Clarence L. Reece, Boatman - June 15, 1945 - June 9, 1996
omehow we must begin with the river itself, the main Salmon. The only and last free-flowing, undammed major river in the continental United States. A 425 mile sluice way for the Sawtooths, Salmon River, Clearwater and Bitterroot Mountains. For this is where Clancy lived and died. During most of the river running season, the flow averages anywhere from 7,000 c.f.s. to 15,000 c.f.s. Warm water, rollicking waves and wide beaches make for fun on the river. The river bed itself is narrow through much of the granite, tree-lined gorge. It is a fact that literally gives definition and even weight to the idea of cubic feet per second, of water moving very fast. During the spring runoff however, from mid-May to the near end of June, the flow can climb steadily, even relentlessly from 15,000 c.f.s. to 75,000 c.f.s. in a few days. Overnight jumps of 15,000 c.f.s. are not unheard of. During this highwater period you can touch the bottom of the Mackay Bar pack bridge, the same bridge some of us used to dive off way back when. It is a good 40 feet above the river during the diving season.
Clancy, along with two other boatmen, was on the river during the highest spring runoff in a decade. On Monday, June 10, the day after his death, the gauge at White Bird read 95,840 c.f.s. They had launched Clancy’s dory on Saturday, 43 miles upstream from Salmon, Idaho and were riding this surge of water downstream. Their goal was to see how far they could go down the river in 24 hours. If you love rivers and have run boats, you would understand this inspired madness. They weren’t after a record; it was more the doing of the thing. It was the third and final part of Clancy’s river trilogy. In 1988, he built, rowed and sailed a dory, along with Jon Barker, from the head waters of the Salmon to the Pacific Ocean. In 1993, Clancy was part of a group that ran five one hundred mile rivers in five days. These challenges played to his immediate strengths—endurance, single mindedness, determination and yes, physical strength. But there was more to Clancy, always more. By Sunday afternoon they had traveled 190 miles in 21 hours. In some stretches of the river they had averaged eleven miles per hour. They were near the end of their run. Things looked good.
They had been rowing hard all day. They hadn’t slept much. They ate in the boat. That afternoon the air temperature climbed into the 80s, deceptively warm if you were at the oars of a 22-foot dory. But the water temperature was probably 50 degrees, still a spring runoff, still dangerously cold if you were in it long enough. This river was moving, moving very fast. Hissing, boiling, snapping. At this water level, a different animal. The high water had pulled a season of shore debris—logs, trunks, snags, branches—into a surging traffic jam of projectiles. Both of the other boatmen wore drysuits. Clancy did not. They had chided him. But he was stubborn the way all individuals are who set their own terms and live as close as they dare to them. So it goes.
Around 6:00 p.m., with Clancy at the oars, they ran Chittam Rapid. It was the last major whitewater in this stretch of the river. Clancy had pulled within 10 feet of shore, towards slower water, so the other two boatmen could bail out the boat. They had made it. Their shuttle was waiting, literally around the corner, to rendezvous with them. The next thing they knew the boat was over. In that twisting, slow motion kind of roll that makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach. Think of the ‘83 water in the Grand Canyon —the boils and surges pulling at the gunwales; the sharp, unforgiving eddy lines jerking at your chines; the whirlpools appearing and disappearing, stopping your boat in its tracks and holding it hostage indefinitely. Fierce water.
The three boatmen righted the boat and climbed back aboard. And then the boat rolled over a second time. At this point the river was running eight , even nine miles per hour. One boatman, Craig Plummer, was swept downstream and later made shore. Clancy and the remaining boatman, Jon Barker, Jr., clung to the dory as it washed through Vinegar Creek Rapids. At this point Clancy appeared confused and disoriented. John remembers asking Clancy “Do you want a hand?” He remembers being surprised when Clancy said “Yes.” Clancy needing help? thought Jon. Jon held Clancy’s hand and with his other hand held onto the safety line. But Clancy never grabbed the safety line with his other hand. John recalls that Clancy’s grip was weak, not at all like Clancy’s normally powerful grip. He slipped away. The two were quickly separated by the current. Even with his life jacket on, the turbulent water pulled Clancy under.
Sixteen miles downstream, near Spring Bar, Clancy was pulled to shore. It was almost 8:00 p.m. and he had been in the water for nearly two hours. When the ambulance pulled into Syringa General Hospital in Grangeville, Clancy was pronounced dead on arrival.
When I received the news of Clancy’s death, my imagination temporarily failed me. I could not imagine him drowning. Later I remembered, ironically, that he had always hated the water and would swim only if he had to. Once when he was a teenager, he had nearly drowned on the Clearwater. But now I could not begin to recreate a scene on the river where he would not calmly size up the situation, wait to see if he really needed to intercede and if so, then take the necessary steps (or quietly encourage you to take them) to remedy the situation. That is how I remember him.
It was early May 1977 and Clancy was the trip leader on my first apprentice trip on the Snake. Jack Kappas was there and a fellow named Allen. We were willing and enthusiastic and raw. Before we knew it we would be running what they called the “Snake Express”, trip after trip after trip for a couple of seasons. But back then, we were in Clarence’s massive hands. You called him Clarence then. Someone at the warehouse had told me his nickname was Twerp. They assured me he wouldn’t mind if I used his nickname, but I wasn’t so sure. I laughed. Given his presence, I decided to not test the bounds of familiarity too quickly. Clancy was a large man. Some large men move thickly through the world, pulling up earth as they step, knocking things over. Clancy seemed to dance, or more precisely, to float between steps.
There was an economy and thus, a beauty to his movements. An elegance of motion that I remember to this day. And if you looked beyond that fierce exterior you would find an inner grace, a gentleness of spirit. Still, it was difficult to imagine myself saying “Hey, Twerp...where do I go in Wild Sheep?”
First night out the rain began. Being a new guy, I was naturally tentless and somewhat clueless as to how to remedy the situation. After letting me get soaked just enough so that a lesson might sink in, Clarence introduced me to the small art of rigging a rain fly in the dark with nothing, as far as I could see, to tie to. He took us all under his rather large wing, talked us through the rapids, gently scolded us for obvious boneheadedness. I am sure that we all, passengers and apprentice boatmen alike, amused him to no end.
Clancy was an Idaho boy, born and bred. Wrestled and boxed in high school. Became a Northwest Golden Gloves champion. He served four years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war in the mid 1960s. Took some ballet lessons, did some acting. He graduated from Lewis-Clark State College in 1973. Began river guiding in Hell’s Canyon with John Barker, Sr. and would continue that close relationship, on and off the river, for the next 20 years or more. Clancy took up the writing of poetry. He was still at it when most of us had long given up on the muse. John described Clancy as “a private writer.” Words mattered, words were important, words were to be used carefully. And when he found the dories in Lewiston, he knew exactly where he belonged. He was home, especially so on the rivers. Never was a truism more appropriate... a river did run through Clancy’s life. He worked Grand Canyon trips in the late 1970s, but as another friend said, “Clarence was never a hot, stinking desert boatman.” He loved his Idaho.
In his early days of rowing, Clancy broke more than a few thin Smoker oars. He gradually realized the limitations of his enormous physical strength at least in terms of rowing commercial trips. I suspect he already had developed the necessary traits all good boatmen have, at least when they’re at the oars—patience and balance, the light touch, a keen sense of timing, humility before a more powerful force, and of course, grace under pressure —from his experience as a boxer and a ballet dancer and a sailor. And so he set out, with that characteristic single mindedness, to master the delicate use of his powerful strength on the river. He became a boatman. One of the best big water boatman around. And later he generously shared his knowledge and experience, in his own terse way, with those coming up.
Clancy’s dory, the one he had built, sat anchored by a gunny sack of boulders in Spring Bar eddy. It was evening and the boat had been bathed and painted in penathol and diesel. The footwells and decks were loaded with the best, most artistic pieces of driftwood that could be found. Clancy would have insisted that only certain pieces would do. Flowers had been strewn about. Throughout the afternoon people had rowed out to the boat and left their words and their offerings. An eagle’s feather had been placed at the top of the step mast and an osprey feather on the bow. Clancy’s dory was ready for its last run.
Family and friends, folks from Riggins, young boatmen and old boatmen—over two hundred in all—gathered at Spring Bar that Saturday evening, June 15, to bid Clancy farewell. Some worried Forest Service officials, a river ranger or two and a sheriff showed up. They had heard there might be some “trouble....or something.” While people told Clancy-stories and sang songs and drank beer and laughed and cried, Gary Lane rowed Clancy’s nephew out to the waiting dory. They placed Clancy’s ashes on the deck. An upstream wind held the boat in position.
At dusk five dories, piloted by longtime river comrades, launched from the beach. They rowed out to Clancy’s boat and dropped their torches on board. The boat caught fire instantly. Within minutes fifteen foot flames leaped into the night sky. Around and around the funeral pyre the boatmen circled—singing their chants, whispering their prayers, saying their goodbyes. Those on shore said that after a while all you could see was a fiery skeleton of that distinct dory shape and her five sister ships floating clockwise, like phantoms, around her. One by one, they were silhouetted by the flames and then each would disappear into the shadows for a few moments, only to reappear again. It took nearly an hour for the boat to burn to the waterline. For a time then the fire seemed to burn from the surface of the water. The bow post was the last part to go. As the burning hull collapsed, smoldering pieces of the boat dawdled in the eddy before catching the downstream current. Finally the bottom of the boat separated, almost with a sigh, and sank into the dark water and floated away. It burned well, Clancy’s boat did. Now he could rest. And those present could rest, for they had done it right.
And so we end at night with the river still running. No one knows for sure what caused Clancy’s death. He could have hit his head on a submerged rock, or been struck by a flailing oar or a high-speed piece of driftwood. Hypothermia is certainly a possibility, given the water temperature and his time in the water. The newspaper account mentions the possibility of “some medical problem.” Maybe a stroke. After all, Clancy was a week shy of 51, an older guy who was deliberately pushing the limits. That was Twerp, Clancy, Clarence—showing us what was possible, feeding our dreams. Perhaps some combination of age, circumstance and environment offers the explanation our hearts seek. We just don’t know. John Barker, Sr., whose son was with Clancy on the river, guessed that he may have suffered a heart attack. The medical term is myocardial infarction. Clancy would have chuckled at that. The poet in him would have said that the river took his heart. But then, he had already given it freely long ago.
Row on, Clancy. Row on.