In the summer the Snake River is sluggish-looking and seems to meander. There’s mossy patches and the water level is lower.
People forget this river is a Snake with a bite.
Beneath its dark surface lie swift undercurrents funneling through deep passages. In fact, the Snake River at Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in the North American continent. It still lures boaters and swimmers, especially when the temperature climbs above one-hundred degrees.
On a recent Sunday evening I was sitting on the couch reading next to my husband when we heard loud, frantic banging on our front door. A young Mexican man, maybe in his late teens, stood on our welcome mat, dripping wet in cut-off shorts. He began speaking rapid Spanish and gesturing wildly with his hands.
“Mi amigo, mi amigo…please, please!” he pointed toward the river running behind our house. Seeing our confused faces he became even more agitated, sweeping his hands over his damp head.
Dale turned to me and said, “Call 911” as he hurriedly slipped on his shoes. I watched him lead the young Mexican to the back of our house, over an embankment, and down to the water’s edge.
“What’s your emergency please?” the operator asked me after I gave her my name and address.
“I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t speak Spanish, but I think someone is in the river and in trouble. We need help—right away!”
I was so frustrated. Why didn’t I learn to speak Spanish? In the backyard I looked down the embankment but couldn’t see my husband or the young Mexican through a thick stand of elm trees. I went to the other corner of the yard to get a broader view. The river was flowing thirty feet below me, but there was nothing to see from this angle either, just pelicans fishing. My cell phone was in the house so I walked back inside to check it, thinking the sheriff might call.
Minutes later the front door flew open, and my husband strode past me leaving the young Mexican again at our doorstep. He was crying now, his head bowed and shoulders shaking. I touched his arm. He looked up at me with a tear-stained face and murmured something in Spanish.
Though we didn’t speak the same language, I still said, “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.” He nodded as if he understood.
“I think there were three of them,” Dale told me as he handed the young man a glass of water. “Evidently, they work on the farm across the river. One boy stayed on the riverbank while he and his other friend tried to swim across. His friend only made it to the island. He yelled at him to stay put on the island, but the kid jumped in the river anyways. There’s no sign of him.”
It turned out to be a terrible tragedy, the missing boy drowned. This was his second summer in America. He worked as a farm laborer and hoped to take money home to Mexico. His aunt and uncle lived in the area.
For the next few days I solemnly watched through the bay window as the search and rescue team trolled the river for the boy’s body. They parked their motor boats just above the island. That island was a canoeing destinations for my family. Years ago we named it “Knife Island” because if you look down on it from the top of the river canyon, you can see it’s shaped like a knife with a handle. What a fitting metaphor, Knife Island, the island that cuts and severs.
We finally got word the third day after the boy went missing that his body had been found. I sighed with relief thankful for the closure.
He wasn’t a family member or friend, he wasn’t even from my country, but I still deeply felt the loss of his young life.
Thinking of islands I was reminded of that famous line from medieval poet, John Donne: no man is an island, we are all part of the continent, all part of the main.