The Unbeaten path

Whitewater Wisdom

Matt Shipley (he/him) // Columnist

You open your eyes slowly, dew frosting your eyelashes. You shake the sand off of your hands, then use them to rub the sleep out of your eyes. The river whispers against the beach, shushing an unseen chorus of songbirds. Your senses begin to wander. You catch the faint scent of pancakes, cooking on an open flame in the middle of a collapsible aluminum kitchen. Mountains split the sky in all directions, towering steeply above the river canyon like huge stone guardians. Far above you, the sky glistens a rose-tinted gold, the eastern peaks’ shadows dappling the western mountains with little kisses of early-morning sunlight. There’s still so much to see, but you drop your gaze and wrap your arms around your own chest. It’s freezing.

Heraclitus once said “a man never steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” I agree. Idaho’s Salmon River is a magical place, one that entrances me every time I return. In my life, I’ve spent a total of nearly two months deep within that canyon, hiking, kayaking and rafting with my friends. As soon as you set off from the put-in, you’re on your own—you would have to hike at least fifty miles from any point on the river to find yourself in cell service. The whitewater is tricky, but not dangerous, the hikes are nothing short of epic, and the beaches are pristine. You can spend up to six nights floating the 92-mile stretch of whitewater, and every night is spent on spacious, natural beaches that look like the hand of Mother Nature crafted them perfectly to be camped on.

Back to you: the sun has finally overtaken the beach. You stuff your sleeping equipment in a sturdy rubber dry bag, hearing shouts and laughter from the shore where the majority of the crew is busy loading the rafts. You seal the bag and drag it over to Steve’s Red Rocket, by far the fastest raft in your flotilla, and he clips it into a complicated series of straps that you can’t begin to understand. At least on this boat, you can pass it off as rocket science. The other boats—Randy’s, Matt’s, Mark’s and April’s, along with a colourful gaggle of kayaks, are already setting off. Hurriedly, you leap into Mark’s eighteen-foot gear raft, trying not to get your feet wet in the process and shivering violently when you fail. It’s still cold out, but not for much longer.

Throughout the day, you drop into numerous rapids, some more fear-inspiring than others. While at first you shy away from the spray, within an hour the temperature has risen nearly thirty degrees and you can’t keep yourself out of the water. You visit a hot spring, its pool carefully balanced atop a poison-ivy-infested scree slope. The shade is welcome, but not as much as the hot water. Even though it’s at least thirty-five degrees out, the silty minerals in the sulfur-rich water have a way of soothing even the most stubborn skin. When you leap hungrily into the river after your soak, you feel like you’re experiencing the cold water with a whole new array of senses.

It’s not the whitewater that draws me back to Idaho’s Salmon River every year. It’s that subliminal, mystical delight that stems from being as far away from normalcy as I can be. My phone becomes a distant memory by the end of the trip. The closest thing to a shower is the river itself, in which you’re not allowed to dump soap for obvious reasons. Video games become campfire games. Learning is suddenly fun—learning to read the water, to operate a raft, to tie knots. Normal life tends to break down exploratory spirits, forcing us into a life governed by money and rules. To let that go and bring back my childish penchant for adventure, just for a week, is the best thing I have ever done for myself.

Try being a child sometime. You’ll never want to go back.

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