Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
Photo by Rex Parker, via Wikimedia Commons

On the occasion of Earth Day, I sat at my desk and reflected upon the Frank-Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, where nine years ago I traveled by raft down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I’d turned 50 a few months before and had begun to think in terms of bucket lists. I was with my husband and 6-year-old daughter. I wanted us to have a real wilderness experience before the wilderness was gone.

We flew by puddle jumper from Boise over the Sawtooth Mountains to an outpost with a general store, an outfitter’s, and a motel. There had been some doubt leaving Boise. Several pilots huddled together, their eyes trained on a dark cloudbank to the west. We left in haste to beat the advancing storm. As hail pelted the plane, we bounced our way up and out of the clouds to gaze down upon a miracle of refracted light: We were flying, quite literally, somewhere over the rainbow. It seemed like an auspicious start to the trip.

I’d like to say, these many years later, that what trickles forth from memory is the night song of the river and the wind and wild things in the canyon, the dazzling play of light on water and rock, the unusual flora and fauna we encountered on our five-day descent through four distinct ecosystems–forest, grasslands, wetlands, desert. I’d like to say it was the thrill of the many class IV rapids we traversed–over 100 miles of whitewater with a vertical drop of 3,000 feet. But what follows is more of a paean to the Great Mother, a tale of being a woman in the wilderness, and a meditation on feminine hygiene and its exigencies.

We checked into the motel and met up with the rest of the rafting party to be briefed and have our gear vetted. The first two days of the trip, beginning in the alpine forest, would be cold and wet. At orientation, the guides explained the imperatives of no-trace camping—no, we could not just dig a hole in the woods and bury it. We would travel with the waste accumulated from four nights and five days collected in metal composting boxes over which toilet seats–so-called “Groovers”– would be added for the sake of comfort.

We were expected to carry all evidence of our passage down the river and through the canyon back out with us, every last trace, leaving not so much as an apple core behind.

In the morning, I woke to blood, my period. I hadn’t had a menstrual cycle in almost a year and had assumed that whole business to be behind me. Naturally, I was without supplies. The Great Mother had come to lay claim to me, delivering the first lesson of the trip: We are subject to a higher authority than our own. We are not separate from her but of her. She flows in and through us. Literally.

On the sundries shelf at the general store, I found a small box of tampons, a teen-starter brand tantamount to a finger in the dam. A joke. I began to calculate high-flow days against likely duration, working out a rationing plan. The numbers did not work.

On the van ride to the launch site, I sat next to two women about my age. Their daughters sat behind us. Everyone seemed edgy, and it didn’t take us long to figure it out. Women who live together are apt to cycle together, but two 20-somethings and three perimenopausal women who’d barely said hello at orientation? We’d all woken up in the same boat, which explained the shortage of feminine products in the general store.

The modern woman, pursuing her worldly goals in a culture dominated by “get shit done” thinking, learns from a young age to hide the sticky, messy, and inconvenient truth of her menstrual cycle. But our bodies are often in tune with nature—aligned with the moon and the tides–even if we are not. The menstrual cycle, that shadowy emblem of our most prodigious power–both creative and procreative–is our direct link to source energy, to the whole shebang.

As a modern woman traveling down the River of No Return, I grew intimate with my cargo pants and their many pockets for hiding, stashing and storing supplies.

At night, the Groovers were loosely tented. When you went to use the toilet, you positioned a stick across the trail as a sign it was occupied. When you finished your business, you repositioned the stick in “go” position alongside the trail to indicate availability.

Privacy, forget about it. Also, there was constant performance anxiety. It could be difficult to get a groove on. For the 25 or so of our group, including the guides, there were just two Groovers and a lot of juggling, especially in the morning when we were breaking camp.

Because of my stringent, self-imposed rationing measures, and because there was no place to change once we broke camp in the morning, I resisted swimming. This was no problem the first two days when we were traveling in the upper part of the river where we needed several high-tech performance layers to stay warm. But as we dropped in elevation, the temperature soared. We came to an especially inviting resting place and I sat in the raft, tethered to the bank, while one by one the rafting party stripped down to swimsuits. Soon they were all raucously at play in the water.

One of the guides bobbed alongside me in another raft, and I could see that it bothered him that I wasn’t joining in. Of course, I had my reasons—I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit and I’d have to swim in my cargo pants, now converted to shorts. My pockets were stuffed with supplies, both used and unused. Under his watchful gaze, I’d have to haul out all the evidence I’d secreted away in clear Ziplock bags. Also, if I swam, that tampon would be waterlogged, and there would be no place to change it until we stopped for the night. I would likely bleed on the seat of the raft. Naturally, I was disinclined to share this mortifying trajectory of thought with him.

He hissed, sternly, “Get in the water, Lindsay.”

The night before, around the campfire, that same guide had told us the story of the Bad Mother and Her Two Boys. 

The Bad Mother and Her Two Boys had also found themselves wilding on the River of No Return. The boys were rambunctious and ill-mannered, and the mother had abdicated her parental responsibility, leaving their discipline to the other members of the rafting party. This had created an uncomfortable situation for everyone. Further, she was unimpressed by the many scenic marvels and complained continually that her fitness level was slipping on the raft trip which involved a lot of sitting while the guides did the heavy lifting.

When they stopped for the night, she whined that the current was too rough to swim laps. All she wanted was to get in her workout. The guide sent her up river to a swimming hole he knew where it was quiet enough to swim from bank to bank. Her boys had already found the spot and were pelting river rocks at a denizen mother otter and her pups.

The Bad Mother got in the water. As she made her way across the river, there was a sudden commotion. She came thrashing back to shore, screaming. When she scrambled out of the water, she had a mother otter hanging from the seat of her bathing suit. “Just like a doody!” her boys guffawed later, telling this story back at camp.

“And that,” the guide had concluded, in his droll way, “is what you call instant karma.”

Yes, and a nod as well to the transcendentalists who took their moral instruction directly from nature.

I wondered what the guide’s rap would be on me.

The otter is a well-known symbol of primal female energy, at home in the water, the feminine element. She’s fiercely protective of her young, but she also instructs us in how to play, riding the current on her back, lollygagging along, grinning up at the sun.

And so, rationing be damned, I got in the river. I remember that swim as a turning point in the trip, a bend in the river after which I shed some of my resistance and began to flow with the experience, to wear it all a bit more loosely. I consider it a baptism by Great Mother, the divine feminine, the creative matrix whose visible works include Mother Earth and Mother Nature.

I had no way of knowing at the time that that perfectly messy, challenging and wondrous trip down the River of No Return would mark, so aptly, the precise end of my fecund years.

We loaded our rafts for the last time. The final stretch of river would bring us to our take-out site in the desert. I was the last to scramble aboard and there was only one seat left, on the Groover, now sealed and battened down in the rear of the raft, a cushion in place of the toilet seat. The guide, seeing my hesitation, assured me that it was actually the best seat, slightly elevated, practically a throne.

For all I know, this final lesson in humility was part of the plan all along. Hats off to the Great Mother, in her seen and unseen aspect.

Lindsay Fleming is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Room to Grow and more. She writes Little Magic...

One reply on “The River of No Return”

  1. I’ve always loved Lindsay’s essays, but this one soared to a new height. Knowing what a classy woman she is made this all the better!

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