of pioneering Grand Canyon guides together. Niemi worked for decades at the company Henderson founded in Haines, Chilkat Guides. Henderson said Niemi never asked him for a job. "Nelbert never even applied." He showed up in Haines every year, did some long trips, fell into the "dailies," and gradually focused on maintenance and repairs. Niemi collected his own equipment that he leased and loaned.

Calling Niemi "Old Man River" was a compliment, Henderson said. "Nelbert always wanted to be old. When he was fifty his beard came in white and he felt lucky." (Nelbert is derived from filbert. Niemi had a history of picking filberts.)

Local rafters shared "Nelbert" witticisms from calling beer cans "biscuits" to "see one, do one, teach one." That is, watch someone row a boat, try it yourself, then show someone else how.

Niemi hosted "Meat Night," a weekly cookout at the Chilkat Guides warehouse. He always served dessert. Guide Russ Lyman said he was kind, generous and "went out of his way" to teach young guides, with a crinkled smile, an expletive or three, and a "this is whatcha do..." Then he might explain how to proof biscuit dough overnight, fry bacon in a Dutch oven or cut off the legs of those cast iron pots so they'd stack neatly in the kitchen bag.

Niemi told Grand Canyon historian Lew Steiger he was invited on the first of his 170 or so Grand Canyon trips in 1967 (the last one was this year), because he cooked on climbing expeditions from Denali to the Himalayas, and he could row - "not because I knew my ass from apple butter about whitewater." He learned as a child in a McKenzie River dory and on the lightweight crew team at Oregon State University.

Niemi penned hundreds of letters and more postcards. "He'd cut out a piece of cardboard, write you a message and mail it by burro from Phantom Ranch on the Grand Canyon," friend Liam Wirak-Cassidy said. Niemi journaled every day, studied history and science and awed others with his knowledge.

"No one ever forgot meeting Nels," his son Lars Niemi said.

Nels Nicholas Niemi was born in Salem, Oregon on Nov. 28, 1939 and grew up in Eugene. His father George was a teacher. He was an Eagle Scout and an avid skier and mountaineer. He attended OSU, and graduated in the fourth class at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He studied aeronautical engineering and economics. He was a pilot and an Air Force flight instructor before an honorable discharge. He earned an MBA from Stanford University, married Oregonian Linda Lee, and had two children, Lars and Elise, before the marriage ended.

Niemi remarried in the 1980s and he and Pamela Niemi lived in Salt Lake City. He flew his plane as a spotter in the Salt Lake brine shrimp fishery and worked for Grand Canyon Dories and Sleight Expeditions.

He raced road bikes before a near-death accident, climbed Colorado's "Fourteeners," skied across East Greenland and Iceland (as close as he came to his ancestral home, Finland), rowed many rivers, and before taking up an itinerant life in the wilds, worked as an accountant for, among other firms, an airplane sales and leasing company. Details are fuzzy, his son Lars said, but Niemi apparently had a couple of run-ins with the law involving flying a company plane to Mexico City and a sailboat with marijuana under the floorboards.

For his 70th birthday, his sister sewed Niemi a quilt made of T-shirts from his marathons. He ran the Klondike Road Relay with the Haines Slackmasters. "I guess I went up to Alaska," Niemi said, "because, well, maybe they don't have so many 'stinking badges' up there."

His home bases were Haines and an Airstream in his son's backyard in Flagstaff, Ariz. There, he enjoyed the company of his grandchildren, stories by a fire, neighborhood walks, reading, naps and classical music.

He is survived by siblings Juanita Gail, Mila Niemi and Joel Niemi, children Lars Niemi and Elise Niemi, and grandchildren Erika and Anders Niemi.

Friends toasted Niemi at the Haines brewery Wednesday evening. Memorial services will be held Nov. 4 in Flagstaff. For details and RSVP contact Lars and Melissa Niemi at There will be a local celebration of his life next summer.


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