I was making some travel plans earlier today and stumbled across a reminder that I took a whitewater raft trip on the Salmon River Middle Fork once upon a time, somewhere in the late ‘8os. It was with my then-wife’s family, one of their annual outings involving the whole crew, ten people.
We flew out to a dude ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the first three or four days, about which I remember these things.
We took a horseback ride through the mountains and I was on a horse too big and strong for me to control (the only time I’d ridden was in high school, on relatively tame horses owned by a friend) and it took its own head as we raced down narrow and twisting trails while I just held on as he raced after the other horses and tried to keep my head in line with his so it wouldn’t get whacked off by the trees which were so close that they brushed my sleeves as we went by.
When my brother-in-law locked my wife and me in our cabin one morning as a joke and nobody heard us yelling, she picked up a chair and threw it through the window so we could climb out, then told the place to charge it to his cabin. I knew there was reason I married her.
Each morning we would get up and stick bottles of tequila in small cold springs around the grounds near our cabins and then pull them out to drink around the campfire at night.
When we left, we took a VW wagon for the trip to Stanley, Idaho, where we would be flown to the river. The car barely made it up the mountain roads. We were supposed to fly out as soon as we arrived but the fog was so dense that it was postponed until morning. They put us in a motel and we spent the evening at one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been in. Everybody got blasted and most of the couples ended up fighting for one reason or another, so we straggled home with the men staggering along well behind a group of women who were striding angrily into the night as only women can do.
It was still incredibly foggy the next morning but they decided we would take off anyway, two small planes. The way you take off from Stanley, which is located on a butte, is head for the edge as fast as the plane will go, drop off and hope you have enough speed to take flight. One plane had everybody else, the other had me, up front with the pilot, my wife in a rear seat and all the supplies, with one of our guides lying atop them. The pilot made it an adventure, to say the least, turning the plane up on its wing as we meandered between mountains to our riverside landing strip. I looked down and asked, “How long is that strip?” Pilot replied, “Just about a mile.” “How much do you need to land safely?” “Just about a mile.” And damned if he wasn’t right, as we stopped right by the water’s edge.
We had three rubber rafts, with a guide in each. There were several other trips on the river along with ours. The Governor of Idaho would pass by with his group as we were having breakfast, for example, and then we would pass by their evening camp site in late afternoon. Every group had its own site to stop at each day. We were the only ones who had to have more tequila a beer lifted in on the third day, as far as I know.
The weather was overcast a lot and the river was choppy. The first day out, the initial big moment came at a small dam which created a small waterfall in the river, maybe five or six feet high. We caught up with a group of fathers from Texas with their sons, who were doing it without guides. We watched them go over and, without exception, crash into the water and dump everybody out to be washed to shore. When it came our turn, the guide had me sit in the back of the raft. “You’ll get a helluva bump,” he said, “but just hold onto that handles on the side and you’ll be fine.” Over we went, wham we hit, and up into the air I flew…handles still in hand as they ripped out of the raft on impact. And right back into the raft I landed, flat on my back.
We never had a really rough time of it and nobody ever overturned, but there were moments. There are two great photos, somewhat out of focus, that I had but seem to have lost which I really liked. In one, our raft (my wife and I and one of the guides had the smallest one) is stuck between a couple of rocks and the guide is standing up front trying to push us free with an oar while I am in the back doing something or other inept with the other oar. The other, more exciting, photo has us near perpendicular to the river riding a wave up along a huge series of rocks in a small canyon, both he and I pushing off with oars so we don’t crash into them.
Our three guides were people you don’t forget. One of them, Clarence, was the lead guy and movie-star handsome. He generally had his way with women on trips throughout the summer, the stories went, and I believe the company which handled our trip fell apart a year later when he was caught with the owner’s wife. Another, Dick, was a dentist from Connecticut who liked this stuff so much that his vacation every summer was to come and work as a guide (Dick and I did a wild, near naked war dance under a small waterfall about half an hour inland from one of our overnight stops for some reason or other). The third, the one in our boat whose name I cannot recall, could not swim. When a boat in front of us overturned one day and a woman passenger was being swept downriver, I was running with him and some others to point where the river bent and it might be possible to jump in and save her, but she finally got control at that point and made her way to the far shore. I asked our guide what he was going to do if she hadn’t. “Jump in and try to save her.” “But you can’t swim.” “Doesn’t matter. It’s my job.”