Even the Worst Day on the River is a Good Day

5 Min. Read
Cloudy day in Hells Canyon Snake River rafting trip

Life Lessons from a 12-year-old

“I’d like to inform my guide that I love swimming. If it’s safe to swim, I’d like my guide to please let me know so I can get out and enjoy.” This proclamation came from 12-year-old Tobin as he climbed into my boat on the Snake River. His formal tone belied our relationship. On night one, we’d talked about books and played a game together. On night two, we’d gone hiking together. This was day three. We weren’t exactly strangers.

“Noted,” I said with a smile. “Are you interested in swimming when the water is calm? Or would you like to swim through rapids?” I asked.

A family sits at the front of a raft on a Snake River rafting trip through Hells Canyon
Tobin (right) and his family on the author’s boat | Photo: Grace Yu

“Both,” he replied confidently. Honestly, any kid who willingly reads in the summer has won me over already, but Tobin had even more going for him: he was curious, enthusiastic, and genuinely easy to talk to. He could talk to anyone. I watched him flit around the chair circle, hopping from conversation to conversation with the prowess of a seasoned conversationalist, not a rising 7th grader. Tobin taught me a few delightful lessons during our time together on the river.

It’s all About Perspective

The sky was threatening rain when I pitched a hike to the group, so I didn’t expect many bites. “I’ll go!” Tobin announced before dashing off to get ready. His excitement encouraged a few more to join. Soon, a gaggle of us set off down Salt Creek before turning up the hillside to follow the ridgeline. We gained elevation quickly as we trucked up the switchbacks. We stopped to drink some water. That’s when I realized that Tobin, who’d been chatting easily to Mary and Andy (two adults he had no relation to), was carrying a giant tub of gorp. As the adults tried to wrangle our breathing, Tobin danced at the head of our line, gorp tucked safely under his arm. “Ready?” he said, brimming with energy. 

Hikers approaching a Snake River overlook in Hells Canyon
Hikers approaching a Snake River overlook in Hells Canyon | Photo: Andrew Miller

Two of our hikers turned back. Tobin led the charge forward. After 20 more minutes of climbing, we stopped again to catch our breath. I sipped water and Tobin chomped on gorp. “Okay?” he inquired, lifting his eyebrows unsubtly toward the trail after what felt like a mere seven seconds. A few more hikers turned back. Tobin showed no signs of slowing. In fact, he hadn’t really stopped talking or eating since we started walking.

“If I could choose, I’d have the world follow a geo-heliocentric planetary model,” he announced.

I turned to Kelsie with questioning eyes. She seemed equally baffled. “Umm, how would that change our experience?” I asked hesitantly, hoping the follow-up question made sense given that I did not understand the statement I was following up on. “It wouldn’t! It would just be cool,” he clarified. I laughed. His factoids about Tycho Brahe (his metal nose and pet elk…or was it a moose?) led us all the way to the summit.

Suddenly I saw the time: we’d been hiking for longer than I thought. Would we miss dinner? Would Tobin’s dad be nervous?  I’d said a 20-30 minute hike. My anxious brain kicked into overdrive. “Alright team,” I started, trying to gently nudge us downhill.

“Wait!” Tobin interjected, “Let’s savor the view!” He tucked his gorp more securely under his arm and looked assertively toward the horizon. I stopped short. Tobin, at 12 years old, reminded me that getting back to camp five minutes earlier wasn’t actually more important than reveling in our absurd accomplishment. We just climbed 2,000 feet, the view was 360 degrees, the sky was dramatic, and no one had a camera. It was perfect, and it deserved savoring.

OARS Snake River rafting guests playing a game of "Ninja" at camp | Photo: Grace Yu
OARS Snake River rafting guests playing a game of “Ninja” at camp | Photo: Grace Yu

As the trip continued, Tobin sprinted across camp to gleefully crush cans from the kitchen. He successfully cajoled every adult into playing a whole group game of Ninja. He directed a slip-and-slide production that was wholly ineffective at slipping or sliding but was hilarious.

But perhaps my favorite memory was from that drizzly day three. All the adventure swimming was well and good in the moment, but when the rain clouds moved in and the temperature dropped, Tobin and his sibling Oliver were left shivering. “This is my least favorite day on the river,” Tobin announced glumly as the dark gray sky started spitting. 

The wind whipped upstream as I tried to backpedal. “But you swam so many rapids today!” I said with all the enthusiasm I could muster through the cold. “Oliver, start doing some squats! You need to warm up. And Tobin, here, put these on.” I handed him my dry pants, which swamped him. Paired with my sunhat and a sarong that somehow ended up wrapped around his head, he looked preposterous. His dad chortled, “You look like you’re wearing hammer pants!”

A family goofs around on a drizzly day on the Snake River
Tobin, his brother and dad goof around together on a drizzly day on the Snake River | Photo: Jasmine Wilhelm

Suddenly, without any kind of orchestration, Tobin and his dad started rapping MC Hammer in perfect unison. In the background of the performance, Oliver dutifully squatted like a backup dancer. We could not stop laughing. When our giggles subsided, Tobin mused, “I take it back, this is my favorite day on the river.”

In a few short days, Tobin taught me to say yes, to savor the view, and to always bring snacks. Too, he taught me that enthusiasm begets joy, and perhaps most importantly: even the worst day on the river is a great day.

Portrait of Jasmine Wilheim on the river

Jasmine Wilhelm

Jasmine Wilhelm is a high school English teacher, photographer, and river guide. An Idaho native, she spends her summers guiding for OARS Dories Idaho and feels blessed to guide on the rivers she learned to boat on.

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