The pilot squinted at the luggage stuffed into the back of his six-seat Cessna. Turning his back on Boise, he gazed at the mountains looming ahead. He scratched his chin awhile and finally shrugged.
"It'll be alright," he surmised in a cowboy drawl. "We'll circle that 9,700-foot ridge, and we can make the 9,400-one easy 'cause the plane can do 10,000 . . .usually. It'll just be a mite slow, that's all."
Idaho has few roads, and most of them run around the edges. I had vowed before I left Washington not to be finicky. Small planes were going to be the least of the problem. The Salmon Air Taxi was the only way to reach the Middle Fork of the Salmon River on which, to my growing horror, I had agreed to spend the next week.
I am definitely not a camper. The heart of Idaho might have been the heart of darkness for all I knew (and probably was). Down jackets and wilderness treks have never tempted me, and I see no point in ruining perfectly reasonable legs with those ridiculous lumpy shoes. My idea of a good adventure is one that ends with a candlelit dinner back in town. Yet, on some absurd impulse, I had agreed to foresake my morning paper and evening's symphony for cold, damp, grit, and bugs. I had seen the film, "Deliverance." I knew what I was in for.
Having scratched and shrugged his way into the cockpit, the pilot took off carrying a load of luggage and five fixed, stony smiles.
An hour later, the fears were mostly gone, dissipated by visions of shimmering lakes tucked among staggering mountains. We landed on a tiny grass airstrip in Stanley, Idaho, with the sun streaming brilliantly and the wind blowing clean and hard. The wilderness' seduction had begun.
My portion of the group convened in Stanley, long on bravado. Wondering how Amber, the energetic initiator, had talked us all into this were her husband, Eric; his young daughter, Karen; Eric's veterinarian brother from Santa Fe; Harriet and Alex, two bankers from New York; a Washington lawyer; and me. Harriet had brought bagels and fishing rods, Alex wanted a shave and a martini.
I wouldn't quite call Stanley a town. It was a cluster of miners' huts, a vague attempt at a main drag, and two motels. For dinner, one could chose between a spanking-new pizza parlor or a seedy bar, The Rod and Gun Club, our initial choice, boasted a mangy dog that immediately bit me. It was not an auspicious beginning.
The motel proprietor invited us in to see his home, prettily set over a sparkling creek.There were lots of Mexican rugs all around and sheets of "Peter and the Wolf" on the piano.
The next morning more bush-pilots flew us to the put-in point at Indian Creek. A sense of adventure had carried me through the beginning of the trip, but now I was truly terrified. Rudely severed from all civilization, no nailpolish or no telephones, I was completely at the mercy of the unknown.
I have a single rule for all nonurban situations that excuses many of my mistakes and much of my clumsiness. This ironclad, unilateral system holds that I will not complain about any sort of misery until it is far enough past to be joked about. My rule was holding, but by a thread.
There were 23 people, six guides, five rafts and a paddleboat. The rafts were big, lumbering rubber-pontoon lumps with the baggage tied on in the center and a rower behind. There was actually a semblance of safety in their bulk and ability to bounce gently off the rocks. Not of the zooming variety, they sort of twirled their way down the river, periodically redirected by a stroke from the 30-pound oars.
The 20 minutes of my first attempt at rowing a raft were interminable. I'd be damned before I'd admit weariness, but I silently blessed the approaching rapid that forced me to relinquish my oars. The challenge was that the boats seldom faced forward; instead, they coasted downstream in long angles and sliding turns.
The paddleboat, which we took turns occupying, was smaller and seemed about as safe as a stray pinecone. A guide sat in the back to handle the rudder and call out instructions while six of us paddled madly to avoid imminent death.
The guides did the planning, fixed the food (admirably), packed and rowed the boats and had general responsibility. Each person had been issued a large, black rubber box that really did keep all 35 pounds of luggage and equipment dry. I am quite certain that I have never taken off, even for a weekend, with under 60 pounds. Tents are actually easier to use than I remembered them from summer camp, and I would like to note that mine worked every time.
My least-favorite aspect of camping is that it usually seems to consist of three-fourths fussing about. For all that they claim to spend their time enduring hardship, I am convinced that what campers really love is tinkering with equipment. The boat guides, however, had managed to devise a marvelous system in which a variety of tasks were performed simultaneously. I know that division of labor is a concept that many urban institutions have employed for decades, but I didn't think it had yet reached the woods. I remember how difficult it used to be to get six people out of the house in the morning -- and we had 23.
The river cuts among spectacular 10,000-foot mountains, the last day through Impassable Canyon. The vegetation, not lush and green as I had imagined, was mainly scrub and pine and rockslides of pinkish granite.
The trip ran about 70 miles northwards, dropping from 6,000 feet to 4,000 feet in the six days. The water was evidently unusually low because the guides kept saying things like, "Hey, I don't remember that rapid . . . Yeah, whaddays think of that? . . . Surprised you, huh? That's usually just a fast run . . . Geez, I almost lost my hat on that one."
The river is too clean to wash in, so bathing is quite a feat in itself. One must hand buckets of water up onto the land to rinse off the biodegradable soap. I had scoffed at that, too, before I came. That river, however, is far too exquisite to muck up with soap from all these people.
Nothing contaminating flows into the entire watershed, no pastures or logging streams. We "packed out" (a bona fide camper's term meaning carry away, as in a pack, to the nearest city) every orange peel and apple core. An essential piece of camping equipment seems to be a little metal cup with an extended handle that we used to drink directly from the river. I swam often, but briefly. Water directly off the mountains, I discovered, is numbingly cold. I could see fish at 30 feet. I was mesmerized, intoxicated by the river's clarity. Seduction at first sight.
Each of the boat guides seemed to carry on an especially complex personal relationship with the river. It was their muse, a provider to be worshipped, cursed and returned to. It had a definite temperamental personality, unpredictable even with the correct rites, but generous and fascinating. With a sort of mystical obsession, one guide told me, "I've never heard of anyone skipping a summer's rafting; most of us will just keep on doing rivers 'til we're done.'"
At this moment, their devotion is badly needed. The river's 10-year safe interval as a primitive area is ending, and the Senate is expected to decide its fate this month. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) has introduced the three relevant bills: S-95, the environmentalists' bill, seeks wilderness status for 2-3 million acres; S-96, the lumber industry bill, would reduce the area by 1 million acres; the Administration bill, S-97, calls for 2.15-million acres. This is called the "River of No Return" region; had I known the name, I would never have left Columbia Road.
The fisheries, the outfitters and tourist industry, and several of the Indian nations are supporting S-95. The AFL-CIO has endorsed the lumber bill. There are rich stores of cobalt in the area and, surprisingly, the miners seem to have convinced the environmentalists that they can safely extract this very desirable metal without substantially endangering the wilderness.
The difficult lies in a drawing environmentally sound boundaries. (The number of acres is not really the major issue, though in this country we lose a million acres of land to asphalt and concrete annually.) Roads built on the edges of a watershed can destroy the water quality and wildlife habitats throughout the entire river basin. The lumber industry is certain that it can log and build roads without ruining the land. Experience and environmentalists disagree. This is the largest untouched, wilderness in the lower forty-eight states, a unique and precious part of our country.
The last night we were there, as the group lounged about the beach, Mark, our trip leader, produced four stubby pencils and a battered legal pad. Haltingly, but no less passionately, he requested the group's aid in saving the area.
The guides' obsession was not ill-founded; as we had sunk deeper into the trip, the place had quickly become precious to each of us.
Most of the boat guides were inveterate wanderers: rivers in the summer, odd jobs, skiing, music, substitute teaching in the winter. Peter, however, is readying Great Books at St. John's and Julie attends Harvard Business School On the river, they are licensed professionals -- expert and able.
Unlike summer camp, none of the activities were compulsory. We took hikes to rocky peaks to look up and down the river and canyons. We visited a hidden Shangri-La spot high in the cliffs under a freezing water fall -- a precious, green jewel in the parched scrub mountain. We found hugh rock caves adorned with faded pictographs from the Sheep-Eater Indians. We luxuriated in hot springs -- a strangely out-of-context sensual pleasure alongside the cold, brilliant river.
There were long stretches in which to read, swim, hike, talk, fish or whatever. There were deep pools and high diving rocks, and one diving bridge for the those with truly foolish valor. We saw a grouse family under a log, quite close and unafraid; a rattlesnake slithering away, much smaller than I had imagined and very frightened; a big-horned sheep forced down by recent forest fires; and an eagle.
The second morning there appeared a lovely maiden in need of rescue. She was bobbing helplessly on the waters, so to speak, and her leg was a mess. Her name was Kate, she owned a bookstore in Salmon, and her father is a public relations man in Washington. Swiftly and valiantly, of course, feeding her beer and assurances, we floated her downstream to the nearest airstrip. (There are airstrips every 15 miles or so along the river, all equipped with radio, ensuring swift exit.) One can't have a wilderness adventure, I'm told, without at least one daring rescue.
One evening, Monica, a particularly boisterous boat guide, sat with me on the rocks watching the river flow swift and crystal. It was a long twilight, dinner was past, and most people had wandered off.
"I love the people who come on these trips," she said. "They wouldn't have come if they weren't good folks, you know. I get a whole week of living with them' I feel like I touch their lives."
I came with another opinion. A week of enforced proximity to what I was sure would be a set of self-righteous braggarts sounded second only to an all-expense-paid luxury week in scenic Toledo. I was wrong.
My companions ranged from an intelligent, extended family from New England that included two exceptionally sporting college kids and a hardy, crane-like, older ladyfriend, to a forest ranger who barely spoke but who broke into the most enormous miles when approached. There were two Japanese women who had the best time fishing, shrieking with glee, and a serious fishing couple who shared their catches with the rest of us. There were also two doctors who shot the rapids with their hands held high in the air, two good-natured quiet wives, and a newly-married couple that kept rather to themselves. Monica was right.
The third day was the only cloudy one, cold and damp. (The rest were, as promised, sunny and dry and perfect.) Aha, I thought, just what I had feared, gritty and miserable. The stiff upper lip, however, was not going to be necessary.
The New England papa generously doled out his store of bourbon. (We had brought wine in faulty plastic containers; Alex had lost a quart of vodka in a similar manner.) One of the guides organized charades, and we sang around the campfire.I have never been a great campfire advocate. I love a good party, but enforced communal conviviality is not my style.However, a day's rigors seemed to earn a night's camaraderie. They finished with "Good Night, Irene," and Robby and I waltzed, to everyone's delight.
The last afternoon we were stopped by the forest ranger. She was a lithe, blue-eyed woman of about 25. We had been smelling the forest fire all morning, and ominous burned-out patches had become oppressively frequent. She banned open fires and directed us to a much smaller campsite than the one we had anticipated.
No one set up a tent that night; instead, most of the group laid sleeping bags on the beach. They made a comradely row of multicolored double and single dormitory lumps. Yielding to the magic of the evening, we talked and sang unusually late.The moon cut jagged shadows high up the canyon wall with the stars crowded into a thin, ribbon between. The open-air night seemed to crystalize the week's experience -- the wilderness' seduction was complete.