I lifted the duckie, an inflatable two-person kayak, out of the back of my friend’s truck. Often referred to as “divorce-boats”, the communication between the front and the back of the boat can be complex, leading to a difference of opinion in which direction the boat should take.
I was excited to float the Buckhorn section of Idaho’s Upper Salmon River the group had chosen. Traditionally an easy stretch of water, this year the river would be different than any of us remember. It’s high water; the highest the river level had been in almost 30 years.
I stepped into the shallows of the river, the water so cold it hurt my feet. Setting the duckie into the water, I held onto it while everyone else tightened up life jackets, grabbed paddles, and got situated.
We set off. The start was filled with smiles, laughs, and lots of concentration while navigating the river. The day was hot and the water splashing up onto our skin felt refreshing.
We came to a busy corner where another river was rushing into our section of the river. The resulting rapid wasn’t big, probably not more than a class II or III. I watched from our duckie as my friends’ raft moved toward a hole within the confluence. They hit it head on, shot straight down into the rapid, and then popped into the air down the river.
They made it.
It was my turn. I approached fast, coming up to the same hole slightly sideways, and wham: A wall of water, along with the front of my duckie, smacked me backwards out of the raft and into the hole.
I’d fallen out of rafts plenty times over the years. This fall caught me off guard. I couldn’t tell if I was getting closer to the water’s surface or farther away. All I could see and feel was a loud mess of chaotic, white, bubbling water pounding down on me.
I could feel my heart beating in my chest. My arms felt heavy. I was struggling, waving my arms and kicking my feet, trying to get my head above water.
Collecting myself, I focused on getting my feet to point down river. I felt the water push me downstream and I floated upwards, fast, out of the hole. Unfortunately, as I floated upward, my head hit something solid.
I was out of the hole but now I was under the raft.
I grabbed the edges and tried to move myself out from underneath it, but the current was moving so fast that I couldn’t swim out. It was then that I felt the hands of my duckie partner grab my arm. I was hoisted onto the boat.
I could barely breathe or move. My ego had been pulled right out from underneath me. I had taken the river for granted: up to this point, it had always been safe and fun. Now, not only did I have a new respect for it, but fear.
The drive back home followed the river. I was soaking wet, hair still sticking up on my arms from the experience. From my window, I stared at the ripples and bubbles percolating up to its surface, taunting me.
That was enough—I swore I would never navigate a river again.
Every few days, I was invited by friends to return to the river. I turned each trip down. I couldn’t find the courage to get back on the water; the memory of being held under caused too much fear.
It was weeks later, while the water was still running at epic levels, that my friends gave their all in trying to convince me to float again.
The thought of getting into a raft made me nauseous, but I had to face the river; I couldn’t lose my favorite activity to fear.
The day came and the float trip was on. I hiked down a steep ravine to a raft a friend had tied to a tree. It was twitching on top of the rustling water, moving to the power of the river’s confluence.
“This is my chance to turn around and go home,” I thought.
I didn’t want to experience being pushed underwater again; the feeling of being so out of control paralyzed me. I remembered my earlier incident, feeling so small being tossed around and held by the river.
But I also came out feeling incredibly human. I was reminded that these situations were an inherent risk I accept while doing what I love in nature-immersive activities. Nature is ultimately in control—it’s one of the things that drives me outdoors—but by going back and testing myself against these forces, I am more equipped to deal with adventure gone awry.
I reluctantly got in the boat and cringed at the first few rapids, but managed to stay inside the raft. As I relaxed, I grew confident, laughing and smiling by the end of the journey.
My trust in the river was restored.
The thing is, the river is wild—it will do what it does best regardless of what a boater’s plans are. Respect it and come prepared; the odds of a great adventure are good.