Circular Flow

Unexpected benevolence saves the day.

We pulled into camp at Sunset Cliffs as the sky collapsed upon us. The strobe pulse of lightning along the rims of the river canyon set off peals of thunder. First some hail, and then she let loose with a deluge. We hit the shore like an invading army, everybody shouting. Either we were in control, or no one had a clue, but somehow, in the chaos, the awning went up and we rode out another storm together along the Smith River. An hour later, after camp was set, I saw Stan down on shore. His hands were partially raised in disbelief as he walked in small circles between two rafts—there were supposed to be three.

We figured the raft probably had a three- to five-mile lead on us, if it stayed in the current, and planned a rescue mission with two people in an inflatable kayak. We loaded the kayak with the essentials and snapped some pictures. Hell, laugh a little, it’s only the Smith. They’d find the raft. The unspoken second-guessing gave our jokes and wisecracks an edge. Our two volunteers, Stan and Jim, sank low into the kayak and launched at 7:30pm on that fine evening of the summer solstice, disappearing around the bend in pursuit of the ghost raft.

What happens on rivers between the put-in and the take-out can never be recounted all that accurately. Impossible things; tales no one dares to believe or even tell. That’s why river stories sound more like legends: they’re always just a little beyond belief. It’s with that in mind, that I continue this particular river story.

Later that evening—as in three hours later—we were standing by the fire wondering how the rescue party was faring. It was the ambient light of dusk, when the shadows move and play tricks on your eyes. I swore I saw a boat come around the bend. Whoever it was, I decided to tell them to keep an eye out for our friends. I hit the waterline and peered upstream. As the raft floated toward me in the twilight, I saw Stan’s sun-hat and white goatee, and heard Jim’s echoing laugh. Their smiles were big and as bright as a full moon’s light on the rolling river.

How could this be? They had just paddled downstream in pursuit of our lost raft, and now they were rowing it into camp from upstream.

Now, Stan was a smokejumper back when they made their own gear; he’s also a forest planter and elk hunter. If it could be moved, Stan could move it. But there’s no way they could’ve hauled that raft up-river, even if it were empty. There was no way they came over land and down the steep slopes between the cliffs. We pulled them into camp with bear hugs and demanded the truth.

Turns out they’d found the raft five miles down at the Heaven on Earth ranch. A fishing guide was throwing in one last line before bed, and pulled the ghost raft ashore. Stan and Jim celebrated their good fortune and began setting up camp. But the owner of the ranch, Vic Anderson, insisted on loading the raft onto his flatbed. Knowing the private roads that access the inholdings, he called the neighbors and said, “We’re comin’ through; hold your fire.” They drove up through the dusk and put in just a few hundred yards up-river from camp.

That’s what they said, anyway. But I’m here to tell you that the Smith River down by the Sunset Cliffs flows in a circle, and that the only way a law of nature such as gravity can be reversed is through the kindness of other people.