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Did my nickname have to be Riverboy?

My first time on the river, how it changed my life & I why I still begrudge Tom Meckfessel. When I got out of the Navy in ’92, and with no prior experience, I decided I wanted to be three things: mountaineer, big wall climber & whitewater kayaker.

I didn’t know any mountaineers or big wall climbers but my sister’s boyfriend Tom was a river guide. Taking pity on her little brother, my sister invited me (against Tom’s better judgement) on their upcoming float down the lower main Salmon. So I made my way up I-84 from the thriving metropolis of Troutdale, Oregon to the burg of Whitebird, Idaho where I met up with up with Tom, Elizabeth and their friends Danny and Viv. Addie, the best dog ever, and her deaf daughter Mae were their as well.

There were a total of three boats on the trip: an Avon Adventurer, Tom’s drift boat and the state of the art kayak for the day, a Dancer XT. Unlike today’s whitewater kayaks which are all flat on the bottom and excedingly stable, the kayaks of the 70s, 80s and early 90s were all designed based on the cigar, and had all the stabilty of a beach ball. When we put on the river at Hammer Creek I had never actually been in a kayak before. I did, however own a copy of William Nealy’s Kayak, which I really thought would give me a solid leg up in lieu of experience. After all, I had looked over his cartoon instructions on how to roll a kayak on more than one occasion. You just stick the paddle out to the side and kind of pull back on it and then the kayak rights itself and you move on with your life. How hard could it be?

Tom has never been a big advocate of hanging around at the put-in. So rather than waste time with actual “hands on” instruction, he offered me some quality tidbits of paddle advice instead: point the kayak into waves and holes, keep the paddle in the water, and lean downstream. Between Tom Meckfessel’s 30 Second Whitewater School and William Nealy’s cartoon instruction book, the casual reader will no doubt be lead to believe that I instantly mastered the way of the kayak and went on to win the silver in the olympics later that summer. Based soley on the first rapid we encountered, anyone watching from the shore, would have assumed that I had been kayaking for years and that I was as well versed at playing in the water as any river otter.

That first rapid is called Rollercoaster. It’s a long class II of big, fun, easy, rolling waves. Tom had given me three small tasks which he assured me would keep my head above water (As easy as explaining to one of the Matis tribespeople of the Amazon, who had never even sat in a car, the mechanics of driving said car in three simple steps: let out the clutch, give it some gas, point the wheels in the direction you want to go. Got it? Okay, welcome to Seattle. Have fun driving around the city). And just like the poor Matis indian who sideswipes a dozen cars before bring his vehicle to a gentle stop on the steps of the public library, I too was doomed to failure.

After the first couple of rollers, I turned the boat sideways to the waves, took the paddle out of the water and leaned upstream. If you’re wondering what the fastest way to turn a kayak upside down is, I would highly recommend this method. It may not be the absolute fastest method but it’ll guarantee results. I sat there underwater for a moment, bobbing down the river, the hand drawn instructions for rolling a boat playing through my head. I leaned forward. I pulled the paddle. And voila!, I was back on top of the water, paddling my way successfully through the remainder of the rapid.

Tom, Dan, Viv and my sister all cheered. Even the dogs looked impressed. I had never been in a kayak before in my life and within 90 seconds of getting on the water I had successfully completed my first combat roll. But, just like the perfect joke that escapes your lips accidentally that people might remember you for but never again receives a laugh no matter who you try to tell it to in the future, my history of rolling a kayak – upright at least – had come to an end. I swam 72 miles of Salmon and Snake rivers over the next five days.

Back in 1992 I was 21 years old, 50lbs lighter and had an unbelievable amount of energy. And that was good, because a person expends quite a bit of energy tipping a kayak over, trying to roll the kayak upright three or four times, wet exiting, pulling the kayak to the shore, dumping out all the water, putting the skirt back on and paddling back into the current – every 50 feet or so for 12 to 15 miles a day.

I don’t remember where our first camp was – I actually don’t remember where any of our camps were – but I do remember I still had some energy left over. Enough that that the rest of the group was looking for way to get rid of me so that they could have a little quiet time on the river. With the exception of my sister, no one else had any idea just how much I could talk, and the truth of the matter is, I could talk a lot. So when we got to camp that first day, and nobody could get me to shut up, Tom and Dan devised the Salmon River Challenge: a peak above all others, inaccessible to all but the most confident of the mountain goats, give me a time limit of an hour or two, and tell me they didn’t think it could be done. And with that, they’d have their relaxing drinks on the river while playing cribbage and making dinner. After the sun set they would turn on their head lamps so I might have a better chance of making it back to camp (they knew my sister would make a fuss if I didn’t make it back). And then I’d come limping back onto the beach. Bleeding. Bruised. Covered in poison oak. Ready for a beer.

And for all my effort, for all the swimming and the paddling and the near drowning and the forays into the wilderness while the others enjoyed their gin & tonics on the beach, for all that they gave me a nickname: Riverboy.

And for that, I will never forgive them.

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