It is early June, bouncing on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River racing through Idaho in flood with ice melt down from the Rockies.
Our group of six divvies on two 12-foot Navy rubber rafts plus two kayaks, with battling oars in my own uncalloused hands. I have never oared a raft before, but drew the straw an hour ago as the second most experienced swimmer. A U.S. Seal is the oarsman in the other raft, and we each have a female bailer with a plastic can, now flailing, and all the gear in dry bags lashed with Boy Scout knots to the two rafts.
Through the first rapids, with a roar like a freight up and down the canyon. Into the second rapids, where a boulder incises a five-feet rip in the bottom. The raft fills slowly with water. Racing into the third rapids, a three foot wave bounces the busy bailer, up and out, in a tumbling orange life jacket.
Dead ahead, for miles and miles of bends and turns lie Class 5 whitewater – continuous rapids, crashing waves, jutting rocks, and deep drops. I hunker down, with a glance over the shoulder at the disappearing bailer, and watch ahead as if a National Geographic movie.
However, fate is kind with tear after tear in the raft bottom that fills and stabilizes it, so I can hang on the side ropes like a bucking rodeo cowboy. (Rowing a tanked raft is impossible because of the sheer weight.) The fluid dynamics center the raft in the stream, as the current pushes off each bank into the sides of the boat. Once, twice in the next hour the boat comes close enough to pine overhangs to reach out and grab, only to let go or be ripped out the raft and left dangling like a pine cone. Keep it in mind as an option.
A mile back, unbeknownst to me, the Seal has also catapulted out and down under Velvet Falls, one of the deepest holes on the river. His feet entangle in beer cans, and all he can hear is the tinkle of the cans and bubbles of the hole. He bounces up and down, up and down the hole struggling with the beer for five minutes, and finally kicks free and floats exhausted down the river.
I ride out the river in front of him, wondering where it will dump me. In about five hours, the water smoothes, and I paddle furiously for a sandbar that catches the raft bottom long enough for me jump out and tie to shore on a pine.
During the next hour, sad flotsam from our group floats by – beer cans, dry bags from the other raft, one broken kayak, and then the other shredded raft goes by. I have all the gear and everyone else is upstream.
In rescue mode now, I set up camp quickly on shore to receive the first living soul to drift in. When none arrives in an hour, I boulder hop upriver for thirty minutes, until it becomes impassible. The sun sets, the moon rises, I build a fire, and curl up dog-tired next to it.
The next morning, a kayaker in a green life jacket bobs by, with my bailer on the other side screaming, ‘Help! They’re riding the river the hard way, and sweep past. In another hour, the hardy Seal and other female kayaker appear shuffling along the far shore, shouldering their kayak and shouting, ‘Help!’
We call to each other across the fifty feet swift river, and shout up a plan. I throw a rope. They secure it. One at a time they hand-over-hand the rope while sitting in the kayak to my side. We eat breakfast, and then gather the necessary equipment to walk out. Really there’s no choice, because no other party would be stupid enough to tackle the Salmon River in flood stage.
We meet the other two who swept by downriver.
One lesson repeats like tumblers of a clock during the difficult two day hike to safety: I will never be an ignorant adventurer, but I love it and will go out again, and again.