Young man river

What a decade on the water looks like
child in a drift boat
Photo: Kris Millgate

He arrived a decade ago. Dark, brown hair with curious eyes to match. He skipped crawling for wading and chooses riverbanks over bikes. He pesters his brother, questions his parents and runs wild as nature intended. This is Young Man River.


Afternoon sun catches a narrow band of glinting medal in his mouth. His retainer that, for once, he’s not fiddling with. His hands are busy in a shallow backwater on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River. It’s day one of his three-day float. He’s caught a dozen Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the last hour. His dad knows right were to rig him with his reelless tenkara rod. A small rod for shallow pools waded by short legs.

​He picks big bugs and throws them with the chuck and duck grace of a 10-year-old. A 10-year–old who’s been fly fishing for longer than he’s been growing out that shaggy, hockey hair busting out of his ball cap.


Bed head is tucked under the hat on day two. He’s working on his neck tan while he’s on the oars. The river spreads wide and flat. Safe for him to play captain. He’s oars in to slow the float.

​Orange Gatorade mustache. Green Ninja Turtle sunglasses. Shirt off. Lifejacket on. Weather kissed from his healthy shoulders to his bare feet straddling the anchor release. He stands often, just like his dad does. His keen eyes choosing the best line he can see over the nose of the boat.

​A bald eagle lifts from a cottonwood tree on the left. A bull moose steps out of tall willows on the right. He’s playing tour guide as he rows. Too bad pandas don’t live in Idaho. His year-end school report on black and white bears would provide an interesting list of know-it-all banter for the fishers on his summer-vacation vessel. If only the banks grew bamboo.

​He tucks one oar under his leg and chugs juice like it’s dad’s beer. Next, he grabs a handful of seeds, tucks them in his cheek and returns to double fisting the oars. He manages small steering corrections like he was born on a boat, but backstrokes take everything he has.


No fishing or rowing for the boy on day three. The river turns relentless in its braided, rolling pattern. Dad’s on the oars. Mom’s fishing out the back. Big brother’s digging in the cooler for yet another something sweet to snack on. Young Man River living in a bold, rescue-red lifejacket for three days crawls onto the tiny platform in the bow of the drift boat. He’s still sized to fit in the little, yet sturdy, triangle comfortably. He’s spent and this is his favorite cubby come naptime. Hat low, sunglasses snug, dirty feet dangling. The weave of the water rocks him to sleep like the baby he is despite his manly display of fish caught and miles rowed.