Simply Wild: How a week on the Salmon River manifests the importance of simplicity

“STAY LOW,” suggested Barry as we maneuvered our way around the large boulders and sticky poison ivy. I didn’t listen. The grippy boulders ahead seemed easy enough to scramble up with the right handholds, and a granular surface enables me to glide over the rock with Spiderman-like abilities. I’m enamored. I grip the rough and porous surface pulling myself closer to the roar of the rapids ahead. We are scouting Black Creek Rapid, on the Main Salmon River in Idaho, AKA The River of No Return. Sweat trickles down my back under my PFD. The sun is warm, and I feel like a kid bouncing and jumping from rock to rock. Squeezing myself through narrow spaces and finally, I make it up and to the top of the largest of boulders, hands-on-hips like Captain Marvel, to see the rapid. The water is like glass with reflections of the large white rocks, trees, and blue sky.  Always moving, the dark green liquid visually draws me downstream. The short tongue coaxes and tempts you to the rapid. The drop is immediate into a turbulent white bubbling cascade of rocks and water. Maybe the adrenaline rushing through my veins is because it’s the first day of this much-anticipated raft trip, and I’m just over eager. Whatever it is, my senses are cloudy and I’m not sure which line looks the most run-able.

Barry ready to launch at Corn Creek

IN COLORADO, where I live, the legendary Salmon River is on every boater’s bucket-list. The Salmon has two sections for your boating pleasure. The Middle Fork of the Salmon is a scenic 104-mile stretch with a class IV launch (meaning your boat has to be lowered into the river via ropes and pulleys) and 300 class III-IV named-rapids. It’s busy and a real nail-biter. The Main Salmon River is the tamer of the two sections with 80 miles of class II-III rapids, numerous un-named wave-trains, mellow, relaxing stretches with sandy-beach camps among beautiful canyons. There is a handful of edgy class III rapids that command your attention, but very run-able. Of course, at high water, the Main gets a bit rowdier.

I was motivated to make this trip happen. For years, I dreamed of boating this river, but the logistical challenges of single-motherhood and a full-time job always held me down. However, this season, life changed. My girls are both in college in San Diego, CA, and my 19-year project is, well, slowly coming to a close, and I have some extra time on my hands. With that in mind, I kicked off the year with a river permit party. I submitted for six different rivers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Idaho. I knew the universe was smiling down on me when I opened an email that said: “Congratulations, you won a permit for the Main Salmon River!”

Six months of planning later, my younger brother, Corbin, a former river guide turned cannabis farmer, waits patiently, holding the bow-line of the raft as we hike back after scouting. In his younger days, he was a savvy river guide with multiple Grand Canyon trips and countless trips down the Arkansas, Colorado and Eagle Rivers. Today, he’s a little older and softer, but can still read a river like nobody’s business. Our shared love for the river grew from a childhood of camping and canoe racing in the midwest. Every weekend of the summer, my mom and step-dad would pack up our 1976 Ford Econoline van with its DIY tricked-out interior, camping gear, and roof rack overflowing with canoes and kayaks.  We would drive to canoe races all over Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. My parents were canoe racing champions and adrenaline-loving kayakers. To us, the river was just our life.  A life that revolved around shiny aluminum canoes, wood paddles, unused orange lifejackets, muddy tennis shoes, rain, campfires, poison oak, rice crispy treats, fireflies and crickets the size of my fist. I remember endless hours in the back of the van, sweating and wishing myself to sleep for a reprieve from the road. By the time I hit high school, river-life was passé. Fast-forward a decade, a journalism degree, heartbreak, and a move to Breckenridge, Colorado, I found myself training to be a river guide on the Colorado River. The rest is history.

Kim, Ryker, BJ, and Corbin taking a break

Our compadres on this trip are longtime boaters, Kim, BJ, and their sweet-old dog Ryker. Kim is a boat-packing pro and connoisseur of eccentric gadgets and music. BJ is a musician, camp-chef, and doting mom to furry-baby, Ryker. Tequila-swinging Barry has boated nearly every western river but will be the first to proclaim he’s the “DRS” (doesn’t remember shit) guy. 

So, on a sunny August morning, we set off down the Salmon River, Frank Church – the River of No Return Wilderness. It is named for Senator Frank Church, who served as a U.S. senator from Idaho from 1957 to 1981 and worked tirelessly to protect and preserve this wilderness area. The Salmon River flows through the largest roadless areas left in the lower 48 states, 2.5 million-acres with one of the deepest canyons in the continental United States, which at roughly 7,000 feet (2,130 m) of vertical relief is deeper than the Grand Canyon. This stretch of the Main Salmon River is roughly eighty-two (82) miles with 38 named class II-III rapids and nearly 30 additional unnamed rapids, ripples, and holes.

Corn Creek Launch

In 1800, the Nez Perce tribe had more than 100 permanent villages with an estimated population of 12,000 throughout Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. Archeologists have identified nearly 300 sites in the Salmon River Canyon, including both camps and villages.

In 1805 William Clark was the first known Euro-American to meet the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce Indians were pivotal to the success of Lewis & Clark and their journey across the Bitterroot Mountains and to the Pacific Ocean. Sacajawea, a young Shoshone woman who was born near Salmon, Idaho, was a vital and significant authority assuring the men’s survival and communication with Indian tribes.

Being on the river changes your focus. Everyday-life stress seems to fall away with each mile. The river commands your attention, and daily matters revolve around basics needs; hydration, campsites, food, and safety. It’s life in the purest form and yet naturally complex.

The first white men to travel the river canyon were trappers and hunters in 1832. In the 1860s, deposits of gold were found along the river, and the gold rush began. In the late 1800s, a man by the name of Jay McKay would build a small wooden scow in Salmon, Idaho, and head down the river with months of supplies to placer for gold at riverside sand bars or side streams. These boats were then dismantled to construct cabins and were never used as watercraft again. Hence, the Salmon River earned its name and reputation as “the River of No Return” with these one-way downriver trips, massive wilderness, and deep canyons.

Captain Guleke dominated the downriver scene in the late 1800s. He provided the first commercial trips for passage and supplies on a 32 foot long/8 foot wide wood scows. Upon reaching Riggins, Idaho, he would dismantle the boats for homes, buildings, and other uses. 

River navigation and way-finding are essential components when finding reserved and non-reserved campsites on the Salmon River.  The campsites are labeled on maps and described in guidebooks.  The descriptions give details of natural markers, and river-mile guesstimates, but actually finding the campsite can be a little tricky. Our location on the river is a constant and ongoing discussion throughout the trip.

LARGE BOULDERS in the center of the river produce two channels on either side. The right channel isn’t as dramatic, but with lots of rocks just below the surface, the current is pushing toward a rock wall. The left channel drops dramatically with a huge pour-over rock on the left and a hole on the right. There seems to be just enough space for a boat to squeeze between those two features for a clean drop. Is there enough space? As we are hiking back to our boats, we see a small group of rafts heading toward the rapid. They are not stopping to scout. The lead raft is small with three people and a bunch of gear. The guide doesn’t seem to notice the rapid until he sees us. He looks up and casually waves, smiles, and says, “run it left.” Seconds later, he sets up on the left, boat facing a bit river-right, and he drops in and stops rowing. The white bubbling stew engulfs his boat, the nose dives, disappears, and then shoots up. There are a few bumps and weaves, and then he’s through. Just like that, a clean shot. The additional two rafts follow his line and get through with ease.  We didn’t know it at the time, but in that particular moment, the low-water theme of the class III rapids was established.

For dinner, on Day 1 we were treated to a canyon alpenglow of deep blue and pink. The all-encompassing and essential matters of discussion entailed the debate as to the guidebook and map’s accuracy of our campsite location, the identity of the rapid just below our camp, and most importantly, how long it takes for steak to cook in a foil-wrapped camp stew.

Being on the river changes your focus. Everyday-life stress seems to fall away with each mile. The river commands your attention, and daily matters revolve around basics needs; hydration, campsites, food, and safety. It’s life in the purest form and yet naturally complex. The river, If not respected, can potentially result in colossal life-threatening consequences.

DAY TWO is a constant stream of class II rapids with a sprinkle of exciting class IIIs on a warm, sunny day; it just doesn’t get any better. The Barth Hot Springs is on our radar. We studied the guide map and slowly inched our way downriver. The hot spring pool is a collaboration between mother nature and the early characters of the river.  The spring is a logical stop for early explorers, Captain Guleke and Jay McKay, who often frequented the hot, emerald-colored pools. A steep rocky trail leads to the warm depths that are perched high above the river. The pool is fed through a creative series of PVC piping and stream overflows through the rock. The pool overlooks the steep and rugged mountains of the canyon. It’s easy to see why this is a popular stop in this section of the Salmon River. We are lucky enough to be the only trip visiting the springs on this day, so we had the entire pool to ourselves.

We took our time and enjoyed the hot springs for as long as we could before pressing on to find our (non-reserved) campsite, Sandy Hole, and make some dinner.  Again, it was a challenge to determine the location of the campsite based-off the guide book description, river map, and natural markers. By the time we happened upon what we had thought was Sandy Hole campsite, it was already occupied. So we continued downriver for a mile or two. We found a sandbar on river-right near what we think might be the Nixon Bar campsite. It was long and narrow but worked for our small group. 

The evening turned cloudy and a bit colder. We added a layer of clothing, then hunkered down in a semi-circle for an evening of swapping stories of past river trip charades, self-righteous characters, and heroes. We all felt a pang of gratitude that evening for our small easy-going group.

It was warm enough that evening that I didn’t put the fly on my tent. Corbin, who was not liking his cheap Walmart tent, decided he would sleep “on the raft under the stars.” I went to bed early to read and quickly fell asleep in my tiny 2-person tent.  Sometime during the early morning hours, I felt misty rain on my face. I laid there, eyes closed, still half-asleep wishing for the rain to stop. It didn’t stop. I could feel my body tense up as my inner voice wakeup to remind me, “You didn’t put on your fly, dumbass, where is it? Now you’re going to have to get out of your warm sleeping bag, find the fly and headlamp! Get out there; we’re getting wet!” I laid there a little longer, hoping with all my might that the rain would stop and, nope, it started raining harder. Shit! So, with clumsy awkwardness, a t-shirt, and underwear, I crawled out of my tent, fly in hand, and headlamp.

There was no moon. It’s so dark that even with my headlamp on, it’s hard to see. The wind kicked up, and my fly flew out of hand into the black abyss. In bare-feet, I wobble in the direction of my fly. Luckily, it caught on a bush. I turn around to see three small headlights bouncing around in the darkness and could hear the faint rumblings of swear words in the distance. The rain is coming down hard now, and all I can think about is my sleep bag getting wet. As the wind is whipping my tent and the rain is pelting me in the face, I take a deep breath and concentrate on securing the fly. Out of the corner of my eye, I see flashes of scrambling nakedness and hear more swearing. The headlights are still bouncing, but I don’t give it another thought. Shivering, I securing the last corner of the fly, diving into the tent opening, crawl into my somewhat dry sleeping bag, and listen to the rain and wind rattling my tent. I start to relax, warm up and drift while my inner voice is chanting, “I love my tent, love my tent.”

At the crack of dawn, I hear a commotion, and the thought of coffee gets me moving. Our camp is in disarray. Parts and pieces of the kitchen are laying haphazardly in the sand, gear from our boat is floating near shore, flannel pajama pants, and a wet sleeping bag is airing out on a group of small boulders.  My brother’s Walmart tent is half-setup near the water-line, cockeyed and secured in the corners by large rocks. Most importantly, Barry made coffee, and as we sip the morning brew, Corbin shares his late-night tent-setup adventure with the crew. 

Corbin’s romantic idea of sleeping “on the raft under the stars” turned soggy with the weather. He recounted that in the late-night confusion, he was unprepared to set up his tent and pleaded with Barry to let him sleep in his tent, but was, rightfully, denied. In the rain, Corbin rooted around the wet and now slippery raft to find his tent.  When found, he realized the stakes were not in the bag (duh).  Plan B, he finds rocks to secure the tent. While Corbin scrambled to setup his unloved tent with no stakes in the rain, his sleeping-pad is swept into the river by the wind. In his mild-manner, Barney Rubble way, I picture Corbin in his flannel pj’s, calmly swearing as he kicks off his crusty, sand-filled furry Ugg slippers to wade into the river to retrieve his floating sleeping-pad. Now soaked and covered in sand to his waist with a soggy sleeping bag and pad, he dumps it all in the crooked tent, eases himself in as best he can, zips up the door, and falls back into a wine-induced slumber until morning. (oh, the amusement of it all was too much, I’m almost in tears)

DAY THREE started gray, soggy, and cool. We suited up in our full rain gear and hats as we glided down the river. I was eager to get on the oars to warm up and start moving. The silence was deafening. It was only the sound of the oars breaking water until we approached our first little rapid. We knew today was going to be busy, and I was thankful Barry and Kim took the lead through the rapids. At 2600 CFS, the stretch between Bailey Rapid and Stinker Rapid is alive with bubbling white water and splashy waves. It’s exhilarating and gets the blood flowing.

The sun appeared, heating the canyon walls and reflecting off the water. The green of the forest and the sky are vibrant as day turned warm and bright. We didn’t stop for lunch that day, so arrive at Lower Yellow Pine campsite around 3 p.m. – I think. I have no idea what time it is, my clock is on river time; sunrise, coffee, when my stomach growls and sunset.  Lower Yellow Pine campsite is a white sandy beach paradise located just above Big Mallard Rapid. 

We set up camp in the warm sand. I hiked up the hill to a somewhat secluded space near a fallen tree that has great views of the river. We have some down-time to relax. Corbin takes time to set up his now honorable Walmart tent with stakes, and I go for a short hike.  With three days of river-grim on my body, I smell rather ripe.  A “shower” sounds like a good idea. Bathing is not allowed in the Salmon River. Any kind of bathing must be done onshore above the waterline. Corbin and I grabbed two 5-gallon buckets and filled them up as much as possible with river water. We haul them up to the waterline. Still in my swimsuit, Corbin takes great joy in dumping most of the first bucket over my head. I soaped up and then Corbin doused me with waves of water from the second bucket. I’ve found that on the river, modesty and self-consciousness are a waste of time and energy. No one cares, everyone poops, and it’s easier to just get over yourself.

That evening was warm and relaxing. Over dinner, we deliberated how we would run Big Mallard Rapid, discussed past successful runs, flips, and what a Plan B might look like. At this water level, the Big Mallard run is river-left of the big rock at the bottom and missing the hole on the right. We scouted the rapid from our campsite. It looked shallow, narrow, and rocky to me.

Big Mallard Rapid

DAY FOUR was a long day. The morning was warm and bright when we ran Big Mallard Rapid as planned. I was on edge all morning and nearly barfed at the top of the rapid. Happily, we all ran it clean. At this water level, it was a squeeze between the shore and large rock at the bottom of the rapid. I was stunned at the size of the hole behind the rock.

Next up, Elkhorn Rapid. The top of Elkhorn Rapid III is slow, and you can pick your way through the rocks, but as it descends, the current accelerates. Toward the bottom of the rapid, large boulders created three channels, but only two seem run-able. Kim and Barry take the far left channel, but I don’t have enough strength to push over there and feel myself drifting sideways toward “Domer” rock. I shift to plan b, pull away from the left channel, tell Corbin to hold on, take a deep breath, and shoot the raft backward through the middle channel. I hear Barry, Kim, and BJ cheer in the distance. My heart is racing; I’m exhilarated. I freakin love this.

After cleaning two nail-biter rapids, I can relax into the day, and it flies by. Since we are out of ice, it’s decided that we will make this a long day (17 miles), stop at Fivemile Bar, the home of Buckskin Bill for ice, and find a (non-reserve) campsite for our day-five layover.

Fivemile Bar is the site of Sylvan “Buckskin Bill” Hart’s privately owned homestead turned museum and a small store with drinks, snacks, ice, and supplies.  There are a few accounts of Buckskin Bill’s legacy. Most accounts have Hart born in Oklahoma Territory in 1906. They say that Buckskin was a mountain man at heart and in his craft: resourceful, independent, and artistic. He lived off the land and his nickname stems from the homemade deer hide clothing he wore with the hair on the inside, next to his skin. Rumor has it; the smell from the tanned skin clothing was quite rank, justifying the alias “Buckskin Bill.”

Buckskin Bill

One Idaho historian, Boise State Professor of History Dr. Garth Honeycutt’s research found that Buckskin Bill was actually kind of an asshole. “Bill is described as a “hermit” or “recluse,” who lived on the Main Salmon River from 1932 to 1980, and the sort of person who complained his feet were cold, his hides were itchy and how dusty everything was. Couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He had a pathological fear of rodents that prevented him from doing any trapping – he ate mostly instant ramen….he wasn’t a recluse by choice – none of the other Mountain Men liked him. He was known for being pedantic and condescending and was known to show up at your cabin unannounced in the dead of winter, not bring anything to eat, or drink, get snow all over your floor and stare at your wife’s ass.”

One of Buckskin Bill’s unique structures

Fivemile Bar Beach at Buckskin Bill’s

Our stop at Buckskin Bills was like a peek back in time. The museum was of Buckskin Bill’s possessions, built firearms, knives, memorabilia, and a view of his sleeping quarters. The property is lovely with large trees, green grass, and multiple outbuildings, including a unique tower that looks over the beach. We bought four gallon-jugs of ice for $6 each, totally worth it.

As we head downstream, the canyon slowly yawns open. The river widens, and for the first time, there is wide-open space on either side of the river. We arrived at Bluebird Hole camp late in the day. The sun and water are warm enough that Corbin and I splash around and swim in the eddy before dinner. The shore is rocky with twist-your-ankle sized rocks, but the camp above is flat with sand, dirt, and trees. Our bodies are tired, but our spirits are light. The evening passes quickly with music, laughter, and great food.

DAY FIVE – Layover Day. My dreams of sleeping in on our layover day were interrupted by a low-flying aircraft buzzing over the camp at sunrise. Not able to get back to sleep, I got up to start the coffee and enjoy a lazy morning. I read a little, explored the area, shoreline, rocks, and water. By midday, I was feeling a little stir-crazy and wanted to explore beyond our camp. 

The day was warming up quickly. Our crew, less BJ and Ryker, dawned hats, water, map, and snacks and set out to hike the trail to the South Fork Salmon outlet. Our map indicated there was a trail or jeep road that let to the Mackay Bar Bridge and then onward to the South Fork. The end of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness officially ends just upstream from the bridge. Mackay Bar is a sandy beach with no shade and car access. Today, a couple of families were hanging out on the beach by way of a motorboat. We followed the trail and signs to the South Fork only to be disappointed as the trail dead-ended at private property. A little disappointed, we turned around and slowly made it back to the campsite. 

Barry and Kim on Mackay Bar Bridge

FINAL DAYS: Pent-up energy flows through the group as we load the boats for the morning launch. I’m eager to get behind the oars. I’m in the groove and routine of life on the river. It’s a rhythm of contentment that brings me pleasure and comfort. The days and evenings flow together like lively wave-trains, lazy evenings of toes in the cool sand, the taste of semi-cold beer, and casual banter as the sun sets just beyond the rolling blue hills.

Barry reviewing the guidebook/map

The final stretch of river miles goes down like that never-ending glass of Grandma’s lemonade, endless wet, sweetness with a tangy melancholy last sip of bitter pulp that punctuates the end of a dreamy summer afternoon.  We all agree we wanted more days on the river. Daily life has been washed away and replaced with the simplicity of river-life for our small tribe of souls.  We now share memories and a binding collective narrative of the splendor and enchantment of the Main Salmon River valley. 

Our river crew


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