River of No Return

Idaho, East Central, Lemhi County, Salmon-Challis National Forest Northfork. Golden Light reflects off rock into a calm stretch of the Salmon River.
In less than 36 hours and somewhere a few more miles downstream from where I took this shot, I’ll be floating the mighty Salmon, “River of No Return.” Contained completely within Idaho, this 425-mile-long river begins as a small trickle in the Sawtooth Mountains, winding its way north through steep canyons and fertile farmlands before diving west across the rugged, roadless interior of the state.
There is no going back after launching your raft into this 81-mile stretch of isolated water. Even in Mid-July, after a banner snow year, the flow is still running a mighty 15,600 cfs. There will be rapids…lots of rapids.
I came upon this spectacular rafting adventure as a perk for being named the 2017 Artist in Residence for the Idaho Conservation League. Residency sponsors and river guides ARTA River Trips offered this unique opportunity. My job on this trip is to take photos, or more specifically…to make art. I’m used to doing that all the time, but not from a raft or a riverside camp with myriad other people milling about. I hope I can find the solitude I seek in this wilderness journey.
Preparations started months ago, and I’ve slowly been accumulating gear into what became a very large pile on my kitchen table: everything from a Pelican case for my camera gear to the proper polyester blends of clothing for life on the river. Hotel rooms were booked for the front and back of the trip, as was a flight from McCall to Salmon on a small, 10-seat, single-prop plane. The flight alone seems like a good reason to rethink this entire undertaking.
It’s the last night in my own bed for the next nine days. I lay awake into the wee hours of the morning, listening to the occasional vehicle travel past my window. My mind swirls with thoughts of what lies ahead.
Trying to leave town today by 2 p.m. My main responsibilities this morning are loading the car, dropping my dog “River” at the kennel and making a third, final decision on which lenses to bring, which proved not as easy as it seems.
I don’t get on the road until 4 p.m. After the six-hour drive to McCall, I spend another sleepless night, this time in a hot hotel room. Morning comes not a moment too soon. At 7 a.m. I am the first of Gem Air’s customers to check in for a flight. Their offices are under construction and they use a bathroom scale to weigh baggage.
Then we’re off. As we climb above the valley, I make a mental note of several roads I need to drive on my next time in the area. Soon we bank to the east and are immediately greeted with gorgeous views of jagged peaks, deep crevasses and myriad small alpine lakes. I see the Middle Fork of the Salmon winding its way north and the Bighorn Crags. A small amount of turbulence shakes the plane on the descent into the Salmon Valley, but our pilot lands the plane with precision and skill.
After a quick shuttle ride to the hotel I spend the day catching up on sleep and like a complete amateur, organizing and re-organizing my pack. Suddenly it hits me….I’m excited!
We are greeted by four young ladies at the pre-trip meeting whose petite size makes me wonder how they can handle a boat on a river.
I sleep surprisingly well and wake at 5 a.m. to take my last shower for 6 days. As the pink pre-dawn colors the sky above the Bitterroot Range, I make note of the time I will need to be ready to shoot each morning while in the canyons. One final organizational packing, this time in the supplied dry bags. We board the bus promptly at 8 a.m.
It’s a quiet two-hour ride to the put in. Before I know it, I’m sitting in the front of an oar raft gently bobbing along on soft waves. About a mile downstream and after several drenching rapids, I realize I am smiling.
Our guides, who were joined by one young man at the launch, are now five strong. They prove themselves through the entire trip. All afternoon they row into a strong headwind. We make camp above a rocky beach where the guides unload and pack gear up from the boats, cook a delicious Italian dinner and set up our open-air restroom facilities. I don’t think I have ever seen a group of people work harder.
The last golden light touches the tops of the peaks and fades into darkness. The cool evening air feels amazing. Tonight I sleep to the lullaby of the river.
14 miles in~
Back on the water, we immediately enter a stretch of rapids and I get drenched. The water smooths and the morning sun begins to dry me. As the magnificence of this canyon slowly passes by, I get lost in my thoughts. I am in awe at the beauty of this place. Dividing the Salmon River Mountains to the South and the Clearwater Mountains to the north, both with reliefs of over 7000 feet, this canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon itself.
A few miles farther and I’m sitting in the white sand soaking up the sunshine. Most of the group has headed on an uphill hike. I lay back and listen to the song of the river. All cares of daily life at work and home have magically been swept away. Time stands still.
After a lunch of chicken Caesar salad and fruit, we run our biggest rapid yet. Black Rock has a huge hole followed by a couple of very large swells. The raft dives nose first into it and a wall of water completely consumes us. We hit the wave train and it feels like I could reach out my arms and start swimming. A few more bends in the river and we break at some hot springs. It’s a sweltering day and I opt to sit in the shallows while others hike the rocky hillside to enjoy the springs.
We make camp on a big sandy beach where the river disappears around a bend and the ridges appear to intersect with each other. I anticipate the sun will set in the crevice, and make a mental note of the time I will need to be ready to photograph it. I like this spot.
24 miles in~
My alarm rings at 2:45 am. The dead remains of the Mustang Complex Fire of 2012 rise on the hillside above camp. These blackened silhouettes against the dark night sky have an eerie feel to them. Standing under this expanse of stars in the middle of true wilderness is incredible.
The day starts for me as the sun touches the mountain ridges high above the river. All references to clock time have vanished. Breakfast, rafting, lunch, rafting and camp define the days. We gain (or lose) 20 miles, including some of the biggest rapids on the “Main”, as they call this river.  I spot a young black bear exploring the shore and we make a few stops. An afternoon swim in the river feels so good. I marvel at all the beautiful creeks we pass, wishing we could stop and enjoy. Our guide chooses the night camp spot just for me. It has a sweet little cascade called Rhett Creek just to the side of a sandy beach. Dinner is one of the best cheeseburgers I’ve had in a long time, or maybe the food just tastes better out here.
44 miles in~
The alarm sounds at 1:30 but this time I turn it off. The next thing I know, there is light in the sky. I have no trouble getting up now, and I take a chair and my gear upstream from camp and watch as the last stars fade from the sky. A few clouds light up pink.
Day 4 is the hottest day yet. In addition to the waves that break against the boat and cascade over us, we stop several times to swim. The cool water refreshes me. My skin is now a reddish brown combination of tan and burn. I haven’t spent this much time playing in water since I was a kid. We float 15 miles and stop at another sandy beach. There is a herd of young bighorn sheep that wanders close to camp, grazing on the scrub grasses between river rock. Tonight we eat steaks and play games around the campfire.
I like how the river curves here and disappears between the canyon contours. There’s a small rapid close to shore and I wade into the swift current to photograph the evening light. This has been a great day.
59 miles in~
I woke at 4 a.m. and was surprised to see the Milky Way still visible in the night sky. Quietly I set up my camera with a 20mm f/2.8 lens and adjust the exposure until I get what I want. Then I grab a couple more hours sleep.
Today is going to be another scorcher. The rapids are mild today and we don’t get very wet in the boat. Every time we stop I have to take a dunk in the river. For each mile downstream we travel it seems the temperature climbs. Over the course of these 81 miles we will have descended 900 feet. The canyon has widened considerably. We cross a stretch of river called Salmon Lake while fighting a headwind. A cloud moves in front of the sun and the deep water takes on the appearance of being black. A sheep rests under a tree and a golden eagle watches from his riverside perch.  There’s water play and relaxation, fishing and stand up paddle-boarding.
I soak in the beauty of it all. I am amazed that in mid-July this canyon is still green. I reflect on the last five days. It truly has been wonderful.
Tomorrow we will conclude our river journey around noon. I feel sad to be leaving this place, but rejuvenated enough and ready to return home. I’m missing a different “River”. My 3-year-old yellow Labrador has been in boarding for 8 days.
76 miles in~

Our final morning and we only have a short distance to travel. Around the first bend in the river we encounter our last big rapid. The river gives a big sloppy kiss goodbye.