Standing across from Evel Knievel’s Snake River ramp today I’m wondering what would have happened if Evel had cleared the canyon back in 1974. Yes, the ramp is still there. There’s also rock, worn from people who have bumped across the desert to get a better vantage point, a few spent shotgun shells and beer bottles. And me, a paddler on a mission to find the spot where he came down. To get there I’ll be at the helm of an exotically dented, patched and bent red canoe, a boat that-like Evel’s x-rays-clearly has a story.
Behind the jump is Twin Falls, Idaho. To get to the river earlier today, I had to make my way through the mall. After a few wrong turns, I finally bought a map at the Barnes and Noble that showed me the access road that dives out the back of parking-lot-land. At the bottom was a boat ramp just downstream from the Perrine Bridge. I’d put in there and paddle upstream to the landing site, and to Shoshone Falls beyond, before making the trip back downstream. What would Evel have done in such a situation? Put-in above Shoshone, I suppose. He never struck me as a flat-water type.
As I passed under the bridge a group of BASE jumpers threw themselves from the railing. Perrine Bridge is the only place in the U.S. where it’s legal to BASE jump every day of the year. It was so still that I could hear their chutes open with a pop. Some jumpers screamed. One guy did a couple of flips. He was the showoff of the group. Apparently Twin Falls is a good place to go if you’re a beginner daredevil.
Evel inspires-if that’s the right word-even if a review of the footage of his star-spangled, fringe-trimmed, crash-filled escapades might suggest something else. These days, people get bigger air on skateboards, and most of them land intact. Sadly, few wear capes.
Thirty-four years ago, Evel rented some land, built a ramp, hired a former NASA engineer, and had a go. I remember watching on television as the Skycycle came up short, its chute deployed too soon. It drifted out of sight and splashed down, and Evel was plucked from the river by a helicopter. The jump itself may have been a failure, but the place is hallowed ground for my inner five-year-old. Something about it explains the intervening three decades of homemade ramps, blind drops, and other gravity experiments.
I paddled up to Pillar Falls and carried over the multi-tiered ledge. The river above and below it is much the same-flat, greenish, murky-and the falls are a reminder that the river is flowing, even if heavily siphoned by irrigation diversion. The drop at this level is a series of sluices and slides, much of it covered with a dusty film. I spotted a few rocks along the portage that had been scraped with blue and red from previous boatersw. I saw no one, however-a strange feeling given that the suburbs were just over the rim of the canyon above me. From here it was less than 20 minutes of paddling to the place where Evel splashed down. I have to admit, some small part of me thought I might find a piece of the Skycycle.
A grotto with a spring trickling down from above filled the cracks in the basalt with lush green plants. As I passed by in the red canoe, completely alone, a mourning dove cooed. I wondered if Evel noticed how quiet it was down here where he landed. I continued upstream and took a closer look at 212-foot Shoshone Falls before turning for home. On the return trip, the BASE jumpers had finished for the day and a stiff breeze gusted up the canyon, making the paddle downstream more work than the upstream leg had been.
When I got back to my “put-in,”a guy who identified himself as “Cash Money”offered me $5 for the red canoe. He was already a little drunk. I mentioned Evel and he paused, reverently, giving the daredevil his due. I smiled and said that the boat wasn’t for sale-wasn’t even mine-and it still had a few more scars to collect.