Canal Swimming

The 20’- wide canal that ran through our farm was our treasure.  It saved us from having to bathe in a 30-gallon washtub in front of the whole family.  Until 1938 we had no running water, no electricity, and a one-room house (converted from a one car garage).  We had to heat water on our wood burning stove in a teakettle, and then pour it into the tub–water we had hauled bucket by bucket from the corral.  If you were already in the tub, then someone had to add hot water to it, because with you in the tub, it wouldn’t hold much water and got cold real quick.  If you were any size at all, adding water almost always scalded you some.  Darned if you did, darned if you didn’t.

We older kids always had to bathe last, letting the little kids use the cleaner water.  By the time I got in it, wasn’t very clean.  Worst of all, we made our own soap out of pig fat and ashes. The soap wouldn’t stay in solution if the water were at all cold.  Instead, it rose to the top and left a greasy ring around you.  More soap was added with each bather (never throw it out when you must haul it in from the corral 150′ feet away!). So the soap built up to fairly heavy solution. In solution ONLY when the water was very hot.  Colder it was a visible scummy floating mess.  When we got out of the tub we always had this greasy brown ring around our middle!  Ugh!  We would try to wipe it off with a towel, but it would only smear.

Added to the inconvenience of the tub was our humiliation at having to bathe in front of the family.  Mom tried to help by stringing a clothesline across a corner of the room, but it was not very effective.

We were stuck with the tub from October through May.  Every year the water district turned the water out of the canal around the middle of October for the winter.  Then it was turned back in around the end of April.  But, because the canal water was snow pack water, it was cold enough to turn you blue in the springtime!  We didn’t care — anything to escape the hated tub!

Stories of old west always have stories about bathing–and how long between.  Some claim six months, others claim once per week–whether or not needed.  Others claimed to only bathe if they were going to town on a Saturday.  When you have been thru the routine of bathing in a tub as described above, then you begin to understand.  Often movies show the tubs as big affairs, shaped purposely for that purpose.  However mostly bathing was via a 30 gallon tub.  Just try sitting in one sometime and see if you fit!  Then picture yourself in it while someone else adds hot water.  Once you try this, then never again will you poke fun at someone for not bathing “regularly” or often!

My sister, Charlene, escaped four years of the tub by showering at school.  She had sweet-talked the custodian into letting her use the girl’s locker room showers before school.  But I didn’t get into high school until we had built our new house, so I couldn’t use the high school locker rooms.  My grade school had none.

As you can see from the photo, my brother, David, really loved the water. Here he is not a year old yet.  I am six. If you were in the water and he wasn’t, he would jump at you, whether or not you were looking or ready.  So we all kept a sharp eye on him.  The canal was about 300’ from our house.

Neighbor kids from a mile around would come by our place each summer evening to swim in the canal. We had grand times there for hours at a time, while getting our bath at the same time.  If you followed any of the area canals in summertime, they were being used by kids nearly the full length. Town kids had the Noble Ditch as it made its way thru town — one long swimming pool. It never bothered us that it was muddy.  It never bothered us that sometimes a dead animal would float by.  Nor did it bother us if cows used it for whatever.

I worked all over Payette Valley each summer, and every canal in the valley had its share of canal and kids.  It was a rite of passage that you learned to swim in the canal. If you didn’t swim, then fine, the bigger kids grabbed you and threw you in to learn instantly!  This didn’t happen often because most kids from around two, go with their families, and learn, at least, to dog paddle.


Every year in August,  kids deserted the canals, for a week to ten days for a period called “dog days” where only dogs were supposed to swim in it.  This was a completely fabricated superstition — we all loved a mystery.  Supposedly some disease or evil of some kind caused problems.  It is actually quite remarkable how these “dog days” would suddenly arise each summer — who started it, no one knew. However, we all observed it. You know, “just in case it was true.”

Our farm was almost a mile long, and the canal ran the whole length of it, providing not only water and recreation, but also an access road to our fields along its banks.  Virtually any and every day of my life we used the canal or its banks for something or other.

In my early years, my sister and I trapped many gophers.  We loved to play “Valhalla,” making small rafts of reeds to send a dead gopher blazing on a raft down the canal!   The canal was a home to ducks, geese, muskrats and even an occasional errant beaver. (Fish and Game wardens always came and trapped them and put them where they belonged!).  Fish were plentiful, and the reeds and cattails along the bank provided nesting for zillions of blackbirds and other birds, and swarms of minnows.  The cattails made wonderful homemade arrows, fights with billowing seedpods, mats for playhouse and hide-and-seek.  On hot summer days toward the end of the summer, being hot and sweaty at end of day, I would jump into the canal at the end of the farm and float back to the house.

When the water was turned out in the fall, it took several weeks for the water level to settle all the way down.  In the process it would expose pools that trapped the remaining water and condensed the space for the remaining fish that hadn’t escaped out the end of the canal. We had great times catching all those fish, frogs, salamanders, etc. When the water froze we had ice-skating.  Early freezes would sometimes catch a foot or more water still remaining that would provide miles of ice-skating.

The hard winter of 1948-49 trapped almost two feet of water in the canal.  It had iced over quickly, and down in the canal the suns rays could not reach to any effect.  Usually, the remaining water in the canal after turnoff will evaporate quickly.  However, with ice over it, it stayed the whole winter. We could ice skate for miles on it.

In the early winter days when we were too poor to have a barn, the empty canal served as a corral to shelter our sheep out of the prevailing wind.  The bridge made a roof, and we closed up the entrances with reeds and brambles to provide quite a snug shelter.  There were always lots of rushes and reeds and grass along the banks. Over the winter our sheep would graze it off for a mile or so in each direction. Very handy, but provided no water, so during the day the sheep had access to our stock tank. In the evening, the dog would put them away again, under the bridge.

Many winters a blizzard would blow enough snow to completely drift – fill the canal from side to side.  For hours the whole neighborhood would jump off the banks or off the bridge into ten feet of snow, making tunnels in it and forts.  Then, with a long rope we would hook up some sleds to the car bumper or tractor and go down the road for miles, picking up more sleds and more kids the farther we went, until we had chains of kids on sleds so far behind that we could no longer negotiate the corners.  After sledding and playing in the snow we would troop into someone’s house for hot chocolate and a warm fire to dry out.

The canal was also the most direct route to town. In good weather I often used the road along the canal to walk to and from school and to the far end of our farm.  During the windy weather, I would walk down in the bottom of the canal to avoid the cold wind.

The canal functioned both to deliver water from the dam 15 miles away on the Payette River and to drain the fields above it of the water from still another higher canal, the Farmer’s Ditch, that emanated from the same location.  Because of field irrigation drainage the water was always quite muddy. You couldn’t see more than a few inches into it at any time.

In the springtime, as water was turned back into a now empty canal, as the water moved forward it trapped a lot of air in the sand.  This gave rise to foam, which built up into 12-20″ blocks of foam 6-10″ high–like ice bergs floating down the canal–just back of the leading edge.  This foam brigade was excellent for kids to bombard with clods from the canal bank. Hordes of kids followed the advance of the water sometimes for miles bombing the foam, to take advantage of this once/year event!

I could write story after story about this canal, so you can tell that it’s a favored memory.  However, if I were to look at it with today’s eye, then the canal would be a small ditch — a foul, dirty, muddy stream, polluted beyond redemption — and any self-respecting health department would place it forever off limits.  Today the canal looks so small compared to what I remember.  There is an old saying that you can never go back — and how true it is.  So many places near and dear to me in my youth today seem to have shrunk to only a small version of themselves. What a difference perspective makes!

We also swam in the rivers.  Along both the Snake and Payette were countless small inlets, and sloughs. Bridges made great diving boards.  It did not matter what type of swimming hole you wanted, it was easy to find.  My friends always had some backwater along the Payette where it went around so many small islands, and there were many holes dug by folks looking for certain types of gravel — which left a pit that would fill up with water — and particularly important, would heat up some since it was trapped water and not running water.

So, no matter what the day was like, one could find a swimming hole just right.  Falk Bridge (see Strohbehn Family above), New Plymouth Black Bridge, Bluff Road,  by the old Kennedy Ranch, along the Ziegler Ranch, Hwy 52 bridge, Mann Creek, Monroe Creek, Crane Creek, Van Dueson Creek, Washoe sloughs, a place now gone where I-84 comes down the palisades and crosses the Snake.  We used to pasture our stock along there over the winters, and spotted some good swimming holes.  I often did work for farmers along the sloughs and islands of  both rivers–so found innumerable possible swimming holes.

However we liked different favored spots, it seemed that just about anywhere would do.  Hunting magpie or crow eggs along the river, we would fall in, and then decide, since we were already wet, why not swim awhile?  Sometimes it got real hot — over 100, we would be out in a field and just say, to heck with it, and jump in the canal to cool off.

We also used the rivers for other things.  My sister, Charlene, was baptised on her eighth birthday, January 1, 1940, at the Ontario landing by the Ontario bridge in Snake river.  Myself, I would have waited for summer!

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