Swift Water Runs Deep

During a rescue course on Idaho’s Payette River, writer Tracy Ross watches her son transform from wayward teen to solid river runner with a sense of – GASP – responsibility.

From the banks of the Payette River, near the point in the road where you’re stopped because of snow, I’m seeing my son Hatcher in a way I’ve never seen him before.

He’s scrawny for a 16-year-old (but then our whole family is a little scrawny). He has an enormous wingspan, but legs on the short side. He can cream his older brother in a GS race off the couch, but his default—up to this moment—has been to lay around in his tapestry-draped room, watch a few five-hour blocks of South Park, read a couple of pages of 1984, moon over one of his vintage Playboys, or plot his professional and personal future, which currently involves piloting a FedEx cargo plane so he can live in the Vienna, Austria, mansion he found online for $250,000.

Right now, I’m also looking at another Hatcher—not as visible to the naked eye, but fortified beneath the one with the contraband. This one dangles from a sling and a carabiner in the recently iced-over Payette, with dark current pushing against his 125-pound body. His body, in turn, is wrapped in a one—or possibly two—sizes too big dry suit. His head supports an equally oversized helmet. The ‘biner and sling carry him from one side of the river to the other—and though he’s grinning, I can see him shivering just a little.

The air is brisk. We’re all cold, but Hatcher must be colder. How can’t he be when he shuns Nordic skiing and cites as one of his favorite foods Dino Nuggets? More important: How will he ever put to use the skills both he and I have come to late-spring Idaho to learn, through Wilderness Rescue International and the Salmon River guides and outfitter Canyons Incorporated, so we can be more responsible members of our family raft crew?

In truth, it’s a bit of a gamble. For his first few years of high school, Hatcher received multiple stamps on his three-strikes-you’re-out card. Last spring, in an attempt to divert him, I encouraged him to apply for a job with the Youth Conservation Corps in Denali National Park. Though he fulfilled his backcountry ranger duties so well he still gets gifts of thanks from his supervisor there, he seemed barely fazed by it.

This past year in school, his deviance was less Jeff Spicoli and more Holden Caulfield (a good thing?), but his success remained tenuous. Then last spring Canyons owner Greg McFadden invited Hatcher to the swiftwater rescue course as a sort of pre-game step toward one day becoming a river guide. Seeing an attempt to escape my domestic duties and spend some quality road-trip time with my cleverest offspring I signed up too, and here we are. But it’s not going like I expected because Hatcher is so much more than I expected. I want Hatcher to succeed no matter what.

From day one of the course he’s been a vocal, questioning student (in a group of professional guides and seasoned river rats). He has knotted all of his knots (the nine we were required to show up with plus others he discovered online). He’s mastered several different throw bag tosses (with different coils, including the butterfly and mountaineer). And on our first afternoon, he dove (safely—face up and skimming the surface) into the recently frozen river.

He was attached to a rope, attached to a ring on the back of his life jacket (PFD in cool river parlance). If he were to slip beneath a log jam (strainer), or get his foot stuck on something beneath the water’s surface (an entrapment), or the rope became caught on some other watery obstacle, he could pull a quick release on his vest, lose the rope, and swim to safety.

Hatcher takes instruction from Wilderness Rescue International instructor Nate Ostis

Safety in a cold, fast-moving river is relative, however—so we practiced it, shallow-diving into a rapid, attempting to catch an eddy behind a rock, climbing on top of the rock, and diving again, back into the madness. I say it’s mad only because compared to what several other tens or maybe hundreds of millions of people were doing at the exact moment that my 16-year-old crawl-stroked across the Payette, this was mad. But it seemed just the thing that would begin to turn Hatcher from a boy into a man.

Over the three-day course, he’s clearly much more comfortable with the curriculum than I am. He lands his throw bag tosses closer to his target (the student “victims” PFD’d and floating feet-first down the river); he swims more times; and he slides across the zip line to the opposite side of the river, unattaches, quickly catches a lower eddy, and then slides back across on another zip line. I, meanwhile, manage one zip across, one unnecessarily nervous swim, and one zip back. Leading up to this final test of our skill (which included using our new knot-tying and river swimming and pulley system knowledge) he also does something he’s never done.

His older brother, Scout, has always been the boy in our family who gave his mother a pat on the back, a hug around the shoulders, or a pep-talk during adventures that suddenly pushed her up against her limits. But without Scout here—or maybe independent of his existence—Hatcher offers a hand when I stumble after my second swim, and a high five when I land my throw bag near my target, and all out hugs me after I do the zip line.

We wrapped up our course and headed back to a gravel lot where we’d abandoned some cars in order to carpool. Nate Ostis, our instructor, gave his final words and started handing out our level 5 certification cards. I already knew that I’d either cut mine into small pieces or store it in the freezer—a cool keepsake, but with little meaning, because my experience showed me that I only need more experience—and I think Ostis knew it too. He said, “I’m really glad you came on this, Tracy. And I’m glad to have met you.” But when he turned to Hatcher, his tone changed, and, shaking Hatcher’s hand, he said, “I’m very impressed with your progress this week. You show some serious promise, and I hope to see you again when you’re a professional.” Then we left and both agreed that we’d just had one of our most valuable life experiences. 

That would have been a perfect ending to a perfect story, but it gets more perfect.

After McCall, we drove north, to Montana. A friend had scored a permit for the Smith River, and Hatch and I—soon to be joined by my seven-year-old daughter—would be on our own (in a private group) to row it.

We have all the gear and we’ve been rafting as a family for a solid decade. Hatcher and Scout had boated the Smith before, and the Salmon, the San Juan, and the Rogue. But on every trip since we started, their dad has been our captain. This has been hard for me, because it means I’ve always had to take a back seat, and it’s limited (with good reason) the amount of command each boy could take on a river.

The Smith was a new opportunity. It’s mellow, with only two named rapids. It courses through rolling green hills and sagebrush studded ranchland, shaded basalt-walled canyons, and under trees with enormous bald eagle nests. It’s also one of the most popular rivers to both float and fish, which plays into why boating it iced the cake of the swiftwater course we’d just finished.

It was unspoken understanding that Hatcher would captain our raft and I would fish the Smith’s waters. (Hollis would come along for the ride, meaning she’d have the time of her life.) We put in at Camp Baker and I could tell immediately that Hatcher had changed.

He commandeered the boat—rigging it the way he’d watched his dad do it. Then he helped the others in our group get their boats in the river. After that, he ordered Hollis and me aboard, and we slipped into the stream with him rowing. I don’t know what overtook him then, but almost immediately he looked different. Bigger, somehow. Somehow stronger. Definitely not the kid I’d watched bob up and down on the zip line back on the Payette, in Idaho.

He rowed with the arms that resemble wings, and used the power of his (yes, short) legs for leverage. And as the Smith pushed us downriver for the next 56 miles, he grew even stronger still, to the point that he could hold us at a edge of a cool and mysterious pocket of water.

He waited while I cast a wooly bugger, and waited longer while the wooly bugger sank to the bottom. The result was the now indelible memory of me catching my first fish on a fly while my boy held my line.

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