A Day on the River

Published online: Aug 26, 2011 News Bill Croke - spectator.org

SALMON, Idaho -- I took -- in local parlance -- a "float" with friends on a recent Saturday, something I'd yet to do in Salmon, this town that so identifies with the eponymous river that runs through it.

Other than such Old World antecedents as Cleopatra floating down the Nile on a regal barge, going down rivers for pleasure and excitement seems to be an American pastime. A lazy float on a summer's day recalls, say, Huckleberry Finn, with the river carrying you along in a relaxing and contemplative way. Though here in the West it has wilder ancestors: Jim Bridger bobbing down the Bear River to the Great Salt Lake in a bullboat (a bowl-like wooden-framed craft covered tightly with buffalo hides) in 1825; or John Wesley Powell and Co. in 1869 crashing down through the whitewater canyons of the Colorado in four wooden dories. Commercial rafting trips became popular in western river towns as a summertime tourist draw in the 1970s.

After pre-arranged vehicle shuttling, we donned our life jackets and put in at the boat ramp at Eleven Mile, so named because it is that distance upriver from town. There were six of us: Me, Sharon, Tawna, Anita, Barbara and Chuck, all outdoors-loving Boomers. Our flotilla consisted of a thirteen foot-long rubber raft for the first four. Barbara had her small pontoon catamaran; and Chuck -- an avid canoeist -- his green fiberglass canoe, in which he knelt in the middle.

Everyone present were old hands at river recreation except yours truly. I thought of Tawna as my own personal paddling coach. It's important to avoid rocks, easily identifiable from a distance as foamy eruptions on the water. And to keep to the middle of the river so as to stay clear of shoreline hazards such as the rocks, and driftwood logs and brush. Tawna sat on the right rear of the raft and read the river. I sat on the left side of the bow. "Paddle, Bill," she ordered periodically. Or "Back paddle" (to turn and straighten the raft) or "Draw paddle" (to draw the raft out of the current and into shore).

When I say "read the river," I mean studying the flow of the current and related obstacles such as the rocks. There are things to learn. In fast water always keep the bow pointed downstream. Use the "tongue" of the river to better avoid too-shallow gravel bars, any scraping is detrimental to a rubber raft. The tongue is simply where the current goes in its natural progression of seeking the easiest channel in its flow.

It was a slightly cloudy and not hot day. There was also a gentle breeze. This was a blessing. A blazing day calls for plastering on sunscreen, as the sun reflecting off the river can deliver a terrible sunburn.

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