In 2019, we sent Ashley Sozzi, our Idaho Adventure Consultant, on an early season, high-water guide training trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River to find out first-hand how whitewater rafting guides get “river-ready” at the beginning of each season. Straight from the pages of her journal from the trip, she reflects on her experience below.
Wednesday, May 23 – Salmon to Indian Creek
Waiting. We know a weather window will open allowing us to fly over the mountains to the river. In the meantime, with one eye to the sky, we’re at the guide house on the balance board, on the patio, on the couch, reading, shuffling, talking nervously about the high water we are going to float tomorrow.
It’s time! We move to the airport outside Salmon, ID—a tiny collection of hangers in the valley between the Beaverhead Range to the east and the Lemhi Range to the west. The planes are packed floor to ceiling with gear. We squeeze in and take off over the mountains.
Snow swirls outside the plane windows as a tiny brown stretch of land comes into view on a shelf above the river. “Is that it?” I ask, as we descend to the airstrip.
I hop out wide-eyed, filled with adrenaline and a bit of nausea. I wouldn’t be the only one to lose breakfast if I puke. Small planes, big mountains and snowy conditions can rock and roll your insides until they’re no longer inside of you. I hear the river before we see it. “Is that it?” I ask again, this time with wide-eyes pointed towards the peaks of whitewater raging below us. We make it to the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and I can’t help but say a little prayer of thanks to the dry suit gods as I reach for my wool beanie.
Well, we learned that when you hike alone in the springtime in the Frank Church, you’re never really hiking alone. Blood-sucking hitchhikers of various sizes cling to pants, socks, sleeves, braids, underwear, seeking a warm place to call home that just so happens to be the skin we already live in. 21 ticks Caroline said she picked off. 21 ticks! It feels like The Hunger Games but our opponents are tiny and invisible until you feel them crawling up your leg. I just had a few, and none latched on. They’d been sent sailing back to their cold homes before taking a blood token, but I have a feeling we’re going to find the transient vampires lodged in weird places for days to come. *Reminder—tell guests to bring REAL bug spray.
Thursday, May 24 – Indian Creek to Stateland Right
An 8 a.m. wake-up call feels like a glorious vacation. High, fast-moving, early season water means less time needed to cover river miles, and also means late wake-up calls and laid back launch times. Having 22 guides—44 hands—also doesn’t hurt. After breakfast (oatmeal with all the fixin’s) Nick, our trip leader and Middle Fork manager, gives our daily briefing—big water, cold water, burp your dry suit, get in the boat, don’t fall out on accident and be prepared to swim a rapid on purpose. “It’s fun, splashy and totally swimmable,” he says. “It’ll be fun,” he says again, not even trying to hide a smirk. In my experience as a non-guide OARS employee, rapids can perhaps be described as fun post-swim, but mid-swim are spent remembering the glorious feeling that is breathing. That cold water is as hungry for your breath as ticks are for your blood (bad joke).
Anyways, with one dry demonstration of how to cartwheel one’s body through an eddy line, a move that looks part like windmilling your arms in a swimming motion and part like breakdancing, guide after guide jumps in, rides up and down the waves, and gracefully breaks through the eddy line to shore. High fives and huge smiles all around. No one seems surprised to have made it. If you don’t jump into the freezing cold water, toes pointed at snow-capped mountains downstream, and swim like hell just because you had the opportunity to do so, are you even a guide? Well, I am not a guide, so I chose to stay warm and dry and cheer from the sidelines as each successful cartwheel was completed, and I still thoroughly enjoyed the hot spring shower downriver.
I write this from the bench above camp, surrounded by the bright yellow flowers of arrowleaf balsamroot. Huge trees shade the flat, wide area next to the river where we set up tent alley and ungulate scat blankets this camp in the millions. So sets the stage for Maia to give the groover talk—my favorite of all talks. It’s always the greatest thing to see grown adults turn red and get shy when talking about pooping in the wild. Nothing like poop jokes to bring people together, even guides…
The guides are practicing their knots, rescue lines and swiftwater safety skills in camp below. “Give yourself a mechanical advantage. Remember the mechanical advantage. Any idea how much weight you can lift with a mechanical advantage?”
Friday, May 25 – Stateland Right to Loon Creek
Well, we didn’t just see ungulate poop at last night’s camp. This morning, we sat in a chair circle facing the mountain across the river and watched as a line of white orbs transversed the ridge. A pair of binoculars turned those moving white orbs into a dozen elk butts, making their way up and out of the river corridor for summer grazing. Ashley, another OARS trainer, mentioned earlier that the best time to see wolves is this season and the first thing to do is locate an elk herd (their favorite winter snack). We all scanned the ridgeline hoping to see a trailing wolf, but per their reputation, they remained elusive.
Their bodies, anyway. Their scat dots the trails, making us wonder if ticks aren’t the only predator waiting for solo hikers. The Hunger Games plot thickens.
As we watched the elk, Seneca led a discussion about what wilderness is and means to us. Kale said the lack of human sound. Ben said a place we travel through, a place we visit, but a place we don’t make our home for long.
We talked about the Wilderness Act and what that means for this massive place that can feel like home but is never really claimed by anyone. Legally, it can’t be, and I wish that gave all of us a deeper peace of mind that places like this will remain into perpetuity. Our track record doesn’t prove unlimited faith in protections though. Wilderness came out meaning something so big and uncontrollable, like lightning striking a mountainside and morphing into a wildfire, that it takes a nation of legislation to have an intangible construct of control over a place that is very much tangible.
You can’t remove the people from wilderness, because people have called this place home for centuries; have harvested, thrived and coexisted with this wilderness, which is now known as the Frank Church and Salmon River, but historically, has gone by many names. So, it can be home for some, but it can’t be home for all. Being here is a privilege, because by definition it won’t remain wild if everyone comes. Accessibility and conservation exist with this tension. Who is allowed in, who has the resources to get in, and who is left out? And why? What does it mean for the conservation movement to increase accessibility to these places, that under legislative control will always need a gatekeeper? It’s a big question. Not even five minutes after our wilderness chat, Ashley whooped to get our attention as a family of three otters bobbed their way from the bench above our campsite and then slid down and into the river. Then, as we were loading the boats another whoop went up as a massive bull snake, perhaps the longest snake I’ve ever seen, slowly made its way across our now vacant camp. “Bull snakes eat rattlesnakes. If the bull snakes are out, simple math…keep an eye on where you step.” Enter stage left the final character in our Hunger Games epic.
Saturday, May 26 – Loon Creek to Funston
Yesterday was the first day of rain and now the whole place looks like someone turned the saturation way up. We walk to Loon Creek hot spring from our camp and along the way, Amy, a super awesome botanist who has done extensive study in this region, points out edible, medicinal and just plain cool plants, trees and shrubs.
We soak in the hot spring for a long time. We laugh and take cold plunges in Loon Creek, and talk about both silly, light and hard, deep things. There is something to sitting in a hot spring next to a river, the background track if you will, that makes it easier to dive into topics of conversation otherwise saved for close friends. We talk a lot about what it means to age in this industry; specifically about turning 30, a point a handful of us are coming to in the next year.
What is it about that number, each decade carrying a certain weight? Perhaps it’s a marker of when life is supposed to, or usually starts settling. Friends are getting married, having babies, buying houses, talking about life insurance – often not in that order. Not many of them are spending months out of the year in the literal wilderness (not-with-standing the wilderness that is one’s mind in your 20s). In our youth we’re expected to wander and are always forgiven about the choices we’ve made that haven’t yet landed us jobs with a six figure income. That “young and dumb” excuse is at the ready and can get us out of the weight of most decisions that don’t pan out. We stay too long in unhealthy relationships and spend all of our money on travel and plastic-bottled liquor instead of investing in our 401ks. And it’s all okay because that’s “what your 20s are for.” But what changes between 29 and 30 so much that if you don’t have the money saved, the house, the partner, the baby, that all of a sudden you’re behind?
I’d like to think my generation, the notorious “millennials,” are just doing things differently. People make their choices, stay in seasonal work, quit their desk jobs to travel, don’t go to college or trade schools, live without insurance and they always have. This condition isn’t an irresponsibility of my “millennial” generation. People making these choices have always been around and always will be around. Perhaps we’re often kid-less, not married, renters without any interest in how the stock market works. But we’re also smart, kind, skilled, educated and insightful. And here I am, in the wilderness on the Salmon River, one of the most beautiful places in the world, on one of the wildest rivers left in our country, experiencing nature through its own moving veins, and I feel like I’ve done my 20s “right.” Or, right for me, because not much else matters. Perhaps the guides are also the ones doing it right. Or, right for them.
So what will thirty mean to me (so much to process)? Perhaps it’ll mean buying a house, marrying my longtime boyfriend, having a child. I’d be over the moon with any of those things. But as I hit that decade marker, it certainly won’t mean I am doing it wrong because I haven’t done those things yet.
What I have done is stayed in relationships that weren’t working and learned how easy it is to compromise happiness for security. I have gotten incredibly, ridiculously lost in foreign cities where I don’t speak the language, learned to trust my instincts and that I am capable. I have wondered where the hell all my money goes, and paid off what felt like insurmountable student loans. I have rented from shady landlords and lovely landlords, in cities and rural areas, and I have narrowed down a direction I want my life to go in, but not to be so vain as to draw my roadmap in sharpie. And I have boated down some of the most beautiful rivers in the most hard-to-access places, all with OARS, and realized maybe this is “IT.” This is what I want 30 to look like – all hodgepodged together with indiscriminate borders. The last decade was hard and beautiful and chaotic, and will flow easily into this new one, as a continuum, where my liver may be a little more tired and the wrinkles lining my eyes may be a little deeper, but they’re well-earned.
So, sitting in this hot spring with my peers and colleagues, talking about this milestone, I feel content in the knowledge that if I’m lucky, those wrinkles will only deepen.
Sunday, May 27 – Funston to Ship Island
It’s a tired trope, but the immensity of this place is so overwhelming you just want to sit silently on the banks of the drumming river, and stare. Today we hiked and learned more from Amy about the flora of the canyon. There are so many kinds of plants, it’s mind-blowing she can remember it all. But if I am ever stranded on a deserted island, I know who and what to bring – Amy and the deserted island’s guide to plants.
Tonight is our last night, and the stars finally came out. The sky here reflects the river, cut and framed between the canyon walls, stars as numerous as pebbles in the river and as bright as holes in my blackout shades at noon. I wish I knew all of their names. What is it about starry nights on river trips that makes me wish I had taken Astronomy seriously?
And then, holy! We see the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in the night sky. One perfect line of 6, then 10, then 12 stars slowly moving together across the sky. A meteor shower?! In a line?! Ashley heard us whooping and says, “space station.” But she didn’t see it. It could have only been the space station if it blew up. Well, there’s no way to know out here if it did, I guess. But good lord, hope not! No! It wasn’t the space station, but WTH was that?
Monday, May 28 – Salmon to Lewiston
Today was a long day. We took out, loaded the trucks, and made our way nine hours across the state of Idaho from Salmon back to our base in Lewiston. I finished my book on the drive while most everyone else slept.
I seem to reach for A River Runs Through It every season before or during a trip. It’s totally cliché – let’s read about a river while on the river – but it was an automatic grab while I ran to the car at 4 a.m., realizing I forgot to pack a book, heading to catch my 6 a.m. flight from Sacramento to Lewiston. Even though I was in a rush, I had to look for the book on my shelf. It’s so small, it hides, and certainly wasn’t the most accessible choice, but I found it, grabbed it, and ran to the car.
River trips, like the seasons, always mark some sort of transition because it’s the annual time of the year I disconnect and have the time and energy to reflect a little more than usual without Instagram as a distraction. When I am tired, I don’t read or write, I scroll. But not here, because it’s just not possible.
Back to turning 30. I realize the time is felt in my bones and sings on my face. Laugh lines and sunspots. I’ve ricocheted off lovers, schools, homes, people and highways, careening into this more grown-up sense of myself that feels like arriving in the driveway of the house I grew up in, discovering things are exactly as they’ve always been, but now it’s not just my dad who comes with stories, scars and songs sang around a campfire.
The river settles during a particular season. I feel a settling coming on too. I’ll still careen down dark highways to far-off corners, but perhaps now with a AAA card in my wallet and car insurance that covers more than the bones of an accident. I’ve been on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in September when flows mellow out but are still technical, fish aplenty and days have both snow and sunshine. Hillsides then are warm tones of amber and crews are tired but content, knowing a river they’ve seen rush and roar in the spring is now settling into a consistent stream.
Right now, however, it’s the seasonal migration of river people. Boatlands fill with rigs, gear is cleaned and prepped to withstand bumps, scrapes and guests, and a community buzzes in shared anticipation for the transition back to a life that flows by relying on one another. Finding my footing as an “adult” has happened here in this community. These rivers have been a consistent flow, and even in their fluctuations and seasons, have remained the one through line ushering me forward. The rivers show signs of age and use, but are still flowing. Perhaps that is sufficient hope for this river dweller entering a new decade.
This article originally appeared in the OARS 2020 Adventures Catalog. Request your free copy of the latest edition.