All photos by Leon Werdinger, Ottertrack Productions
“In the very last analysis, none of us knows whether this is wholly a secular world. But if there are Spirits, surely they must reside in the mountain West. Their special places, where they most prefer to dip and twirl and revel must be in the deep canyons. Of those places, they must savor most of all those mystical spots where the power is the greatest, where the big canyons form narrow corridors and the rivers gather up all of their strength and rush and foam and rage in order to push through.”
— Charles Wilkinson, The Eagle Bird
“I still get tense. I have long conversations with myself: ‘Why don’t you stay back in town and settle for something more civilized, because now you’ve got five overweight people and you’ve got to get down the river, and if they fall in they’re probably going to die on you.’ It’s scary trying to talk yourself into taking the risks.”
— Kurt Wald, river guide, on running big water
“I don’t know if any of them ever felt that much adrenaline before. When you have that much adrenaline going through your body it’s like you’re living a whole ‘nother life for a short period of time. They were thrilled with being there and performing through that.”
— Lonnie Hutson, river guide, describing taking dory passengers through The Slide rapid at 29,000 cfs
Four other guides and I are standing on a granite boulder– part of an enormous rock slide– in the narrowest part of Blue Canyon on Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. We’re scouting a rapid called “The Slide,” named after the geologic feature we’re perched on. The rapid appears as a mess of rocks, waves, and holes stretching across the current in a tight archipelago, making passage an intricate dance. Below The Slide the afternoon will turn golden as we float mostly calm water to where the Salmon converges with the Snake River, and beyond that to our takeout at Heller Bar. Then we’ll load up our gear and drive fast back toward Lewiston, to hot showers, clean clothes, and cocktails and the trip dinner in the back room at Jonathan’s Restaurant.
At low water The Slide is hardly even a rapid, but as the river rises, more and more water must funnel through this narrow, bending constriction in the canyon, creating giant waves that boil up and curl sideways off the steep walls. My map and guide to the Lower Salmon River includes a special warning which says that The Slide “ranges from barely a riffle at flows under 10,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), to Class V-VI at flows of 20,000 and higher. In very high water these are the most dangerous rapids on the Lower Salmon River and unrunnable. This rapids cannot be lined or portaged without great difficulty. Scouting is mandatory and quite hard.” Today the river is running at 28,000 cfs, and my pulse isn’t far behind.
At the entrance to The Slide, a tongue of green water constricts in a narrow vee directly into the heart of the rapid. The real muscle consists of one humongous wave in the very center of the river that surges and breaks irregularly, so you can’t possibly predict how it might act when you row into it. This wall of water crests high, crashes down like an ocean wave, swells, and collapses off to the sides. To the right of it, the river drops over a serious of ledges and boulders, creating deep recirculating holes– Maytag holes. Just to the left, a lateral wave pushes off from shore right into the main wave. And just downstream of this gauntlet, directly below the biggest wave, a huge lateral curls off the right wall. The real challenge in running The Slide is finding a way to hit the main wave and the lateral below it– one facing directly upstream, the other coming in from the side at a ninety-degree angle– head on so that they can’t flip you over sideways. Guiding a boat through this confusing maelstrom is like sprinting across a short stretch of open ground under sniper fire.
Joel, who has run The Slide many more times than the rest of us combined, is visibly nervous while scouting the rapid, which makes me nervous, too. He stares at the water and ghost rows it– practicing the moves he’ll make on his oars, where he’ll pull hard, where he’ll pivot. Joel has an eighty-year-old man in his boat who’ll face a very tough swim if anything goes wrong. As Joel ghosts the run with deep concentration, Brannon skillfully mimics Joel’s actions. He, too, jauntily pulls on imaginary oars, then he genuflects, scratches his balls, rubs one hand up his other arm giving the sign to steal second base. I can’t help laughing, although there’s nothing funny about where we are. I wonder if Brannon is nervous, and just can’t tell.
Leon, with whom I’ve been through plenty of adventures backpacking and canyoneering and rock climbing in Utah, and who never seems afraid, is really nervous, since he’s the trip leader and ultimately responsible for any mishaps. He also has a six-year-old boy as a passenger. His nervousness unsettles me even more.
Trista, a trainee on her first whitewater trip ever at this early point in the season, and my only passenger, isn’t nervous at all, which scares the bjeezus out of me. This is also my first time on this particular stretch of river– I’m running a gear boat to earn my license on this section– so I have no previous experience in The Slide to draw on.
As we study every intricate detail of the rapid, every clue to running it safely, I feel a strong need to pee, which isn’t unusual when I’m scouting difficult water. Although rapids are rated on a scale of Class I to Class VI based on their potential for upset and injury, another scale might as easily convey the danger to our passengers: how many of their boatmen stop to relieve themselves while examining the rapid from shore.
We stand on the balanced rock and admire– and fear– the river’s power, and visualize our individual journeys through the rapid. We listen to the roar of whitewater reverberating through the canyon. I focus on a rock jutting up to the surface just off the left shore, visible only occasionally as a wave breaks and surges over it– part of the river’s subconscious, what makes it behave the way it does. This rock will serve as one of my key markers in finding my way through the run. Whitewater always looks different when you’re actually on it, so it’s good to use the terrain as a sort of route map.
When we’ve discussed– ten or twelve times– every possible way of running The Slide, and I’ve asked questions that the more experienced boatmen can’t possibly answer– what happens if you hit the first wave head on? Is that lateral below it big enough to flip a gear raft?– Joel, showing signs of wear, says he’s ready. We nod, volunteering to watch him, to see if that gives us any additional information. As Joel disappears around the rock slide back up toward his boat, I glance downriver, where below the rapid Curt Chang, our boss, waits in a jet boat as a safety precaution.
It’s the first time I’ve ever even heard of such a thing.
Part of me truly hates this, and says let’s flip and swim and swallow water if that’s how it goes, because that’s what we’re here for. That part of me says we don’t need no stinking jet boat, and that if I screw up and the jet boat motors over to rescue me, maybe I’ll pull a Martin Litton and refuse to climb on, as Litton did in the Grand Canyon after flipping three boats in Lava Falls.
On the other hand, part of me is truly grateful to see Curt standing by. Later in the summer I learned that on Curt’s own first descent of The Slide, his group flipped five of six dories. So he’s probably happy to be offering some backup, too.
Tensions over running The Slide actually started building yesterday morning, when we woke up planning to run it that afternoon. We knew the water was still high but had been dropping steadily every day. Nobody seemed especially nervous, although nobody was talking about it, either.
We at breakfast early in case scouting should take us a long time. As we were finishing our French toast and bacon and sipping a last cup of coffee waiting for the sun to warm the beach before we started breaking camp, we heard the droning of a small aircraft overhead. After passing right above us once, the plane circled back at an altitude of about fifty feet and the pilot tossed something out the window which landed right in the middle of camp.
I’d already been looking for signs on this trip that might in some way foreshadow our experience at The Slide. Last night, a passenger had discovered a small rattlesnake not from from the open door of her tent. This morning we watched a buck swim across the river toward us, then turn and head back for the other shore, scampering up just before the current washed him into a small rapid. While these events were open to interpretation, in terms of signs neither could compare to an actual message dropped into our midst from an airplane.
When Leon retrieved the cylinder the pilot had tossed out to us, a note inside read: “Slide still high. Recommend waiting another day as water drops. Will provide jet boat support if wanted. Please signal if you want jet boat this afternoon at 2:30.” The note was from Curt Chang.
At first I thought it was some kind of joke, but then it brought home for the first time the true nature of where we were; in spite of the jet boats and air strips and the cows grazing beside the river, in spite of the long roaded section we’d come through, and all the other floaters we’d seen, we were traveling through an inaccessible wilderness. The only way a message could’ve reached us was if someone dropped it out of an airplane after first discerning where we were camped. And the only way out of the canyon right now was downriver, through The Slide. This was our frontier, both internal and external, both real and mythical.
After taking a few minutes to think about our options, Leon decided we should wait until tomorrow and run the rapid with jet boat support. We spelled out the word “no” with orange life jackets, in response to whether we wanted the jet boat that afternoon, and Leon planned to radio a message to Curt later, telling him what time we’d run The Slide tomorrow morning. However, after the plane departed, we discovered that our radio wasn’t working. We managed to flag down a couple of river rangers motoring past camp, and asked if they could relay the message that Curt should send support at eleven A.M. the following day. We had no idea whether Curt would get the message, and even less of an idea about what The Slide would really be like if Curt had gone to all that trouble and expense just to have us wait one more day.
Since we were already only about eight miles from the entrance to Blue Canyon– and once you entered the canyon there was no place to camp upstream of The Slide– we decided to spend a leisurely morning. We played horseshoes, fired up another pot of coffee, and took our time breaking camp. In the late morning we set out to make the few miles to the last camp above Blue Canyon.
But an hour later, as we searched for that camp, we only passed rocky beaches and gravel bars with no place to park our boats. None of us had ever seen the river at this water level, so where Joel had thought there might be a nice sandy stretch, today that spot could easily lie under six or eight feet of river. In the distance, where the Salmon took a couple of broad turns, we glimpsed a narrow, bare, exposed strip of sand, but we had already stopped in a small eddy on the opposite shore. The current was rushing downstream so quickly we weren’t certain we’d be able to ferry across, and if we missed this beach, the river would sweep us around the corner into Blue Canyon, and we’d either have to run The Slide or make camp on our boats, tied up to boulders.
We had a tough pull to catch the eddy below the beach, and we all just barely made it. My arms went numb from the exertion, but I was happy to be there, although the temperature was well over 100 degrees. We set up a shade tarp right away– which the hot wind blew down three or four times– and many of our guests climbed up to a basalt ledge under the scant shade of a couple of hackberry trees and tried to get comfortable. A few others set their chairs right in the river, and sat half in the water drinking lemonade, creating what we liked to call “the hippo bar.”
By evening, the sky grew dark and menacing with storm clouds, heightening the sense of dread I felt about The Slide. But since it was our last night out, Brannon and I mixed up a Mr. Bucket punch– consisting of orange soda, cranberry and orange juices, rum, vodka, bananas, canned pineapple, giant chunks of ice, and anything else we discovered in coolers and hatches that seemed potable. Two of us cooked dinner in a warm, humid, comforting buzz and our guests gathered around the punch and under the tarp as the air cooled and a few scattered raindrops fell.
Just as we finished our chicken teriyaki the skies opened up. We arranged chairs around the fire pan under the tarp and sat watching one of the most violent and beautiful thunderstorms I have ever seen. Joel broke out his Hasselblad– a tall camera case that makes the perfect waterproof holder for a bottle of Bushmill’s whiskey, a bottle of brandy, and various accoutrements. I sipped Bushmill’s from my Dories mug, feeling myself warm again from the inside out, and watched the storm rage above the dark walls that marked the entrance to Blue Canyon. We watched the moon rise, luminescent, between clouds and brown peaks and patches of cobalt sky. Lightning forked in long, jagged bursts, and rain pounded down. We sat in silence. There was no need to speak. We were warm and dry and still safe, and there wasn’t much reason to think about tomorrow.
Some time later the rain stopped and we moved our chairs beneath the open sky and built a larger fire. We made S’mores– sandwiches of fire-roasted marshmallows and chocolate wedged between graham crackers. Leon gave a reading, and we went around the circle offering our favorite moments from the trip. We’d been through some things together, some of us, and tight bonds had formed. The guides presented an award to Stew, who was our first commercial passenger ever to travel the Middle Fork, Main, and Lower Salmon Rivers on a single seventeen-day trip. Brannon escorted him down to the dory named the Glen Canyon, and had Stew sign his name on the inside of the front hatch. An inevitable sadness hung over us; regardless of what happened at The Slide tomorrow, this party would be breaking up.
I slept fitfully that night. Rain pattered on my tent intermittently, and I kept sliding down the sloping beach. My back hurt and my fingers felt numb from rowing, and I really just didn’t want to run The Slide. I hoped that something would prevent it; perhaps the river rangers would forbid us and insist on hauling us back upstream by jet boat to the take-out at Eagle Creek.
I also wanted to run The Slide, right then. I knew I verged on the edge of my own frontier, and I was anxious to pass through to the wilder side of it; having to wait until morning was pure agony. This was exactly what river trips could do for any of us who ventured out on them: take us up to some perceived limit, and offer us the chance to grow slightly larger, to range outside the fence of comfort that usually keeps us waiting passively in the corral.
That night I actually dreamed about the rapid, seeing it almost exactly as it would look in the morning, although nobody had ever described it to me. I saw the run that Joel would first advise against, and then eventually recommend.
Breakfast conversations were hushed, and the guides attended to rigging our boats with uncharacteristic solemnity. I found everything irritating– the dirt on my cooler lid, the way somebody spoke to me– which was how I recognized just how nervous I must be. I tried to take slow, deep breaths.
After what seemed an interminable morning of breaking camp and “rigging for a flip”– making certain that every last item was cinched down so that if the boat went over we wouldn’t lose any gear– we were off. A mile or so into the tight confines of Blue Canyon, in the chilly air beneath an overcast sky, we saw the landslide on the left shore that marked the rapid. We pulled into a tight, tiny eddy, and tied up the boats with great foreboding. As we climbed around on the boulders to get a look, we could hear The Slide, see the horizon line of the river and the mist kicking high above it.
Standing on the rocks in the high roar of the rapid, we wait for Joel’s dory to come around the corner. When it appears, he’s standing in his footwell with his hands on the oars, looking a little like Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. As the slow water above the rapid carries him toward the green tongue, he sits back and works the oars to set his position. Then the current grabs his boat and tugs him in. He hits the big wave exactly where he said he would, just to the left of its crest. His dory tilts upward until it’s nearly vertical, perches on top, kicks, and slides down the other side– a clean, perfect entry.
The moment he’s cleared the apex, Joel pivots away from the second lateral wave coming in from the right just below the big wave. The lateral crashes down on the stern and side of the boat, pushing the other side way up in the air and threatening to flip it. Tom, who’s riding up front, leans his entire weight far out over the high side of the boat and keeps it from going over. Then just as it looks as if they’ve cleared all the danger, and Joel’s passengers begin bailing and raising their arms in victory, the momentum of the lateral wave transfers to the dory and sends it shooting across the current and smashes it into the left wall– wham! When the boat hits they rock forward like crash test dummies and I think they might actually fly from the craft, or get whiplash. Finally, the boat disappears around a corner and then reappears in an eddy a quarter mile downstream, and it looks like everyone is okay.
After watching Joel’s run, Leon takes a long, long time scouting– at least another forty-five minutes. I grow more and more irritable because every moment that we wait, the fear notches up just a little higher in my chest until I can barely swallow. After Leon finally starts upstream toward his dory, he stops on another rock and watches the river some more.
A couple of minutes later we can see Leon rowing out toward the center of the river. He catches the green tongue that feeds right into the giant center wave, but where Joel pulled a bit to the left, Leon hits it straight on. The boat rises and twists, knocking Leon out of his seat. As one side comes up, Leon– lying spread-eagled on the deck– tries to grab onto something to keep from sliding over the side. Then the dory hits the second wave sideways and it rights the boat and then pitches the opposite side in the air. Hitting the second wave is the only thing that keeps Leon from tumbling out. When they’ve cleared the second wave Leon scrambles back to his oars and pulls the boat away from the wall and safely downstream.
Brannon runs right after Leon, in his raft, with Corinne as his one passenger up front. He picks a line much farther to the left, and catches the giant first wave on the side. Corinne takes most of the wave over the top of her. The boat spins left, toward the wall, but with weak momentum. Brannon loses an oar for a moment, then retrieves it, pulls into the main current, and sails on.
I stand up on the rocks watching all of this and shaking my head. I’m waiting for that moment when I’ll know I’ve seen enough to feel confident, but I also know that moment won’t come. I scout for another ten minutes, finally making a decision that I feel is necessary, but which I am totally unsure of, and there’s nobody left to ask. I think I see a better line through the rapid than anyone else has taken– pulling backward and letting an eddy along the right shore help set me up.
The others are safe now, even if their runs haven’t been stellar, and that puts even more pressure on me. To screw up now means being alone in it, means not living up to the standards set by my fellow guides and implied by the powerful western myth. This undercurrent defines my entire summer, though I’m not aware of it at this time.
It is also a moment of pure independence and individualism: to decide upon a different run than any of the other boatmen saw or attempted is a frightening prospect. I am alone in the world for these few moments; nobody can help me and I have no choice but just to GO. And a mistake here means a flip or a bad swim at the very least.
When I’ve finally seen enough, I walk back toward my boat, stopping to glance at the river as the perspective changes, trying to memorize the landmarks that will tell me where I am when I’m on the water and the rapid looks different. I listen to the melody and bass of the river, which contains all voices, all sounds. Sometimes it floats one up to the surface: the voice of my father; the music from a time in my life I’ll never know again– things left behind.
It’s strange to be up here by myself. Trista has already begun walking back to the boat; she seems bored, preoccupied, bothered a little by all the fuss.
As I untie the raft I’m clearly mumbling to myself. I ask her if she absolutely understands what high-siding means. I rehearse my run one last time, reminding myself to strive for a Zen-like balance between power and finesse.
As I float into the tongue, I pivot my boat perpendicular to the current, stern to the left shore, and look for my marker rock. The moment I see that momentum has just about carried me past it, I pull backwards hard in that direction with short, crisp strokes. I punch the small lateral coming off that wall with my stern and it stops my momentum dead and gently nudges me back toward the big wave, but at the same time the downstream current drops me just below it. The big wave crashes on the side of my boat. I pull hard on my right oar to swing the bow around to hit the second lateral wave– the one that propelled Joel into the wall– head on and forward. It tumbles down on us in a world of white and for a moment I can’t see anything. I lose all perspective and have plenty of time in which to wonder if we might flip. The wave grabs one of my oars and I let go rather than letting the power of the water propel me right out of the boat.
A moment later the world clears and I grab the loose oar and row shakily into the main current. I scream as loud as I can– a whoop not so much of victory as release, draining the tension that has built up in me, releasing it into the cool, wet air.
It’s over that fast– like gunfire, or bungi jumping, or sex; plenty of buildup, and then boom: closure, and I feel myself disconnect, and then I can’t even recall how it all happened. I can barely pull into the eddy below the rapid because my legs are shaking so and my muscles seem to have gone dead.
It was not– after all that– a big deal. And yet it was. We were all just a little different after running The Slide– both as a group and as individuals. It was a defining moment, yet one I have difficulty explaining, as if it changed something in me at a level where I couldn’t quite see it clearly, but simply knew it to be true. I’d crossed a threshold– a frontier line, Frederick Jackson Turner might have said in a lighter moment, if he had lighter moments.
I had the opportunity to run The Slide again, in late August, at 7,000 cfs– a quarter of it’s earlier flow. Since I’d earned my license on that first trip, I now carried two passengers, and as we entered Blue Canyon I told them the story about the airplane and the message. I told them that a week after our run, another dory flipped in the rapid. I tried to describe the monstrous waves, and how scared I was.
When we came around the corner where the rock slide angles down from the left shore, we could see the rapid: a couple of tiny waves not even large enough to sport whitecaps on top. My passengers looked at me with a hint of amusement and a generous dose of disbelief.
Boatmen have become the docents of oral tradition on the river– not only keeping alive the old pioneering stories, but promulgating an oral history of our own. The story of The Slide had already entered the realm of minor myth by then, but I knew that even though I described things just as they happened, my passengers were asking themselves that age-old boatman’s riddle:
How do you know when a river guide is lying?
The answer: his lips are moving.