Whitewater and Whiskey: My Time on the River of No Return

One of the biggest reasons I picked up a summer position on the Frank Church Wilderness a couple of years back was the add-ons the job came with. An isolated position meant I wouldn’t spend money on anything but essentials, plus the Forest Service office offered up another pro I couldn’t pass up: an all-expenses-paid whitewater rafting trip down the River of No Return. Honestly, when the summer began, I was under the impression it would be a lazy-river-type ride down a beautiful river in the Salmon Mountains, but when the River Patrol showed up for the first day of my trip, I very quickly learned that I had more than a few wrong ideas.

            For starters, I was technically still working full-time every day on the river. Uniforms were mandatory, as were name tags. We were stopping at every single one of the 50+ wilderness campsites down the 102-mile river. It may not sound too bad, but it was also my job to be the guy to jump into the thigh-deep rushing river waters that, even in July, were probably 65 degrees at the warmest. Also, most days, I was doing it with a hangover that would kill a fucking grizzly. More on that later. For the most part, we didn’t run into too many people on the river, and the ones that we did see were always pretty friendly. One guy we rolled up on waved to us from the bank, shouted something, and then mooned us to show a nice little bruise he’d gotten from flipping his cataraft in a Class-III rapid.

            Most encounters went similarly. The folks on the river were either young and just a little too full of life or older, coming up on retirement and still kicking ass and taking names on a river that claimed at least a couple lives every year. We once stopped to check in with a group and learned that the only reason they had reserved one of the least desirable campsites on the river was because last year, their group leader had been bitten by a rattlesnake there. He decided to spend thousands of dollars literally to go back to the same spot, at the same time, and try to kill the rattlesnake a full year later. A discussion on the biological and physical needs and behaviors of rattlesnakes followed. The snake was not found.

            The nights were among some of the best nights I’ve ever had anywhere in my life. Each River Patrol member brought their own booze, and I had asked that they bring a bottle of Bulleitt Rye down for me. To add on to that, a senior member of the River Patrol, a gentleman whose name I shall not divulge due to the fact that he probably still works there, brought with him a bottle wrapped in duct tape with a plastic stopper. The first night, he passed it around the campfire and insisted that I drink long and heavy from it when it was my turn. As it turned out, this kind-hearted man had blessed us with a bottle of his homemade whiskey, which, no doubt, must have been quite illegal. If anyone were to report it, though, it wouldn’t be me because I’ll be goddamned if it wasn’t some of the best damn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tasted great, burned like hell, and definitely contained trace amounts of methanol, based on the skull-splitting headaches it gave me every fucking morning. So every night, we sat down, beer, whiskey, and cigarettes making their rounds, and talked about other Forest Service jobs that we’d had, or the People of the Public that we had to deal with, or insane experiences that our common foolishness put us through.

            So every morning, I’d wake up, break down my tent, try to beat the hangover out of my head with the poles, slip into my soaking wet running shoes that worked, more or less, as water shoes, and shove the raft off down the river. I may not miss a lot about those mornings but damned if I don’t miss the hell out of that river.

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