This is the edited journal of a raft trip down the Salmon river of Idaho in the late summer of 1992. The trip was organized by Britt Bassett, whom our daughter Ilana Stern had married a year and a half earlier, and it used two rubber rafts, each with four people. Besides Britt and Ilana, these included Britt's parents Joan and Gene Bassett (rancher), Ilana's parents Audrey and David Stern (NASA physicist), and Ilana's younger brothers Oren and Allon. Britt and his family came from Colorado, Ilana's parents flew in from Maryland and Oren from Silicon Valley.
This was a memorable experience for every one of us: floating and rowing almost completely out of touch with civilization for a week--no phone, no news, camping on a sandbank every night--and at the end, drifting through a large forest fire. Before we left, newscasts warned of a big hurricane approaching Florida; coming out we learned that Audrey's sister Madalyn, living south of Miami, had to hide in a bathroom while the core of Hurricane Andrew passed overhead.
Sunday, 23 August 1992
A sunny Sunday in Boise, cool and windy, not a trace of rain clouds. Our motel is in the downtown area and there isn't much to do except wait for Oren, who should arrive within the next half hour.
Boise is clean and dry, its air feels fresh and cool. We were however told about temperatures of 100° and more a week earlier, "we usually get a few days like this, but this year we had three weeks." Much of downtown is being rebuilt in a modern style, but since it was a Sunday, practically everything was closed. Only the Salvation Army mission had customers, congregating outside.
We continued through deserted streets with hardly any traffic to the "Boise greenbelt" along the Boise river, a lush park with wide lawns, old trees and several museums (closed). We visited a nice rose garden, whose arbor house (the sign said) was a popular spot for weddings, then spent about half an hour in the zoo, visiting the grizzly bear, the mountain lion (menacing even behind bars), the tiger, bald eagle and many others. A nice place.
Oren arrived around 2 pm, cheerful. Only one eatery in the area was open, "Jackie's Deli." Jackie is really Giao, a Vietnamese woman whom the owner met in Boise and married. Now she is bringing over her relatives, after 11 years of paperwork. Among those was the 15-year old girl who served us, only 2 months in the US: she smiled nicely but understood nothing. Jackie's is just a hole in the wall, its main business (we were told) quick meals for workers of the surrounding office buildings, who are given half an hour for lunch, but the atmosphere is warm and the food good and varied, from standard fare to Oriental dishes like lumpia, big Phillipino spring roll. The owners talk to customers and for a while Audrey and Giao compared recipes. My corned beef sandwich was nicely warmed and the almond mocha ice cream absolutely superior.
A sign at Jackie advertised "Stuffed Potatoe" and later Audrey commented that here must be Dan Quayle country. [Dan Qayle was VP at the time, famous for mangling words]
Back at the motel, surprise! Britt and his father had arrived early, leaving Ilana at Albertson's supermarket to buy fresh food, Gene at the wheel of a new pick-up truck, piled high with rafts and gear. It seemed enormous, with a crew-cab, 4-wheel drive and many comfort features. We loaded our stuff into Britt's camper and picked up Ilana, who appeared to be in great shape, and then hit the road. Audrey and Allon went in Britt's camper, while I sat next to Gene, with Oren and Joan in the back of the cab. Gene driove well but absolutely refused to wear a seat belt.
The road out of Boise climbs a range of parched hills, then descends on a long steady incline, with "runaway truck lanes" that seem entirely appropriate. As Gene was coming down that slope. he told how (last year?) he was towing a horse trailer on a slope "just like this one," burned out his brakes, lost control and had the trailer jackknife and then end up in the ditch. The horses were OK, he assured me.
After that the road climbed along the Payette river, where a bad fire had raged the previous week. The hillsides were scorched, blackened tree trunks stuck out here and there, and piles of black logs lay besides the road where fire crews had cut up trees that fell across the highway. Later we passed some rather wild-looking rapids and Britt called a stop to have a look at them. I asked him what class they were. "Unrunnable." But we did see rafts and kayaks on other parts of the Payette.
As the road climbed higher the scenery turned into broad valleys with farms, wide pastures and cows by the hundred, munching grass. We passed the town of Cascade, home of a big lumber mill of the Boise-Cascade company, with huge piles of tree-logs wetted down by sprinklers on top. Then to McCall, a resort town by a pretty lake where the wind was whipping whitecaps. Many fancy sailboats.
After McCall the road crossed the ridge and descended along the Little Salmon river, a relatively puny stream which meets the Salmon near Riggins. The landscape again turned desolate, the mountains brown and bare, terraced with a network of deer trails. Riggins nests in a deep bare valley, a dark place and not too pretty, a community of 400 some 150 miles from Boise. We checked into the Riggins motel--4 rooms @ $34--and soon afterwards the "No Vacancy" sign lit up. Had dinner at "Cattleman's Inn", inexpensive and good, huge portions. A typed bulletin in the restaurant told the status of brush and forest fires: one was still going on at French Creek, near our take-out point, and some 550 fire fighters were involved. Many fire fighters could be seen in town, wearing yellow shirts or slickers.
Before sleep we needed transfer our belongings into three large waterproof "dry bags." It was a chore and a mess. In hindsight, we were rather ill-prepared and disorganized for this job, and managed it only by not packing the sleeping bags, but enclosing them in plastic bags and wrapping these in a large kit-bag, as one extra semi-waterproof package. We were also given a watertight surplus ammo box ("rocket box") for stuff used during the day (e.g. cameras) and in addition had our two smaller ammunition boxes; they too were not enough, and an additional "day bag" had to be improvised, with plastic inside and fabric outside. It was late at night, much too late, when we got to sleep.
Monday, August 24th
Got up early and walked over to Cattleman's--huge blueberry pancakes, Idaho hash browns. Then took the road we came on back to Pinehurst, some 12 miles away, where a former school bus, now converted to "River Rats Express" was waiting. Its last 3 seats had been removed to make place for river gear and its driver was a big burly fellow named Cruse, showing a healthy gut. Loading the bus took an hour: the frame of Britt's boat had to be taken apart to fit, the oars were slid under the seats, and in the end everything was in place, the only mishap being an ammo box dropped by Joan on Britt's toes. Our raft, borrowed from a friend and to be piloted by Ilana, is named "Patches," for good reason. It was slightly smaller than the other one.
Next we drove south, the way we had come, Cruse driving in bare feet while talking to Britt and Gene, Ilana lying down in the rear and taking it easy. Meanwhile Audrey and Joan chatted, Allon sat in front and watched the landscape, and Oren read a comic thriller by Westlake.
It was a long way to the put-in point. Somewhere south of Cascade the bus turned east and along a side-branch of the Payette. Stopped at Garden Valley for lunch, then onwards through the rolling highlands, including a stretch of the road not yet paved, though a grader had leveled it just before we arrived. Our goal was Stanley, the central town--indeed, the only one--in this part of Idaho. As we got closer the jagged skyline of the Sawtooth Range gradually filled the view.
Stanley is a frontier town: wooden structures next to unpaved roads, high store fronts, few trees, desolate terrain. It seems to be the hub of tourist travel in central Idaho; the office of the "River Rats" stands amid a collection of trucks and buses in various states of repair, also old washing machines. The area is patrolled by large friendly dogs and a young gray cat who reminded Ilana of her Elvis, but she got scratched when she tried to play with it. Britt meanwhile bought 2 old life jackets (needed as spares) for $10 each.
The Salmon river starts near Stanley, and now we are barreling down its valley with a different driver, a fellow with a huge black beard and a black hat who drives like a maniac. He was hitting 70 on straight stretches until Britt insisted that he slow down. That night Joan explained: "You know where much of the money goes that you paid for the bus? Insurance."
Near Stanley the river is small, too shallow for rafting, and the surrounding valley is forested and green. We passed the remnants of an old dam, dynamited long ago when it was found to block the salmon's spawning run. Nowadays few spawning salmon find their way up the river any more, and many of the hatchlings on the return trip are torn up by turbines on the Columbia river.
Half an hour later the river has become bigger and the landscape is again dry and desert-like, except for broad farm valleys where crops are irrigated. Several times we passed irrigation ditches tapping the river, which may have been why even with added tributaries, the river did not grow bigger. On the parched mountains flanking the valley one could see deer, and their trails laced the mountain sides just as they did near Riggins. Unlike the Payette, the river here flows sedately.
Salmon is a town with just under 3000 inhabitants, its large high school is home of the Salmon Savages who were on the ballfield as we drove by. Our driver, who looks like Stonewall Jackson, talks with a drawl and occasionally spits out a word or phrase with great emotion. He told us that in the wintertime he ferries school buses in Iowa, Georgia, Virginia and other states.
Beyond Salmon the high ridge of the Bitterroot mountains come into view, rising above timberline and forming the continental divide (no snow, as yet). At the North Fork grocery store we stopped for gas and a few last bars of candy--also a deck of cards. Then we continued along the Salmon, whose valley here is much deeper and narrower. The driver told us that the road was built with a lot of manual labor by the Civil Conservation Corps just before WW II. It was intended to reach to Riggins but was never completed.
The road was paved up to Shoup, where a big shed covered the entrance to an abandoned mine. We now began seeing signs of fire-fighting activities--encampments, parked helicopters, a giant plastic bucket marked "1180 gallons," vehicles and people in yellow slickers. After a while we also saw smoke rising above the ridges. Then the bus rounded a turn and suddenly we were facing a fire across the river, burning patches of grass on the opposite slope. Nothing big--I suppose a dozen men with fire-beaters could have handled it.
Instead, a big two-rotor helicopter was dousing the flames with water. The driver stopped the bus and everyone went out to watch: it almost seemed as if a show had been staged for our benefit (later I wondered whether the fire was set deliberately as a practice exercise). The helicopter would hover above the river while the huge bucket slung below (similar to the one we saw on the ground) filled with water. It would then rise, back away from the hillside, then move forward again so that the cable holding the bucket angled away from the fire. Then as it approached the hillside, the bucket would open and a curtain of spray would rain down from it. From our vantage point the water seemed to miss a lot (but perhaps the idea was to wet down grass which was not yet burning). On one pass it did hit the edge of a burning patch, the flames dimmed for a few seconds but immediately brightened again.
We reached Corn Creek after 8:30 pm. Even with late sunset, but by that time it was almost night, and by the time the bus was unloaded it had got quite dark (no moon, the entire trip). Ilana brought out bread, cheese, turkey-ham and mayonnaise, Britt set up the gas lamp and boiled water for hot chocolate, and that was dinner.
The gear was unloaded near the end of the concrete "put-in ramp" and Britt and Ilana pitched their tent nearby, to keep an eye on it. The rest of us camped not too far, and Britt and Ilana showed us how to pitch our tent--a big dome tent belonging to Gene and Joan, its zippers mostly shot, so that only one of the two entrances opened, and just part of the way. Somehow everything was set up in the dark, and we slept in our clothes--that is, Audrey, Allon and me. Oren had brought his own tent from California. The night was fairly cold, but the sleeping bags did their job.
Tuesday, August 25
Slept solidly through the night, much better than I remember ever doing back home. Audrey, on the other hand, was up all night and complained of either an allergy or a cold, hoping it was the former. I was out by 6:40 and thawed out by lighting a small fire in the metal pan provided at the campsite. The sun reached the deep valley only around 9 and at 9:44 a jet boat across the river started its motor and ended the idyll.
This is a pretty place, facing a wide pool of quiet deep water, with wooded slopes (Ponderosa pine), a ranger's shack and nice clean outhouses ("A closed lid gathers no flies"; "keep it sweet, close the seat."). A commercial outfit was already busy on the landing and had pumped up its boats in a jiffy, using a motorized pump. The birds tweet, a riffle in the distance rustles quietly, the fire is almost out and it seems high time to lend a hand in pumping up the rafts.
Our boats were put in the water around 2:20 pm, just behind a troop of young girls. One of their boats was driven by 6 eager paddlers, and a fellow in a kayak escorted them: they soon passed out of sight.
This boat is piloted by Ilana and in the front sit Allon, Audrey and I. In the other boat, piloted by Britt, are Joan, Gene and Oren. The rear of each boat is piled high with dry bags and other baggage, secured by a strong net strapped down all around; on top of that each boat rests a bundle of four lawn chairs. The food resides in giant coolers on which the rowers sit, and Britt's boat has a compartment beneath the frame stacked with cans of pop and beer. Stashed somewhere down there, too, are two outsize plastic bottles of bourbon and rum, and Britt's boat carries a tank of propane for cooking and lighting.
The floor next to the rowers is crowded by waterproof boxes, each strapped down to the frame, which in its turn is strapped to D-shaped rings attached around the raft's periphery. Indeed, straps with locking buckles are a main ingredient of rafting: we must have used dozens of them, to ensure that even if the raft turned upside-down everything would stay attached.
Each boat carries in front a plastic 5-gallon bailing bucket and a net filled with cans of drink, slung overboard to keep them cold (in shallows and rapids it would be hauled back). Passenger space is in front, but on our boat it is shared with a dry-bag, for which there wasn't enough space for it in the back.
At the bend of the river where we had our last glimpse of Corn Creek we hit our first riffle. Not bad, just some waves and a few shallow rocks which Ilana easily dodged. Then the water became quiet and ran deep (as the proverb goes) in what we learned to call an eddy. The entire river was like that, long stretches of quiet deep eddy pools, then fast rides down rapids or riffles. It is a natural feature: rock-slides block off stretches of river to produce eddies, and then at their lower end water cascades wildly over the blockage.
A while later we hit Killum rapids and then Gunbarrel rapids, both of grade II. Britt went first and Ilana watched him, then we followed, generally by a similar route, splashing and bouncing quite a bit. Once we whumped a rock and in later rapids we hit a few "holes", but the raft sailed through unharmed.
We pulled up around 4:30 pm at a small beach just a few hundred yards from Horse Creek. We could have continued one more mile downstream where Indian pictographs were said to be visible, but Ilana was worried that adjacent campgrounds might be taken by outfitter crews.
Must end this note--she is calling me to cut veggies for dinner.
Dinner started with a container of party-dip, in which we dipped sliced pepper, celery and broccoli, and also baby carrots. The main course was grilled chicken, and for Allon the vegetarian, grilled eggplant (a side of the grill was kept chicken-free for him). I chose to share the eggplant, but unfortunately by the time Allon got to the fire the coals had cooled down and the eggplant stayed rather hard. Later Ilana broke out ice-cream bars, still quite solid, and then we sat around the fire (in a fire pan, brought along--all ashes must be carried out as well) and watched the brilliant stars come out. The Milky Way cut right across the sky and Britt identified stars and constellations--Altair, Vega, the northern cross with Deneb and so on, he is quite knowledgable. So (in a different way) is his dad, who identified paw-prints by the water as those of a mountain lion, but assured us we won't be troubled. "You are very lucky to find this, they don't come down here very often."
Late in the afternoon Britt went out fishing and quickly caught a bull trout and another fish, then others which he let go. Allon found fishing fascinating, though he would never eat any of the catch.
Wednesday, August 26th
... We are at Lantz bar in a quiet side-bay of the river, across from the former homestead of Frank Lantz which is now a forest service station. It isn't as nice as last night's stop. The bay is edged with underwater weeds, the beach is sandy but rather steep, fishing is poor (one fish, thrown back) and insects abound, especially those yellowjacket wasps which follow us everywhere. Even in mid-stream they somehow find us.
But what worries us more is a grayish-white cloud which has risen up in the west during the last hour, covering the sunset and making the sun appear orange-red. Somewhere ahead the forest is burning in a big way. Do we also smell smoke, or is that just my imagination?
Our trip so far has been leisurely and enjoyable. We rose late, had coffee and a huge omelet plus a few pan-fried trout, including two caught by Britt in the morning with almost no effort. As we ate and chatted, other and more purposeful boating parties passed us by, including heavily loaded cargo boats of outfitters escorted by a flock of "duckies", canoe-shaped inflatable one-man crafts.
I spent the first rafting stretch in Britt's boat, listening mainly to Gene and Joan, delightful company. Gene spins stories and is amazingly active, in spite of his bad leg (damaged in WW II from which he was discharged with a 40% disability, made worse by accidents with horses). Joan has kept the figure of a young girl and has energy to match, with a surprisingly broad range of interests.
After a while Britt handed me the oars and explained to me what to do: he is a patient and good teacher. We passed a few small rapids and it seemed that the boat almost always sought out the best way by itself, the main problem was not to bump into rocks. (Easy in small rapids: in big ones, I later realized, the trick was to spot those rocks in time.)
For lunch we stopped at a shady sandy beach. Gene stripped and swam for a while in the icy water, at one point doing a vigorous crawl upstream while remaining absolutely stationary. Joan followed briefly, even I dipped twice, but the river was too cold. We ate sandwiches and oranges.
After lunch I joined Ilana's boat, where Oren rowed and ran some riffles very nicely. Then we reached the "Rainier" rapid, class III. Ilana and Britt scouted it out on foot and decided to run it on the right: the big thing was to avoid the large rock in the middle. Britt navigated pretty well, passed through the rapid in a flash and then pulled up into an eddy. Ilana's run was also quick, though she did manage to hit the rock: it made however no difference, only producing a lot of spray. Rainier was followed by a long quiet stretch, almost straight. I rowed much of it and in the end ran a few riffles.
Now we are in camp, watching the smoke. I no longer feel chipper but am rather hot, feeling the effect of too much sun. Audrey seems not much better, but the boys are full of beans.
Thursday, 27 August
Our campsite tonight is next to Sabe creek, a delightful stream with a fair amount of water. We camp as before on a sandbar by the river, past Salmon Falls and just short of Barth Hot Springs. The sand and the water here are separated by a stretch of rounded river boulders, up to a foot or two across, and other such boulders lie in the water and are slippery with algae. Stepping out of the boat Audrey slipped on one of those and landed with a great splash, hurt quite a bit but saved from a worse blow by the life jacket she wore. I rushed to her, slipped on a sandy boulder, hit a rock with my left shin and popped a vein, which later swelled to the size of a child's finger and hurt like hell. Luckily Britt's first-aid box had an ace bandage and also dervocet pain killer pills, and these helped. Joan's comment: "We come over the falls and then we camp and almost kill ourselves."
But back to last night. Around dinner time someone made an awful discovery: we were carrying a dry bag which wasn't ours. It contained a tent and other stuff, and a name with an Oregon address was written on the outside. The preceding night no one had noticed: Ilana thought it was ours and we thought it belonged to one of the others. No one knew how it came aboard, but it must have happened in the confusion around departure time, when several parties were milling around and someone must have put his bag next to our pile. Joan in particular is very disturbed--poor guy, out on the river without any of the things he needs. But not much can be done now: our pace is slow and other parties that started with us must all be far ahead.
The dinner centered on beef fajitas, served with very good whole-wheat tortillas. An old horse trail followed the river and led to the Lantz homestead, and Ilana and Audrey went down it to the abandoned orchard near the house, where they picked a bunch of small apples. They had red streaks on their skin but proved to be rather tart.
As it happened, our "groaner" was also sited on that horse trail: setting it up was one of Britt's first chores each times we camped, and taking it down one of the last whenever camp was broken up. An old ammo box lined with plastic bags served as both seat and waste container, and perched on top was a toilet seat, with wooden cleats on the underside to hold it atop the box. Quicklime from a plastic container was afterwards sprinkled over the waste, and the box was meant strictly for solids--to pee one went to any convenient nearby bush, which probably appreciated the nitrogen. The site selected for the groaner was always hidden from our campsite, but unavoidably, was generally in full view of the river. A red lifejacket was draped over a boulder or hung on a tree as signal: anyone using the facility took the jacket along and replaced it afterwards.
The following day (today) we left slightly earlier, around 11:30, and the most notable event of the morning was our raft getting stuck on a rock, in a relatively small rapid. I was rowing and Ilana was giving orders, but as she later said, things happened too fast, and the delay between navigator and rower led to trouble. The front of the boat slid over the rock, but the heavier baggage end stuck fast. Ilana tried all sorts of oar maneuvers to no avail, until Britt, who had landed downstream and had come bounding over the shore rocks, yelled "everyone move to the front." We did so and as if by miracle, the boat freed itself and drifted off the rock.
A bit later Britt spotted a lone person by the riverside, a hiker who asked for (and got) a ferry-ride across. The man was carrying a huge backpack and as we came along, was preparing to wrap everything in a tarp and swim across with it. He said that he had come 50 miles and planned to walk 100 more, and that he had seen many forest fires.
We stopped for lunch by a creek and then continued to Salmon falls, a class III rapid. A mile or so before it the geology changes and the canyon becomes narrower and steeper: this is the "black canyon" with its cliffs and its sculptured rounded outcrops. The falls used to be a major hazard but its worst rocks have been dynamited.
Britt and Ilana scouted the rapids and then we went over. An unavoidable ledge extended here all the way across the top of the rapid, all one could do was to keep to the right to avoid a second ledge, and somehow dodge the rocks below. Both boats splashed a lot, both were greeted near the end of the run by an unexpected "mystery rock" and both bumped (but not too hard) against a final boulder sticking out at the very end. They tended to follow the center of the current, like a horse that knew its way home.
In the afternoon Britt passed two paddles to our boat (he had found them on a previous trip and, incredibly, they matched), and our non-rowers (other than Audrey) got busy, helping the boat gain extra speed through the eddies. Britt's boat more than matched our progress by double-handed rowing, with an additional rower (Allon and Joan, at various times) facing Britt.
Now we sit by the "crick" (Bassett-talk), having eaten big steaks, potatoes and green beans; Allon ate fried tempeh instead, it proved somewhat too salty, and Britt supplemented dinner with a trout he had caught. The swelling and pain of my leg have subsided. As on previous nights we sit around the fire-pan, Joan sorting out garbage and burning any paper or other flammable stuff: the more is burned, the less is left to carry out. Audrey: "Except for the yellow-jackets, this is a very nice place to camp."
We also finished the last of the carrots. Gene: "Joan eats so many carrots she doesn't need a flashlight at night."
Late in the evening Britt and Oren went back to fish by the mouth of the creek. Britt baited a hook with some leftover steak and almost immediately something big grabbed it with such force that the line snapped and the hook was gone. The two continued until dark. Wading across the creek on the way back, Oren lost a shoe: he could not find it and will have to use Britt's spare scuba shoes.
Friday, 28 August
Got up pretty early (considering the late sunrise). Every morning we hear a small airplane cruising above, probably a fire-spotter of the forestry service. Britt and his dad lugged their water filter and pump to the creek, a big contraption requiring its own ammo can. In short order they produce enough drinkable water to fill two jerrycans and a few smaller containers. Joan came and asked for a cupful to brush her teeth, then I followed her example. The creek water looked as clear as any tap water back home, and Gene wondered aloud if any filtering was really necessary.
We pushed off at 10:35 and had gone about a mile when we spotted a pair of rafts pulled up to a sandbar below a high black cliff, on the left bank. This was the site of hot springs about which Britt was told by a friend. Mentioned neither by map nor by guidebook, they were much nicer than the Barth hot springs (marked by both) half a mile further downstream. The rafts carried three river guides, two men and a woman, on their own end-of-the-season trip: they knew the place.
To reach the springs one climbs about 150' to the base of the cliff, where the water collects in a pool with a concrete brim, about 6' by 10' and some 3'-4' deep, built by river guides. The water smelled clean--no sulfur--and the temperature was just right, "hot tub temperature" in Oren's terms. Small wonder--the pool was fed by two plastic pipes, one from the hot springs, the other from a cold spring nearby, and to adjust the temperature one only had to lift out the appropriate pipe. The pool even had a drainplug at the bottom, and the guides asked Britt to pull it out when we were done, so that algae would not grow in the pool.
Sitting in the pool was balm to body and soul. Britt had brought along a bailing bucket, scooped out some hot water and used it (some distance away) to wash Ilana's hair and then his own. We left rather reluctantly.
Down at the sandbar Gene and Britt saw a large number of big fish and Britt tried his luck twice with steak bait. The fish struck almost at once, but only whitefish, which Britt released. The second time a huge trout went after the bait, but a little fellow outraced it.
Barth hot springs are located on a spit jutting out into the river and can hardly be missed. Their water is steaming hot and it does smell a bit of sulfur. The most notable features of the site are inscriptions chiseled by past visitors on nearby boulders, starting with one that says "Mackay 1872 + 1905 + 1911." Like subway graffiti, it has attracted others.
The rest of the day was a blur--many small rapids, bumping into rocks and getting soaked, but no more hang-ups. The main current of a rapid usually ends in a row of "haystacks", large standing waves created when the fast stream plows into boulders sticking out from the bottom. Haystacks are harmless (unless they hide a rock) but are likely to splash those sitting in the front. Since the boats generally follow the main current, sooner or later one gets wet, but on hot days like this one it is just part of the fun.
On the banks we saw forest sections where most trees were killed by past fires; all along the river quite a few living trees had fire scars. The reddish Ponderosa pine has a thick bark which resists fire, and in a scattered stand of trees (as Britt noted) a brush fire which passes quickly may actually benefit trees by killing bark beetles. The dense forest stands are the vulnerable ones, and we pass some that have been reduced to charred trunk-sticks.
The river has water birds, especially mergansers, smallish ducks with sharp beaks and crests with a reddish tinge. Gene says, "Mergansers eat fish and no one eats them because their meat tastes so fishy. Unless you are starving". Also a smallish black-and-white waterbird which Ilana told was a water ouzel. It dove into the stream and disappeared, and Ilana said it swam like a penguin, using wings as flippers.
For lunch we stopped at a small sandbar past some rapids: pita bread, cheese, bean sprouts, lunch meats and "goldfish" cookies from a humongous box. Later I moved again to Britt's boat. As on previous days, around 4 pm a stiff west wind began blowing and seriously impeded our progress, especially in eddies. I double-rowed with Britt, while Ilana had paddlers assisting Oren at the oars.
After a while we began to worry about a camping spot, because we did not want to pass Bailey rapids (III+ to IV) until the next morning. In the end we stopped some 1/4 mile short of the rapids, near the mouth of Bargamin creek, a large side-creek arriving from the north and crossed by a substantial pack-bridge. It was the last possible campsite and looked uninviting from the river, a high bank piled with stones. But Britt explored a bit and found a nice level area above the stones, and that is where we are now.
Boy, am I tired! And of the many things I brought, maybe half could have been left behind: second camera for slides (too hard to unpack), shorts (ditto), even underwear. After 3 days on the river, nobody cares about clean clothes any more. All "clean" clothing is jumbled at the bottom of the dry-bag anyway, while the manifestly dirty stuff makes a nice filling for the pillow-case that goes under my head at night. I sleep hard, bone tired. But it is fun, the Bassetts are nice and it is good to have families share the experience. Gene has a delightful way with words. Both he and Joan are rather "western" in style and attitude, easy-going but hard-working, and remind one of times and places where people were few and their company (those willing to blend) cherished. Whenever the boat docks, they pitch in at once, looking for and finding things to do, and not resting until all is in place. I try hard to imitate them.
Saturday, 29 August.
What a day, what a string of disasters. It started (for me) around dinnertime on Friday, when an artery apparently popped on the back of my right palm and the pain kept me up for a long time at night. It continued when Ilana's boat (with me, Oren and Allon) unexpectedly became trapped in a "hole," in some unnamed small rapid. And it culminated when the same raft got wrapped around a big rock in the middle of Elkhorn rapids (III+ to IV), with everyone ending up in the water.
Let me start with the last, harrowing item. Now, only an hour later, we all sit at the campground below the rapids, I hold a cup of hot cider laced with bourbon and everyone is retelling his or her side of the story.
It happened in a flash. Britt and Ilana had scouted the rapids, had decided to go down the left side and Britt had run them with no trouble. Then we went: it seemed we were a bit further towards the middle, but Ilana appeared to be in full control. All of a sudden, the big rock in the middle of the rapids came near. Ilana pulled strongly towards the left and I was thinking, surely we'll just bounce off, as we had done on a few previous occasions. There is always a strong flow next to jutting rocks, skirting around them, and I thought it would catch the boat and whisk it to safety.
Only it didn't, instead the boat was pinned against the rock. I had read this could happen, but did not recall the remedy. Ilana yelled something--I thought it was "get off" and since someone (Allon?) was already floating away in the water, I jumped too. [The proper thing to do was to climb to the high side of the boat, and I think Ilana was shouting "get up."]
Immediately the stream whisked me off, amazingly quickly. Feet forward, feet forward--I remembered something of the safety rules, bump your feet, not your head. My stupid straw hat, secured by a chinstrap, stayed on, and for one instant flipped over my eyes; I flipped it back. The water dunked me briefly, but I had lots of air, came up and looked around. I have no recollection of the water being cold, though it certainly was.
Was I worried? Yes and no. It did not feel like serious trouble: the stream was rather narrow and it stood to reason that I could swim to either bank. The water had brought me within 10 feet of the left bank (Britt and his boat were on the right one) and I struck out for it. I was bouncing off shore rocks--seeking but not yet finding one that offered a good grip--when suddenly the raft floated by and I decided to go after it (the thing not to do, I was later told). Allon was holding on to it and yelling he could not get on. I swam over and held on, while Britt threw a line and Allon grabbed it. I wondered if I could reach that line too, but it was too far, so I stuck to the boat.
It was a bumpy ride. I could not pull myself onto the back of the raft, so I moved to the middle and was getting ready for another attempt when I felt rocks under me and then the boat got stuck near the right bank. As it turned out, an oar blade was wedged between rocks and became bent, a $40 item. I clambered onto a rock and from it onto the boat, and when Britt's raft appeared around the bend I was sitting atop the raft as if all this was my doing, which it really wasn't. Now I felt cold and shivery.
The proper thing to do when a raft is pinned to a rock is for the passengers to climb to the high side of the raft, next to the rock, so that their weight forces the raft down, back into the water. Oren tried to do so but couldn't, Ilana did but then the raft got away from her. She swam to Britt's boat, terribly upset: when that boat reached me, she was crying on Audrey's shoulder, "I have killed my family!". Allon had lost a shoe, but his hat also stayed on, as did Oren's. Audrey later said she could identify those in the water by their bobbing hats.
Britt was quite resourceful. Audrey later told me that as our boat floated by, Gene yelled "get the boat!" and Britt yelled back "to hell with the boat, people are important!" As he approached where I was sitting, he shouted to me to stay put, came by, tossed a line which I tied to the frame, then came over and helped extract the boat. It was all over in a few minutes. I walked over to the other boat, said hello, hugged Audrey, then went back to put on the vinyl jacket (I was still cold) and started bailing, for there was a lot of water in the front. A while later Oren joined me.
After what seemed a long time, during which Britt replaced the oar with a spare, we continued downstream, Ilana again piloting. She seemed rather shaky and got hung up briefly on a flat rock, then bumped off another one, but she made a textbook run through the last rapid before landing here. She looked rather downcast.
The hole that briefly detained us was another type of emergency: you may read about it in books, but appreciate it only after you had the experience. Until today, running the rapids seemed easy: one may bounce off rocks, but the raft always seemed to find its way.
A hole is the swirl beneath a small waterfall, or behind a rocky ledge over which water pours. The dropping water goes to the bottom and then flows on, but its more shallow layers swirl backwards, in the upstream directions, and can trap boats and swimmers. If a raft hits it with some speed, it keeps going, but if it moves slowly, it can get trapped. For a swimmer this is a dangerous place where one can get "maytagged."
Our raft hit the hole too slowly. We were in what seemed an easy stretch, Allon at the oars and Ilana lying on the pile in the rear, resting. From time to time she gave Allon instructions, but she never anticipated the hole, in the middle of a small no-name rapid. The boat hit it side-on with hardly any forward momentum and stuck.
To me it seemed more scary than getting tossed into the water. There we were, below a waterfall, the front of the boat gradually filling to the brim, and the stream did not carry us out. It seemed like something that could last indefinitely.
Ilana pulled the oars: no results. She yelled for everyone to move to the front: nothing. She thrust the oars into the stream in various ways, but there was no obvious effect, either.
Luckily in the end the hole "spat us up and chewed us out" as Audrey said last night, adding (when she realized what she had said) "my God, I sound like Dan Quayle!"
The other events of the day weft just dim memories--the four river otters we saw, the fisherman with his two kids whom we saw at the end of the Whitewater road (his car dimly seen through the trees) and the successful run through Bailey rapids, after scouting from the banks. We also ran Big Mallard, III+ to IV, but I have neither recollection nor notes. Now it is dinner time, fettucini alfredo with clam sauce for all but Allon and me. I am cold and shivering--aftereffects of the swim?--and the last of daylight is about gone.
(Still shivering after dinner, I climbed into my sleeping bag and stayed there the rest of the evening.)
Sunday, 30 August.
Up at 7:15--boy, is it cold! Now it is about 8, the sun has reached the mountaintops but the hill behind us will shade this place for a few hours longer.
The four river otters we saw yesterday were cute. First one popped out of the water, then another, then the rest. On land they look unexpectedly small and weasely, but they never stayed long out of the water. Today we saw chukkar partridges by the river, like oversize quail, and Britt later encountered a rattler "of medium size."
Lunchtime on a sandbar, past what may or may not have been Whiplash rapids. Britt is fishing, time for being lazy. All of us city slickers are getting a bit beat up. Oren cut his hand and just now was stung by a yellow-jacket. Audrey slipped on rocks climbing to the Campbell Ferry pack bridge and bruised her legs so badly that she decided to stay behind. "But I am enjoying every moment of this."
Once this trip is over we will all need a long rest. The swelling on my left shin is down, but a bigger one on the right followed the spill into the water; it's now safely under the ace bandage,. The left big toe is black and blue from Thursday's fall and still hurts, as does my right hand, though not enough to stop it from writing. Bruises and scratches are all over. What a klutz!
It has again been a long day, with many small rapids but none serious enough to scout out. Incidentally, everyone agreed that if Ilana yesterday hadn't scouted Elkhorn but had looked out and threaded her way, she would have done all right. Based on her scouting she chose a marker rock, misidentified it and ran into trouble. The worst problem today was Britt's raft getting stuck on a rock, long enough for me to snap a picture. Ilana scraped a few rocks and shot across some holes, but we always had enough speed to keep going.
We stopped at Campbell Ferry where a fairly large suspension bridge crosses the river, erected in 1955. All of us climbed up to it--it is sturdy enough for a pack train--and visited the Campbell farm on the southern bank. The farm is nearly 100 years old and contains 5-6 buildings in various states of disrepair, now being restored as a historical site. An amiable but somewhat slow young fellow ("doesn't have both oars in the water", Ilana's phrase about someone else) keeps an eye on it, helped by a large German shepherd. Scattered around the farm were rusting pieces of equipment--old plows, horse-pulled harvester, sawmill blades, cast-iron stove and so forth. The farm also had irrigation ditches and a big pear tree, filled with unripe fruit, and on the hillside was what the caretaker called an airstrip, steep enough for a beginners' slope in ski season. The young man, who grew a handsome beard, said he would stay until the end of the season and then would fly out. Occasionally, he said, he walked to Dixie (pop. 15), about 10 miles away by trail.
I then returned to Audrey while Britt, Ilana and the rest explored the smaller Moore farm across the river, with fine old cottages built of hand-hewn logs. Then we continued downstream, stopping for lunch at a sandbar on the left. Lunch fare is increasingly dominated by a collection of leftovers. The last of the ice has long ago melted, and Ilana now stocks the cooler with bottles of cold river water.
After lunch the sky became progressively hazier, until we actually smelled smoke and only with difficulty could make out the last ridge in the distance. We had planned to keep going until just before the Ludwig rapids, but the smoke deterred us and on Ilana's advice we stopped on a sandbar near Painter creek. It ought to be named yellowjacket bar, nowhere else have they been as thick and as aggressive as here. They were especially attracted by anything smelling of whiskey or beer, and also swarmed over a certain waterweed whose leaves floated to the surface and whose fruits and flowers poked out above the water. Earlier, in mid-river, one flew up to Ilana and stung her on the thigh, causing a big and painful red spot.
Ilana has been giving more and more attention to teaching Oren to navigate rapids, and he has been getting pretty good at it (he had already gone white-water rafting in California, on the American River). They helped each other locate rocks in the river--not easy when water spills over them and obscures them--and to identify what they called "goalposts", rocks between which the boat must thread its way. If the goalposts are equally distant, this is mainly a matter of aiming for the opening. Often the opening is narrow, but one rock is more further away: the trick then is to pass as close as possible to the nearer rock, then give a quick pull or two on the oars and move away from the more distant one before it is reached. But the hard part is spotting rocks ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises, and Oren has become very good at that. The higher one's vantage point, the easier the job is, and Oren often stands up in front or kneels on the tubes.
Britt's boat has raised wooden seats, easy to stand on. Whenever a rapid is approached Britt stands up on one of these and surveys the scene, looking like a prairie dog on the look-out at the mouth of its burrow.
For the last hour or so Joan, Britt and Oren have been fishing, baiting the hook with the remains of a ham which is no longer fit to be eaten. Dinner was to be either fresh fish or burritos, depending on their success. It turned out to be burritos: Joan has caught 10 whitefish, but only one was large enough to keep. Afterwards Ilana read to us stories about the river and its early settlers from "River of no Return" by Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley. Now Audrey, Allon and the Bassetts sit on the folding chairs and chat, the booze has been abandoned to the wasps and the smoke in the west is gone. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day after all.
Monday, 31 August
What a day! It started when we got up in the morning and first Gene, then the rest of us discovered a thin coating of cinders on top of our tents. The smoke near the western horizon was also back. The day is ending now, on a sandbank some 3 miles below Shepp's ranch. When we last saw the ranch, on the south bank, it was surrounded by fires and was defended by two bucket-helicopters and crews of firefighters. Some people were using road flares to set counterfires on the slope above us, others were pumping water from the river, wetting down grass and running sprinklers on the rooftops.
All this is now 3 miles back. For a while we passed fires on both banks, but we are now past the big flames, and the smoke is gone thanks to the western breeze. Still, on the slope east of us the one can see what looks like the proverbial thousand points of light of light (to quote George Bush), as well as a lone fire upwind from us (I look again: three fires, not one). All these are on our side of the river (the northern one). The valleys further north are filled with smoke and most ominous, just as we were setting up camp, a veritable volcano of smoke erupted above the southern skyline, across the river. It looks like a flare-up on some ridge further from the river, invisible from here.
Anyway, here we are, after a long afternoon of rowing. Ilana refused to go any further, her strength was gone, Oren's was too and the rest of us were no better (except maybe Britt. Nothing fazes him.) For dinner we ate a curried chickpea stew (spicy!), Norwegian crackers and for dessert cheesecake with cherry topping squeezed onto it from a foil bag. Pretty good.
Before dessert Ilana and the boys made us listen to a song they made up earlier today, while rowing, a parody of "Little houses on the hillside, ... and they all are made of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same" [sung by Pete Seeger in 1963]. I had earlier listened to them making up some of the rhymes, as well singing together a jumbled medley by Weird Al Yanklevich, with which they had a lot of fun.
But back to the morning....
A few miles from last night's campsite was Five Mile Bar, home for many years to Sylvan Hart or "Buckskin Bill", a bizarre character and superior craftsman (in WW II he left the place to help build bomb sights for the Air Force), who built some remarkable flintlock guns, home implements, a "castle" and a lot more.
The sign on the sandbar said "Welcome" and beneath it, in smaller lettering, "store open." Next to that were three hideous pink plastic flamingoes and an overly friendly German shepherd. The store's stock included T-shirts, souvenir magnets and books about the place, also ice-cream bars kept cold by electricity from a turbine on the nearby Five Mile Creek. It was tended by a German woman who had come to the US in 1980 and to Five Mile Bar in 1984. What we actually needed was sugar, which she did not sell, but she gave us some of her own stock. She also told us we would find fires about 20 miles downstream, on both sides of the river.
Next to the store was a one-room museum, displaying Sylvan's guns and utensils, pots he made, skis, his backpack and so on, a remarkable collection. It also held a TV with a VCR and we watched on it a tape of Sylvan demonstrating his guns, including a 3-gauge monster firing a 6-oz slug. The place is now owned by Chana Cox and her book about her life at Five Mile Bar, "A River Went out of Eden" (Genesis, chapt. 1) is on sale at the store (I bought it). The biblical name "Chana" intrigued me and I was told that she was Jewish. Later Oren discovered on the outhouse behind the house (near the turbine) a hand-carved Yiddish plaque באד צמער ("bad tsimer"= bathroom).
Still later we visited the "castle," a stone tower overlooking the river. In the rear of the house was a nice garden with tomatoes, potatoes, beets, mint, parsley etc., also corn (not doing well) and rows of flowers. And two lazy cats, tabby and black-and-white.
Ludwig was a wild ride, rocky rapids with no clear lane through them. We bumped from rock to rock and somehow made it.
After that the signs of fire increased and we began to be passed by jet boats with fire-fighters. We saw one soon after passing under the Mackay pack bridge, then again near the entrance to the South Fork of the Salmon; some passengers wore yellow.
We ate lunch on a rocky island at the juncture of the South Fork and the main Salmon, a pile of rounded river-boulders covered at the top with shrub-willows. We ate quickly, improvising--tortilla rolled up with turkey ham, Pringle's potato chips and delicious cookies from "Mother's" bakery on Oakland, California.
Then back to the river, which entered a long quiet stretch between steep walls. The murk gradually deepened until there seemed to be as much smoke behind us as ahead, and not only could it be smelled, our eyes began to smart. More jet boats, rocking our rafts in their wakes (the trick is to point the nose perpendicular to the wave). Once we saw something red on the shore and stopped to investigate: it turned out to be a small portable fire pump.
We put on speed by paddling and rowing, but no one knew how far the fire was until we passed a small ranch on the left bank, with a fire crew standing by the water side. "In two miles you'll be there" they yelled to us.
Cinders were descending as we got nearer, sometimes whole charred leaves. From a distance we heard helicopters, together with the steady drone of water pumps. The smoke thickened and was obviously coming from the left [southern] bank. Then we saw the helicopters, first as shadowy things in the distance, then more distinctly. And finally, flames.
The Shepp ranch was under siege. Above it the forest burned, not a solid fire but a patchy one, sparing some areas shielded by rocks. Further down the fire was on both sides, and I mentally noted "this tree will probably make it, that one probably won't." Quite a few trees had burned through at their bases and their tops had toppled over, still green and untouched by flames. The only spectacular blazes we saw happened in thick stands of trees, where one could see the flames climbing up the trunks and skipping from tree to tree.
The two helicopters were big twin-rotor jobs (one, we were later told, used to belong to Donald Trump). They would fill their buckets in the river and pull up, but then they took their time releasing the water. The smoke must have made any aiming difficult and the helicopters themselves occasionally disappeared into the smoke. Most people we saw were across the river, on the northern shore, where three jet-boats were anchored. One was wetting down grass with a hose.
We watched for a while, then continued down the river: it was already past 6 pm and we wondered where in all this could a good safe campground be found. We ended up on a reasonably suitable sand bar which the wind kept free of smoke. As we pulled up we could see clear sky to the west: maybe we have indeed seen the end of the smoke and the fire.
Tuesday, 1 September
Slept hard, woke to find the canyon filled again with smoke. Dirty-white sky, a bit brighter and redder where the morning sun ought to be. But no flames, and the opposite shore where we saw last night's "volcano" was still untouched.
8 pm, Carey Creek
We arrived at our take-out point around 6:30. We only meant to get here tomorrow around noon, but lost our bearings because the dreaded "Dried Meat Rapids" (III to III+) and Chittam (III) never seemed to materialize. Perhaps the low water had shrunk them to where we never noticed. So we unexpectedly arrived in late afternoon at the Vinegar creek take-out, where two bored fire fighters were resting at the end of the concrete ramp. One was a scruffy-looking little guy in coveralls, with an "Agro-Rotor" emblem on his hat, the other a curly readhead wearing the fire-fighter's yellow shirt, who told us that a big fire Britt saw flaring up high on the north bank was at Tomato point and has now become the main focus of fire-fighting efforts.
Vinegar creek had no decent campsite and we decided to continue to our planned take-out at Carey creek, two miles further down. First Ilana and Britt scouted Vinegar creek rapids (III+ to IV) and proclaimed them no problem, the main chute slanted diagonally across in almost a straight line. Both boats got though with no hitch, though it might have been harder if the water were higher. We also passed Carey falls, very easy although they were the only river obstacle marked on the Idaho state map. The canyon beyond the rapids, however, had steep walls everywhere. In vain did we look for a sandbar, and all too soon we reached the Wind River pack bridge at Carey creek.
Now what? We drifted to the take-out ramp, a long tongue of concrete angling down to the water. Our cars had not yet arrived, and the small campground (way up on top) was taken by outfitters' people. Tent on the concrete? Next to the ramp the forest service had parked two "honey wagons" for groaner disposal, and they stank to high heavens.
Luckily a nice sandy campground existed on the north bank, across the bridge. It lay on a flat high bank, maybe 30' above the water level, like an island or a mesa. At some time the water undoubtedly must have reached even its top, to deposit there a layer of sand (as well as assorted boulders). The fire which had burned on the north side of the river had stopped at its edges. Providentially, the river also had a long eddy along its south bank where we had landed, and it was easy to row upstream in the quiet water, then dash across the main current to the campground on the other side.
We did so, then dragged the bags up the bank and set up camp as usual. While water was heating for cooking the dinner rice, everyone walked over to the bridge. Next to the trail were two concrete crosses, marking the graves of a young man who died of exposure in 1898 and of someone murdered by a partner in 1919. The area around the trail to the bridge had been badly scorched, but signs still stood prohibiting motorized vehicles, bicycles and hang gliders. The bridge itself was a bigger suspension span than the one at Campbell Ferry, some 300' long and unlike the other one, its span members were made entirely of wood. On the way back Allon and Gene plopped down rocks into the river (some 80' down, big splash) and then we sat down for dinner of rice and beans (vegetarian beans for Allon) and spicy Mexican chicken, together with assorted leftovers.
Lighting was a problem: our lantern's glass cylinder broke when the bottom of its box fell out as it was unloaded. Britt lit it anyway for a while, when the wind permitted it. The mishap however was a good excuse for a fire, and we sat around and chatted. Gene said: "I'm sure sorry to see a trip end like this, such a short one.... I never like to go back to civilization." Allon mentioned the lack of showers. "You have a river and you can jump in... Or heat some water. Even at cow camp I wash myself every day."
Later, when the flames simmered down to coals and some people had already drifted off, Gene came back and tossed his old shirt on the fire: he had planned to get rid of it when the trip ended. At first the shirt almost smothered the fire and thick smoke poured out of it. Then (it must have been some synthetic fiber) it seemed to melt bit by bit, like the wicked witch of the West, and only in the end did it flare up in a final blaze of glory. When that ended we all went to sleep.
Wednesday, September 2
Woke up to find the valley again filled with smoke. Breakfast was a catch-all, Norwegian wafers with jam, granola bars and so on, but no one was in a hurry. Across the creek we could see Gene's truck, probably brought over early in the morning; after a while Gene went over and drove it to the end of the ramp, to secure a berth for unloading. A wise step--as soon as we had cast off, rafts appeared in droves, led by two big cargo boats and a swarm of kayaks. One man among the arrivals had his arm in a sling, his shoulder was dislocated when his duckie ran into trouble at Elkhorn rapids (luckily, a doctor was on hand to reset it). The baggage unloaded included an ammo box with a sticker "I'M PRO LIFE-JACKET AND I BOAT." Other people came down the road and put in rafts for short day trips.
The last leg of our river trip lasted just a minute or two, from one bank to the other. Around noon everything was loaded and by 1:30 we were pulling into Pinehurst for lunch. All that remained was the long trip home.
Back to the beginning of "River of no Return"
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern