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Jacksonville resident Larry Smith, left, and his twin Lloyd Smith from Longview, Wash., celebrated their 71st birthdays while floating down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. - Bob Pennell

Following in the 'float print' of their father

We get a ton of emails in this profession, many of which are unceremoniously zapped with the tap of a kill finger.

But Jacksonville resident Larry Smith sent an electronic message last week that stayed my deadly digit.

After the five Medford murders Monday morning, it was what I was looking for — a feel-good story to buoy the human spirit.

Attached were photographs of Larry and his identical twin brother from Longview, Wash., Lloyd, floating down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. They were having a ball.

An accompanying e-note proclaimed the daring duo had just retraced their father's trip down what's known as the River of No Return nearly 80 years ago.

"I just had to show you how 71-year-old twins celebrate their birthday," Larry says of their July 3 birthday bash midway into the 100-mile float trip.

The retired teacher was referring to last Sunday's column in which I mentioned that my twin, George, had turned 60 on July 15.

We're fraternal twins. Not only do we look like we swam out of a different gene pool, but we're not precisely the same age. Yep, I've been studying this world seven minutes longer.

With the L&L twins, Larry is the senior, having arrived three minutes earlier than his mirror image. They graduated from Phoenix High School in 1958.

The story of the Smith brothers — no relation to the cough-drop folks — retraces what Larry cleverly coined their father's "float print" in June of 1932.

Their father, Elmer, died last December at age 97; their mother, Ruby, died three years ago. The couple were married more than seven decades.

"To his dying day, Dad was talking about that trip down the Salmon River," Larry recalls. "He was only there for seven months but it had a real impact on his life.

"He also lost 10 pounds and earned only five dollars for seven months work as a gold miner," he adds. "It got to 40 below zero that winter and the river was frozen over."

The intrepid brothers decided this summer they would float the section and visit the sites where their father once floated and walked. Joining them was Lloyd's son, Kenneth Smith.

Their wild float took them through the nearly 2.4-million acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, created in 1980. (Incidentally, my twin worked at a resort on the banks of the middle fork deep in the wilderness for several summers in the 1990s.)

But there was no official wilderness when Elmer Smith bobbed down the river as a young man in a wooden boat. It was just plain wild.

He had joined several relatives, including his uncle Clyde Smith, who wanted to try their hand at mining for gold during the Great Depression.

Larry's great uncle Clyde was apparently a bit of a mischief-maker in his youth, despite the fact his father was Elias Washington Smith, a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Uncle Sam arrested Uncle Clyde for making moonshine and sent him up the river for six months before he was bailed out, Larry reports.

In any case, the bootlegger quit moonshining cold turkey and headed down the river wild with his family. They would spend that winter gold mining and living off the land. Clyde and his wife, Anna, lived in a little sod cabin. The other men wintered in a tent.

"The Middle Fork of the Salmon was a beautiful, crystal-clear stream that flowed out of the Big Horn Crags and had lots of trout," Elmer wrote in a 2001 memoir. "With the mountain goats, the curly horn mountain sheep and the venison, we did all right in the meat line."

They were so isolated that when they came to "town" in March of 1933, they did not know who had won the 1932 presidential election, he noted.

That would have been FDR, of course.

But Elmer did not go back into the wilderness that spring. He would meet an attractive young lady named Ruby during a church service in Glacier National Park, where he was working for FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps.

Clyde would discover there was gold in taking tourists down the river, and he was featured in the July 1936 edition of National Geographic magazine, launching the Smith family river-guide legacy.

"Uncle Clyde really got it rolling with the National Geographic article," Larry says. "Three generations of Smiths ran people on the river. That continued until 2006. They are all retired or gone now."

As for Elmer and Ruby, they were married in Salmon City in 1935. Witnessing the ceremony were Leo and Pansy Hagler, the folks who hired Elmer to work for them in the spring and summer of 1933. The Haglers' only son had died earlier.

"As they were driving away, dad said that Pansy yelled, 'If you ever have twins, we get one of them,' " Larry says with a chuckle.

Five years later Elmer and Ruby had a pair of twins but you couldn't have pried them away from the proud parents with a stout oar.

After all, they knew the matched pair were Smiths, the kind made to float the River of No Return.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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