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Total Immersion 

Running the Salmon River

Wednesday, Jan 10 2001
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A Culver City childhood does not teach love of rivers. The concrete-lined Los Angeles River and La Ballona Creek, rank with oil and trash, hardly merit the names. Yet the glimpses I‘ve had in other places -- of the Ouachita in Arkansas, New York’s Upper Hudson -- have always tantalized. Last summer, as pre-convention L.A. filled with talk of barricades and rubber bullets, my husband, my 7-year-old daughter and I took off on a six-day rafting trip down the main fork of Idaho‘s Salmon River.

It’s farther to mid-Idaho than the actual mileage suggests. First, L.A. to Boise, flat, sun-stunned, where every face I see is white. Then two hours over the mountains in a lurching six-seater Cessna, the last half of the journey hunched over an airsickness bag, while my equally stricken daughter wails, ”Have to get out now!“ On the ground, we pass through towns like Salmon and, later, McCall, where restaurant menus defiantly offer ”Braised Spotted Owl“ and our hotel lobby carries the announcement of a Christian Identity group meeting on Sunday morning. Because this is the inferno summer of 2000, the sky everywhere is yellow with smoke. On the final, 90-minute dirt-road bus ride to our put-in spot on the river, we pass sleeping firefighting crews and a tree that, to no one‘s apparent concern, is engulfed in flame.

There are 25 in our group, half of them kids and teens, and five guides to row the rafts, four of them women. They’re slender, but with impressive shoulders. We load food, gear and porta-potties, grease ourselves with sunscreen, wiggle into life jackets. And then there‘s only the river.

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So different from the back and forth of my beloved ocean, it eddies and plays, swirls, pushes against us, slows to an almost dead calm. Desert dweller that I am, I’m entranced by the sight of so much water, the sheer extravagance of its rush. When the afternoons turn blast-furnace hot, we simply fall out of the rafts to drift in the dull-green cool. About once an hour there are rapids, and I fall in love with the moment of entry into them, when the wind picks up, the current narrows and gathers force, and I feel the raft inexorably pulled forward, racing into the white water‘s bounce and chaos. We spend six and seven hours a day in the boats, until even on land I can feel the water’s rhythmic rock.

Our lives take on a rhythm, too. Everyone gets up early, the guides cook, we eat, pack, leave, float, land on wide, sandy beaches and make camp again. Maybe because the trip is being run by the American River Touring Association, a serious-minded nonprofit that sends its excess revenue to river-conservation groups, the adult rafters, from five states, are middle-aged, educated, eco-minded, liberal. They talk seriously about politics, and at night they read semiliterary fiction, and nobody gets drunk or acts like an asshole. Several are trying, with varying degrees of success, to ”bond“ with their kids. One sullen, pierced 18-year-old never seems to speak; two overripe young girls are openly furious at being dragged away from the malls of Madison and Raleigh. A sweet, puppyish 15-year-old stays close to his father‘s side, the pain of a recent divorce in his eyes. Between the two groups are the guides, in their 20s and 30s and committed neo-counterculturalists, who have arranged their lives and ambitions around being able to spend three months a year on the water.

As we move downstream, the geography and light change in subtle ways. Creeks tumble out of hillsides to surprise us; we clamber up a steep, rocky slope to a natural hot spring and soak until we can barely walk. We hike to the log cabins of a long-dead cattle-hide trader, hidden in an orchard of wild apple trees whose fruit is sweet enough to eat. Otters swim by, and bighorn sheep graze at the water’s edge. One dawn, after the heat has driven us all to sleep outside our tents, I‘m startled awake and into sheer terror by what turns out to be a tree frog dropping on my head.

As we sweat, swim, dry and grow ever filthier, the adults loosen up, sharing confidences and wine. The kids go tribal, and soon all of them, even the teens, are caught up in nightly screaming games of hide-and-seek on the sand. Civilization is there, in the obnoxious jet boats that roar by several times a day and the other commercial rafting groups that regularly pass by. We watch with contemptuous remove, then soak the bandannas we’ve tied around our dirty hair and keep on moving. It feels like forever, and it ends too soon.

Grounded, we retrace our steps: another dirt-road bus ride, a small-town hotel, the bliss of a hot shower, a cattle-car airplane, our dog‘s ecstatic, howling hello. The truth is, it feels good to be home, where people come in different colors and it gets cool at night, and I know the ocean’s there, like an always-open door. But time and again, while I‘m falling into sleep, I come back to that moment when the river picks up speed and pulls me in. It takes days before the gentle rocking finally stills.

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