What’s more American than a lazy float on a summer afternoon?
“We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
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.
We bobbed along on the Salmon’s undulating surface as the breeze swayed the tall cottonwoods. Behind the trees sagebrush hills swept up to brown sandstone outcroppings. A hundred yards ahead we saw an osprey — black and white against the sky — dive onto the river and take a small fish. Later a bald eagle blasted off a cottonwood limb, leaving it shuddering in its wake.
For the first half of this float the river hugs Highway 93 with its weekend traffic and a few riverside homes. A passing half dozen motorcyclists waved as we passed them on a bend. People waved from decks and back porches. In a new variation of car-chasing, a black Labrador charged down a sloping lawn to the water’s edge and barked at us as we floated by, then ran back up the lawn as if to wait for the next raft.
Shortly before lunch we entered a tight spot where the river narrowed with noisy whitewater. “Paddle, Bill!” shouted Tawna, as we strove to avoid the steep rock and brush-choked bank that the river was dragging us toward. Barbara found herself tangled under the limbs of a downed tree jutting into the river, and deftly extricated her pontoon boat by reclining horizontally as the current pulled her through and away. I was impressed. Chuck, the expert canoeist, shot right through.
We pulled in for lunch at Shoup Bridge Campground, about five miles from town. Wet and stiff, we stood knee-deep in the stony river in our rubber river sandals and stretched as we secured the boats. My body ached from paddling in an awkward squatting-sitting position. We ate lunch at a nearby picnic table and visited the vault toilets, always a must when emerging from the river. The boat landing was busy with rafters and inner-tubers putting in for the last stretch to town.
Oddly enough, the landscape seemed wilder along the final stretch from the campground to Salmon. The river pulls away from the highway and passes through ranchland: pastures and patches of river woods. We saw other rafters and three boys on inner-tubes. No old-fogey life jackets for these high schoolers as they often slid into the strong current with one arm wrapped around the tube, easily climbing back on when it suited them. We kept up a lively floating conversation with them for a while. Close to town we passed under abrupt sandstone cliffs with dusty outcroppings that looked like they could slide into the river at any moment. I sat on the rear of the raft on this stretch and occasionally looked behind, mesmerized by the illusion of stones in the lucid water being eternally pulled away out of sight, as if the river was time itself.
Soon the mountains behind town and Island Park came into view, and after passing under the park bridge lined with kids enjoying Salmon’s most popular swimming hole, we put in at the landing. The trip downriver took four hours.
Four hours of pure pleasure that I look forward to repeating.
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