An excerpt from Whitefish Review’s issue #24 “Awakenings & Our Teachers.”
Story by Sherri Nissen | Cover art is an acrylic piece by Michael Reeder
As I pulled out a camp chair stored away for winter, I watched fine white sand spill onto the garage floor. Instantly, my mind shot back to Idaho’s Salmon River. Spending a week on the river had etched itself into my whole being. The sound of rushing water as I drifted off to sleep. The canyon walls gliding by in slow motion under the watchful eye of a bald eagle. Plunging off the side of the raft into the cool water. I had plenty of experience on multi-day river trips, but this one had been different. It was the first since I had become a mother.
I had been terrified about bringing my children on the trip. Visions of them falling out of the raft in a big rapid and not being able to save them. Nightmares too horrible to contemplate. So when the invitation had come to raft the Lower Salmon, I agonized whether we should bring our 7- and 10-year-old sons. My history of whitewater and river trips was colorful. The river can be harsh. My motherly instincts went into overdrive. Yet I also knew I had gained some knowledge over the years. While there was certainly danger, the river could also nourish and teach. It had proved to be a skilled teacher for me over time.
When I first moved to Montana’s Flathead Valley in my early twenties, I was asked to float the Middle Fork of the Flathead with my housemate, Dale, and my friend, Cody … in a canoe. A lake canoe! Looking back, it’s even more foolish than it sounds — taking on Class 3-4 rapids in a boat designed to troll across a lake. My role was to sit in the middle of the boat while Dale and Cody paddled. I was the queen of the canoe. I remember Dale saying, “It’s going to be an adventure!” I was young and green and I remember thinking, If they think it is okay, then it’s probably okay. So, I went.
It was a cold overcast day in June. We drove to Moccasin Creek and paddled out to the river, along with a couple of out-of-state kayaker friends who were the inspiration for the river trip. Everything was going well … until we actually hit the rapids. Tunnel Rapid was the first one, a boiling funnel of whitewater with a rock called the “can-opener” near the end which forms a massive wave, even challenging for whitewater rafts. Immediately our canoe took on so much water that we started to sink and instantly capsized. The Flathead in early season is bone-chilling cold, water fed by melting snow. Being the rookie I was, I was not wearing a dry suit or even a wetsuit. I gasped as I struggled to hang on to the boat as we navigated to the nearest eddy. Dread filled me. I did not want to get back in that canoe.
When I looked around the group, tense expressions replaced the nervous smiles that were there in the beginning. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who was realizing what a bad idea this had been. But, what option did I have? We dumped the water out of the boat, did a few jumping jacks to get our blood pumping and hopped back into the canoe. Bone Crusher was right around the bend. Our open canoe did not stand a chance against the car-sized waves. We swamped and flipped immediately, gasping and again struggling to the eddy. This time on shore, I started shivering so hard my legs felt unsteady — from the cold or fear, I’m not sure. I am certain my lips were blue. When Dale and Cody looked at me this time, they saw the reality of our situation. I was in no position to take another cold swim. Hypothermia was seeping in. We started to weigh our options. Continue into Jaws rapid and really face our mortality? Or bail. Hiking up to the road and hitchhiking back to our car seemed to be the best bet. We hauled the canoe up to the road, respect and humility the lesson of the day. In retrospect, our lack of respect could have had dire consequences. I realized later how foolish our adventure had been. My first trip down the river could have been my last.
Nissen is a fifth-grade teacher in Columbia Falls. You can read the rest of Nissen’s essay in issue #24, which features 45 authors, poets, photographers and artists, as well as an interview with singer and songwriter Huey Lewis. Copies of Whitefish Review are available in local bookstores and for order online at www.whitefishreview.org.