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Daring the Rapids that Daunted Lewis and Clark by: Travis Scott
Running the Salmon "...with
canoes is entirely impossible, as the water is Confined between
huge Rocks & the current beeting from one against the other for
some distance below... running them would certainly be
productive of the loss of Some Canoes." Pushing off from the
Corn Creek boat ramp, the words Captain Clark wrote on August
23, 1805 as he looked down on the Main Salmon come back to me.
Lewis and Clark opted for a land route rather than face the
rapids and difficult portages of the Salmon, but it is the
challenge of these rapids that brings us here.
The Main Salmon runs through
the heart of the 3.2 million acre Frank Church River of No
Return Wilderness Area in central Idaho, and has long been
popular with rafters. Open canoes are becoming a more common
sight in this impressive canyon.
Paddlers from across the U.S.
are coming to follow parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail, and to
test their skills against the river that turned back the Corps
The 80-mile wilderness section of the
Salmon begins at Corn Creek, 2 1/2 hours north of Salmon, Idaho, at the
end of 40 miles of wash-boarded dirt road. From the beginning, the
Salmon is a classic big water western river. The rapids are class III
with big waves and holes, but plenty of room to maneuver and lots of
recovery time after each one.
The historic cabins,
dilapidated orchards, and twisted metal of old mines give me the
feeling I am traveling back in time as I drift down river.
can almost see the hundreds of dusty miners buying supplies (and
moonshine) at Jim Moore's place as they wait to cross the river
at Cambell's Ferry near the turn of the century. At Legend
Creek, not far from the put in, we stop to see the pictographs
left by the Nez Perce, the tribe that was so instrumental in the
success and survival of Lewis and Clark.
The Nez Perce were drawn to the Salmon
each summer by the tremendous runs of red fish that give the river its
name. Unfortunately, these runs have dwindled to a mere handful. Four
damns on the Lower Snake prevent salmon smolt from being swept to the
ocean in the rush of high water roaring off Idaho's snow-packed
mountains every spring. Efforts are being made to remove these damns,
but progress is slow and a solution may come too late for these majestic
Great hikes abound along the
river. We climb up Thirsty Ridge (bring a camel-back) for a
wonderful view of the canyon and the mountains retreating in the
distance. The flowers are mostly gone now, but in the spring a
mosaic of lupine, arrow-leaf balsa root, and Indian paintbrush
covers this ridge.
We don't stop to fish Sabe Creek on this
trip, but its cool waters and boulder-filled pools are prime
habitat for cutthroat and rainbow trout that can be deceived by
a royal wolf or grasshopper.
No trip down the Main Salmon is
complete without a stop at Barth hot springs. The water is a perfect
temperature, and since the pool was enlarged years ago by unnamed
locals, there is easily enough room for our group of twelve. As we
soak, a cinnamon black bear strolls along the far bank, causing a wild
scramble for cameras. He pulls down a branch loaded with elderberries
and strips it through his teeth before disappearing into the brush.
Just downstream of the pool, more
scalding hot water emerges from the rocks. During low water, the names
of early boatmen and miners like Johnny McKay are visible, carved into
the black rocks almost 100 years ago. Before the pool was constructed
(and before self-bailers), many rafters would de-rig their boats here
and turn them into hot tubs. Mixing the hot water with river water
produced just the right temperature.
Taking rafts along to haul
gear makes the canoes lighter and more fun in the rapids. With
nylon tents, fleece jackets, and coolers full of fresh food,
modern day canoeists travel in style.
Instead of hard tack and
stale biscuits, they feast on steak, pancakes and eggs, lots of
fresh fruits and veggies, and hot desserts baked in Dutch
Ovens. Lewis and Clark would be jealous of the comfort these
campers enjoy on a river the famous explorers never got to see.
Clark's predictions did not come
true. The Salmon seems very reasonable to us now that the limits of
boating have been pushed so far, but before climbing in the Suburban for
the long shuttle, I pause to remember a time when the Salmon was an
impassible obstacle to our country's greatest explorers. Having just
run canoes down a river that Lewis and Clark knew only by reputation is
some tiny consolation for being born to late to join the Corps of
Discovery on their epic journey. 'My guide and maney other Indians tell
me that the Mountains Close and is a perpendicular Clift on each side...
those rapids which I had Seen he said was Small & trifleing in
comparison to the rocks & rapids below,' Captain Clark, August 23, 1805.
There are many outfitters and guides
for this river. These offer one, two, and three day trips and can be
contacted through the Idaho Outfitters and Guides website at:
For the adventurous souls who want to
push on where Lewis and Clark turned back, Wilderness River Outfitters
and a few other guiding companies, offer 6-day trips on the Main Salmon
all summer long and can offer canoe or kayak support. They will be
offering a special canoe-kayak trip on the Main Salmon, August 25-31 (7
days). This trip will have a certified instructor along to answer
questions and help improve paddling skills. Space is limited and
reservations can be made by calling 1-800-252-6581. You can also find
more information online at
For comparison shopping on these longer trips, check
the Idaho Outfitters and guides website which is linked above.