The pilot was the last to board and saddled up next to my father in law, Bob, in the cockpit. Putting on my seatbelt was almost futile; my husband, Jim, and I were squished like sardines next to the fire extinguisher and safety equipment. The windows were still open as the engines revved, and I found it odd that such a tiny aircraft could make such deafening racket. Dusty swaths of cold air plumed behind us as we sped down the dirt runway towards the venerable Sawtooths.
Since wildfires were popping up all over the range, and the river was unseasonably low – both effects of the lighter snowpack – we had no other choice but to fly the first 25 miles of the river to a put-in point at lower elevation. Smoke filled my lungs while I examined where the high water mark used to be. The beauty of this place has a heavy and looming fate. The consequences of climate change are beyond palpable and far from something one can deny.
Eventually, the jagged brown cliffs gave way to forests of Whitebark Pine and Englemen Spruce, and we circled around and soared towards the drop in point of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, where we’d be spending the next 6 days, fly fishing, kayaking and exploring its beauty.
The Salmon River forms and flows through eastern Idaho, then joins its confluence with the Snake River, and continues west towards the Pacific Ocean. This stretch of wilderness is some of the most rugged, wild and remote terrain in the country. It earned its title, the “River of No Return” from pioneers who managed to get boats down the river, but were not able to get them back up via water or road. 5,000 foot canyons and heavily shrouded wilderness all along the river prevented safe passage back.
The peaceful Shoshone Sheepeater and Nez Perce, among other tribes, were some of the original inhabitants of this area, and were some of the first to meet Merriweather Lewis and William Clark during their expedition. The tribes consider Salmon River country sacred, due to the abundance of salmon and steelhead trout it provided for the entire Columbia watershed. There are still traces of how they lived and thrived visible throughout the land.
Seeing this place and fishing it’s deep holes has been a longstanding bucket list item for Bob. He’s always been an outdoorsman, but with 4 kids who all played competitive sports, he traded in weekend wilderness adventures for football tailgates and fieldhockey tournaments. Jim knew that he had to make this adventure a reality before Bob pushed further into his 70s and before this serene eden became sacraficed to global warming.
A few expensive flights (including the little prop plane), some necessary new gear purchases and multiple rounds of beer later, Bob, Jim, Uncle Curt and I were all grinning ear to ear as we pushed our raft into the cold water.
Bob was the first to fall in. A mishap with an oar led to a few bone bruises, but our guide, a veteran waterman, pulled Bob back in the boat before his battered body was subjected to the worst of the rapids. He managed to save his fishing rod, too, but those prescription sunglasses were long gone to crystalline currents.
Our guide had been with Hughes River Expeditions for several years. The company is family-owned and has been operating top-notch river trips in Idaho and Oregon since 1976. The guides provided such a comfortable environment that at times I felt like we were glamping. Around nightly campfires beneathe blankets of stars, we got to know the rest of our river mates a bit better. We spent days laughing and rowing, fishing and eating with a group that spanned different political affiliations, sexual orientations, ages and reasons for being there. My huband’s family has always been tight knit, and being on the river with these men made me feel even more connected to them and proud to be in their boat. Listening to (and being part of) their stories over bottomless bourbon made for some of the most worthwhile hangovers I can remember.
My first fish of the week was a 22-inch cutthroat. It was my first fish ever caught on a fly rod. Being born and raised on the Florida gulf, fishing was a way of life. I’ve fought tarpon, shark, redfish, amberjack and grouper in choppy seas with burned, salt-licked skin. The added elements always augmented the intensity and adrenaline of the sport. When I moved to San Francisco, my husband introduced me to Tenkara, a Japanese form of mountain stream fishing where only a rod, a line and a fly are needed. It reminded me of playing chess, where I had to visualize my next move before I even put the line in the water. But out here, in the quiet ripple of the water over weathered river rocks, in the shadows of looming peaks and overhanging sage, the practice of fly fishing brought me to a place of zen. It wasn’t a game or a sport, it was meditation. With every cast, I breathed deeper, I stood lighter, and I felt a connection to this abundant river that thousands before me had been lucky enough to experience, too.
The final day on the river was bittersweet. Not only did we all had to say goodye to eachother, but to the river, too. As the boats were loaded up on trailers, and the guides got ready for their next trip, I wondered if I’d be lucky enough to come back. I wondered what the landscape and the river would look like then. This jawdroppingly beautiful place is federally protected, but it might not always be. With a heavy political event coming our way, and with the EPA in a such a tumultuos predicament, the name “River of No Return” is fitting, as we may never be able to see it this way again. I find that the only way to keep my sanity is put on my waders, walk out into the brisk Catskill streams, and cast.