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Tuesday, November 12, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Coming of age on the Salmon River

By William Brock For The Spokesman-Review

The Old Canoeist was a much younger man the last time he did a big river trip in a solo boat, so he had his doubts about paddling an 81-mile wilderness stretch of the Salmon River earlier this month.

There were plenty of reasons to back out, but there was one undeniable reason to go: Because he still can.

Even so, doubts nagged at him.

For one thing, there was the name. The Salmon is widely known as the River of No Return, which is unsettling for a guy in his 60s. It has an unmistakable ring of finality.

For another thing, there was the boat. Actually, there wasn’t a boat, because the Old Canoeist had recently given away his solo whitewater boat. All that was left in the boathouse was a 21-year-old recreational canoe that doesn’t get much use.

No saddle, just a suspended cane seat. No thigh straps, just a pair of foam kneeling blocks. No flared bow to shunt water away, and not much rocker for making sharp turns in busy water.

The old boat’s last big voyage was down the Lower Salmon, from Hammer Creek to Heller Bar, significantly easier than the wilderness section farther upstream.

It was at least 13 years ago, but the Lower Salmon trip had gone pretty well. That’s because the Old Canoeist had dragooned his old friend, Gail Ater, into rowing a small cataraft with all their gear.

So the Old Canoeist chummed Ater in again, this time with a Sept. 8 launch date on the Main Salmon.

A mighty river, wild and free

Born in southern Idaho, near the north side of Galena Pass, the Salmon River flows north through Stanley before looping north and east to the city of Salmon, and then on to the hamlet of North Fork.

From North Fork, the river makes a headlong charge to the west and the city of Riggins.

In so doing, the Salmon effectively cleaves the state in two – with North Idaho on the right bank, and southern Idaho on the left bank. It flows through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Gospel Hump Wilderness before its confluence with the Snake River, nearly 50 miles upstream of Lewiston.

At 425 miles, the Salmon is the longest river contained entirely in one state. And it has no dams, anywhere.

To reach the launch site at Corn Creek, Ater and the Old Canoeist drove to Missoula, then turned south, up the Bitterroot Valley. They crested Lost Trail Pass, rolled down into Idaho, and finally reached the Salmon at North Fork. From there, they drove 47 miles downriver to the end of the road at Corn Creek.

The boat ramp was a busy place when Ater and the Old Canoeist arrived. The control season, when float permits are distributed by lottery, had just ended, so the ramp was aswirl with boaters planning to launch the next day – the first day after the control season.

The cheerful U.S. Forest Service employee at Corn Creek noted that only eight parties per day are allowed to launch during the control season, but 24 parties were rigged up and rarin’ to go on Sept. 8.

With so many people launching the same day, Ater and the Old Canoeist rose early and hit the water before anyone else. They were the thin end of the wedge, traveling light and fast, and they were never overtaken by another party.

A happy anniversary to you, too

At Mile 5, they passed an older couple with a single raft, camped on a high sand bar on river right. The woman bent her steps down to the water to offer a greeting.

“We launched five days ago, at Spring Creek, and we’re going to take 18 days to go all the way to Asotin, Washington,” she said brightly.

“And today is our 57th wedding anniversary!”

The Old Canoeist tipped his hat and made a secret vow to do likewise on his 57th anniversary, if he lives that long, which isn’t likely.

As the day progressed, the sky turned a mottled, fish-belly gray and the wind began to howl.

Conditions were grim when the Old Canoeist reached the first significant rapid at Mile 9. There are tougher rapids on the wilderness section of the Salmon, but Alder Creek is the only place where things went wrong.

Skirting heavy water in the middle, the Old Canoeist ran a line down the left – crashing through a standing wave and taking on a sudden bathtub’s worth of water. The canoe began to wallow, but things were manageable until the boat blundered into a corkscrew wave that delivered a sharp, twisting jolt.

With the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the left side of the canoe plunged and the right side climbed out of the water. The Old Canoeist scrambled to throw his weight over the starboard gunwale, high-siding for all he was worth, but it was too little, too late.

Gravity, coupled with some bad momentum, finally tumbled the Old Canoeist into the Salmon River.

Fortunately, the water wasn’t cold, Alder Creek Rapid was over, and the boat was still close at hand. The Old Canoeist rolled his craft upright, then calmly swam it to shore, bailed it out, and climbed back in.

The incident was over in moments, but it left the Old Canoeist with lingering doubts. “Am I really up to this?”

He got his answer 12 miles later, when he ran the toughest drop of the trip in fine style. At that point, it dawned on him that he hadn’t felt so alive – so alive! – in years. Scouting Black Creek Rapid, identifying the key landmarks, kneeling low and paddling for power, then hitting his line perfectly! Yes!

As they say in Colombia, when you dance with the Devil, you’ve got to know the steps. Somewhere in the maelstrom of Black Creek, the Old Canoeist discovered he still had a few salsa moves left.

A change in the weather

The weather worsened as the first day wore on, so Ater and the Old Canoeist finally stopped to camp in a cold, driving rain at Mile 26. Foggy thinking, fumble fingered, and fading fast, the pair was teetering toward hypothermia.

It was time to get a tarp up, fast, without any mistakes. When the poles were secured with double guy lines and the windward edges staked down, it was finally time to scuttle underneath, change into dry clothes, and start warming up.

In the end, it wasn’t bad – but it could have been.

Morning brought no respite from the weather and a deep test of fortitude: Should they pack up a wet camp and launch in the rain? Or should they declare a layover day, linger under the tarp, and drink coffee all day?

Opting to pack up and go, they struck camp in short order and were on the water by 9:15 a.m.

Shortly before noon, the Old Canoeist eddied out near Mile 37, just upstream of the Main Salmon’s most storied rapid – Big Mallard. A lot of other boaters were there, too, scouting their line and cheering as paddlers, one by one, peeled out of the eddy and purposefully set out to meet their fate.

Though there’s some minor upstream business, the heart of Big Mallard is a huge rock that’s pretty close to the left bank. There’s plenty of river flowing around the right side of the rock, but most of the water pushes through the narrow gap on the left.

All that water creates big hydraulics that the Old Canoeist was keen to avoid. With a relatively fast, lightweight boat under him, he figured he could outmuscle the current and build enough speed to carry around the right side of the rock.

Turns out, he figured wrong.

Just as he began winding up for a hard pull to the right, the Old Canoeist crashed through a standing wave and, again, the boat suddenly accumulated a large, unexpected slug of water.

All momentum was lost, as was any hope of steering the wallowing craft.

With no other viable option, the Old Canoeist calmly switched to Plan B. He allowed the current to push him left, into the gap between the rocky bank and the big rock itself. He made it past the rock without much problem, then braced for the huge hits at the bottom.

The canoe, now completely awash, plowed through the downstream holes like a dreadnought. The water inside began sloshing back and forth, which is usually a prelude to capsizing, but the Old Canoeist steadied the ship and charted a course for calmer water. Once clear of the tail waters, he wielded a bailing bucket with manic intensity.

As if on cue, the weather began to worsen, but Ater and the Old Canoeist didn’t mind. Bright sun and blue skies are always a favorite, but the Salmon River has many moods. Wispy gray clouds threading their way in and out of side canyons, coupled with the earthy smell of rain, also have their charms.

Impromptu lifeguard drill

Though they could have pressed on, Ater and the Old Canoeist chose to end their second day at Mile 49. They landed at a steep beach, pulled the canoe out of the water, and dragged as much of the cataraft ashore as possible.

Though it wasn’t raining, they scurried to set up a tarp on a high bar. After a few minutes, the Old Canoeist turned to the river and made a horrifying discovery.

The cataraft was floating away.

That’s right, the boat with all their food, all their clothes, and all of everything else, was 20 yards offshore and picking up speed.

Guided by his reptilian brain, the Old Canoeist galloped down to the beach, pushed his canoe into the water on a dead run, jumped aboard, and swiftly caught up to the cataraft. Then he clambered aboard, wrapped the bow painter from his canoe around an oarlock, and began heaving at the oars to claw his way back upstream.

Disaster, averted.

Finding one’s place in the world

Though its whitewater is exhilarating, the Salmon River’s greatest asset is the peace and tranquility of truly wild country. It is an evocative, elemental place that has lured dreamers and loners for generations.

Even today, it affords a glimpse of the Northwest as it used to be.

In its calmest moments, the Salmon is mirror smooth, reflecting heaven and earth with flawless clarity. In its wildest rapids, the awesome forces of nature are laid bare.

For human visitors, the river is a place where friendships flourish and bonds grow stronger.

Ater and the Old Canoeist have known each other for decades, but on the Salmon they often went for hours without talking. Two old friends, alone with their thoughts, but they were a tight, efficient team when there was work to do.

Less than an hour after launching on Day 3, the pair stopped for a visit at Five Mile Bar. The leafy, inviting homestead is widely known as Buckskin Bill’s place, and thereby hangs a colorful tale.

Sylvan Hart – aka Buckskin Bill – settled at Five Mile Bar during the Great Depression. He was the original Idaho survivalist who made his own firearms and favored the sort of headgear worn by Spanish conquistadors. By all accounts, he was quite a character.

Buckskin Bill died nearly 40 years ago, and a low-key German couple lives there now. They got married this summer and Ater, who lives 33 miles downstream, wanted to offer his congratulations.

It was early in the day, and the little museum/curio shop wasn’t open. After a few minutes, a woman made her way over from the house to open up the shop.

She said she’d grown up in Berlin, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, but she has lived at Five Mile Bar – deep in the wilderness, with no roads, phones, or services of any kind – for the past 35 years.

“I go out once a year,” she said, “but it’s mainly just to buy supplies for the store.”

Some people are lucky enough to know where they belong. She is one of them.

The rest of us are still looking.

No hurry to finish

There’s a lot of slack water between Five Mile Bar and the take-out ramp at Carey Creek. Boaters must apply muscle to paddle to make any headway, so there’s plenty of time to look up and savor the sights of Salmon River country.

Bald eagles patrol the heavens, and the steep, grassy hillsides are strewn with ragged cliffs. Bands of bighorn sheep browse unconcernedly near the water. Here and there, stands of majestic ponderosa pine – the signature tree of Salmon River country – hem the shoreline.

Then there’s the river itself, clear as bootleg gin in the shallows before turning emerald green in deeper pools.

Constantly on the move, ever restless, the river produces its own soundtrack – sibilant and soothing most of the time, but loud and ominous in the major rapids. At night, it is the white noise that lulls weary paddlers to sleep. In the morning, it is the gentle alarm clock that eases them awake.

On the Salmon, all hearts beat with the pulse of the river.

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