Lessons from the Salmon River

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Not until I’m already neck deep in the river, pumpkin-sized rock hefted heavy in my arms and feet marching a steady beat forward, do I remember that I haven’t finished my writing assignment.

I’m standing in a slow, cold section of the Main Fork of the Salmon River, on the northeastern edge of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho. I’m here on a six-day guided river trip and writing workshop, hosted by the Freeflow Institute.

This trip is unlike any other river trip I’ve taken in the past. To start with, the trip is guided, which basically means all necessary tasks are taken care of for us: rigging, de-rigging, setting up camp, and meals. The only ‘chores’ we’re required to do include setting up our tents, pouring our own wine and writing. This is, after all, a writing workshop along the banks of the Salmon. The real task set before us each morning, then, as writers, is to do just what Freeflow was designed to facilitate: take our craft outside, to focus on listening, looking and leaning in.

Each morning we gather and talk craft with prizewinning author and conservationist Bill DeBuys. Each day a new topic emerges, around which Bill helps us build a discussion of thoughts and tools. By the time we’ve drained our last cups of coffee, Bill gives us a writing assignment to ponder throughout the day. As the sun rises over the canyon walls and crests the beach, we break for breakfast.

I’ve rafted quite a few rivers in my life and hiked a lot of trails, so this rhythm of quiet movement through wild space is familiar to me. But the guided aspect of this trip, combined with community and attention toward writing is something new entirely. At first, I felt anxious over not being in charge of steering the boat safely through rapids, not making meals, or breaking down camp. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. But gradually, after repeated reminders, I began to relax and accept the promises Freeflow offered: a unique chance to be free of distractions, deeply for once, and to focus, really focus, on writing. This chance was a gift.

Each day, I leaned a little further into the rhythm. Once on the water, we navigated whitewater and explored old historical sites. I tried to stop and notice, stop and write, reflect. Like many writers, I struggle most with those moments just before I actually begin to write. Those first few days, I pushed against the slowing down. Wake up, listen, talk about writing, get on the river, go down the river, pay attention. I took notes fiercely, and after a day or two, began to appreciate the pace. Each evening, we would arrive at camp and gather again. Over cocktails, we discussed the day and shared our words.

One morning, halfway through the trip, our writing assignment had been to write two different paragraphs, each focusing on finding the telling detail of a place, to look for the voice of a place, and do our best to capture it.

We had plenty to work with. The Main Fork of the Salmon, classified as a Wild and Scenic River in 1968, has a long history as a peopled place. Several Native American tribes, such as the Karuk, Shastans and Konomihu, have a long history of settlement and migration along its banks. In the early 1800s, European fur trappers started frequenting the river canyon, followed quickly by an influx of prospectors, miners and eventually homesteaders. The river now winds through what is technically the heart of wilderness, yet its banks still function as home and livelihood to many.

The Salmon, then, offers profound juxtaposition. The Frank Church, at over 2,000,000 acres, is the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. Yet all along the Main Fork, powerboats, grandfathered into the legislation, rifle the waters. The banks swing from steep, rugged canyon walls to open, pristine sandy beaches to functioning ranches, old homesteads and tourist attractions. The Main Fork of the Salmon feels at once remote and occupied.

Today, we stopped at Buckskin Bill’s, a classic on this river, pulled over to float the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main, and farther downstream, we eddied out at Rabbit Camp, home for the night. Rabbit Camp is a wide, white exposed stretch of sand snugged up against high cliff walls.

I yearn for shade. Today was hot, low 90’s perhaps. Not terrible, true, but more sun than this northerner is adapted to. I know my task is to focus on writing, but in moments like this, the nagging heat distracts me. We’ve been in the sun all day and I’m wilting like a tomato plant too long without water. Writing. Right. Focus. Finish your paragraphs. My brain moves sluggishly. Then Nate suddenly hollers from the shore: “Who wants to play the Rock Game?!”

Nate is veteran raft guide who knows a thing or two about rivers. My brain clicks on. Intrigue. Water. Cool down, please. So, the Rock Game. Have you heard of it? You find a rock, big enough to weigh you down. Then you find a calm stretch of water and some friends who are equal parts goofy and ready for a swim. Then together, rocks in arms, you all walk straight into the river, perpendicular to the current, as far as you each can go.

Feel the sand, the tiny mountains of earth the waves have made under the arches of your feet. Feel the cold, shock of the water, as it creeps up, as you walk down. It reaches your knees, now your waist, now your stomach, then your chest. The cold is a shock, both jarring and delicious. You keep walking until it reaches your shoulders, then your neck, now your chin.

One last deep breath in. The river is above your nose now, your eyes, now over your head. A few steps more. And then a few more. The rock feels heavy, oddly comforting. As you shuffle along below the surface, it gifts you this ability to defy buoyancy. Your perspective changes.

Then, quickly, quicker than you thought, it’s over. Time to retreat. Your air is used up and with it, this brief glimpse into another world. Drop the rock, push to the surface, off the sandy bottom, up, up… up.

I break the surface of the river to a torrent of shouts and calls and laughter. Heads and shoulders dot the water around me, various distances from shore, and everyone is cooler now, and new. We shoulder our way back to the beach, leaving a tattoo of our time there and our antics on the river floor.

I never did finish my writing assignment that day. I’m realizing, like perhaps every writer ever, I will always struggle with distractions. But that day I shared what I did have. And the gift to be there, the gift to explore and listen and reorient our lives to this rhythm and flow of words was invaluable. That week on the Salmon for me was about writing, yes, but it was also a reminder of perspective. It was a reminder of the importance of committing to craft, and leaning in, even if the true craft at hand is living in the moment, in the river.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Kitty Galloway is a writer and educator based in the Rockies. A week-long writing workshop hosted by The Freeflow Institute on the Salmon River sparked the inspiration for this blog. Today, Kitty works as an intern at Freelow while she finishes her Masters of Science in Environmental Writing at the University of Montana.