Kid Currey: Life on the River

It was 1974 and I was just a kid looking for heroes. In those days, the idea of kids having someone to look up to was in vogue. It hadn’t yet been marred by athletes betting against their own teams or rock and roll stars wasted on acid – at least in my world. Sports figures, celebrities, maybe a few religious leaders were all on my list of people I admired. But they never quite reached the pinnacle of “hero” for me.

My Uncle Ed flew P-51s in the WWII Pacific Theater. He lost his plane over the Philippines during the war and crash-landed in the jungle. Fortunately for him, the natives found him before the Japanese! His new-found Filipino friends figured out a way to squirrel him back to a U.S. military unit, but it took a few months to do it. What an adventure! Ed was one of my heroes.

I guess I was kind of different than some other kids my age. I didn’t chase after those well-known folks who all the other kids were idolizing. Those movie stars and celebrities were too far away. I intuitively knew there was no way I could really ever get to know them.

I wanted heroes who were close by – who I could talk to and get to know on a more personal level. Plus, a lot of the heroes my friends were chasing after were just loud-mouthed buffoons. Some were pot heads with bloodshot eyes who said, ‘Hey Man!’ too often and exaggerated their vowel sounds. If you were alive back then, you know what I mean.

Anyway, I digress; I was more pragmatic when it came to my relationships – even with those people I idolized. My dad was one of my heroes but for different reasons. I knew him well. He was fallible, and maybe that’s what made him special. His was a redemption story, kind of like ancient Ulysses who needed a ‘long boat ride home’ to reach greatness.

As his son, I was part of dad’s heroic story. I watched him grow up right before my eyes. He and mom were barely out of their teens when I was born. They were still literally teenagers when my brother, their first kiddo, came along.

Dad became a junior high school teacher in 1969. It was a profession that fit him well; he was passionate about his role as an influencer of kids. Social Studies was his primary subject. But he also taught Speech and Drama and Idaho Law. As an Idaho school teacher, he was forced to work through every summer vacation in order to keep the bills paid.

For six or seven years, he chose summer work driving truck for a river company – Western River Expeditions. It was founded by a guy named Jack Currey who had a penchant for the outdoors and river-running and figured folks would pay good money to float the river. He was right.

Dad’s job was to haul the boats to the put-in spot on the river. Trips were planned all summer on the Main Salmon River, Selway, and Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. Most of the trips were around five days long. So, after the put-ins, a few days later, dad would drive to the take-out spots and pick up the boats. The cool thing about it all was dad took his kids on all those trips, which were to places with names like Corn Creek, Riggins, Spring Bar, and Dagger Falls.

As a kid, I became absorbed in that outdoor culture of experiences. It wasn’t long before I recognized there was a ‘boatman’ subculture I had never seen before until dad worked for Western River. Part of that subculture – a major part – was the group of men and women who sat at the oars all week, and craftily steered their boats and dudes through the best parts of the rapids without flipping their boats and landing their customers in the churning water.

I observed that the boatmen for the company were mostly younger men who checked out of their normal lives for three or four months every summer to work on the river. They were college students, a few drifters looking for income, semi-professionals from various roles, and one California repo guy who made his living taking back cars for banks holding overdue loans. All the boatmen were strong – and I mean physically powerful with large ‘muscleman’ type physiques. As a kiddo in awe, I figured they must’ve built that bulk by rowing those heavy boats filled with food boxes and rich dudes looking for exciting vacations riding white water rapids.

The first trip I went on with dad, my brother Mike tagged along, as well. We drove to Riggins, which was a nine-hour trip from Salmon, Idaho. The trip was not over once we hit town; we drove up the river on a ‘dusty, dirt road’ to Spring Bar – the take-out spot on the Main Salmon River. We arrived late at night and slept under the stars on the sandbar. Camping next to the river was part of the fun and adventure.

Around mid-morning the next day, the boats showed up. I noticed the company logo boldly written along the side of each raft in yellow paint on a black background – Western River Expeditions. The boats were heavy, WWII era, oval shaped rubber rafts with 3/8” plywood floors chained into place. Large food boxes and coolers spanned the midsection of each boat, which combined as a seat for the oarsman. Long, wooden oars jutted out from each boat and were locked into place with steel rods threaded into oar locks on a big wooden frame.

As dad helped with getting the boats up to shore and unloaded, Mike and I played in the river. Suddenly, a guy wearing a Mexican sombrero and poncho threw a metal gold pan our direction, which clanged on the rocks next to the shore. I wondered what kind of a goon would be tossing around his prized gold pan.

“Hey boys, find some gold! Just share the loot if you find any!” He seemed to be a nice-enough guy. He was a jolly looking fellow with a full beard and sparkly eyes. Somehow, he didn’t look like the typical boatman I envisioned. But there he was, obviously part of the boat crew.

Come to find out, this trip was an early spring training trip. Apparently, in the boating business, boatmen must be certified, which requires them to have so many hours on the river before they are considered eligible to take dudes along.

After the crew got the boats and gear loaded into the big yellow Ryder truck, the men all stood around and got acquainted while Mike and I played along the shore. Dad appeared to be getting along well with his new associates. I always admired dad’s ability to be social. People drew to him quickly, probably because he laughed a lot and was a nice guy. He was a grand storyteller and could verbally make even the most mundane reminiscence into an adventure. And he was smart, learned quickly, and talked-the-talk wherever and whenever it was required.

The guy who threw us the gold pan came over and introduced himself. “Hello guys, I’m Al Moore from California. And who might you be?” he asked.

“I’m Mike and this is my little brother, Jeff,” Mike said, as Al shook our hands.

“Okay, good to know you guys. Well, we’ll all become good friends the next few months, I’m sure,” Al said with a big grin. He scooped his gold pan up and sauntered back to the truck. I found it interesting that a guy would make an extra effort to come over and talk to a couple of kids. That was unusual in my world. I could see that we were about to leave, so I followed Al to the truck. 

A tall, dark-haired guy wearing a green T-shirt, blue shorts, and sandals was talking to dad when I walked up. He was going over the plans for the return trip. As he described it, the boatmen would ride back to Salmon in a van we hauled in on a trailer. We would travel behind them in the truck. Everyone was tired and just wanted to get back to Salmon, so there would be no stops on the way.

The dark-haired guy had an air of confidence about him. He seemed to be in charge without having to act like it, if you know what I mean. It’s like he just knew he was the leader, but he had enough self-confidence, he didn’t have to prove it to anybody.

As soon as we were on our way, I asked dad, “Who is that guy you just talked to?” He said, “That’s Steve Currey; he’s Jack Currey’s son, the owner of this company. The other guys call him, Kid Currey.” I instantly thought of a cowboy – the fastest draw in the west!

That summer, I got to know Steve Currey better. He was a non-assuming, quiet guy. He was sociable and kind. And he knew a lot. A few weeks after meeting him on that Riggins trip, Steve rode to Salt Lake City with dad and me to pick up some huge rubber boats stored in his dad, Jack’s storage building. That year, the Salmon River was running extremely high, and Jack advised they should take his biggest boats – the Super J’s – which were usually ran on the Colorado River, to run on the main Salmon until the water dropped to normal levels.

I was kind of a quiet, studious kid. Reading a book and minding my own business was my typical MO. But along with that, I enjoyed another pastime – people watching. Now I’m not referring to weirdness here. People watching can be interesting and sometimes entertaining. People can be charming, knowledgeable, boisterous, vain, and a hundred other adjectives, and that’s what makes the hobby of people watching so remarkable and fun.  

Well, a lot of the trip to the Currey residence in Salt Lake City I spent watching Steve’s mannerisms, speech patterns, and body language. I could instantly tell he was comfortable riding in the cab of the truck with my dad and me. He was well-spoken and talked freely on all subjects. I surmised Steve would be just as comfortable talking to the Queen of England as he would a common laborer working on an assembly line. I barely knew Steve but instantly liked him and even trusted him. I was anxious to meet his dad, Jack, who I heard so much about, and the rest of the Currey family.

Jack Currey was a classy guy, even dressed in his work-out gear, standing in his driveway in the rain, ready to load boats into a truck. The Currey family was gracious and kind to dad and me. We spent the night with them, were fed well by Betty, Jack’s wife, and sent back to Idaho with some vittles for the road. There was a distinct air of wealth at the Currey residence, but they didn’t act like it.

As we drove home, dad proudly talked of his newfound summer work as a truck driver for Western River. My dad was an interesting study. I listened closely to dad’s small talk as we drove along. He was a storyteller, probably an artistic talent he inherited from his ancient ancestors. I was intrigued by dad’s social versatility. He was extremely smart and well-read, knew all the ancient tales of world history, and yet, where he seemed the most comfortable was in the BS-ing sessions with his many friends. And he relished common labor, which included truck driving for a river company.

“You know, Jeff, Steve Currey is a champion arm wrestler,” he said.

“Hmm. I didn’t’ know that.”

“Yeah, he walked into a college competition one day not long ago, just for the fun of it, and nobody could beat him. They didn’t even come close,” dad said with a tinge of exuberance in his voice.

“Here’s another thing; last week, I watched that kid throw – underhanded – a rock across the Salmon River! And he did it there in Riggins where the river is the widest!” dad said. “Amazing strength!”

“And here’s something else I’ve noticed about Steve. He’s not a smart-ass. His dad owns this company and has money. But you’d never know it. Steve is as humble a guy as you’ll ever meet. And hardworking! He learned how to work, no doubt, when he was a kid working on the river for his dad!”

I drifted into my own thoughts and surmised dad would’ve loved living during the times of the Roman gladiators. He’d be sitting there somewhere down near the front, cheering on the last bloodied survivor in the Colosseum. I liked hearing dad’s excitement over someone else’s feats of strength. In dad’s world, strength and hard work were necessities; he grew up and still lived in a world where human survival was paramount. I supposed that’s why he valued and respected rugged individualism, strength, and hard work. I surmised his talk of Steve Currey was a direct reflection of his own deepest-rooted values and ideals.

Time quickly moved on, and I grew older, becoming too busy to go on trips with dad. And dad eventually moved on to other summer work. But memories of those trips up and down the river with dad to Riggins and Dagger falls, among other put-in and take-out spots, stuck in my mind. Those memories will always be there for me to ponder on. I cherish those times, where I heard and contemplated the philosophies of my dad, a modern-day Plato, and his views on life, all while we rumbled along down the highway in a big yellow Ryder truck.

In 2006, I attended Steve Curry’s funeral. He died of brain cancer. It was a fast-moving cancer that ended Steve’s life only weeks after his diagnosis. His shortened life was defined by adventure – running rivers all over the world. The last great adventure he planned was to explore a reported opening in the ice at the North Pole known as the Hollow Earth Theory.

My daughter, Shina, attended Steve’s funeral with me. As we sat in the audience, I pointed out all the people I remembered from decades before, each with several stories and experiences to go with their memories.

On the way home, I said, “You know, Shina, Steve Currey could throw a rock – underhanded – clear across the Salmon River at Riggins, where the river is at its widest! And did you know, he was a champion arm wrestler?”   

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