From Southwest to Northwest: The Common Threads of Rivers

Clouds gather in the Idaho sky, the familiar grey orbs that greet many a river trip. They pulse with electricity and moisture, just waiting to burst. We are not bothered: we are people of the river, water veterans, confident in our timing and Gore-Tex sweat chambers.

Yeah, right.

Rainy day on Idaho's Main Salmon River

It pours for three days, maybe four. Time blurs like the smoke rising from our fire. We cling to its impermanence. Here in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, we center our floating culture on unexpected July torrents, socked-in sandbars, and the inevitable debate about setting up the tarp.

We set up the tarp. Freezing rain demands it.

Coming from the land of desert boating, I’m used to storms of the monsoon variety: temperate afternoon downpours when the summer temperature has far surpassed any sort of reasonable number. We welcome the reprieve from hundred-degree heat, laughing as red mud and warm water streak down our faces. Here too, we huddle under umbrellas and perseverate about setting up more shelter.

We usually do.

As with any group of like-minded people, river culture has iconic mores and idiosyncrasies. From region to region, river to river, there are far more unifying principles than there are dissenting ones. We function smoothly because of them: we all pack out our trash, we all have the most beautiful toilet view, and we all know that by setting up the tarp, we usually make the rain stop.

Middle Fork of the Salmon River | Photo: Neil Rabinowitz

Though desert waters and towering sandstone walls taught me how to be part of a river ecosystem, I have unexpectedly been deeply drawn to the free-flowing mountain streams ensconced in Idaho beauty. Whether they run muddy or clear, rivers are intertwined on the geography of my life.

In their trademark unassuming manner, they challenge us to grow in both ability and understanding. In the desert, they demand permanently cracked heels and eyes squinting to read silty water. In the mountains, they require swift maneuvers around rocks so interesting, you almost miss your line because you can’t take your gaze off them.

In both, in every, in all: they require humility.

When we come to river environments, we commit to another way of living. We embrace an uncertain home, knowing it will offer us the unparalleled joys of stars, sand, and splashes. For the seconds, days, and weeks we are on the water, we define real life as our collective being. Whether in Arizona or Idaho, Canada or Costa Rica, Oregon or Utah, the river is constant.

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Photos: Justin Bailie, Neil Rabinowitz