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Things You Should Know About Floating the Boise River

One day you may be serenely floating down the Boise River with your friends, and you hit an unexpected current and your boat flips. It is a hot August day, so you going in the water is not that big of a deal. But, oh! Your camera and your car keys! By the time you get back in the boat, you have moved down river and realized you also lost your sunglasses and snacks. And that favorite summer shirt. You try to mark the spot in your mind, but it will look quite different from the land side. Besides, you don’t have that great of swimming skills and the idea of hunting around in the active water is more than you can get your mind around. It hasn’t even occurred to you that what fell overboard has washed and eddied to unknown pools and been crammed between rocks. Even if you could hold your breath for 3 minutes, chances of recovering your valuables is doubtful.

Chris Nelson, representing the Boise River Volunteers, spends untold numbers of hours submersed in the river picking up trash.

Chris Nelson, representing the Boise River Volunteers, spends untold numbers of hours submersed in the river picking up trash.

This is a scenario that is played out day after day on the river. Most people do not know to what extent this happens and how many things are on the bottom of the Boise river, because all they see are people in tubes and boats drifting on by. It all looks so peaceful. But Chris Nelson knows. He doesn’t float the river like the average person. He dons his cold-water wetsuit, mask, and snorkel to swim the Boise River 6 – 8 times a season, dragging an inflated boat to toss items into. (click on any photo to enlarge)

Chris is a veteran scuba diver, with 30 years experience in ocean adventures, who began helping to clean up the river over 10 years ago. For a while, a group of volunteers coalesced, but many of them have moved on due to jobs. He continues to represent the organization they formed and named the Boise River Volunteers. He has some advice for you:

  • Don’t bring anything on your water craft that you don’t absolutely need.
  • Or that is expensive and hard to replace.
  • If you have to bring it, like a car key, fasten it to your person very securely.
  • Avoid floating near the edge of the river where the fallen trees help create turbulent water.
  • If you like your sunglasses, figure out how to keep them connected to you should you fall in.
  • But even keys on lanyards that go around necks have been found on the river bottom. It must be more secure than that.
  • Valuables in plastic containers tend to sink, even if they are water tight.
  • Don’t wear rings. They slip off when your hands get cold from being in the water.
  • Label items in a water resistant way. Some items have been found after 10 years of soaking!
The boat he drags along with him, from his frogman perspective.

The boat he drags along with him, from his frogman perspective.

Some people who see Mr. Nelson pop up out of the water next to them looking like a frogman are startled or confused. He is extremely friendly, so soon puts them at ease. However, some people have the mistaken idea that he is providing a government service. Here are some things he is not:

  • He is not the Red Cross or any sort of emergency service. The Boise River Volunteer logo is a combination of a red cross with a river running through it. He did not design this, but it is hung from the side of his boat and can be useful for explaining to people what the lost and found sign will look like when they exit the water.
  • He is not boat-side assistance. Some floaters have expressed “dissatisfaction” that it has taken a volunteer so long to show up and help them with such things as patching a boat. Such people should know that anyone who does that is just being friendly, and be very grateful instead of yelling at the person.
  • He is not there to find what you just dropped in the water. For one thing, it can be nearly impossible. He may try, out of the goodness of his heart, but he knows better than anyone how unpredictable final resting places and visibility are under the river. He finds what he can find, but he is subject to the moods of the river as much as the next person.
  • He is not an opportunist. While he finds valuables, he makes a lot of effort to return things to people. A lot. However, much of what he finds is trash. Unfortunately, the bulk of the trash is intentionally dumped in the river by the irresponsible. The sheer number of beer cans and bottles is mind-bogglings.

Even so, the variety of items found in the river is fascinating. One time he found an insulin pump (worth a few hundred dollars) and was able to return it to the grateful owner. Some things are unidentifiable, but here is a list of the kinds of things he finds, some much more frequently than others:

  • Wallets, often with ID, money, important documents
  • Cameras
  • Paddles.
  • Footwear
  • Sunglasses
  • Lighters
  • Insulin pumps
  • Prescription glasses
  • Clothing
  • Broken bottles
  • Full bottles of Gatorade
  • Beer cans
  • Rings
  • Money
  • Case of knives apparently owned by a culinary arts student

Speaking of money, sometimes when he touches paper bills, they disintegrate into tiny pieces from being so long in the water. It is very rare for him to find more than a couple of $1 bills. It is hardly a good pay rate for all the time he spends picking up everyone’s stuff. It’s not that he minds, but some people begrudge him what little of value he finds that cannot be returned to an owner. But, face it, if he didn’t go to the effort of diving down there for hours, it would still be down there belonging to no one.

He wears the wetsuit because that is how cold the water is. The first days in July when he goes in the river, it is so cold as to make him nauseous if he is not careful. This even with a fleece-like rash guard shirt under it. The wetsuit makes him buoyant, though, so he has to wear his weight belt to be able to get near the bottom of the river. The river depth varies from a couple of feet, where he swims along with his weight belt scrapping the rocks, to several feet where he has to hold his breath to make a search.

Although the flow of the river changes some from year to year, Mr. Nelson has gained some familiarity with its basic personality. He has an idea of where beer cans tend to congregate. In previous years, there was one spot the size of a large living room covered in beer cans. Not a pretty sight. Unfortunately, though, some of the places where things settle tend to be in danger zones that not even he should go in. Between that and the fact that small items are sifted between the rocks, some things will likely never be found. Sometimes he can see something, like his own son’s special anchor that a friend borrowed (the friend had to cut it loose because the boat was being pulled under water), tangled up on thick brush under water, but not be able to dislodge it without unreasonable risk.

So, the next time you float the river, try not to have anything loose in the boat. Figure out how badly your really need those sunglasses and consider glueing them to your forehead.  Have your camera tied to your arm. And say hello to Mr. Nelson as he swims by with his boat tied to his weight belt.

Click here to find out when and where to float the Boise River.

  • Ben

    Now I need to float the river just to find him.

  • lauraimprovises


  • Mom/Kathy

    Nice Blog & video! Go Chris!

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