Welded Aluminum and Nerves of Steel… or How to Sink A Jet Boat Without Even Trying

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Dream Crusher loves her alone time and has David to thank for the many hours of stress- free, John-free weekends that happen every late summer and fall. He is, after all, the one who taught me to fish in North Idaho. I grew up in Alaska so I know how to fish – everyone does. It’s what you do when there are endless hours of daylight and only nine miles of road. I had to learn how to tan when I moved south, but learning to fish was never an issue. When I moved to Idaho, I thought I would fish, but the only fish I could find were tiny ones, like the kind I would snag under the dock and use for bait. So, I quit fishing all together, got married, and had kids. Being married to Dream Crusher has been so much better than fishing anyway (DC is my editor, so this may have been changed from the original), but having kids, well let’s just say they are lucky I didn’t meet Dave prior to them being born (he’s just kidding kids- DC).

I consider the last 35 years of living in the Panhandle my “lost” years since I really had no desire to fish and had no idea that only 40 miles south the river was teeming with big fish. I was like a thirsty man who did not know that he had an artesian spring on his property. It was Dave who led me to water and made me drink. I can’t believe that I was somewhat reluctant to go when he asked me to float a section of the Clearwater with him. I guess all those years of no fishing had hardened my heart and I was hesitant, expecting some anemic trip with the end result being a tiny stringer of puny fish. But then I caught my first A-run Steelhead. And you know what? This thing jumped and fought and tried to kill me. Okay, it was pretty small for a Steelhead, but it did fight and it was fun like I remembered fishing in Alaska being, and this one act of kindness set me on a new life path. It was like being born again to fishing because the fish were big and the river was beautiful. I even went out and bought the first of my many boats after that trip (Dream Crusher does have a love-hate relationship with my fishing partner). So, when David said he was going to buy a jet boat, I thought, “cool, a new way to fish the Clearwater.” And that’s what it has been… until there were no fish in the Clearwater.

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No one can quite figure out why the fish have stopped coming to the Clearwater. Some blame the dams, but the dams were there during some of the best fishing in recent past. Some blame the Fish and Game and still others blame the seals or the Native Americans or global warming or Trump or El Nino, but all I know is that I was sick to death when I got the email that all fishing in the Clearwater drainage was closed for the year. Then I got an even more chilling text from Dave. “Can’t fish the Clearwater, but I’m heading up the Snake. You want to come?”

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Now, if you know the Snake River you know it flows through the deepest canyon in North America (yes, even deeper than that big hole in Arizona that people keep falling into and dying). In order to navigate the waters during most times of the year when the water is low, you have to have some understanding of where bad things can happen and it was smack during “most times of the year” when I got the text, and while Dave has mad skills in many other areas of life, knowing where bad things can happen on the Snake River is not in his wheelhouse, not by a long shot. I texted back one word:

“Um?”

“Come on, it will be fun.”

“Um?”

“Don’t be such a baby. We’ll just figure it out as we go.”

“Um?”

“Oh, and a friend of mine who can run the river with his eyes closed will be teaching me.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll go, but only if he keeps one eye on the river and one eye on you!”

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As we dragged his 22 foot jet boat down a dirt road past house after house with large yards and huge, boat-storing shops, I got to thinking about how different it must have been a hundred years ago when the rule of law was a rifle and a strong arm. Hell’s Canyon has a torrid past, rife with Chinese massacres, Native American displacement, horse thievery, gold mining, get rich quick schemes, boat sinkings and land rape, but as Dave backed the boat down the ramp at Heller Bar, it had more the feeling of a monster truck rally than any of that. Guide boats sped up and floated down the river with six souls aboard, each dragging a length of lead, a hook and a glob of eggs down the bottom of the river, whooping and hollering and holding up adult beverages every time one of them hooked a fish. Tour boats as big as blue whales lumbered and thundered past the ramp hauling hundreds of people up the river. The constant roar of big engines and the roar of trucks pulling off the ramp made me realize that I was not on the quiet, gentle Clearwater anymore… not by a long shot.

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I had been on the Snake one time before and, to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. I had seen videos of rafts hurtling through two story rapids with no way to keep upright or for the rafters to stay in the boat and I was expecting to blast through every wave train like a roller coaster loosed from its rails, but what happened was far less dramatic. What I didn’t realize is that the last thing a boat owner wants to do is to try and break every welded seam by smashing his boat over and over through every single wave, no matter how much fun it would be and, in reality, it’s not that fun. Hitting big rapids in a jet boat feels a lot like getting hit by a car and the pounding you take means you can’t get out of bed the next morning. But, at that time I was expecting water careening over the boat and huge waves crashing down upon us and having to lash myself to the mast in order to get some really cool pictures, but what I got was a skirting of all the big water and a zippy little ride up the river zooming in and out of the waves like a gazelle running around the pack of deadly lions instead of right through their pride.

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Our guide Red (his name has been changed to protect his identity) kind of pointed Dave up the river and said, “Go up there!” Dave buried the throttle and the boat slowly got up onto step and in a moist cloud of dust and engine smoke we added to the din and went “up there.” From what I could hear over the engine noise, it seems that there are really only a few rapids that you need to worry about in order to get up the river. The rest of the miles and miles of turbulence is just a matter of knowing how to read the water and your depth finder which fluctuates from 2 feet to 35 feet in the blink of an eye.

A jet boat driver has to has to have pretty good reflexes since you can’t really slow down and stop if you lose your way. Sometimes you can, but often you are running in very skinny water and if you stop, you stick. And getting a multi thousand-pound boat off of a rock or sandbar isn’t really all that fun. As we motored up river for the first time and I watched Dave do an amazing job of navigating, I had the distinct feeling that I was in a giant game of asteroids being played on a fast moving body of water where you sometimes can and sometimes can’t see the rocks. Unless someone is holding your hand as you go and pointing out every hidden gremlin in the river, you would hit bottom and get the waaawaaawaaa and a big “game over” flashing on your screen. Only there is no screen, just a cold float and a long cling to a slimy rock until someone stops to peel you off. In this game, losing is not an option.

As we came to the next in a long succession of rapids, Red casually mentioned that if you run the river enough you will hit the bottom at some point. Um, what? I asked him to repeat himself. “Yep. Just a matter of time.” I’ve trained my mind to worry. It has kept me alive for 56 years and I’ve kinda turned into Dave’s second wife – in name and nag only. I found my mind wondering when we will hit, what it will look like, and what will happen when we do. I’ve never been able to just blindly trust to providence or luck and somehow keeping the thing I fear in the forefront of my mind, keeps it agile and awake to all of the potential issues. When we do hit on this river, my hope is that our shields are up or that the rock with our name on it has been rounded smooth by the other boaters who hit it before us or, barring that, trust that the extra few half inches of hardened aluminum that Dave’s boat has will be enough.

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I have ample reason to worry because I’ve actually hit bottom in a jet boat before, and I don’t mean that after years of drinking and drugs, that my intervention was in a jet boat with friends and family telling me how my actions had affected them. No, I mean Dave and I thumped a big rock as we sped down the Clearwater because some guy with a $5000 fly rod in a drift boat, saving the environment and enjoying nature without supporting fracking, was camped right in the channel we needed to be in and we turned right instead of left and hit a rock. We all flew around the inside of the boat for a bit. Dave grew pale and ashen and tried to act like hitting the rock was what he had planned on doing all along, but the drift boat guy was pumping his fist, waving his non-gmo-bone-broth-smoothie at us and getting ready to paint another hash mark on the side of his boat next to the other 15 already there.

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The first thing that comes to mind when you hit bottom is that you’re going to sink, so you quickly lift the engine cover and look for water in the bilge or beams of sunlight where sunlight shouldn’t be and then you run to the edge to see if the bilge pumps are shooting out copious amounts of water. The second thing you do… Oh wait, back up. The first thing you do is wet yourself. Then you look into the bilge… then you panic and beach the boat quickly to catch your breath. If you see water shooting out of every single one of the boat’s orifices (or is it orifi?), you get out, grab a beer and hope the water is shallow enough and the river calm enough for the salvage guys to float it out and onto your trailer. If it’s not, you call insurance and start looking for another boat on Craigslist. However, if all appears normal, you keep fishing and hope you didn’t miss anything. It turned out that we didn’t miss anything and when we pulled the boat at the end of the day, the blemish on the bottom of the hull was about the size of a small mole that you thought might be cancer, but turned out to be one of those spots that means you’re just getting old. Thankfully, Dave spent the extra few bucks and got the thicker hull. I was equally thankful that we hit bottom in the Clearwater where the calm, steady ebb and flow of the river has smoothed the rocks to a polished and mellow state, and not in the jagged, rock and roll turbulent flow of the Snake River that smashes and breaks huge boulders into hidden, snaggy nasty things that bite.

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I don’t like bitey things. As we motored upriver Red mentioned one of those “things.” “There’s a boulder, right there” he said as he pointed to a flat, calm, smooth as glass piece of the river, and, sure enough, as we roared safely past you could see it smirking quietly to itself a few millimeters underwater. There are many of these “things” in the Snake and anyone without course knowledge gets a dent or a hole, but preferably a dent…and an education. I secretly think the old timers like the idea of deadheads in the river (a deadhead is something just below the surface that you can’t see, but can cause damage, and has nothing remotely to do with Jerry Garcia). It gives the old timers a bit of something to talk about in the evenings and makes their knowledge worth something. If they marked every rock with a big flag or just dynamited them into small bits, no one would have to pay for their services and they wouldn’t have anyone to laugh at. Most of these guys own their own boat building companies and deadheads are just a good business model, like the local dentist who gives out candy instead of toothbrushes for Halloween.

There have been efforts to make the river more navigable and at one point the Corps of Engineers put large, white navigational poles above and below each rapid. The theory was that if you lined up the poles one behind the other, going up or down river, you would have a repeatable way to run each rapid. That is unless the river changes, and the river always changes. Rivers like the Snake are wild rivers that kick at their confines and tear at the canyon walls and move sand, silt, slag and boulders around in an effort to escape. It wants to wander and can’t and bucks and kicks. If you think you’re safe because two man-made sticks are lined up, think again. The river is fluid and so are the boulders and the first guy who lined up the sticks perfectly and struck bottom must have thought “What the heck was that?” as he bounced off the ceiling of his boat’s cabin. Only I’m sure he didn’t say “heck” and as he washed out the back of his boat and floated serenely down the river while his boat turtled and sank, he must have wondered what just happened. No one really uses the sticks anymore, which makes the advice of those who run the Snake all the time, even more valuable.

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We got a history lesson from Red as we made our way past the confluence of the Salmon River. We saw iron rings pounded into the cliff face that were used to pull sternwheel boats through the rapids and a boiler from one of the same that broke apart when the rope fouled the paddlewheel. We saw white marks high up on the cliff where engineers thought a new dam would be good. There are petroglyphs from long gone tribes, kilns from lime mines, and foundations of long defunct copper mines. There is even a tunnel through one of the mountains that comes out on a completely different river. We received a double education that day that sent us scouring the web for Hell’s Canyon history books.

We videotaped every single inch of the run up the river and with Red’s narration, Dave is getting it figured out. He’s studying the film like a third string NFL quarterback who got thrust into a starting position just before his debut in the Superbowl. The last trip we took with another guide and friend resulted in only a few tweaks to the way he runs the river. The test will be when he’s on his own, but he will do fine. I am getting more and more comfortable, but I haven’t yet been able to sit in the copilot seat as he’s running because I’m just too nervous, but that will come with time. The river and the canyon offer a new fishing opportunity that we’ve never had. Not only are there Steelhead and salmon, but there are trout, bass, white fish and Sturgeon. There are sandy beaches, deer and bear and big horned sheep, and the opportunity to river camp. Dave is figuring this whole thing out and that’s really cool and it makes me happy that I get to do this with him. It’s starting to feel doable and normal, which is why the hair stood out on the back of my neck as shivers went up my spine when I got a text from him last week.

“Hey, brother. Now that we’ve learned how to run the Snake, maybe it’s time to try the Salmon.”

The Salmon River is also known as… “The River of No Return.”

God help me.

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