What, Really, Are Rapids For?

Vinegar Rapid, OARS Main Salmon River Trip, Idaho (July 2016)
The author rows Vinegar Rapid on the Main Salmon River in Idaho. Photo by Thomas Gotchy.
Late August on the Main Salmon punches the somewhat smoky air with bursts of laughter, sunshine, and — of course — splashes. By mid-afternoon, it’s warmed up just enough for me to invite a few playful bubbles to curl gracefully over the edge of my boat.

A month ago, we were riding these same roller coasters, hollering and hitting them head on, invigorated by endless sunlight.



“IT’S IN!”

Now, temperatures have dropped and I can see my breath in the madrugal light. My flannel reveals its insignificance as I light hissing propane. 

Two hours and two (three?) mugs of coffee later, we head out for miles of beautiful slots, smooth pour overs, and holes that are mostly just rocks now at low water.

“Get stoked for rapids!” I yell, dancing a bit in my footwell. I’m excited. Amped. A little nervous.

“Whooo! Get stoked!” a chorus returns my call, reinforcing our river bond.

A young voice rises over the cacophony: “What are rapids for?”

Nash is six years old, and the youngest person on the trip. I am twenty four years old, and the second-youngest person on the trip.

“Do you mind being the only kid on this trip?” a few adults asked him the night before.

“Well, Maddie’s here, and she’s basically a kid,” he replied sincerely.

As we shove off, Nash is perched expectantly on my boat. My brain churns like the water before us, contemplating his question. What are rapids for?

We run around fifteen miles that day, full of classic Idaho rapids: Bailey, Five Mile, Split Rock, Big Mallard, Elkhorn, Growler, Whiplash. As I alternate between pushing and pulling, ferrying and adjusting, the question marinates in my mind.

What are rapids for?

Rapids are for fun. Rapids are for focus. Rapids are for respect. Rapids are for pushing you to the very brink and handing you humility along with your humanity. Rapids are for rag-tag bands of river lovers and river learners. Rapids are for slickrock chutes. And rapids — whether you plan it or not — rapids are for getting wet.


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