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River Time


Middle Fork, Salmon River. Idaho.

What makes time on a river so special? Most often it is that combination of good friends, wonderful meals, campsites on sand beaches, wildlife along the shore, the slow, strong pull of oars through the water, the exhilaration of rapids and flow, and the serenity of distant mountains, meandering currents, and swirling eddy lines.

Moving downstream! Middle Fork, Idaho.

For the past week, Stephanie and I experienced all of that and more on a seven day, six night trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Throw in a wedding, being introduced to a dozen new lifelong friends, ninety-eight miles of wilderness solitude, and you have memories that will never fade.


This place, this river, embodies wildness and perseverance and connects a web of life that has existed since time immemorial. Legendary, iconic, one-of-a-kind all fall short. The Middle Fork is a river beyond words because it breathes life back into being human again, one life to another.

River Newe

Last Light Along the Shore! Middle Fork, Idaho.

Floating on the water, accompanied by a deep sense of beauty and solitude, living this life experience with close companions, your mind can’t help wandering, becoming introspective, and delving as deeply as the river you travel along. At some point, you reflect back on those who came before -- who called the Middle Fork Canyon home and who forged their lives, family and communities around the high peaks and flowing river.

Upstream View! Middle Fork, Idaho.

This river flows through the ancestral homelands of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. The ‘New-uh’ (Shoshone for peoples) in the Sawtooth Mountains and along the Salmon River were mountain Shoshone, the Tukudeka, or mountain sheep-eaters. Unlike other Shoshone tribes, the Tukudeka did not use horses, spending summers in the high mountains and feeding on bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. The presence of the Tukudeka were with us for every mile, for each oar stroke, including their legends, myths, and stories.


Like the Menehune, pixie folk that live in forests and valleys in Hawaii, Irish leprechauns, and Patupaiarche, Māori myth from New Zealand (either small people or huge, depending on the story), the Shoshone and Bannock mythology includes the legend of the little people, the Nunumbi. Some small magical creatures are friendly, some not so much. For the Shoshone/Bannock the Nunumbi, also called Nimerigar, were dangerous man-eaters. Pretty sure we had the Nunumbi along with us every day on our trip!

Nunumbi? Middle Fork, Idaho.

It most likely was the low flow and abundance of sneaky, just-below-the-surface rocks on our first few days. If you paddle rivers, you know about the river gremlins who live to grab a paddle or oar, pop your spray skirt, or who push you off course into rocks, sieves, and pour-overs. These brownies, goblins, the Nunumbi of the Middle Fork, were everywhere at the start of our trip. One friend on our trip refers to these as “ninimbits.” We started talking about river sprites, then Nunumbi, then, after repeated frustration with pins and scrapes, we combined names and just called them nimrods. They must have forgiven us, as the flows picked up on day-three as side-creeks added volume, and the little people became more friendly, limiting their antics to splashing water, spinning us at just the right time in the bigger drops, and pushing us downstream in the flat water or in the face of a warm upstream wind. All part of the river experience, and glad to have them accompany us down the river.

Last Light! Middle Fork, Idaho.

The Middle Fork is one of the most beautiful multi-day river trips in the country. The river leaps downhill high in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and then flows through the Salmon-Challis National Forest and the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area (“The Frank”), the second largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

Goldenrod! Middle Fork, Idaho.

Beautiful and wild! Each day, it was easy to see why the Middle Fork Salmon was one of the original eight rivers designated in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System (October 2, 1968). Ten-years later, then-President Jimmy Carter took his family down the Middle Fork, and two years later, on July 23, 1980, Carter signed the Central Idaho Wilderness Act including the River of No Return Wilderness. Congress renamed the area in 1984 in honor of Idaho Senator Frank Church, a champion of wild rivers and wild lands. Among his many accomplishments, Senator Church sponsored the National Wilderness Act in 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in in 1968, and helped establish the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Sawtooth Wilderness and National Recreation Area.


“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The Wilderness Act, 1964

Wilderness Gateway! Middle Fork, Idaho.

Stephanie and I were blessed to be back on this river, watching mink, bighorn sheep, mergansers, osprey, bald eagles, yellow-rumped warblers, trout, and a not-verified sighting of a potential kingfisher. Our first trip was some fifteen years ago, celebrating our 29th anniversary with our daughter, and, again, friends who shared our love of rivers. Like so many other river trips, last week defined again our need and appreciation for wildness, for free flowing waters, and for river friendships that never go away. We thank those who invited us, for those with the forethought and vision to permanently protect this wonderful place, for those who live here and came before us, and to the Nunumbi who shared their river, upped the excitement, and helped us along. For our friends who were married on the banks of the Middle Fork, may your life together flow over and around the rocks, together in one direction, and sharing your love of rivers, wilderness, and each other!

Traveling Home! Mountain Goats in Eastern Oregon.

Endnotes:

· Alaska’s Wrangell-Saint Elias, at 9,432,000.o acres is our largest wilderness area. Death Valley National Park contains the largest wilderness in the lower 48 states with over 3,190,400 acres. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area comes next with 2.3 million acres. However, The Frank is bordered to the north by the Gospel Hump Wilderness (206,053 acres) and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (1,347,644 acres).

· The Main Salmon River was called “The River of No Return” back in the early days when boats could navigate down the river but could not get back up through the fast water and numerous rapids. Guide to the Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers, Idaho.

· The Middle, Main and South Fork of the Salmon River flow free from dams for over 425 miles, second only to the Yellowstone (692 miles). But that doesn’t mean that man hasn’t tried to repeatedly dam the Salmon watershed and its tributaries. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to build dams on the Salmon at the Black Canyon entrance (mile 20.6), Dillinger Creek (27.4), Growler Rapid (41.7) and the Pinnacle Peak site just a mile and a half below the Middle Fork confluence. Sunbeam Dam, on the Upper Salmon, was dynamited in 1934 to restore passage for chinook and sockeye salmon and steelhead that once ran all the way to the Salmon's headwaters. The Corps also proposed dams at Aparejo Point Rapids (mile 62.8) and the Lewis site (78.4) on the Middle Fork. Guide to the Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers, Idaho.

· It’s in places like Marsh Creek where the hope rests for spring chinook and other Northwest salmon. April 25, 2019.

· White House: To help salmon, lower Snake River dams may need to go. July 14, 2022



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