Skip to content

Notes From Hunter Creek 9.22.2016

Five Kids and a Dog in Search of the Perfect Raft

25th Anniversary of our Epic Trip


Okay, we’re loaded and it’s fairly close quarters. The first day is rainy and cloudy and there are hardly any “are we there yet?” questions. So by the time we get to Tucumcari, N.M. we had never turned the AC on.

After cooking some franks and letting the kids swim in a small lake adjoining the Canadian River, camp was made and everyone slept soundly with no complaints.

Day Two: First major stop – Jack’s Plastic Welding; owner, Jack Armour, Aztec, N.M.

After a hot day of driving and visiting some pueblo ruins, we had used our AC most of the day and I noticed that our trusty Bronco II seemed to be shrinking, slightly.  At least, it seemed like the interior space was getting smaller.

Jack and his wife were gracious and let us camp out behind their shop in the desert, next to the Animas River.  When told of our trip plans they just kept remarking, “I can’t believe you and all these kids are doing this trip….”  Silently, I was beginning to maybe agree with them.

Jack lent me a 16’ cataraft the next day, and Leanna and I drove to downtown Durango, Colo., to “sample it” and give it a try.  We ran right through town and a class III rapids called “Smelter”.  After bouncing off most of the Smelter boulders, I decided this was my Canyon boat. We drove back to Jack’s and made our purchase.

Day Three:   We definitely used the AC on this day driving to Salt Lake City.  Although that morning, it was damp and chilly and we started off with the heater on. We camped in a mountain area full of dinosaur fossils at a beautiful spot in Price Canyon.

However, while unloading and making camp I discovered a big wet spot on the passenger side floor. It looked like maybe a heater core leak.

Day Four:  The next day we drove into Salt Lake City and picked up our two 12’ long raft oars with blades and added them to the already substantial load on the top homemade rack on the little Bronco II.  As we were fairly close, we drove over and got out and took photos and admired the beautiful Mormon Temple.

That afternoon it was scorching hot.  We drove west on I-80 and took a small turnoff road along the Great Salt Lake and ended up at a spot with a sign stating “No Dumping and No Overnight Parking.”  We obeyed the first advisory, and disregarded the second one.  As you could see I-80 in the distance we didn’t put up any tents and slept on the ground. The little Bronco had been sputtering and running poorly as we had pulled off the interstate. Also, I didn’t want to get too far from civilization if we were going to have mechanical issues.  And, we were.

Day Five:  After getting on I-80 the next morning and traveling less than seven miles, the little Bronco started bucking and slowing down and eventually slowed to just above idle speed. No cellphones were in existence at that time but some motorist said he would call us a tow, while waiting almost two-hours in the blazing sun alongside the Great Salt Lake. The kids were playing alongside the lake, believing that this was still a grand summer adventure. I now had serious doubts.

When the tow truck finally arrived, the driver was dismayed to learn that he not only had to tow the disabled Bronco II, but also five kids, plus me. The dog JR was forced to ride in the Bronco.

Once at the Ford Dealership in Tooele, Utah, their chief mechanic incorrectly pointed out that the coil was shot at 145,000 miles. Cost:  $90.00, plus tow.

Later in the day, we were again on the road west  headed for Nevada. Just before dark at Westover on the State Line, the Bronco started its bucking and jerking again. We pulled over and rested for a couple of hours and made dinner.

Looking to make up time with only 60 miles, we went to Wells, Nevada.  Here we would turn north on US 93 on our way to Moscow, Idaho and then to Missoula, MT.

Day Six:  If you want to make a mechanic’s day, just be sitting in front of his garage door broken down when he arrives for work at 7:30 a.m. That was our situation as we sat in front of the small Ford dealership in Wells, Nevada.

Again, we got an incorrect diagnosis – a new clutch fan would be needed. He would have one shipped from Salt Lake City that day. Cost: approximately $160.00, plus ship-ping.

My bright idea of saving all of the enormous shipping costs for the raft and its accessories was now looking like not one of my better ideas.

About 70 miles north of Wells, we pulled over at Jackpot, Nevada which sits less than a mile south of the Idaho line. It is quite a sight to see a nine-story hotel and casino rising from the high desert plains, out in the middle of nowhere.

We camped at a beautiful little lake named Little Salmon Falls Reservoir in southern Idaho.

Day  Seven: After breakfast, we headed to Twin Falls, Idaho to catch I-80 West.  I began to realize on this day we were losing coolant through the heater core, and must replace it. Having the AC turned on was not an option any more, nor was using the heater in the mornings.

Again the little Bronco ran fine when it was cool but lost power when it got hot later in the day.

Day Eight:  We spent the night outside Ontario, Oregon on the Idaho border.  Again, we rolled into the now familiar big round oval dealership sign that said Ford.

This time we received the correct diagnosis: warped or slightly cracked head. It would be 5-7 days down time, an approximate cost $ 700.00 (remember, 1991 prices) plus labor if not covered under warranty.

As I was skeptical I found an independent garage and a very good honest mechanic for a second opinion. He said, yep – bad head on motor, maybe both heads.

My theory on car troubles has always been – fix what you have to on the road and then try and limp home. The Ontario mechanic blocked off the lines from the heater core but said the damage was already done. If driving during the night at 50 mph or less, and camping during the heat of the day, he gave us a less than 50% chance of making it home.

Day Nine:  Our plan was formed. We drove through the night to just outside Moscow, Idaho, a college town nestled on the Washington state border, and the home headquarters of Northwest River Supply.

After loading up  a large dry box, a wet bag, and about three-dozen buckle straps of varying lengths, we pulled up a long dusty lane through a wheat field that went up almost to the top of a mountain. There, we rousted a fine Elk buck out of his slumber and made a day camp in the shade.

Day Ten:  We stopped and day-camped along the lower Salmon canyon at a roadside rest. I made friends with a bunch of rafters that were trying out their new paddleraft. They invited me along and I jumped in for a short six-mile trip, foolishly temporarily abandoning the five kids and the dog at camp, even though Leanna said everything would be okay while I was gone.

The river was big! A couple of big knurly rapids had me wondering. What if something happened to me? What if something happened to the kids while I was gone? How stupid could I be? Luckily, none of my dark forebodings came true.

However, upon my return, Leanna and I got into it. She wasn’t feeling well.  To make things even worse, as we were driving along the lower Salmon River Canyon, I saw headlights approaching and knew it would be a cop.  It was an Idaho State Patrolman, and we had a low beam headlight out, which I had failed to replace for the last couple of days. With all of our auto problems, I had basically forgotten about it. Besides, you had to take out the battery to replace the headlamp. It would be a major undertaking for me.

The Trooper turned around and put his lights on. It was 11 p.m., and I immediately pulled over. As he walked up to the driver’s door with his flashlight, he looked at the large load on the top rack and inside was a tangled mass of sleeping kids with elbows and legs laying in every direction. Only me and JR, the dog, were awake.  And the dog was growling.

The Trooper, already irritated by the growling dog, took a step back and said: “Little bit overloaded, aren’t we?!”

“Oh no sir, I don’t think so,” I lied.

He asked to see the vehicle registration and my license. As I reached into the glove box to grab the vehicle registration, a small bag of white powder in a Ziploc bag fell to the floorboard. Retrieving it, the trooper’s interest was now on the little bag. I handed it to him. He closely examined it as I explained to him that I had never seen the bag before.  Right?! But true.

We finally determined it was finely granulated salt along with a little bit of dirt that the kids had gathered off the shores of the Great Salt Lake, while awaiting our first tow truck back in Utah.

While the dog was still growling, lowly, the trooper was clearly not impressed with his Missouri guests. He wrote us a ticket for Improper Equipment (cost $75.00), and sternly told us to pull into the next roadside rest a couple of miles downstream and stay there all night – or risk another couple of tickets.

At 5 a.m., we were off again. The kids were still asleep having never awakened, even while stopped by the Idaho trooper who had no sense of humor.

Day Eleven:  I thought about skip-ping the J-Rig oar frame and oarlocks at Mad Dog Frames in Missoula, Montana, but we were on I-90 headed east anyway. So we stopped in the college town and reloaded everything on top of the Bronco and headed home along with the new raft frame. I think that it was on this day that Leanna and I agreed not say another word to each other for the rest of the trip.

It took us about three more days to get home traveling at 45-50 mph on the Interstate at night, and day camping during the day.

We had one more encounter with a trooper in Wyoming, around Gillette. We were at a remote I-90 rest area in the mountains for the day. It was actually cold and kids were in the restroom warming up by the heater.  I explained to the officer our sad plight. And while he was sympa-thetic, he told us that earlier in the year, a homeless person had been found dead in the restroom one night, apparently beaten and robbed for just a few dollars.  So, of course, off we headed broken engine heads and all.

Well, we made it home somehow. I got the Bronco II over to Romine’s Ford in Houston with a month left on the warranty and less than 500 miles on the power train warranty of 150,000 miles. Ford replaced both heads: $1,700.00 with labor and warranty covered!

Great company.  Great dealership.

And that ends our great pursuit of five kids and a dog in search of the perfect raft.

In 1992, the raft and I made it down 226 miles through the Grand Canyon with only one upset at a newly formed rapids named  “Twenty-Five and a Half Mile Rapids.”

Note:  Dear Leanna, I know it’s 25 years late, but would you please accept my apology for being a totally self-absorbed and self-centered middle-aged jerk on that trip in 1991.  I love you like the daughter I never had, and I appreciate you always! And I am so sorry.  And  even though he is long gone, I would like to posthumously apologize to JR, my best friend and dog at that time, for dragging him along on such a hot trip and confined to so little space.

I married Jeff and Leanna later that year.   The glue stuck and they had three beautiful kids, but lost Chris in a car wreck. They are still married. Leanna is my secretary and one of my best friends.   End of story.

Now, get up and go enjoy our beautiful Ozark outdoors!

Note to Roger: No need for an apology when you took on kids that weren’t yours and were trying to be a father figure to a bullheaded teenage girl –– as I now see how hard it is with my own teenage daughter.   But I will accept your apology, if you will accept my apology for being, (I won’t say the word!) but you know. Love you with all my Heart!

Oh yeah, and I think you’re finally getting a little better with your chicken scratch penmanship.  Leanna