The Heart of Idaho
My hands were curled over the sides of the Frisbee, held over the top of my head while small pieces of hail hit the tops of my fingers. I looked across from me at another rafter, Drew, who had a bucket over his head. We both broke into simultaneous laughter at the sight of the other person, squinting through the hail storm and looking up to the sky. The weather had unleashed a summer squall but every boat behind us was hooting and hollering, too. It was only temporary and as soon as it broke, the storm magnified the colors on all of the canyon walls. I caught myself jaw-dropped as we floated around pinched corners, each landscape more magnificent than the last.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River has always been on the top of my bucket list—and for good reason, too. As one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states, access is virtually non-existent unless you’re traveling by boat, plane, or by foot. The wait-list for a permit to visit this place is a long one and I felt acutely aware of what a privilege it was to be there.
My work as an adventure photographer has taken me around the world but whenever someone asks me what my favorite place is, I always say the West. My most cherished destinations are the ones that require a commitment to get to; the ones that you have to work harder to intimately know. I love the places that require peeling back the layers until you get to the core of the landscape and the Salmon River is just that: it’s the heart of Idaho…
Our adventure started immediately, as the river was too high to put in at the original drop point. By flying in, we traded the first 25 river miles for some of the most beautiful panoramic views from up in the sky.
Our bright red Kodiak plane banked right and the valley opened up out my window to a view of the Salmon River snaking its way through layers of green and blue canyons. I could hear the five others in the plane gasping at the sight of what was below us. As I pressed my face to the window, I stared with amazement at the country we were about to explore.
Have you ever fallen in love with a place immediately when you saw it? I fell in love with the Frank Church Wilderness that day, right then and there, and we hadn’t even launched our boats yet.
Flowing for 425 miles, the Salmon is one of the largest undammed rivers and sits in one of the biggest roadless areas in the United States. Important things exist in roadless areas, as it operates as the ecosystem has for years and years. We heard trees fall in wind storms, their roots snapping and echoing off canyon walls miles down river and we watched as golden eagles circled above us, hunting for prey. I’ve found that when you visit these areas, it takes you back in time to a world that simply doesn’t exist for us in our immediate, daily lives. Small details become highlights and the day is guided by three meals and the Milky Way splayed out above you in your sleeping bag.
When the planes landed, we gathered up our possessions, packed into two large dry bags, and handed them to the guides. I gazed at my two duffels, compressed into their smallest position and smiled, seeing the simplicity of what I needed for the week packed into those bags. My phone was buried under layers in my stuff sack, and part of me untensed when I remembered that I wouldn’t touch it for six full days.
Our first campsite was nestled under a cliff band, dotted with fields of Ponderosa pines. It was quiet, golden light as I took a walk that evening to explore before dinner. I sat and watched a line of ants carry food across a log for minutes, amazed at the strength and teamwork of such tiny creatures. That afternoon when we landed on shore, the beach was full of swallowtail butterflies, dancing around our heads and gear. I pitched my tent as close as I could to the rocky bank, which echoed water across rocks and root systems, lulling me to sleep quickly and easily.
Our days went by one by one, punctuated with memories that will last a lifetime. One night in camp, a beautiful lightning storm lit up the sky and a group sat on lawn chairs in the sand, cheering every time a flash zipped across the horizon. On another day, we sat in camp and listened to a guide, Jeffe, playing guitar and singing songs while we ate dinner. A few songs that we all knew, we sang along at the top of our lungs and all laughed and clapped when it was over. One of my favorite moments was a hike to a waterfall, where we were encouraged to sit silently for one hour to think about the magic of this place. All thirty of us on the trip watched quietly while water hit the ground through two hundred feet of air.
Throughout the week we learned about the Shoshone tribe, commonly referred to as the Sheepeaters. Our guides had pointed out pit houses they had used and there was a hum of lives that existed long before ours everywhere we looked. We found pictographs of hunting scenes, paintings of stories and families that lived off of the land. We had even come across an obsidian arrowhead tip on a hike. The closest obsidian was miles from the Salmon River in Oregon, but it was just an example of old Native American trade routes. We passed it around the group in amazement before laying it reverently down where we found it.
On one of our hikes, one of our guides and I were talking about his first river he had ever been down. I wanted to know what it was about the trip that was so powerful that it made him consider river guiding as a career. He listed the things that he loved about it and then explained carefully that the river did not exist anymore.
“It’s a dam now.”
I fell silent.
“I’ve seen so many rivers disappear in my day,” he added.
We hiked silently together. I had never thought about the idea that something like a river could disappear.
What happens to a place when it doesn’t exist anymore? I’ve always thought that everything is connected; that when you pull a string you pull the whole rope.
I started to think about the Salmon River and how it was a time capsule for multiple Native American tribes and hundreds of people that had walked these same hills, watching animals on their game trails and living by the land. The thrill of the wilderness for me was the idea that I might have been the first person to stand in a spot. I like to let my imagination create the person who last held that arrowhead and whether it flew through the air towards creating subsistence for a family or was dropped while on horseback. The beauty of this is that we won’t ever know. The curiosity of the wilderness pulls me forward into peeking around more hillsides and watching for any sign of life around me. There is an intrinsic beauty in the ruggedness of this place.
We had walked past piles of wolf scat and watched a black bear perched on a cliff, sniffing the air as we floated past. A bighorn sheep herd ran across the cliffs in front of us, their muscular shoulders bracing their bodies as each one dropped off rocks in a staggering pattern, including the babies. It was almost like they had velcro on their hooves.
It’s hard to know why it’s worth protecting something until you know what exists there.
In 1968, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River was designated a Wild and Scenic River through the work of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Frank Church. Through this act, we as a country decided that this river was worth holding onto for the benefit of all people. President Johnson knew what it meant to look up at the sky and realize that we are just a tiny speck on the ground. Senator Church knew that seeing an eagle in its natural habitat was spectacular and wild. Protecting these places should not be a choice. Our public land is an important resource to those of us who both recreate or base our livelihoods off of it. It’s an important logbook to a generation that has yet to see it. It’s a living museum of what came long before us, and something that will preserve history and geology and culture long after we are gone.
Shouldn’t we honor that?
This essay was originally created for O.A.R.S.’ Adventures catalog. For more compelling stories from other renowned writers, request your copy today!
Photos: Becca Skinner & Justin Bailie