Salmon River

Author: Caroline Zlaket

During July nights in Idaho, the sun does not set until 10 o’clock. To young girls, this feels almost sacrilegious.

We are playing a card game called “Camps,” taught and perhaps created by one of the rafting leaders, Kevin. He goes to college in California and is old enough to call me, age eight, things like “Champ” and “Squirt.”

This is our third night camping along the Salmon River. We have been rafting from one end to the other, and we will for three more days. I have successfully exchanged names and online chat usernames with all the other kids on the trip. They’re a little older than me and come from places like Wyoming and Ohio. Their actions, and even the way they speak, are foreign to me.

I’m on vacation with my mother, father and older brother –– who, so far, have entertained my falling off the raft into the water with only mild laughter –– and we are beginning to contemplate our choice of home state. We are young, my brother is in that strange boyish-machismo phase and my mother and I can officially say that we have showered in a river.

Prior to this, I did not consider myself an “outdoorsy” person. Does it count to go for a morning run along the sidewalk and to reflect twice a year on how, really, I should be hiking in Sabino Canyon every day since I optimistically bought the annual pass? I’ve grown up knowing all too well the feeling of thighs ripping off of leather car seats. I am a daughter of the desert. Barefoot dances in unexpected rainstorms in our street, carefully allotted shower time and the ever-idolized swimming pool –– perhaps the desert’s greatest gift to me was teaching me how to appreciate water.

After only a few days of our trip, I’m certain: It’s the clearest river I have seen in my entire life. My brother can attest to this when cannon-balling a hundred feet into the water. He and the fellow rafting families jumped from the top of a seemingly infinite Idahoan bridge.

Maybe that’s why I loved it so much. There was no option other than action when it came to the water. We couldn’t stay on the beach for the sake of being left behind; we couldn’t succumb to the waves because we had places to be. Card games to play.

The rules of Camps are simple enough. The goal is to obtain all four suits of a certain card through a rapid-fire series of swapping in-and-out of the master stack. We play with partners because the goal of the game is to alert the partner of a winning hand without letting other groups know. We use a lot of signals for this. There are other fine-tuned rules that we learn as we go, which lead to a series of obnoxious fake signals followed by obnoxious real-but-seem-fake signals.

We have no clocks, only the sun. Even with that, we are forced into a state of awe. We feel tired, our internal clocks tell us that we should be readying ourselves for bed, our eyelids require more and more effort to open and close and yet the sun is still out.

In later diaries and journals, I will recount that this was by far the most beautiful place I had ever been to. I will answer the question of my best trip with “Idaho. Salmon River.” It will be simple and matter of fact. I’ve told you now about phases, and the paces of seasons. This was a slow one, allowing me to press pause for a bit in those kayaks or the dory or, if we were lucky, the big group raft. We were so far removed from anything we knew that we didn’t reach for it. We couldn’t access the familiar, so we didn’t.

When pressed, I can’t explain the orange of the late-night lantern glow or the precision of Kevin’s ultimate frisbee passes or the time when I sidestepped and launched sand across another boy’s entire dinner plate. I can’t talk about all the post-meal sketch sessions and the dance routines and the s’mores. I don’t want to. I won’t do them justice.

My mother told us growing up that the best way to learn something was to teach it. So now, years later and short on time and attention spans, I reach for Camps. I dictate rules and break out water-damaged cards and set up the stack. Most of the time, my brother helps. We do this in groups of four to twelve. We watch our friends craft clever, nonchalant signals. We break out old favorites and use them, laughing at how often they work.

In their smiles and their laughs, I come to know this idea of sharing: moments, events, memories. I realize why we went with four foreign families to Idaho in the middle of June, why we had multiple raft leaders as opposed to just one.

I’m not sure it would’ve worked had we gone by ourselves. I don’t think I would have liked it. We needed to be with other people –– people who hadn’t ever heard of the words “Tucson” or “eegees” or “drought” in their lives –– to remember that we could be other people, become other people. And even though one of nature’s greatest appeals is solitude, I recall this trip over a decade later with the same takeaways: We need these odd Midwestern families in our lives. We need a full team for a game of ultimate frisbee. We need partners for Camps.

We need to be able to look up from our cards at the late-night sunset, turning to our brother with hushed wonderment: “Do you see that, too?”