Wild and Scenic

The kids and I just got back from a week on the Wild and Scenic section of the Main Salmon River. We put in close to the Montana Border and floated west for 80 miles. We weren’t lucky in the river permit lottery this year, but were invited anyway..for our boats and our abilities. We had never before met the permit holders, we had no say in the boat line up or invite list, we were not in charge, and certainly not (never have been) in control of the water levels or weather. Boating with folks you have never met is another kind of wild. There is a solid week of forced intimacy, few secrets…and no one can fake a consistently good mood for that long. We did not get a permit this year, but we were lucky enough to get invited by new and fantastic people.

For anyone that has ever floated an Idaho river, I do not have to describe the scenic. Words, and even pictures, cannot capture the sunlight dancing on the water, the expanse of stars on a crescent moon night, the stillness of the pre-dawn as the canyon wren begins to sing. Bighorn sheep and river otters, osprey and cut throat trout. The sound of an upcoming rapid, the adrenaline rush as you push through a wave, and that perfect rock viewed under 2 feet of green flowing water as you settle into the pool looking back up at the wave train. It’s like….and almost better than…..sex.

Our new friends have kids….young ones, aged 7 and 11. When we started boating with our kids at age 4+7, we had families with older kids that invited us along. Rocks, sticks, sand, water, hot chocolate in the morning, sunscreen by day, a warm sleeping bag at night…combined with older kids made for happy kids and relaxed parents. My kids are now the big kids. Emerald convinces a youngster to help with dishes because “we all take a turn”…after a good game of mermaids. Jasper re-engages with his former favorite pastime of determining whether a rock is a skipper or a plunker and draws the sister in. Jim and I raised good boat people. They know what to do without being asked. I fell a little more in love with them on this trip, and feel so lucky to have them in my life.


As stress relieving as river trips were, there was always anxiety. I was anxious about the difficulty of the water…especially when the kids starting rowing their own boats. Jim was anxious about gear, and where we would camp, and where he could sleep. Pulling his old guide books out for this trip, I found every page covered with his scrawl about shade, and sand, and swimming. The Salmon corridor has burned since then. High water like this year redistributes the sand bars. Old rapids are destroyed when creeks blow out and create new rapids. Shade, and sand, and eddies for swimming are not set things. This year there was no anxiety. We had the luxury of 2 layover days. We camped when we found a good empty sand bar..even if the guide-book said it would be too small. Everyone pitched in with camp chores, and we discovered that 1 pooper is more than enough for 14 people….without Jim along. I was not anxious about the water. I have rowed it all before, and my children are now better rowers than me. We all took turns, and when an oar was not functioning right, I discovered the problem and fixed it.

The water, weather, and the critters aren’t the only thing wild about river trips. We finish off every trip with a “dress for dinner” night. By this point in the trip, everyone has seen each other in various states of undress….from bikinis, to a silhouette in the pooper tent, to squatting or standing to pee in the river in the early am hours, to the blessed skinny dip when the last boaters have gone by for the day. There is really nothing left to hide…so dress for dinner is all about getting gussied up when your hair is so greasy it can stay in a pony tail without the elastic. With new folks along, I spent this winter collecting frilly things at white elephant gift exchanges….and kept the boys in mind as well. Fun, fun, wild fun. I have many more pictures than this….but some of what happens on the river, stays on the river.

Jim was everywhere and nowhere on this trip. I did not miss the anxiety, and our boat was much lighter without all of his crap (gear and the real thing.) Yet, he was there on his daughter’s side hikes. His words are still written in the guide books, and on the crapper tent wall. Jasper adopted, and wore with great pride, his dress for dinner clothes. His voice was present in all of our heads as we set up and tore down camp each time. He was present in my heart as we sang at campfires, scouted rapids, and floated by old camp sites, but nowhere to be found when I slipped away after dinner to find the “grown-up” beach. The ache of missing him was tempered by the joy of realizing that rivers will always be a part of our lives…and we CAN do it without him. River trips and the people on them, like rivers themselves, change with time. I love that……

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2 Responses to Wild and Scenic

  1. Bill Marineau says:

    Wow. Poignant and poetic… from the heart of a river runner to the heart of river runners.

    We do not take a river trip – She takes us.

  2. alyssa says:

    Tell me about forced intimacy. Three weeks in the Grand Canyon being the ‘new two’ to the group was rough. And as grumpy/pissy as we (Noah & I) were about the trip/people by the end (just to each other, we tried very hard not to let that run over and spoil the trip) we now look back fondly. People I expected to never see again (or wanted to) after it was over were some of the first we’ve called in times of crisis. And now I love them. They are family, crazy and annoying as they can be sometimes.
    Glad you had a good trip. Looking forward to seeing you later this month. The little man has a new skill under his belt.

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