River Time… A magical clock that only knows two times a day: Sunrise and Sunset. There are few worries and ample time in the day to pursue what you will. Often, my will is to read a book written about the river I’m presently floating. Why is this creek named Silge Creek? Who lived on this homestead along the Snake River? I wonder what the winters are like here, near the Selway? Answering these questions can place me in deeper connection with my surroundings and make for a memorable trip. Here are a few of my favorites:
Main Salmon River / Lower Salmon River
“River of No Return” is a mile-by-mile guide spanning 407 river miles, starting above Stanley Idaho, and concluding at the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers. Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley share the fruits of their exhaustive research into the history of the river, and those who shaped it. The sense of place it gives the reader is unmatched. Here is one example from the text that makes the story of the river come alive:
Mile 259.2: Silge Creek on the left. Fred Silge was a highly educated German musician, who had played in some of the cathedrals of his homeland. In his late teens, he was brought to America by his father so he would not be drafted by the German army. Fred never spoke about the past, or his reasons for coming to the canyon, but he did play music for his friends in his cabin. He ran Campbell’s Ferry for several seasons, then drowned in the river when a cable was hooked by a snag on high water.”
BONUS: “Thousand Pieces of Gold” by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
Middle Fork of the Salmon River
“An Innocent on the Middle Fork” is a personal memoir by Eliot DuBois. It chronicles the first solo trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Not only did he accomplish it first, he attempted it in June of 1942 (high water), while paddling a fragile folding kayak. He begins telling his story as he puts in to raft down the same river in 1982:
I had challenged the rapids of the Middle Fork once before. That was forty years earlier, when no more than five or six people ran the river each year. At that time there was no road to Boundary Creek, and I had passed this spot at the beginning of my third day.”
This humbling book offers a snapshot of this wild river and portraits of the wild people who called it home. It will make you want to go out in your garage, kiss your late 80’s model Avon, and put another coat of paint on your heavy wooden frame.
BONUS: “The Middle Fork: A Guide” by Cort Conley
Mari Sandoz from the New York Herald Tribune reviewed “Home Below Hell’s Canyon” on April 4th, 1954. There is no possible way I could hope to match her description, so I’m just going to leave this here…
In this book a governor’s lady has written about the years when she was a sheepman’s wife just below the mile-deep Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River, and for this reviewer, at least, it would be difficult to make life in the executive mansion at Boise half as interesting of meaningful as there among the rock walls and the rattlesnakes.”
“In early 1933 Grace Jordan took her three children, the youngest seven months, up to the dangerous Snake canyon on a sixteen-hour run of the little river packet that might be swamped any moment by the whitewater or stove in by the rocks. The depression had forced Len Jordan and his family out of their own ranch and after a final bank failure his wife was left with a bare gift of $25 in her pocket. So there was only the very remote and unpromising little sheep camp they and a partner would try to pay for, and against all advice Grace Jordan took her small children to the only roof that was left.”
“…The few remote neighbors, mostly outside the canyon were the usual characters: some dangerous, some foolish, some very solid and genuine. But all were subject to the violence of the wilderness. The Jordans with the rest. The mother taught her schoolless children, pack-horsed them to the range at lambing or shearing time, stuck it out alone in the canyon when a murderer was loose and nursed her very sick baby there beyond the doctor’s reach while her husband was critically ill with typhoid on the outside.”
BONUS: “Snake River in Hell’s Canyon” by John Carrey, Cort Conley, and Ace Barton
The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, encompassing 1.3 million acres, is a wild and solitary place. Several times in my childhood, a small Cessna would fly my father, brother, and me into Paradise landing strip on the Selway River. From there, we embarked on late summer, self contained, inflatable kayak trips for four days. The land was so remote the only other person we saw on these trips was naked, and carelessly wandering through the forest next to the water. We may have seen others, but for some reason, that’s the only one I remember…
It was in this far removed place where Pete Fromm decided to take a job from the National Parks Service, in 1990, to protect salmon eggs through the winter months. He was to live alone in a wall tent and personally provide everything for his sustenance and survival. He wrote about his winter in, “The Indian Creek Chronicles.” His obsession with the “Mountain Man” gave him great inspiration, yet little practical knowledge for this daunting task. Here is a quote from the book that demonstrates this perfectly:
At the last instant I remembered to buy a percolator and a few pots and pans, things I’d never owned or used. And finally I added a hundred pounds of potatoes, saying I’d dig a food cache to keep them from freezing. I didn’t really have any idea how to make such a thing, but the word “cache” was always creeping up in the mountain man books. It had a certain sound to it.”
This book is hilarious, concerning and an enlightening true story about winter in a place most of us only enjoy in the warm summer months.
While you are whitewater rafting along the wild and scenic rivers of Idaho, Central Idaho River Shuttle drivers are floating down the asphalt streams that are the network of Idaho’s state highways. While the roads are filled with as many perils as the river, we do get to look out the window every once and a while to enjoy the natural beauty of it all. That’s why the last book is never far from me.
“Idaho for the Curious: A Guide” is a 700 page highway guide that every Idahoan can enjoy. It is chalk full of mile-by-mile bite size history that enriches any drive (when read before the trip, of course). Here is an example of the description for the road to Boundary Creek ( the put-in for the Middle Fork of the Salmon River):
The gravel road, through Bear Valley, flows across the meadows of wildflowers twenty-three miles to the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, a National Wild River.”
“The road to Dagger Falls was cleared in 1958-1959 for construction crew access to a fish ladder built along the edge of the falls. Though salmon had migrated up the Middle Fork to Bear Valley for over a thousand years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services decided the fifteen-foot drop at the falls was an obstacle to fish migration, and spent $181,000 to “improve” the passage. Army Corp of Engineer and Bureau of Reclamation dams, which are an obstacle to fish migration on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, have devastated the Chinook salmon runs, but sometimes in early July it is still possible to see an occasional salmon lunging homeward up the falls, back from years at sea and an 800-mile journey up four rivers.”
River Time is Reading Time. Hopefully, these texts will answer almost as many questions as they raise, while you float… ponder… and check the clock for sunset.