Sat by the South Fork of the Salmon River, notebook in hand, I stared dejectedly at the scummy algae that permeated the water’s surface. I wasn’t expecting it to inspire me.
I was on an experiential immersive writing trip with Freeflow Institute. To spur creativity in our writing, we would learn about the natural history, environmental issues and anthropological history of the South Fork Salmon and surrounding area.
I was in the course with some incredibly talented, and cool, women. We varied in experience, from published book authors to those who hardly considered themselves writers at all. We ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. But we all gained energy and enlightenment from being outside, away from the pressures of emails and deadlines.
The discourse was excellent, the people delightful. But on that day, sitting by the side of the river with a relatively easy writing prompt—spend time with a plant and write about it—I was pretty unhappy.
It was suffocatingly hot. I hadn’t brought a camp chair to sit in during our discussions and presentations and my back was aching; I wasn’t feeling particularly creative.
It was July, and it had already been a hard summer. I had traveled to Idaho from Buena Vista, Colorado, halfway through my fifth season of guiding on the Arkansas River. The only reason I’d returned to the Arkansas to guide was a failed foray into nursing school and a rather devastating breakup from someone who had, a week prior, picked out furniture for our future home.
I was also frustrated with my writing, unable to foster any creativity or use my writing in any productive way—hence the brief pursuit of nursing school. I was, unwillingly, “dirtbagging,” living out of my Subaru because I couldn’t afford rent. A more optimistic version of myself would’ve said this afforded me the savings and time to write, but this was not the case.
After twenty consecutive days guiding on Browns Canyon and the Numbers, spewing jokes and paddle commands in a monotone, I thought I might just throw myself overboard into a keeper hole if I had to give another safety speech.
I had left Buena Vista in a hurry, already in trouble with the company for leaving over July 4th, historically the busiest week of the summer. I drove well over the speed limit, sniffling and sobbing as I passed through Salt Lake City, unable to hold a conversation. In Jackson Hole, I lay on a friend’s couch, staring with red eyes at the ceiling. The last time, I’d been there with my then-boyfriend, rafting the Snake River.
I reached McCall, Idaho, exhausted and dehydrated from crying. I had the address of one of the retreat coordinators, a woman named CMarie Furhman: a poet, writer, and teacher with a whole host of accolades under her belt. Not certain I was at the right home, I walked slowly up a steep gravel driveway. Hearing quiet chattering from the back side of the house, I tiptoed around to a beautiful deck overlooking an evergreen forest and rocky gulch.
The deck was filled with women sipping drinks and talking amicably. I stood nervously in the corner, all the chairs taken. My confidence was shot, particularly in social situations, as if I thought all the people there would also leave after pledging a lifetime of commitment to me. Chandra, the founder of Freeflow Institute, sat in a flowing dress, blond hair piled stylishly on her head, smiling as she invited me to sit in a camp chair she pulled out of thin air.
I tried to engage, stuttering through conversations, but found it better to sit quietly and observe. We went over the logistics of the trip, how to pee and poop on a river trip, how to avoid the dreaded norovirus, and what exactly we would be doing.
Freeflow Institute coordinates river trips to spur creativity, usually with a theme and illustrious authors and experts. Ours was “The Ecology of Wisdom.” We would backpack to an abandoned ranch, following the South Fork Salmon the whole way, and spend three days at the ranch learning from the women who guided the trip.
We would be led by expert writers, including Chandra, her co-guide Phia, two anthropologists, an Indigenous ethnobotanist, and a fisheries and wildlife ecologist along the South Fork, to immerse us in the place, and given prompts by CMarie and others to inspire our writing.
The next morning we packed, spreading tents and food equally amongst the group. I offered to take more, not because I thought I was stronger but because I wanted to wear myself out to the point of numbness. We piled aboard a bus and began the long journey to the trailhead. We meandered up mountain roads and gorges, various forks of the Salmon glittering below steep drop-offs.
The trail was relatively flat, a meandering echo of the curves and banks of the river. Packs laden, we took our time, stopping frequently to sit on the scratchy grass or craggy boulders lining the trail.
We had much in common: frustration in our craft, a need for the outdoors to stimulate creativity. I was immediately humbled by these powerful women, some of whom were facing struggles much bigger than being dumped.
We set up camp at a charming abandoned ranch, prickly grasses poking through the bottoms of our tents. Densely-treed peaks dominated the skyline. The river shimmered down a rocky scramble a hundred feet below.
After the first day, we settled into a rhythm. After tasty, nutritious breakfasts, we would start the mornings with a discussion or presentation. These ranged from in-depth scientific discussions about the collapse of the fish population on the Salmon since the installation of a dam to an analysis of a root from an Indigenous ethnobotanist.
I found the discourse fascinating and the women incredibly engaging. Yet I struggled to write. The sun baked down on my neck, a grass rash spreading on the backs of my thighs. I even neglected the writing prompts, choosing to chat or doodle in my notebook instead.
On day three, Ciarra Green, a passionate ethnobotanist of the Nimiipuu/Nez Perce community, introduced us to native plants and informed us of their Indigenous uses and their pasts and futures on the South Fork Salmon. Our post-presentation assignment was to “get to know a plant.”
I thought this prompt was a little silly, but tromped down to the river to cool off if nothing else. Notebook and pen in hand, I stared blankly at the algae that permeated the shallows, which, according to one of the women on the trip, is exploding in growth due to a warming planet.
I started thinking about this river scum, and suddenly, rather than despising it and what it meant, I started feeling sorry for it. It wasn’t its fault that it was overgrown; the fault was ours. Before I knew it, I found myself writing. Furiously. Writing a letter to the river scum, apologizing. It was after proofreading my scribbled paragraphs that I realized I was almost writing a letter to myself. I decided then and there that, like the cloudy black scum stretching down the shore of the South Fork Salmon, I would thrive.
We returned to our shady meeting spot after an hour and went around the circle to read our stories aloud. To my surprise, I got cheers and hoots of laughter, and even some applause. I’d written it in the voice of a 1920s gangster. It was, may I say, pretty good. It felt good, too.
I realized, I hadn’t been able to write about rivers because I’d been sitting in a stuffy library. I hadn’t been on a new river in a year or had engaging discussions. Thinking back, I hadn’t wholly had a sense of being in a place, of really knowing it, in half a decade.
When I returned to the Arkansas to wrap up what would be my last summer guiding there, I took my notebook to the riverside. Waving at the passing multicolored rafts and kayaks, I got to know a plant. This time, it was a ponderosa pine. I gently removed a small piece of bark to inhale the butterscotch-vanilla scent and felt something I hadn’t felt since I’d said a tearful final goodbye to a person I loved three months prior. Joy.
It was as if a weight had been lifted off my pen. The cloudiness cleansed from the forefront of my brain, the self-flagellation put to rest. I wrote as if I had a reason, as if I deserved to. They say that to do something worth reading, you should do something worth writing about. Even something as simple as sitting by a river with pen and paper and communing with some scum.
Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of Bowman Leigh, Cassandra Cleghorn, Chandra Brown, CMarie Fuhrman.