Wednesday, June 3, 2015


But it so happened just then, that it was high time for the Captain to mind his own eye. The prodigious strain upon the mainsail had parted the weather-sheet, and the tremendous boom was now flying from side to side, completely sweeping the after part of the deck. The poor fellow whom Queequeg had handled so roughly, was swept overboard; all hands were in a panic; and to attempt snatching at the boom to stay it, seemed madness.

My family went whitewater rafting down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. To do that we took a small plane into the middle of the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho. We weren’t roughing it. My parents had made this trip a few years earlier with an outfitter that ran supply boats down and set up tents for you, cooked for you, and cleaned up afterward. When my parents had done it, just the two of them, they had had the most marvelous time.

There were no grandchildren. My youngest sister, Julia, was fourteen. My middle sister was unattached. David and I were married a year, I think, and I was the fattest I have ever been, which felt terrible, especially when I wore the wetsuit. My parents wanted us all to be together on the river, so on the first day we went down to the put-in, met the other people on our trip, and arranged to be in the same raft, which was guided by a woman I’ll call Eileen.

It was just at the open of the season, and the river ran high and cold: 55 degrees Fahrenheit, or something like it. When we hit the first real rapid, Eileen couldn’t get us to turn fast enough, and instead of shooting through the space between a large submerged rock and the shore, we were thrown up against that rock and pinned there by the force of the water. When that happened, Julia and Eileen were thrown out of the boat, and the rest of us watched them floating rapidly down the river, Julia looking back at us, too scared to scream.

Meanwhile we were trapped in the boat, guideless. Downriver from the rapid, a guide from another outfit pulled his boat over to the riverbank, secured it and then jumped into the water. As we watched, he walked up the river to us, the current cresting above his waist, against his chest. When he reached us, he hauled himself into the boat, and directed us down into the calmer shallows. Julia and Eileen had been picked up by another boat further down.

We regrouped. No one wanted to suggest that Eileen was incompetent—and in fact, perhaps she wasn’t, perhaps this happened, from time to time, to all of the guides—so we went back out with her again. The famous rapid on the next part of the river is called Velvet Falls. To get through it, apparently, you have to enter the falls, a nasty drop that was that day about as deep as the raft was long, on one specific line. We failed to do this successfully, and as we went over I could hear Eileen say, “Oh, shit.”

We were thrown from the raft and submerged. The water, even through the wetsuit, was cold enough to make my heart contract and my breathing accelerate. On the other hand, I wasn’t caught under the falls, and nothing hurt. I generally feel pretty comfortable in the water, and I put my feet up, as we had been told to, in a V and headed down the river, where I caught a paddle and was pulled into another boat. Eventually everyone was found, and hauled into one of the boats. The following day, Eileen was reassigned to running the supplies, and we were transferred to the raft piloted by the General, a short, knowledgeable man who showed us how to read the water, let my sister Julia ruin his flies by hooking them on bushes, played guitar at the campfires, and loaned my unattached middle sister his sweater.

In camp a couple nights later I tripped and managed to drive a stick into the spot between two toes, which hurt, and raised concerns about infection; I had to keep it elevated, and, sitting by the campfire, grew fatter. By the time Dave and I got to San Francisco, my pants were tight, I had to wear sandals over a bandage, my foot throbbed, and I looked, and felt, ridiculous.