We could be in Kenya. White pelicans with black wing accents ride thermal vents upward, floating above us in cyclone formation. Killdeers chirp, eagles stare, and herons wade. Sucker fish glance the surface, their ridged backs tunneling in front of Red canoe. I expect to see a crocodile slithering into the shallow, tepid water.
In summer, farmers pull billions of gallons of water from the river to irrigate their fields, causing low flows below Blackfoot dam. A total of 300 canals and pumps divert the Snake in eastern Idaho, which explains why our trickiest navigation is avoiding bottoming out.
We smell hot, moist grass and blossoming honeysuckle and our eyes burn in the sun, making us feel dizzy. With black-and-white Pepi Gonzales perched as our captive captain on the gear pile, we paddle through meandering clear riffles and cloudy, still ponds. In a word, the float is lulling.
So, we take turns paddling–Gonzales gulping warm Budweiser, me sipping Gatorade from a Camelbak–watching the riparian corridor ease by. On our first morning, engulfed in cottonwood down as if in a summer snow globe, we watch a hunting osprey. She soars above the river scanning, and then folds her wings, plummeting feet-first to snare an unwary fish.
Just downstream from us, past Fort Hall Bottoms, the river is impounded by the nine-story-high concrete American Falls Dam, creating the largest reservoir on the Snake. The river slows and spreads, creating numerous dead-end channels. What’s signed as “Sportsman Access” from the roads translates to algae-infested, bovine watering holes that don’t connect to the main channel. While scouting the take-out, another access point presents a bug-infested bog. It smells of a long-dead beaver, which Pepi seeks out and rolls in. The sweet smell of rot stays with Pepi, and us, for the rest of the trip.
We never ask any of smiling fishing families in powerboats where they put in, and we’re lucky to get a nod from the beer-drinking babes lounging on the decks of others. We do get a word from the bronzed, shirtless driver of a grey powerboat–“Phantom” stenciled in red on its side—as he guns it past us, creating a white-capped wake. “Sorry!” he yells in passing. “I had to go for it.” The channel is big enough for five more Reds and at least two more powerboats. Still, riding the Phantom’s wake is the closest we come to whitewater.
Few canoeists paddle this section of the Snake, perhaps because access is difficult, and powerboats plentiful. But we’re pleasantly surprised by the character of this stretch. We sleep to the sound of coyotes and wind, and drift down the river to chirping song- and shorebirds by day.
Soon, we’ll paddle up the canal, past the farmers’ house and their ear-tagged herd to the brambly take-out. We’ll portage through sticker bushes and mud, over barbed wire and past silos to get back to the Subaru and home to Jackson. But first, we clamber out of the deep swirling pool, laughing, panting and drying in the sunlight with no one else around but us, the dog, and the birds.