“There’s a snake!” “Are you serious?” I replied. Sure enough. I saw it almost instantly as I whipped my head around to the right side of the boat. The snake was moving rapidly through the water and gaining speed faster than the downstream current. In a paddle boat on a fast-flowing and winding river full of rapids, it takes a coordinated team effort and a wise guide at the stern calling the strokes.
Our team was torn whether the snake was a friend or a foe. Was it confused or curious, or nefariously on the attack? For 10 to 15 minutes, the slithery reptile stayed close by us as we pushed down the river, and I am convinced it would have preferred to hitch a ride in the boat.
I have never fully appreciated snakes and their purpose. I have learned to tolerate being around them if they are in a safe enclosure or they are dead. Touching a live one or having one crawl close to me is frankly a nightmare. I have frequently said that there is a reason that Satan takes the form of a serpent. Those beady eyes and that slithery tongue have never fooled me.
When I was younger, my dad used to get a kick out of taunting me and others with small garden snakes. I remember a couple of occasions in which he would put one under his ball cap and then turn it over like he was making a greeting and there would be a snake curled up inside the hat. Another time, I remember him tossing one toward me, and when it hit me, it wrapped itself around my wrist, which prompted me to dance frantically to shake it loose. It was all good-natured tortuous fun, for dad.
I was at the front of the raft full of adult cousins floating in a river full of mountain cold water. The Payette River in southwestern Idaho is a major tributary of the Snake River. It is famous for its whitewater with the main part known for several Class III rapids. It originates in the Sawtooth and Salmon River mountains and primarily flows from east to west, taking in the waters of the North, Middle and South Forks and merges with the Snake as it reaches the city of Payette at the Oregon border.
The real snakes on this river are figurative. As we scouted the Staircase Run on the South Fork the next day, some nerves and excitement were setting in. The Staircase is a challenging Class IV rapid with 1/3 of a mile swim if things go wrong. There’s a big spot off the side of Banks-Lowman Road to scout the different lines to run. Our group of nine walked up and down the north side of the river bank and stood studying the rocks and holes and wild water. Several kayakers went through.
We tried to put the risk of running the Staircase in a percentile of good versus bad outcomes. It was nearly unanimous that there was a high risk of the boat overturning and would cause some to swim. The last fatality on this section was last summer when a raft was pinned and everyone on the boat swam. The risk is as real as the river running through it.
In this beautiful place, in this beautiful state, there is ample opportunity to engage with Mother Nature. We are blessed to have mountainous landscapes and vast swaths of protected wilderness and places to recreate outdoors. We have 880 square miles of surface water, more than 2,000 lakes and 93,000 miles of streams and rivers. The Snake River is our longest at 779 miles as it winds its way from the border at Wyoming to the border at Washington. I spent many hot summer days in my youth jumping off bridges into the Snake. Now, I enjoy fishing its waters and observing the abundance of wildlife that it surrounds.
We called off the Staircase Run this time to some deep disappointment and wise decision-making. I reflect back on the time spent together as family and away from the daily routine. I am reminded of the “18 Summers” campaign from the Idaho Department of Commerce. The campaign encourages visitors to explore Idaho with their families and there’s only 18 summers with your kids to make it happen.
As we enter the first summer with our first child, I hope that he gets to see and explore the Idaho I know and love and that he successfully navigates through the snakes on the rivers. As he does, there is no question he will learn to appreciate and preserve this place we call home and it will be here to enjoy in perpetuity.
Dustin Manwaring is a business and estate planning attorney in Pocatello and served in the Idaho Legislature from 2016-2018.