The River of No Return.

That’s the name the natives had for it when Lewis and Clark asked, according to one source. Kinda has some appeal, doesn’t it?

More than a challenge, it’s a seductive side dish to my life. What exactly do I have to lose?

I knew the Salmon River’s main fork would mean a trip to northish, centralish Idaho. But so distant from my Montana upbringing had I become that I knew not which side of the continental divide it ran. East or West? But it was a river trip invitation from a friend I like a lot.

I had the brains enough to say ‘yes.’ Whew.

But six months later, before I finished packing my car–in that moment when your subconscious searches for an excuse to quit the physical labor–I found myself staring at my computer screen, searching for the put-in, a creek named ‘Corn.’ Where exactly was I going?

We were going to float from eastern Idaho to western Idaho on the most lovely section of river I’ve seen in these many days.

In short, booby prize, this was not.

Overwhelmed with private business reorganization, property transfers, kids in college, you know the scene. I had just sent a check to someone to make sure I made the roster when suddenly, it was time to load up the car and get there.

Sure I’ll pick up Kathy in Salmon, Idaho. What does she look like?

Where is the turnoff for the put-in?

What is the name of the shuttle company?

Dessert for how many?

Then suddenly, we were all there. All 24 of us. A campground on a hill, sloping elegantly toward a loud, beautiful river, clear and strong. I pulled some shampoo out of a ziplock bag, a towel from the drying place on top of my pile of gear and headed downhill. I looked sideways–everyone was busy.

I hadn’t read the rules. I didn’t know nudity was a no-no. I didn’t know I was supposed to distribute my wastewater from my hairwash up on the hill. I was operating on Grand Canyon rules out of habit. I found a beautiful stream and just upriver, a large rock on which to perch my towel and clothes.

It’s amazing how quickly I can bathe when the water is the temperature of a bitter divorcee.

I swear, ranger, I was out in under 1.5 seconds.

But boy did I feel ready-for-anything afterward.

And it’s a good thing.

Because Dick Peterson is not your ordinary river trip leader. He’s 75 and missing a few toes. He speaks infrequently, when he has something important to say. And most importantly perhaps, he knows when to move aside and let his 18-year-old grandson row the rapid for him.

I had sent out some emails, unanswered, about this eve-of-launch dinner. Everyone knew but me. “It’s a thing,” Alex had said. “We do it night before launch every time.”

Someone had pulled an inflated boat off a trailer and someone had then covered said trailer with butcher paper, connecting the strips with duct tape. People were beginning to set up chairs around it as though it were a giant table.

When I finished combing out my wet hair, I approached this scene with some shyness, nay, trepidation.

I spoke softly to a man stirring something at the stove. He told me that dinner was almost ready. I watched as he and a couple others stirred giant pots of broth. As I stood there idle, he naturally enlisted me to help. As a team, we strained the contents of two large (like 10 gals each) pots and dumped them on the papered trailers. We pulled crab legs, sausages, corn-on-the-cob and laid them onto the butcher paper on the trailer. It was brilliant.

I was the newbie to this gig. I remembered the trip leader had sent out a list of chores, asking for volunteers. I didn’t know what “pearl diver” meant and on every trip I’d been on I knew people just jumped in and got ‘er done. I volunteered to be the ‘whatever needs to be done I’ll do it person.’ On this trip I always got beat to the dishwashing lineup; I always had hands offering to help peel fruit or carry heavy things–to the point I looked at my flabby legs and wondered if I LOOKED helpless.

But no, over the next five days I learned this group of two dozen people made a tribe, everyone knew their place, everyone fit into the cogs to make everything work. And it was all designed by simple love. Not complicated love, like I’ve seen on other trips, where people sleep with the wrong people or worse. Kathy told me during our introductory one-hour ride to the put-in that Steve has been her best friend since forever. I asked Steve how he knew her and he said “she’s my sister.” The two are not related.

On costume night my friend known here as Alex donned a pink wig and tutu. We called him Ruby as he danced around the firepit. And Alex came up with costumes for the two federal government types who had not brought costumes, both named “Ed.” When Alex was through Montana Ed looked like a sniper with willow branches stuck in his hat and charcoal blackening his skin. He crept up behind chairs and played the part. The other Ed had a large straight piece of driftwood strapped to his torso. “Morning Woody,” Alex announced. The quiet shy former FDA inspector wore it well.

And then there was the neonatologist (newborn baby doctor.) The lone hardshell kayaker, this guy couldn’t sit still. You’d think after dealing with screaming babies 50 weeks a year (I’m sure he doesn’t get to hang with the quiet ones) he’d take a break and relax. But no. After playing safety at every rapid (hanging out in the eddy downstream to assist in case of trouble) he hauled gear up steep beaches, washed dishes, explored the everything around camp (he’s the one who, despite having watched the bear at the edge of camp all evening, camped next to its apple tree and had to move his tent in the middle of the night.) He hiked everywhere and on one memorable evening, swam across the river from camp to jump off a high rock. This after paddling all day.

When we got to our shuttled cars and trucks at the take out, we discovered the shuttle team had forgotten one set of keys. We tried calling, we looked in every other vehicle … and eventually broke in through a small window, stuffed Sabina, the skinniest among us, in to unlock the doors. Someone found the keys in a seat pocket … but no one left until this was accomplished. We had become a tribe and I thrilled to be part of it.

Maybe by “River of No Return,” the native tribes meant that we would not want to return from it or that we would in no way become our old selves again.