A float down Idaho's Salmon River can be both relaxing and exciting
A unique experience awaits anyone wanting to explore some of the most remote and rugged areas of the country
The roaring sound of big rapids around a bend in the river always gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing. And there were plenty of opportunities for that on a six-day float trip my wife and I recently took down the wild and scenic Salmon River in Idaho.
Fourteen of us shoved off from Corn Creek in five rafts and four kayaks and headed out into the strong current. The feelings of adventure, relaxation and anticipation filled me as I looked up at the steep canyon walls. I thought of the journey ahead. Carey Creek, our destination, lay 81 miles downriver.
Along its path, the river borders three wilderness areas – the Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump and Frank Church River of No Return, the latter being the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48. Theres evidence of wildfires along most of the river. At Corn Creek a massive forest fire, caused by an unattended campfire, went through the area in 1961, burning almost 18,000 acres.
It didnt take long to hit our first set of whitewater. No sooner were we on the river when the word went around, Coming up is Killum Rapids. When I asked where the name originated from, I expected an answer something like, If boaters dont know what theyre doin, these rapids will kill em. When I heard that the rapids were named after the Jack Killum family who lived nearby in the 1930s, I eased my grip on the side rope and we all made it through without any mishaps.
As a matter of fact, all the boaters in our group were so experienced on the oars and paddles that none of us were ever concerned about going through any of the rapids we encountered. The river was a lot higher than the first time I floated it back in September 2002.
The rapids I remember most are Black Creek, Gunbarrel, Devils Teeth, Split Rock, Dried Meat, Big Mallard, Elkhorn, Whiplash and Growler. Some of the names alone can be a harrowing experience to those unfamiliar with the river.
The biggest rapid was Black Creek, which formed only two years ago when the drainage blew out from a heavy thunderstorm. Theres a big drop followed by huge waves that pound you from both sides.
At a few places along the river we stopped to look at Native American pictographs drawn hundreds of years ago on the rocks. Their true meaning is anyones guess, but its fun guessing.
The Salmon is probably one of the most underrated rivers in the country. Even in low water, there is still some big water on the river for people to enjoy. Water temperature in the summer can be 65 to 75 degrees. There are big rolling waves but nothing too overwhelming for most folks.
One highlight was Buckskin Bills place at Fivemile Bar. Buckskin Bill (Sylvan Ambrose Hart) lived at the site for many years and is best known for his craftsmanship of tools, cooking utensils and guns. He built a stone fortress on the site in the event of World War III.
Bears can be seen on almost every trip, especially in the fall. We spotted three, two not far from the river and one about a mile away on a steep hillside. River otters, moose, deer and eagles make occasional appearances. Bighorn sheep are a given on all trips and even a mountain goat can be spotted. In April and May, expect to see 500 to 1,000 head of elk.
We had some hot weather on our trip and took occasional dips in the river to cool off. We stopped at Shepp Ranch and were served some ice cold lemonade. Back in 2002 this was the end of our river trip. We stayed overnight at the ranch and flew out from the primitive airstrip the next morning.
That was a memorable experience. The airstrip is 2,000-foot long and known as one of the best on the river. With dirt, gravel, bumps, humps and curves, its not OHare International, but I hoped it would be enough for our small plane.
We were assured that wed be airborne before we hit the curve and hump. After packing up the plane, we taxied to the back of the runway and the pilot gave it the gas. When we passed over the hump and around the curve and still werent airborne, with the river coming up fast, I began thinking about why the Salmon is called The River of No Return. It also crossed my mind that it was Friday the 13th.
However, the pilot was a pro and we took off with no problem, banking sharply upriver to the left. We followed the river for a while until the plane could clear the rim of the deep canyon.
On our latest trip we floated another 15 miles downriver to Carey Creek. That 2002 trip was a lodge trip where we stayed in a different lodge every night and were served home-cooked meals for dinner and breakfast, slept in real beds and got real showers.
The meals on this trip were comparable to those of 2002. Each couple was in charge of one dinner and one breakfast. Camp was usually on a big sandy bench. I cant complain too much about tent camping, although the ground does seem to be getting a bit harder as I get older – must be a geological thing.
About 200 years ago, this section of river turned back Lewis and Clark. Nows the chance to see for yourself what these early explorers missed.
Salmon River information
Known as The River of No Return, the Salmon River is the longest free flowing river (425 miles) within one state in the Lower 48. It originates in the Sawtooth and Lemhi valleys of central and eastern Idaho.
The Salmon flows through a vast wilderness in the second deepest gorge on the continent. Only the Snake River (Hells Canyon) is deeper. The Salmons granite-walled canyon is one-fifth of a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon. The canyon itself was formed 35 to 45 million years ago. Congress designated 46 miles of the river, from North Fork to Corn Creek, as a recreational river and 79 miles, from Corn Creek to Long Tom Bar, as a wild river.
The river drops about 1,910 feet in 151 miles (North Fork to Riggins) or about 12 feet per mile. In comparison, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon drops eight feet per mile.