Published in Taste California Travel magazine, Summer 2004
Three Nights on The Salmon and Snake Rivers
By Mark Storer
I’ve always loved water. When I lived back east, I loved the little brooks and streams that ran near places where I lived and when I moved to Southern California I began to experience the ocean.
I had never known rivers, though. Like everyone, I’d seen them, even made trips down to their banks once or twice, but never had I actually been on one. Then, a simple opportunity presented itself. My two closest friends, one Scott Wolfe and one Shawn Near, offered to take me north to whitewater raft the Lower Salmon and Snake rivers . Our three and a half day–three night journey provided a chance to live on the river, removed from all the cares of everyday life. Being part of its rhythm and flow created an indelible memory.
We left Southern California and drove north as far as we could before collapsing entirely. Our efforts got us to Fernley, Nevada, just northeast of Reno. An early start the next morning took us through Winnemucca and then up the 95 into southern Idaho. Further on, some beautiful mountain roads got us through Riggins and up to Whitebird, Idaho, along the Salmon river. We stayed at the venerable Whitebird Inn, a comfortable little motel with 3 beds in the room for $45.00 We got a small discount because in addition to running the motel, one Carvith Worth also runs a shuttle service. We paid him $110.00 and left Scott’s truck with him while we floated down the river toward Heller’s Bar at the bottom end of Hell’s Canyon Recreational Area along the Snake River.
Whitebird, population 150, is a little notch of a town cut into the banks of the Salmon river. It’s name is derived from the Nez Perce Chief who fought a battle against the US Army there in 1877 and escaped downriver. It was fascinating to see a place where Indian lore and history are not only kept alive, but somewhat celebrated by the Americans now living there. Darkness did not fall this night in July until close to 10 o’clock. Subsequent sunrises on the river came just after 4 a.m. It was a whole new rhythm, and one that I rather enjoyed.
Around noon we put in to the Salmon River at Hammer Creek near Whitebird. Our gear loaded, some 1500 pounds when you count the three of us travelers, we began to move smoothly and quietly downriver. The rapids we encountered that day were mostly small ones with one or two class III’s. Scott said he felt comfortable with Shawn and me after we ran our first class III and neither of us fell out of the raft.
The rapids are, of course, the point. It wouldn’t be a lot of fun without the challenge, the speed and the roller coaster-esque movement of the whitewater. They are for the most part a lot of fun, punctuated here and there by moments of, if not terror, then certainly a little fear.
Our first night was spent at a place we dubbed Camp Junior or Camp Rattler, because as we hiked up its small rocky beach, we were greeted by a small rattlesnake who was out on the hunt. Hearing various noises from the canyon behind us, we thought there might be a bear afoot and took general precautions, moving food away from the camp, as well as any trash. All was well, however and sleep finally came.
We ran one class IV rapid on our second day after we stopped and scouted it. It was indeed nerve-wracking, but it proved a pretty straight shot. The peril was in getting caught in the swirling pools or “holes” behind some of the rocks, but because of Scott’s scouting and oar skills, that did not happen. We didn’t put up the tent on night two, having seen no critters about except bugs. So, camp was set with a good fire and barbecued steaks, asparagus marinated in Caesar dressing, S’mores . . . even a bottle of wine and after dinner cigars. It was a fine night that cooled with the setting sun, allowing us to sleep comfortably in our bags under the sun shelter watching countless millions of stars light up the night sky.
Day three’s big ride was called China rapid, a class III that the map suggested scouting before running it, which I found odd with my new knowledge of rafting. I had no idea how naive I really was. China rapid contained a couple of big rocks at its approach with a lot of good waves below them. If lined up properly, the raft should sail right through and end up at the bottom of the rapid, another badge in its passengers’ caps. However, China also had a waterfall beneath one rock in which we got caught. We spun through this gyrating backwards engine, but some expert oarsmanship by our intrepid captain pulled us through, shaken but not damaged.
Wildlife that came into view as the river widened was magnificent. We saw a golden eagle that from a distance appeared to be nothing more than a vulture. Its size was impressive and as we drew closer, the bird spread his wings to reveal a truly majestic creature. We’d seen at least one deer in the canyon where we camped the first night, innumerable trout in the river, bats, a rattlesnake and various species of birds.
The Salmon had taken us some 49 miles and as we left its narrower, quicker waters behind, we flowed onto the Snake, a wider and slower river. At this point, the Snake serves as the border between Idaho and Oregon.
About three miles down, we found a campsite on the Oregon side with a shallow cave–providing natural shade from the punishing heat. We decided our last night on the river would be here and so began to unload, taking only what was necessary, our cooler and food preparation equipment, some chairs and our dry bags with us to the top. It was a good camp and we spent the day lounging in the shade, cooling off and attempting to bathe in the river and watching other rafters and boaters float by.
By 5:45 on the morning of our final day, we struck camp and made for Heller’s Bar, the better to beat the heat and the infamous upcanyon winds. It was along this stretch of the Snake that we saw two river otters, as well as various birds and other fauna of the Hell’s Canyon recreation area. The Snake is just as beautiful, if not the same as the Salmon, and one begins to see various signs of civilization here including several beautiful cabins located on the banks, most of them on the Idaho side, though not all. Some of the cabins are only accessible from downstream by power or jetboat and most don’t have access to any kind of good road to speak of.
About 9:30 on July 14th, Scott simply said to us, “See that pyramid-like shape up the hill around this next bend? That’s Heller’s Bar. That’s where we get out.” Simple words, I suppose. But more than simple, particularly to me. There was something so basically fulfilling about the trip and as I write about it, I can never do it justice. I cannot adequately describe the sounds of the river as they run through each day out there–and flow into the night, evanescently and peacefully. I can still hear it in my mind, seeing myself sitting on the beach, roasting marshmallows over the fire for S’mores and eating steak. I can see that buck deer staring at us at the first campsite, sizing up the danger we posed. I can see the golden eagles, the river otters, the bats, the rattlesnake, the trout—the cigar smoke plumes in camp. Mostly, though, I can see Scott, Shawn and myself laughing our way down the river, singing songs through the rapids, drinking wine, sitting in the cool water while the hot sun baked the sand, and making memories that will always be vivid and alive