Frances & Polly Go Paddling

River woman circa 1967 (R. Rat image)

Hand-written draft of Frances Wisner’s column for the Idaho Country Free Press, 1967. Inset: Frances Wisner. Photo by R. Rat, Esq.

For Frances Zaunmiller Wisner (1914-1986), Polly Bemis (1853-1933) and all the river women who have taught me a thing or two about staying upright in an adventure. 

Clarity is a good thing in the midst of a river adventure, that and serendipity. On the Main Salmon, the water is so clear I could look down between the tubes of my pack-cat and feel I was flying; the river stones passed rapidly beneath, as if I were seconds from touchdown.

“Idaho river holes are hard to recognize,” an experienced kayaker explained, referring to clarity’s downside. She nodded as I recounted my surprise tumble miles upriver earlier that day. “Never saw the hole,” I told her, though in all honesty, my mind had been focused on a new paddling strategy that was delighting me greatly. Before surfacing beside my pack-cat, though, my mind let loose these previous occupations. I’d remounted my steed with clarified determination to adjust my vision, so I recognize what’s actually in front of me.

In 1940, a young woman from Texas by the name of Frances followed a trail on horseback over a mountain pass down to the Salmon River. The trail crossed through a homestead at Campbell’s Ferry before reaching the river, where a traveler could, depending upon the river’s flow, hire a ferry and continue up the trail on the other side. Apparently Frances skipped the ferry, instead getting hired by the homestead owner to cook and care-take for his hunting business. Whatever Frances’ flash of clarity, she remained at Campbell’s Ferry for the rest of her life. She married the widowed owner of the homestead, Joe Zaunmiller, in 1942. In total she lived 45 years at Campbell’s Ferry, the final 20 more or less on her own.

In the early 1950s, Frances successfully rallied popular and political support for the construction of a bridge to replace the ferry. She asked Idaho Senator Henry Clarence Dworshak, “Have you ever been on a ferry when the river was too high, and felt the floor tip, saw the water start to curl over the bow into the boat and prayed that the cable would break so the boat could ride level again and not be sucked under?” On the day of the bridge’s inauguration in 1956, Frances and Joe took turns riding their Appaloosa mare across the Salmon and back, enjoying the view and her triumph.

After pulling onto the opposite shore to feast upon sandwiches and chocolate, my river-mates and I traversed “Frances’ Bridge” to visit her old homestead. After three days on the river, we delighted in the antique desk tops, invitingly lumpy twin beds, hand-stitched quilts, home-built cabinetry and outdated wall calendars. The hand-written draft of one of her weekly columns for the Idaho County Free Press was set out for visitors to read. In it she warned of the BLM’s pending plans to dam Glen Canyon.

Frances was a feisty woman, so, had she arrived home just then to find this odiferous crew milling about, she might have leveled a rifle in our direction and suggested we all get the hell out. But probably not. An apple orchard spread across the field, a stone’s throw from the cabin. One of us asked our host, the current caretaker of the homestead, if bears were ever a problem for Frances, since the orchard was so near. He looked at the questioner, puzzled. “A problem? No. Don’t think so. She just lived with them.”

Big Mallard is one of the few Class IV rapids on the Main Salmon. At our water level, the far left run would have been best, but our arrival was a bit disorganized, so most of us worked the eddy on the right as we studied the array of rocks, pillows, plumes and holes.

“We could go across to the left,” one kayaker suggested to me. In his play boat and young male body, he reached the far bank easily. I struggled a short while in the current, then turned back to consider Plan B, which pretty much consisted of seeing what I could and going for it. I wished I had not just witnessed a raft from our group follow a right-to-not-far-enough-left run, then drop from sight into an enormous hole, bottom-side facing upriver.

My beloved worked his raft between a nasty, jutting rock in the river’s center and a hole toward the right-hand side, till he too descended below my horizon, still bottom-side down, though facing backwards.

Polly Bemis and her husband, Charlie, lived miles downriver from the rocks and drama of Big Mallard, below the confluence of the South Fork and Main Salmon. How they ended up together on the Salmon isn’t clear; one story tells that Charlie Bemis, saloon owner, won Polly, a Chinese immigrant, in a hand of poker. Or, how about this account: Charlie was shot in the face during a hand of poker and Polly nursed him back to health. She may or may not have come to the U.S. as a slave, may or may not have been a prostitute before meeting Charlie. I do know this: Polly and Charlie were tough river people. In 1922, their cabin burned to the ground. Charlie died shortly thereafter, but neighbors from across the river helped Polly rebuild and helped her out, till her death in 1933.

River women circa 2011(R. Rat image)
The Main Salmon. Photo by R. Rat, Esq.

Polly and Charlie are immortalized today as paper action figures in an Idaho grade-school lesson guide. (Read: Paste cut-out figures onto cardstock; then prop each figure with a brace). If you lived in Idaho, your 4th-grade child could bring home a paper Polly and Charlie and make up dialogues about hunting or fishing (illustrated with cut-out tools), harvest eggs from Polly’s paper chickens or play with Charlie’s paper pet cougar. Your child could identify the adjectives in this sentence: “In September 1890, an angry man believed that Polly’s friend Charlie had cheated him in a gambling game. He got a pistol and shot Charlie in the face, missing his eye but shattering his cheekbone.” Later, your kid might walk paper Polly down to the imaginary Salmon’s edge with her paper pet dog, Teddy, for her astounding catch of 27 fish in a day. Follow that with this math question: “What if Polly had caught 27 trout each day for a week? How many fish would that be? Show your work.”

If your kid’s improvised conversations between the paper river folk begin to flag, explore together this question from the Idaho lesson plan: “Polly and Charlie’s cabin on the Salmon River did not have running water. It also had no television or radio. What do you think they did for fun?”

Across the river at the top of Big Mallard, a kayaker from our group gestured to me broadly, communicating the path to a good run. Right arm down the center, then pointing right. I considered all my observations and the last bit of advice, and started toward the rumbling mayhem.

Can’t say I had a clear vision of the outcome, but did have one clear thought: I’m-not-going-over, gawd-dam-it.

I followed my beloved’s line, entering on the right, the Idaho river holes appearing to me clear as crystal. I shot the gap between the nasty rock center top and its subsequent hole and a second hole to its right. With each paddle stroke I grunted my most beneficial mantra (“fuck, fuck, fuck”), picking my way through the roiling waves. In response to applause at the bottom of the run, I patted my helmeted head and smiled goofily.

River adventures can begin and end before it’s even clear what’s going on. Turns out, my beloved’s backward-facing run put him in great position to pull the dump-trucked boatman out of the water. Meanwhile, the kayaker from our group who counseled me on Idaho rivers, paddled directly over to the emptied raft, exited her kayak, boarded the raft, lifted the kayak onto it, pulled the remaining swimmer into the raft, sat down at the raft’s oars and took command.

Frances and Polly would have been proud.

Laura Kerr recently paddled and dragged her pack-cat down a slow-rising Salt River. She thinks Frances and Polly would be cool with her decision to portage Corkscrew.