Middle Fork Log 5
First time guests often marvel at the ginormous raft that magically appears at camp before the rest of the crew. There is a mystique surrounding the sweep boat. Every morning it is systematically loaded then departs camp ahead of the group. When guests arrive at camp that afternoon, they find their new home for the night – a quaint little community of tents, tables, chairs, a kitchen, and of course the humble “Johnny.” Guest’s dry bags, neatly stacked alongside a pyramid of sleeping pads, await their cheerful owners. You’ll find the sweep boat driver standing on the shore, greeting guests and guides, securing arriving vessels and offering no hint of his/her physical exhaustion.
It is thrill to maneuver the 20-foot rubber beast down the technical Middle Fork. The driver stands on a platform in the center of the boat and steers with two long “sweep” blades; one in the front and one in the back. You will only see non-motorized sweep boats on the Middle Fork of the Salmon because it takes a steep gradient to create enough current to keep them moving. Completely loaded, the sweep weighs somewhere around two – three tons. The success of the entire trip rides on the skill of the sweep driver to make it safely down the river.
The sweep boat drivers of today owe the existence of their role to the scow drivers of the main Salmon from the 19th century. These early scow captains took wooden versions of our sweep boats down the Main Salmon to deliver mining equipment and lumber between the towns of Salmon and Riggins. The scows were considerably larger than our boats today and required two people to maneuver them. Fortunately for modern sweep boat drivers, rubber technology advanced significantly from the first vulcanized rubber invented by Charles Goodyear in 1838, and now all commercially run sweep boats are rubberized.
Even amongst guides, an aura surrounds the sweep boat. In order to become a sweep boat driver, a guide must master every rapid, plot miles down river, work with the river’s current, never against. The sweep is about foresight, anticipation, and flow. Being strong is important but brute force will not conquer the sweep. A driver must be able to feel the river and work with its water to navigate the churning rapids. Ultimately, every sweep run has its share of calm anticipatory moments punctuated by fleeting moments of white-knuckle adrenaline.
Not every guide will become a sweep boat driver. It is difficult work and is the most advanced level of boatmen on the Middle Fork. Day after day the sweep boat driver floats in near solitude (maybe with a swamper) and performs physical labor that often goes unnoticed. Offering luxury and convenience in the middle of the wilderness takes vision, strength and tenacity.