Ode to Lil’ Hirk


The rip was only faintly audible from where I stood, but I still froze. “Let go!” Casey shrieked from the bottom of the boat slide at Boundary Creek. I dropped the rope and ran to the lip just in time to see him leap into our halfway-floating boat and scramble to the oars. A D-ring and half its patch dangled uselessly off our rope.

Casey shook his head, miffed.  “What a piece of crap boat,” I said with a laugh.

It wasn’t an insult. Lil’ Hirk is an objectively crappy boat. He’s a 10-foot long, $700 Costco purchase my dad made without knowing how to row. The boat is almost as old as he is long, and despite his shiny start, he’s now missing three D-rings, sports a handmade webbing handle, a blown baffle, six patches, and too many slow leaks to count. Oh, and both the plastic buckles that secure the detachable floor into place are broken. Still, that POS has my undying loyalty.

Casey and I named him while scouting Vinegar on the Main Salmon. It was our first solo multi-day rafting adventure together. We believed upright navigation was sure to be a Herculean feat for the tiny piece of rubber with a penchant for getting surfed. If fitting into a Toyota Corolla (with all of his accoutrement) wasn’t one of the Twelve Labors, then safe passage through this churning mass of whitewater surely had to be.

Casey and I met four months prior (on the banks of a river, of course). After a summer season of guiding, we were not quite in a relationship and not quite ready to talk about it, about to part ways and unsure how. So, we decided to go boating.

We had a comically minimal setup: my dad’s boat and one Crazy Creek, because that’s all we had. We made lasagna in our only piece of cookware and ate it cold every meal for three and a half days because we didn’t bring any Tupperware. (Nor had we considered how much lasagna was reasonable for dinner for two). So, we stored the whole Dutch oven in the cooler and didn’t bother setting up our kitchen. It was just a table and a spatula, anyway.

That was a decade ago. Since then, we’ve added a few more luxuries to our setup: a camp couch, tongs, a handwash system. And we finally talked about our relationship. Lil’ Hirk watched each evolution.

On Cataract Canyon, we learned a pivotal lesson about paddle boats—most keenly, they are substantially more fun where gradient exists. If you do not have a motor, perhaps consider adding an oar frame to save yourself some agony. On the Lower Salmon, the superiority of spreadsheets over the reply-all email chains we’d been raised on became painfully clear.

On the Selway, we learned how much water is required for a boat to float and that half a foot on the gauge is not quite it. Four years later, at 4.5 feet, I ripped our dry box lid in half, snapped an oar lock, and bent two oar shafts when I flipped in Wa-Pootz, just a tenth of a mile above Ladle. I watched Lil’ Hirk take a perfect line through Ladle and then disappear around the corner to face 2.5 miles of whitewater upside down and alone.

Once, during one of the truncated guiding seasons I desperately clung to after becoming a teacher, I skipped a Lower Salmon trip with the family. I camped at Pine Bar on my day off to wave as they floated by. Lil’ Hirk made a dramatic, if unruly, entrance, overloaded and almost sinking. The front right baffle was slowly leaking. Casey perched on the bow, pumping with determination as he drifted toward Pine Bar Rapids. Lil’ Hirk had yet to fail us, but I had a moment of pause as I watched them disappear.

Our decision-making has evolved past the fool-hearted and optimistic bent of our 20s. We’ve built systems, and we run organized trips. We’ve collected certifications, and contrary to the conclusion the decrepit state of our boat suggests, our risk tolerance skews conservative. In an over-consumptive world and an outdoor industry culture that sometimes pushes unnecessary gear upgrades, Lil’ Hirk is the antithesis.

Sure, he has his issues (who doesn’t?), but he was an affordable entry point into the outdoors; one that facilitated our grandest adventures. We introduced countless friends to the wonder of the river from his shiny red tubes. He saved us from burnout with Friday departures.

Yes, Lil’ Hirk has slowly deteriorated before our very eyes, but he has also helped us grow. We aren’t just the boaters we are because of him: we’re the people we are because of the adventures we’ve had. He is a time capsule of our relationship. He witnessed as many milestones as mayhem and was present for every major life decision we ever made.

After our second summer together, we were folded into the footwell, hiding in the shade on the Lower Owyhee when we admitted we wanted to see each other more than between seasons. We were R2ing down the Cabarton the next spring when we decided to adopt a dog. Our first float with said dog was down the Payette. We grew up at the oars. We left seasonal jobs, we resolved to go back to school and open Roth IRAs, all on the swirling currents of the West. From Hells Canyon to the Rogue to Deso, we unwound our woes and rebuilt them into plans. Through it all, we remained true to our initial impulse: unsure about something in our lives? Let’s go boating.

We’ve seen a lot of rivers and solved a lot of problems, all at the oars of Lil’ Hirk. Not long after that Lower Salmon trip, he started to feel too unreliable to be safe. We just couldn’t keep up with his slow leaks, and we decided to upgrade. Sure, our new boat is shiny and sturdy. And yes, it also takes us to wild and far-flung places, but it’s just not the same. Call me sentimental, but the first cut is the deepest.

His wounds, scars, and busted parts are the stories we’ve created together. Hirk opened a world of possibilities. He was cheap, borrowed, and doddering. He was our means to explore the world. Blown baffle or not, I’ll be forever grateful.