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  • Paddling the Middle ForkA Love Story in Low Water
  • Jill Christman (bio)

In 1991 two summers after my fiancé was killed in a car accident, dead on the scene, I headed north into Idaho in a white Subaru wagon with two kayaks lashed to the top like fins. My companion was my wild-haired boyfriend, Stevie, blond curls sproinging out from every follicle (really, you’ve never seen such hair on a white guy)—frenetic energy bound in the form of man. They were his kayaks, I was in love with him, and this was his idea. I was twenty-one; he had two years on me. We had met a year and a half before at a kayak school in southern Oregon, where I seared salmon steaks and baked pies to feed the paying customers after he’d worked up their appetites teaching them to paddle, brace, and roll down on the river.

A recipe for romance, but we struggled. There were three of us in the relationship and one of us was dead—and perfect. Stevie once told me he felt as if we slept with a ghost between us, and I couldn’t deny that I’d felt him there myself. Sometimes I wonder if the trip to Idaho wasn’t some sort of exorcism: a trial by water. Colin had been dead only six months when we’d met, but what could I do? On my first morning in the riverhouse kitchen, this wood sprite of a man materialized by the sink as if out of some kind of never-never land, smiling impishly, and offered me this sweet welcome to the river: a bouquet of wildflowers and osprey feathers for the windowsill. And, I swear, watching him paddle a boat was like witnessing the dance of the loon. He and the boat were one body. While some of the other instructors, excellent paddlers, would muscle and jerk, he seemed to anticipate and understand every ripple, rock, and hole: swish, swish, swish. Beauty, Stevie would say—to describe me first thing in the morning, or a brimming, nutty bowl of homemade granola, or a drop in a river with the kind of decapitating water pressure that [End Page 234] would make a normal person announce a portage. Danger made his blood pump. Doesn’t it make you feel alive? he’d yell over the roaring water, grinning. And in the beginning of our relationship, emerging from the lock-in of numbing grief like a prisoner into the too bright light, I think perhaps his wild waters did just that. Before a drop, I’d tighten my hands around my paddle and set up my angle. In a kayak, I had no way to distinguish the sweat on my palms from the spray of the river. Wet is wet and alive is alive. Beauty.

So the Subaru was loaded down with everything we’d need to navigate down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in late August—sleeping bags, tent, water filter, toilet paper, ground coffee, bag after bag of dried beans and rice, a single-flame stove, and a small blue pot. This journey is what I learned, in kayak dude lingo, was called “a seven-day, self-support,” and I had been so involved in suiting up the gear, buying all those beans, and rolling every last item into neat plastic bags, that I’d forgotten to be afraid.

Or maybe, after Colin’s death, I hadn’t yet rediscovered fear. Fear is funny. I’m sure that there are psychologists who could explain this to us, or at least take a stab at it, but let me say simply that in those first months after Colin, I wanted to follow him. I would never have taken up a gun or a handful of pills, but if my foot had slipped on the edge of a cliff, or I’d gone under the water and failed to roll up, well, that would have been an accident. I remember a feeling of great and mournful recklessness.

Entering the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, that first incomparable Tracy Chapman album blaring in the...