FREEDOM, Wyo. — Two weeks before the first day of school in Star Valley, summer feels like it could last forever. But in a place where the rivers begin as snow, the season of swimming is short. Even in August, the creeks run cold. Too soon, they will freeze.
Six-year-old Soren Johnson stands on a pebbled beach where Jackknife Creek pours into the Salt River. This creek, this river, and two dirt roads mark the boundaries of his kingdom: Jackknife Creek Ranch, 20 acres of pasture, willows, and aspen groves once part of a working dairy farm. The ranch kisses the western edge of Wyoming. Across the street is Idaho.
Jackknife Creek begins around 20 miles west, on Idaho’s Caribou Mountain, and meanders into Wyoming’s Star Valley, a mile-high rural basin roughly an hour’s drive south of Jackson. Soren and his brothers, 8-year-old Killian and 16-year-old Hatton, have no access to a swimming pool. They have a creek blessed with oxbows, beavers, wild trout, and swimming holes sacred to free-range kids. It thaws in late spring and swells until May, too fast and high and filled with sticks to be safe for swimming before late June or July.
The only thing keeping Soren out of this creek is a puncture wound below his left knee. He fell on a rusty nail while playing in a 101-year-old barn. It wasn’t bad enough for a 40-minute drive to the hospital, but the skin is a little red and hot. He’s been limping around theatrically and insisted on a piggyback ride to the creek.
But now, squishing around in wet sneakers, Soren jealously eyes brother Killian, who is up to his chin in the creek. The air is 81 degrees, but Killian’s teeth are chattering. Soren’s eyes grow wild with longing and he bounces from foot to foot, his gimpy leg now pain free.
“Mom, can I please try swimming?” he says. “Look, I can walk normal now!”
Freedom, Wyoming has a post office, a church, zero stoplights, and a postcard-perfect fly fishing river with Snake River cutthroat trout. It is home to cattle ranches, dairy farms, and Freedom Arms, maker of one of the largest-caliber handguns on the market, used for hunting trophy game, even bigger than the .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson, the gun Clint Eastwood used to make his day.