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Salmon River
By Ryann Connell, Mainichi Shinbun
July 2004

Coming Back from the River of No Return

Slam! “So this is what it means to hit the rapids,” I thought as the blow from yet another wave smashed into me.

Though initial panic had me thinking the worst about why eastern Idaho’s Salmon River is also known as the River of No Return, it was soon easy enough to hang loose and go with the flow, entrusting the powerful stream of water to provide an exhilarating and refreshing ride.

It was even more fun when I managed to stay inside the boat.

Rafting down the Salmon, one of the last major rivers in the United States to remain without a dam, is an unforgettable experience – the deliberate aim of Salmon River Rafting Co. boss and main guide for the trip, Wayne Johnson.

“We’re in the memory business,” he tells the Mainichi. “We want to create good memories for people.”

During a five-day, roughly 100-kilometer trek down the river through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, our group of nine travelers and two guides experienced some of the most fascinating landscapes on earth, whitewater rafting our way downstream for the first four days, then returning to our starting point on the final day courtesy of a jet boat that traversed the same course traveling upstream in a matter of hours.

Joining Johnson, a veteran of 37 years leading trips along whitewater rivers, including 23 on the Salmon; was Steve Gale, who boats of 30 years piloting. Our time on the river would teach us there was more to these men than an uncanny ability to steer boats through waves to give the most thrilling ride with the least danger possible.

“Wayne is the Cadillac of this industry,” Gale told the Mainichi. “If there is some improvement that can be made, or something that can be done better, Wayne will do it.”

Something Johnson couldn’t possibly have improved on was the magnificent scenery. Steep canyon walls provided a guard of honor throughout most of our trip, usually covered with a variety of conifers, rough tufts of grass, but occasionally punctuated with craggy outcrops and huge slabs of sedimentary rock that had burst through the earth’s crust.

Meandering of the river filled the eyes with one glorious sight of canyon after another every time we rounded a bend.

Toward the end of the trip, there were more cabins set up by the handful of settlers along the Salmon with features such as wide meadows dotted with wildflowers, almost vertical airplane landing strips and, in a place once owned by a mountain man called Buckskin Bill, a shop, museum and incredible fortress the hermit had built with the intention of making a last stand if the government ever came to take his land off him.

We traveled in a group of four inflatable boats. Our sweep supply boat contained everything we needed for the trip, from the luggage of individual travelers, food and drinks, tents and the added amenities such as chairs that made life in the wilderness a little more bearable for us white-collar travelers “roughing it” for under a week. One of the guides maintained this boat and kept an eye on the other craft. Passengers on this craft were almost guaranteed to stay high and dry and were not required to make any effort to propel the boat, making it ideal for older or extremely young rafters

There was also a paddle boat that seats up to six passengers with the guide piloting the craft from the very rear. This boat proved very stable, easily traversing most waves but prone to the occasional full frontal attack that could send a wall of water washing over the top of all on board, particularly the pair sitting at the bow.

Finally, there were two blow-up kayaks, which were lower to the water surface than any of the other craft and thus gave the most thrilling ride of all, but were also the most likely to dump their riders, as I experienced more than anybody else on the trip, falling out nearly every time I tried my hand in the vessels. It must be said that I am notoriously clumsy and few of the other travelers suffered the same fate, with nobody hurt when they did go in the drink, thanks largely to our lifejackets, which we were ordered to wear every time we went on the water.

One of the highlights of the trip was climbing halfway up the side of the canyon to soak in The Bath, the name given to a hot spring pool.

Climbing up the mountain required care, but was not difficult and nearly anybody could make it to the spring in a couple of minutes. The rewards for the effort put into the ascent were tremendous, bathing in a pool offering respite from the little aches and pains built up wielding a paddle and gaining glorious views of the unblemished landscape at both ends of the canyon.

Gale carried up cold drinks for all and the soothing soak provided wonderful respite from the grueling exertions we had put in on the water to get there. Never has a diet cola tasted so sweet as when my eyes soaked in the earthy browns and reds of the canyon and the steaming water took the sting out of my sunburn.

It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that our guides had provided us with an incredible taste sensation during the journey.

Johnson and Gale had already been working hard from even before our trip had started, packing the supply boat in anticipation of our departure. They barely seemed to stop working until the trip was finally over.

Most obvious fruits of their labor were the excellent instructions they gave while rafting, telling us when to stroke harder, when we could rest and then actually piloting the boats through the rapids. And their cooking was sublime! Despite being in the wilderness with settled towns hundreds of kilometers away in any direction, Johnson and Gale managed to conjure up an amazing array of culinary delights so irresistible any dietary effects of paddling a raft all day were almost eliminated.

As well as providing food and beverages of an unbelievable variety available at any time of the day, main meals were exquisite. Gale cooked up a delightful pork roast basted in beer that left the meat so tender and tasty it almost melted in the mouth. Other meals included salmon, chicken teriyaki and juicy steaks so thick and large it was almost as though an entire cow how been devoted to our meal.

Desserts were also sublime, including a chocolate mousse covered in hand-whipped fresh cream, cheesecake soaked in a tangy cherry sauce and, the most elaborate of all came on Independence Day with a gorgeous cake decorated in the form of the U.S. national flag, with cream forming the background and the Stars and Stripes formed by strawberries and blueberries.

Nights were spent gathered around a campfire, with Johnson and Gale taking turns to regale travelers with stories about characters who had lived on the Salmon River, paying particular attention to women. Johnson, in his deep, rambling Southern accent reflecting his Alabama roots told us of the exploits of:

  • Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman sold into slavery who later married a man who “won” her in a poker game then spent decades living together beside the Salmon;
  • Francis Wisner, who for 40 years wrote a newspaper column about life on the river; and,

Incredible Reho Wolfe, who in the 1950s was unhappy with the standard of public education so took her seven children into the wilderness and raised and educated them single-handedly despite scandalizing respectable society and fighting a government charge of causing her children to become delinquents.

Both guides are also accomplished poets and we were treated to readings of their favorite poets, as well as their own works.

As the campfire died down and only embers remained, travelers returned to their tents or set up their sleeping bag under the stars, as I choose to do in light of the mild summer weather. I was rewarded when nature turned on a fantastic light show of a quality way superior to even the most amazing display, with the Milky Way coming into ever clearer view as the night progressed, the gentle light of the moon giving the landscape a silver tinge and spy satellites and shooting stars streaming across the sky. The flowing river provided the soundtrack for this symphony of the senses.

Wildlife was also a feature of the trip, with deer, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, marmots, snakes, eagles and osprey among our companions down the river. Animal sightings during April trips are apparently even more spectacular, particularly elk, which Johnson said come out in their droves, but proved much shier under the hotter summer sun.

One deer in particular endeared itself to our group. Initially passing along the outskirts of the campsite, the young stag grew increasingly bolder as it eyed the humans invading its territory. It would disappear up the mountain only to reappear minutes later. It finally settled for hours behind a large plastic sheet set up to provide privacy for those using our camp toilet, apparently so it could lick up the salt from urine. It would scamper away whenever anybody went to use the comfort station, then gaze at them while they went about their business and moved in once again when they had finished.

Later, one of the travelers spotted a black bear gathering berries not 50 meters away from our camp. A wave of trepidation swept through the camp, but was soon dissipated by the nonchalant guides who ignored the ursine invader as they remained intently focused on preparing our banquet. The bear eventually waddled off across the mountainside after it finished its own feast.

On the penultimate day of our trip, a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep would munch away on grass as I stood just 5 meters away from them in a meadow at the Reho Wolfe cabin and watched them, fascinated, for minutes before my presence scared them off.

With the end of the paddling stage of our odyssey came the final stage of the trek with a trip back upstream by jet boat. Hurtling along the Salmon River was certainly thrilling, particularly as we all saw for the first time exactly how big the rapids we had been traversing really were with the high-powered craft tossed from side to side as it ground its way through them.

After the best part of the week on the river, it was with great delight as the boat arrived to let us off and complete the journey.

Going through my head was the warning Gale had issued at the start of our trip.

“Never get too cocky,” the guide told us. “Always respect the river.”

Perhaps his words had not penetrated far enough, however, as my huge step off the deck completely missed the floating dock. I was back where I started – flapping my arms around in the icy waters of the Salmon River when I was supposed to be on a boat!

Copyright © 2005 Wild West Adventures, Inc.