I found the Salmon River too late to share it with you. I want you to know why I’m out here and away from you, my parents, and my past. A lot of the experiences and feelings I have out here are hard to describe. It might help to show you…
I can show you moments of this life. Moments when things go right, or when things go wrong. Moments when I’m tired or content or scared or relieved or proud. Stillness and chaotic change. Moments of raw beauty. And moments of friendship. Out here I can be who I want to be.
After a few weeks rafting the Salmon River, I lose track of time. I don’t know what day of the week it is. The days flow together like waves behind a boat. Defined at first, they quickly mix.
In the summer, I see time in changing water levels. I see it in good runs with close friends. I see it in new fires. Flash floods, downed trees, I see it in high water runs and in bad swims.
You would have loved being here, to see it with me. It’s so different from Illinois. There is no place that compares. A free-flowing western river in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. I am my strange self here. A naturalist professional athlete. A kid in the woods. It’s a place I can read Philip Conners and feel perfectly sane. He says things like, “By being utterly useless in the calculations of the culture at large, I become useful, at last, to myself.”
Out here there’s no use in feeling stressed for time. And the only time I’m stressed for time is when I want to get to camp early and swim. Granny, I started freediving a few years ago. In all of Idaho's Frank Church wilderness, no place is less explored than the bottom of the Salmon River. Yet over time, I have come to feel at home inside the river.
Before each dive, I go through my safety list. I bring a knife in case there are ropes. I look upstream for boats. I scan downstream for obvious obstacles, hazards, and strong currents. How far can I float before being pulled into a rapid? I look down, and watch the bubbles to see the currents. I try to predict where the currents will push me. How the vertical eddies will pull me. I breathe deep and say to myself that I’m okay. It’s okay to be calm.
I fill my lungs with air and dive. As I dive, the river above pushes down on my ears and eyes. I squeeze my nose and add air to my ears, then to my goggles. The intense pressure releases. I am comfortable, even at 25 ft.
I become a flying astronaut otter, floating through the layers of light, focusing only on the shifting currents, drifting below the chaos above. I can feel the time I have left down here and it depends only on my heart rate, my stillness.
I let go of my desire to stay and drift upward. The air within me expands and I accelerate toward the light. I look for a safe place to recover and dive again.
Sometimes boats flip in the rapids and people lose things to the river. I often find them, and with the help of friends, we take them out. I think this is partially because of you that I do this. You showed me to act on what I believe. It’s a small thing we do, but we enjoy it.
Granny, I’ve learned that you can’t win a fight against a river. Be it a river of time, or water, or salmon. We can only try to understand how to float along as best we can, somewhere above, or below the waves. And while every river trip ends eventually, every single one is worth the effort.
As America’s greatest rafter, Huck Finn once said, “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We have the sky up there, all speckled with stars. We used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss whether they were made, or only just happened.”