Carved by Water
The Salmon River, Forever the Wild Soul of this Great State of Idaho
Overlooking Stanley, Idaho as the "River of No Return' rolls past, making its long journey toward the sea.
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Drive north out of Wells, Nevada, and it’s a straight shot, no more than four hours, into the soul of Idaho. At first blush, it seems that the Great Basin—an enormous high desert starkly distinguished by what it lacks—will go on forever, and in every imaginable direction. This is, after all, the northernmost tier of a desert that covers five percent of the United States. Before long, though, the waterless earth gives way to the Snake River Plain, a giant crescent of fertile, alluvial terrain cradling southern Idaho. Cross the river at Twin Falls, and crops spring from the land: corn, potatoes, alfalfa. Soon, the earth begins to roll in waves, small towns appear, dots on a line: Shoshone, Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum. Trees begin to populate the land. Gone is the sea of sagebrush and volcanic rock. Suddenly the gentle rolls of the earth push up toward the sky and the hills are now mountains.
The road follows the Big Wood River, winding up into the far reaches of Galena Summit at 8,701 feet. Travel up over the pass and there it unfolds as wide and grand as any Western vista—Salmon River country—14,000 square miles of wild, pristine terrain, drained by the river the Northern Shoshoni called “Tom Agit Pah,” or Big Fish Water. Bethine Church, 88, widow of Senator Frank Church, for whom 2.36 million acres of Idaho wilderness was named, describes this land, a slice of which she grew up on 48 miles from the headwaters, as simply “…a piece of God’s green Earth.”
Left to right: Fly fisherman, Idaho River Journeys; Riding the bull, Campfire, Mackay Wilderness River Trips.
When it comes to rivers, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to pinpoint beginnings. Rivers are cyclical and variable and don’t always conform to linear thinking. Nonetheless, for those with the urge, it is an easy drive from Galena Summit to Forest Service Road 215. Follow that to its end, and then begin to hike. It’s easy walking as the three-foot- wide river thins out, branches into its tiniest capillaries, then suddenly, it’s like nothing more than a network of wet areas, small groundwater sources here, then over there, and quickly the exercise begins to feel like finding the end of a rainbow. Perhaps a more interesting realization is that one can cup his hands in these headwaters, gather up a handful of the Salmon River, and know that water, within a couple of weeks, will reach the Pacific Ocean more than 900 miles away. Along the way, this river—the central artery of the state—will be filled by hundreds of streams big and small as it rolls north and west 425 miles to the Snake River, then on to the Columbia and the coast. These tributaries include the Yankee Fork, East Fork, Pahsimeroi, Lemhi, North Fork, Middle Fork, South Fork, and Little Salmon Rivers.
It’s the long journey that the river’s namesake salmon make as young smelts from their birthplaces in Redfish Lake, Alturas Lake, and other stream beds in the Sawtooth Valley. They travel downriver through towns that have sprung up on its banks—Sawtooth City, Stanley, Clayton, Challis, Salmon, Shoup, Riggins, White Bird, then on to the Snake River, Lewiston, Astoria, and the Pacific Ocean. After living for just a few years in the ocean, these same fish journey back up nearly a thousand river miles to their birthplace, where they spawn and then die—a cycle completed.
An Enduring Presence
Anyone who has spent any time along a river has felt the ease rushing water brings to the soul. It is indiscriminate to walk of life, age, or riches. Part of the reason why might lie in the enduring presence of a river like the Salmon. Relative to our lifetimes, the river is a constant. It was there before us and will likely be there long after us.
Our relationship to this river is just a tiny fraction of its long geologic history. Geologists estimate that the Salmon River began forming two million years ago during the glacial and interglacial periods of the last Ice Age. The central force in our lives, gravity, acted on the most basic and plentiful of substances, water, to give rise to the thousands of streams and rivers that began to sculpt the canyons of the Salmon as we know them today.
And now consider that the earliest known inhabitants of the Salmon River country were ancestors of the Northern Shoshoni and Nez Perce Native Americans. Archeological studies of arrowheads and other tools place the earliest inhabitants in the canyon 8,500 years ago. The Shoshoni lived primarily in the northern areas in the Lemhi Valley and on into the Salmon River country proper. The Nez Perce were more clustered around the Middle Fork.
To put this in perspective, if one were to normalize the river’s flowing life to a single year, man’s 8,500 years on it would be the equivalent of 37 hours. Like a rich family heritage, an old river puts our lives in context, provides a sense of stability and permanence. Although our time is limited, there is a structure around us that endures. That brings some level of comfort.
River outfitters have some perspective on this. Joe Daly, who owns Echo River Trips with Dick Linford, has for 40 years taken thousands of people down dozens of rivers, often the Middle Fork and Main Salmon. As Daly sees it, “When our river guests step off the bus at put-in . . . Their new guideposts are breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with the sun and moon . . . rounding bend after bend in the river, we can see their other world worries wash away . . . For a time, they are set free from their everyday concerns.”
The European-Americans Move West
At the turn of the 19th century, the French controlled New Orleans and access to the Mississippi River, a major artery of commerce for U.S. traders. President Thomas Jefferson, concerned about the possibility of Napoleon denying the United States access to the port and river system, authorized James Monroe to purchase the city for $10 million. Napoleon, in turn, offered to sell not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million. Monroe agreed.
And because he knew little about what he had actually bought, in 1803, Jefferson charged Meriwether Lewis and William Clark with exploring up the Missouri River—which takes a diagonal path right through what was then the Louisiana Territory—and ultimately to find a path to the Pacific Ocean. By August 1805, Clark had reached the Salmon River just below North Fork, Idaho. In attempting to find an easy water route to the ocean, the explorer traveled downriver as far as Pine Creek rapid, at which point surveying the rapid and cliffs along the river downstream with his Shoshoni guide Old Toby, he decided the river was not passable.
Furs and Gold
Although the Corps of Discovery turned back away from the river at this point, the journey brought attention to the area, and soon pioneers seeking furs and gold began poking their way into these new lands. In 1824, Alexander Ross and members of the Hudson’s Bay Company traveled over Galena Summit, down the river to Challis, trapping animals. And in 1863, John Stanley, a gold prospector, explored the Stanley area and on into Bear Valley, near the headwaters of the Middle Fork.
(Clockwise from top left) The Frank Church family poses for their annual Christmas card in the Sawtooth Mountains, circa 1968; A ROW Adventures guide rows guests downriver;Idaho River Journeys guests enjoy a calm section of the Middle Fork; Dan Bentsen of Helfrich Outfitters running Pistol Creek Rapid in a boat that he built.
It was the allure of gold that pushed new explorations down the Main Salmon itself. With prospecting giving way to hard rock mining, stamp mills and other large pieces of equipment were needed downstream. In the late 1880s, boatmen like “Cap” Guleke built 32-foot-long wooden scows with oars front and back to ferry supplies from Salmon to Shoup and other mining settlements on the river. But it wasn’t until 1896 that Cap Guleke made the first documented downriver passage of the Salmon River from Salmon to Riggins, nearly 165 miles. Given that there was no way to get the boats back to Salmon, Guleke and those who followed him simply sold the boats for lumber (typically $5) and took horses back to Salmon. A river moniker was born, “River of No Return.”
The Modern Era: Adventure and Outfitting
Where the river once provided sustenance for Native Americans, then opportunity and wealth for the pioneering trappers and placer miners, after the turn of the 20th century, it became a nexus of adventure for outfitters and their clients.
And if there is a first family of outfitting on the Salmon River, it is the Smith family. Clyde Smith and his teenage son, Don, built their first wooden scow in 1930 and ran it from North Fork down the Salmon to Long Tom Rapid, where they wrecked just before the confluence with the Middle Fork. This became the site of the family home they would build. Then in 1945, Clyde and Don took the Army Corps of Engineers down the river in a wooden scow to survey it. Along with them, they took a 17-foot boat with a 22-horsepower engine to ferry surveyors up and down the river. This was the nascent beginnings of the Salmon River jet boat business.
The Smith family, running its “Salmon River Boat Trips” out of the North Fork Store, created for the first time an outfitting business, taking fishermen and hunters into the river corridor. Don’s sons, Bob, Jack and Ken, in turn, all grew up on the river and all became outfitters. The Smiths were also innovators. It was in 1948 that the Smiths first took a party down the Salmon in a welded aluminum boat, a material more forgiving than the green-wood scows used up to that time. Bob Smith, who died five years ago, was particularly adept at building and navigating boats. His daughter, Bobbi, now 40 and working at a guest ranch on the Middle Fork, says her dad, “never wanted to go anywhere else, this was his life. He was a boatman, a hardworking, good person, just a sweetheart.” Bobbi describes how her Grandmother Marian, when she saw Bob’s intense interest in the river life, sent him off to Seattle to learn how to make boats. And make boats he did—welded aluminum boats with motors that could navigate upriver.
Bob and his wife Jill built a home at Hughes Creek in North Fork, Idaho. And after working out of several camps on the river, including the old Guth camp at Barth Creek, Bob eventually built the China Bar Lodge at Lemhi Creek on the Salmon. Over the years, he earned the reputation as one of the most skilled boatmen on the river. With his motorized aluminum boats and up river “jet backs,” Bob put to rest the moniker “River of No Return.” It was the beginning of a generation of boatmen working the river—up and down—taking guests into the wilderness to hunt, fish and sightsee. But Bob’s knowledge and skill were legendary, once running a scow loaded with a VW bus down the Middle Fork from Dagger Falls to the Flying B Ranch, 67 miles through class III and IV rapids. For Bobbi, who spent many of her young days on her dad’s lap steering a jet boat, the connection to the river has passed through four generations. “I belong here, I guess.” Thinking about it for a moment, she adds, “It’s really like a fairy tale, living on the river.”
A Vision for those to Come
Perhaps the most significant result of the outfitting era was that wider swaths of people began to see and appreciate the rivers. The rivers became a place people valued for the restorative experience alone.
One of the first people to recognize that value and work to preserve it for generations to follow was Senator Frank Church, who represented Idaho from 1957 to 1981. Church, who died of cancer in 1984, grew up in Boise. It is there where he met and became friends with his eventual wife, Bethine Clark (Church). Bethine, who turned 88 in February, remembers how early experiences on and near the river were so formative for her and her husband. She recalls her early life on the Robinson Bar Ranch, a 128-acre family homestead along the Salmon River near Stanley, “Pop used to catch salmon at the bend by the house. They were so thick there you could see them flashing and sparkling in the sun … And Frank just loved the ranch. He used to visit during summers in high school.”
And then Bethine remembers their first trip down the Middle Fork in the summer of 1963. She remembers it vividly because she, Senator Church and their 5- and 14-year-old sons had just met Vice President Lyndon Johnson at the Idaho National Laboratory. The family left that meeting and drove directly to the river put-in. It was a definitive experience for the young senator. “His watching the salmon on our old homestead, then seeing the Middle Fork, Frank thought there had to be other places like this. And that they should be protected.”
Senator Church’s sponsoring of the Wilderness Act of 1964 “was just the beginning,” as Bethine says. It was not a popular position to take, particularly in the Gem State. Many Idahoans opposed the Act because, as she explains, “Many thought ‘Wilderness’ was for rich Easterners. ‘Politically,’ Frank said to me, ‘I need this bill like a hole in the head.’ But it was terribly important to him.”
Nonetheless, the Act passed and Church went on to sponsor the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, of which the Middle Fork was one of the original eight rivers designated (the Main Salmon was added in 1980.) It was also in 1980 that Church played a pivotal role in establishing the River of No Return Wilderness, at 2.36 million acres, the second largest wilderness area (just behind California’s arid Death Valley) in the lower 48 states.
A Changing Relationship
The rivers—Middle Fork and Main Salmon—draw thousands of visitors now; 10,000 per year on the Middle Fork, 8,500 per year on the Main Salmon. This is not to mention the countless hikers, horseback riders and backcountry pilots. It is home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, wolves, bears, bald eagles and osprey, trout and, of course, salmon. It is a wonderland bastion of life that stretches over more land than most people can imagine.
It was a true vision that Church saw to fruition. Just weeks before his death, Senator Church was told the wilderness area he had helped create would bear his name: “The Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness.” Church, who had a protracted battle with pancreatic cancer, told his wife Bethine, as she recalls, “‘It was worth dying so long for.’”
And so this great wild river and country has changed over time, not so much in its raw nature, but more in our perception of it. Where once we pulled things from the river, now it gives back to us. What it offers is variable and personal. But it is clear that days spent on the Salmon River change people. Brent Estep, owner of Mackay Wilderness River Trips, has seen the changes over a 30-year career. “Observing the positive effect the river has on people reinforces my belief that people need to escape the hustle and bustle of our everyday electronic, fossil-fueled world … My guests tell me time and time again, ‘Now I understand why this place is so special and why it is so important to protect.’”
Having spent much of my adult life on rivers—as kayaker, boatman, father introducing children to them—I’ve puzzled over the hold a great river like the Salmon has over us. Sit idle by a wild river like the Middle Fork—the water clear as air, carving the earth as it has for nearly 2 million years—and one feels more in the moment of life than any other place I know. It is a place to remember what it is to be wild, to witness the complexity of nature in balance, the natural cycles of life, all of which we can become divorced from in modern living.
And while a river brings us to the moment of living, it also binds us to time past and future. Its constancy allows us to imagine times before and after us, and that places us securely in a continuous arc that can be reassuring. It is particularly important to us now as the great force of the world seems to be to break up our experience into digitalized bits, so that anything and everything can be pulled from context, repurposed, magnified, or retouched. If our lives feel disjointed, this is part of the reason. Time on a river stitches the pieces back together, if only for a while.
In the end, 2.36 million acres is just a number. To truly comprehend the vast beauty of this place, one need see it from the air—in a small plane, a four-seater that lumbers over the terrain. Fly from a small strip in Challis or Stanley, up and into the wilderness. One can see nothing but an endless stretch of green. For all you can tell, this is the skin of the universe, pocked with grey and pink granite and the whiskery char of past forest fires. Before long, you will see the Salmon or one of its tributaries making a circuitous path to the ocean. These rivers, transporting life to a thirsty land, form the great wrinkles on the undulating visage. From this vantage point, when the sun hits the river just right, great bursts of light blaze from below—it could be the silver flash of salmon from past times or just the perfect reflection off pristine water. But the world is as it has been from the beginning. Life is fresh and glistens and goes on forever.
Behold this. It is something to hold close in the mind’s eye, simple and weightless, a talisman to carry us through.
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