Once upon a very long time ago, I owned a red and white hard-shell kayak, bought with money that an ex-husband stole from unsuspecting suckers. No mere pickpocket, he convinced them they should pay him to make a film about their fishing lodge in Alaska. He also told me it was more important to learn strokes than how to roll—despite the fact that the Alaskan waters we paddled were full of icebergs.
I believed him, compensating for my lack of an Eskimo roll with balance and terrorized paddling. We boated rivers in Alaska, California, and Nevada. But the second our relationship imploded, I sold my kayak, and with it, a desire to explore the West by river.
Fast forward to last summer, when I found myself invited on a trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. A friend had bought a river company he wanted me to invest in. The deal included one guaranteed trip a year and the promise that he would one day bring my sons up through the guide ranks. I jumped, and found myself at the put in—above 100 miles of green pools, frothing rapids, and a barely-peopled wilderness.
I still couldn't roll a kayak, but rafting sounded too boring. In an eddy, a group of bright, inflatable boats dangled behind a bigger boat. I chose one, and altered my life's trajectory.
The Duckie is an everyman downriver craft. You don't have to roll. If you bounce out, you just bounce back in. Deflecting off rocks, spinning in eddies, I saw 70-year-old women navigating one of the world's greatest rivers. I paddled mine 90 miles of the 100-mile trip. And when I was done, I realized that I could explore the West by river, with neither an Eskimo roll nor a decent stroke.
From the Spring 2011 issue