by Eric Johnson

Photo Cred: ” The best naps are enjoyed in a eddy on top of a boat. ” – Susanne Morais of Raleigh NC | Colorado River – Grand Canyon | CTR 2018

The problem was this: somewhere on a six-day river trip down the river of no return. I was told by the trip leader that we were not going to return. As in he did not schedule a Jet boat to take us and our gear back up the river.  The Salmon River in Idaho is one of the few rivers where you can float down the rapids and jet boat back up them. Well, at least in theory you can.

 Without telling me, the trip leader had decided to have his vehicle shuttled to the take-out at Carey Creek instead of taking a jet boat shuttle.

Great. For him. Not so much for my boat, my gear, my two friends or me.  

 When we finally arrived at Carey Creek Boat ramp on a hot afternoon, the trip leader’s vehicle was there and my vehicle and trailer was still back at Corn Creek 80 river miles and just shy of 400 road miles away.

The preceding river trip had been legendarily disastrous.  So at the takeout there were absolutely no hugs, kisses, or promises to keep in touch.  In fact, we helped the trip leader load his raft and throw gear in his van just to get him gone sooner.

This left us on the ramp with 4 people a 16 ft. raft, a large cataraft, a pile of gear, and a Chevy Suburban with 298,000 miles on the odometer.

“Bob, the trip’s other victim, agreed to give us a ride back to Corn Creek, “on one condition.”

My friends and I didn’t have a lot of options. I was ready to agree to anything.

“You drive,” Bob said, handing me the keys.

“Done.” Beggars, choosers and all that.  

So began a three-D game of Tetris that involved two large rafts, gear and a Suburban.  Tubes were deflated, frames were broken down.  Coolers were drained, gear consolidated.  The spare tire was rigged underneath the vehicle.

“What will go in this space? And can this thing be broken down further” became the only dialogue.  

There was no plan B; it all had to fit.  Nothing was going to get left behind at the boat ramp. Drybags were shoved into every nook and cranny.  On the top of the Suburban, we performed the third world stack.  Gear was four feet higher than the roof, ten-foot oars were lashed off the Passenger side in swinging loops.  My friend Dan, the smallest and most agile, frantically strapped things up on the teetering pile of gear.

Two hours later we were on the road.  We stopped at Riggins for Dinner and then north on to Grangeville, where we got gas.  I grabbed a coffee, and Bob bought a six pack of PBR’s and dug out the plastic whiskey bottle “for the ride.”

 At Kooskia we turned east and headed through the mountains to Lolo.  For 99 twisting miles we followed the Clearwater and the Lochsa Rivers.  Bob talked.  Bob never stopped talking.  When we went silent, Bob talked more. It made him nervous.  He talked about our not talking.  Neither the beer nor the whiskey slowed him down.

He talked of his Utah river trip with some fundamentalists and their inability to see that dinosaurs and humans had not coexisted.  Somehow their love of mushrooms had not altered a fundamental rigid creationist worldview.  This contradiction had bothered him enough that he wrote them a letter after the trip to which he had not received a reply.  I knew, as he talked, that I could expect a letter from Bob about the periodic silences to which we subjected him.  We meant no harm.  And to be fair, Bob had been alone on his own boat for the float trip.  He had been lonely on the trip and now he had company.

   During the drive Bob spoke often of the infinite possibilities implicit in an infinite universe or universes.  Infinity was the only thing that made sense for Bob.  Somewhere every imagined reality was being played out in infinite manifestations.  When a cop pulled up alongside us in Hamilton, I asked Bob to remove the PBR can from the dash. 

“Okay mother Johnson,” he said.

 The cop pulled along beside us and eyed us suspiciously.  My friend Dan, recently hired as an elementary school principal, considered the scenario in which he was arrested.  Bob told Dave to relax. Bob said that he would talk to the cop about the possibilities in this encounter, specifically the ones in which he let us go.  Fortunately, It never came to that.  The policeman passed with a shake of his head.  

            “So that’s Jupiter, huh?”

           “What are those mountains called?”

           And on it went.  

At some point the sun went down.  We drove on through the night. We reached North fork around 11 P.M.  

The Salmon river is a class III-IV river, but the road to the launch is class V, bordered on one side by rocks that have rolled off the mountain and on the other side by a steep plunge into the river.  Somewhere along the road my edge disappeared.  Even beyond the top heavy sway of the vehicle, I felt the tail end begin to sashay around the corners. 

I swore a tire was going flat but nobody wanted to check.  The general consensus was that Mother Johnson had been driving too long.

A better solution was to let someone else drive.  

 My friend Justin took over for the final twenty miles while Bob punched his radio that had played the same Aerosmith song a dozen or so times in a row.  Between jabs, he railed against cheap foreign labor.  Not fake punches either, real punches–repeated closed fist punches–to the point that the three of us looked at each other and wondered if we should intervene.  

We arrived at Corn Creek Boat launch at two in the morning and crashed, exhausted.

The next morning a flat tire on the Suburban vindicated my suspicion.

“See, I told you.”

Nobody cared.

 In a zombie state we unloaded my gear from the Suburban, then I walked to my vehicle that I had left at the launch a week earlier.

I returned with bad new and worse news.  

           The bad news was that I had my own flat tire.  The worse new was that my battery was dead.

Fortunately, one of the rangers at the boat launch had a generator and a small compressor and was willing to give me a jump start.  

Just about 24 hours after the takeout, we gave Bob some cash for the trouble and waved goodbye.  On different shuttle our nightmare might have been over, but Forty miles of Corn creek road is a long way from out of the woods.

Ten miles from where Corn Creek Road joins the highway, we were riding high on the sleep-deprived good feelings of a somewhat successful get-away, when we smelled burning rubber–a lot of burning rubber.

 We looked back to see white smoke rolling off the right trailer tire. The leaf spring shackle had snapped from the brutal pounding of the road and the fender had dropped onto the tire smoking the tread into a gooey rubber mess.  We stopped, assessed the damage, levered the fender off the tire and used some alchemy of wire and wood blocks to keep the fender up long enough to limp the trailer to the highway. There was no cell phone service.  No one to help us. 

We pulled into the North Fork General Store parking lot, defeated.

The three of us walked into the store smelling of burning tires, a 6-day river trip and a 24-hour shuttle.  It was Sunday. Nothing would be open.

We were out of ideas.  We’d run through the alphabet of alternative plans.  There was nothing left to do but laugh or cry.   

I walked up to the young woman behind the counter.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“I need a hot springs and a welder.”

She didn’t smile, she didn’t laugh, she didn’t even blink.

“That’d be Leroy half a mile that way.  And the nearest hot springs are Goldbug, just about forty miles that way.”   

Leroy was not a good welder, but he was good enough.  

Those hot springs, though–damn!

I fell in love with Idaho that day.

Been in love ever since.


Author’s note:  I still boat with Bob.  He still talks a lot.

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