Voices in the Wilderness: Ariel Olson

“To be stranded,” Thelma and Louise excitedly agreed.

These two over-the-hill ladies were replying to the question, “What are your expectations on this five day river trip down the Salmon?” Their names were not actually Thelma and Louise, but based on their spirit it is an appropriate nickname. The pair had met fortuitously on a summer adventure long ago and continued the tradition meeting once a year for some grand escape.

We raft guides chuckled but all secretly hoped that stranding these two would not be the case. The trip was labeled “family magic” as six was the youngest age allowed for participants. Five lovely days down the lower Salmon and a bit of the Snake river. Everything we’d need for the trip was on the boats, including some inflatable kayaks (duckies) for family fun in the less rapid-ous sections. The extensive pack list went through a rigorous three check system to make absolutely sure nothing would be left behind – and we were off! Boating one of Idaho’s most infamous wild and scenic rivers.

It was early September and the river had slowed from lack of precipitation. Commercial boating had also slowed and this particular trip was small enough that a short gear boat was all we needed for support. This meant that some of the coolers and trip gear would be carried on guest boats. The canyons of the Salmon can be as deep as one mile and hot winds get trapped following the river’s flow. The third day of the trip was a day of hot winds and ceaseless sun. The dried brown foliage along the canyon walls were reminiscent of fall, although the heat carried on. The cool perfect water was the best respite and the boats floated lazily as guests swam. Soon, it was time to search for camp.

The raft company has a few beaches they’d prefer we park guests on – white sand and flat tent sites please! Private boaters are generally more adventurous and also considerate of commercial trips with big groups. This day, we were running out of luck and beach after beach was full. We soon realized we’d have to enter cougar canyon and hope to get lucky for a campsite. Cougar Canyon is a slot canyon with vertical rock walls closing the river into a hallway. It is notoriously haunted and a sign of bad luck, but we had no choice… in we went!

We did find a nice enough beach for our small group, but no trees to tie boats to overnight. In this situation, the tactic is called a high line. The boats are pulled up parallel to the sand and a rope from the bow and stern is attached to a sand stake (basically a rebar pole) hammered into the sand above seasonal high water mark. We tied the gear boat off solo and the three guest boats were tied together. It had been a textbook day and the night was so warm a fellow guide and I threw our sleeping bags right on the sand and slept under the stars.

We were the first to wake up as raindrops started to fall gently on our faces. As we sat up, we noticed that the beach looked different than it had last night. The guest boats were gone! Not in view, nowhere, gone! The gear boat was loose and banging slightly against the sand, one of the sand stakes about to come out. We woke up the other guides and after insisting it was not a prank we all put our heads together. One guide tried to navigate downriver but the canyon walls don’t allow for safe travel along the shore. Another guide considers hiking out but it is far and hard hiking. We SAT phone for help but there is no way to extract guests out of the canyon.

We get news that a blowout occurred above us on the Middle Fork, meaning it rained hard enough that the river flooded and rose inches overnight. Our guest boats tied together must have been pulled down river.

Thelma and Louise are perfectly content and they have been questioned thoroughly at this point. As we discuss our next move, the rain becomes a light drizzle. The food cooler for that day was on one of the boats so we have to get creative with leftovers from the day before. The kids start a game of building the longest functioning stream from the top of the beach to the main body. Finally, news comes to us that our boats have eddied out about three miles downriver and someone has tied them off.

Now, how to get there?

Half the gear on the beach had been dispersed between those boats as well as all the people. We only had one short gear boat and a two person ducky! We start to load up. Packing the boats is already a grand game of Tetris but this was ultimate survival Tetris, every item needed to be perfectly stored. When all was loaded, there was only an inch of rubber showing above the water’s surface. The guides jammed as many as could fit into the ducky, one helmet and one paddle per four people! The gear boat is rowed with central oars but the captain couldn’t see above the six foot mountain of people and stuff. Another guide had to move stealthily back and forth to relate navigational tips and not tip the boat over. There was a class three rapid to be navigated… all went well!

In my five years on the river, this was the greatest obstacle I ever had to overcome. I wonder if Thelma and Louise recount this story as one of the best met expectations on an outdoor adventure in the wilderness. There is a picture of our sunken gear boat and our overloaded ducky somewhere in a river warehouse and I hope the story has been passed down in river rafting infamy.

Ariel grew up in the woods of northern Idaho but followed her winter passions to Colorado after hearing a rumor that there’s 360 days of sunshine (it’s true). After eight years of recreating in the high alpine, she moved back to Idaho to be closer to family. In her free time, she loves gardening, riding her mountain & dirt bikes, exploring local lakes, and learning more about wild mushrooms.

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