SALMON, Idaho — When Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery were in Salmon, Idaho, in 1805 looking for a river that could help speed their journey west, they hoped to find something akin to the Missouri with a slow, gentle flow. Instead, they found the Salmon River, a wild, fast-flowing waterway with imposing boulders, rough rapids and criminals hidden in the hills. They took one look and immediately turned back.
Now, over 200 years later, some 10,000 people a year willingly float down the “River of No Return” on an 80-mile stretch nestled among the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church Wilderness in a canyon that — from river to ridge — is deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
Often considered a trip of a lifetime, a guided tour down this hostile river offers some unexpected luxury amid untouched wilderness and a true chance to unplug. There is no cell service in the backcountry, no screens to distract you. The outfitters working the river are your ticket down a river nearly as wild and isolated as it was centuries ago.
The Main Salmon River runs for 425 miles across the state of Idaho. It’s one of the longest undammed rivers in the U.S., and for around 200 miles, serves as the dividing line between Pacific and Mountain times.
The main put in for overnight trips is a place called Corn Creek, the end of the road after a two-hour ride over gravel so pitted your teeth unintentionally chatter. Cell service disappears just before you turn off Highway 93 onto the Salmon River Road, about 20 miles north of Salmon.
I was already out of range when I happened to glance at my phone, and frantically tapped out a message to my mom, who would be watching our 1-year-old daughter while my husband, our 4-year-old daughter and I joined a group of 12 other guests and five river guides for our five-day whitewater rafting trip. My fingers practically itched as I waved my phone around searching for a signal. I yearned to scroll social media for a few more minutes and felt an edge of panic as I realized I had lost access to email. My cousin Breann Green looked over at me and laughed. “Seems like you really need this,” she said.
Breann and her husband Matt Green own River of No Return Wilderness Outfitters, one of the companies licensed to bring people into the wilderness via inflatable rafts for both camping and lodge stays.
Breann and Matt have been working on the river half their lives — first as “swampers,” a river term for what is essentially an intern who helps the licensed guides with guests and potentially even rows a boat filled with gear. Then, after turning 18, they became licensed guides rowing boats with guests downriver and ultimately purchased a river company from an outfitter looking for a change.
They are some of the latest modern day river runners based in Salmon that date back to 1890 with Captain Harry Guleke, a New Yorker who came to the area during the gold rush and began building flat-bottomed boats called scows. The boats hauled up to 20,000 pounds of supplies downriver, stopping at homesteads, eventually making the 250-mile trip to Lewiston, Idaho. Along the way, the crew dropped sticks of dynamite into the water over rapids in hopes of making the next trip easier. It didn’t always work. The river’s gradient, flow and intense rapids made it impossible for the scows to make the return trip — hence the name River of No Return — so they were disassembled in Lewiston, the lumber then reused to make buildings, the crew returning via horseback or train.
In 1896, Guleke began taking thrill seekers downriver — to fish, hunt or just say they survived the trip. At the Lemhi County Historical Museum in downtown Salmon, there is an exhibit dedicated to the history of the River of No Return. A photo of Guleke with his seven-man crew aboard a scow, dated October 1919, shows the river in the background, Guleke standing in the center of the boat with one foot in front of the other in a cocky pose, one hand in his pocket and a sly smile upon his face.
Nearly 100 years to the date since that photo, the Greens and all the Salmon-based families making their lives on the river took a similar photo in the same location, a massive rubber raft taking the place of the wooden scow, nearly 40 smiling faces of multiple generations of families building on the legacy first started by Guleke.
Some things have changed in the 100-plus years since Guleke first started running scows down the river. The groups of people who moved into the hills to avoid society, hide from the law, or earn their riches panning for gold have mostly died out. There are a few private cabins and lodges grandfathered in when the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, but no new construction. In 1955, Don Smith was the first to make the return trip on the river, using a flat-bottomed aluminum jet boat he designed and built. Now the hum of jet boats and the occasional small plane (there were also a few airstrips grandfathered in) are the only signs of the outside world. Wildfires started to make their lasting mark more frequently beginning in 2001.
Other things have not changed. On our five-day trip we spotted river otters, fish, a bear, sheep, deer, eagles and so many butterflies I felt like I was in a butterfly migration zone. The beaches on the Main Salmon are white sugar sand, unblemished despite their 10,000 annual visitors.
However, to take this trip privately means pulling a permit you have less than 10% chance of getting. It also means having the appropriate gear and know-how to get yourself safely downriver in a wilderness that has no easy way out. Your safest bet is to go with an outfitter.
Breann and Matt’s goal as outfitters is to help provide access to this protected area. Their permits, granted by the Forest Service, are a way to take people and show them what the word “wilderness” really means.
“Yes, it is stewarding this land for future generations. But it’s mostly about getting moms and dads off their cellphones and computer and forcing their family to be together in a way they didn’t even know how to be,” Breann says.
Luxury on a treacherous river
There are few things about this trip that are easy. Salmon is remote; we flew to Boise and then hopped a commuter flight to Salmon, working with Breann and Matt to coordinate our post-trip shuttle needs. Others drive to Salmon and use a service to shuttle their car to the takeout just outside of Riggins, Idaho.
When it comes to packing, quick-dry clothes and shoes that will stay strapped to your feet are a must. As are a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. We brought our own sleeping bags out of preference, but were offered sleeping bags plus tents, sleep pads and life jackets.
On launch, we got a safety briefing on how to get on and off the 16-foot inflatable rafts safely, how to kayak in one of the inflatable duckies and what to do if you fall out of either.
It was my third trip on this river, the first with our 4-year-old daughter. I thought I knew what to expect, but also remember my breath catching in my throat as we finally pushed off the banks and headed downriver, thinking “well, this is it.”
Roughly 10 minutes later, the first rapid hit, 64-degree water cascading up over the side of the boat, hitting me on the legs, and my daughter directly in the face. To say she hated it is an understatement. However, once we got her set up with a tarp that she was able to pull up over her face any time she might get splashed she was enamored with it all.
In early July, the river was flowing at a 6-mile-per-hour clip, the air temperature at river level hovering around 80 degrees, feeling closer to 90 once you got up onto the banks. Once on the river, that’s when the feeling of luxury kicks in.
Your only job is to sit back and relax. Coffee is hot and ready by 6:30 a.m. every morning, followed by a hot breakfast: French toast, breakfast burritos, scrambled eggs and sausage. You break camp, packing up your tent and dry bags, bringing them to a staging area where the guides carefully repack the rafts.
After floating for a few hours, there’s lunch on a beach. The guides set up a table, putting together an assembly line of sandwiches, chips and cookies while you play in the sand or swim. One day we pulled off for a short hike up to a hot spring, the rough-hewn pool fortified by river rocks and mortar.
Then it’s back on the river, navigating rapids, trying not to get a neckache gaping at the scenery, and (for me at least) repeatedly recounting the plot of the movie “The Rescuers” to my kid and her 5-year-old cousin, also along for the ride.
When it comes to the evening’s camps, each one has its charms — proximity to fast flowing side creeks, good fishing, swimming holes just off the bank or goat trails for short hikes and scrambling. They all have the sound of the constant rushing of the river. There is no amplified music allowed in wilderness areas, so the river becomes your constant soundtrack not only lulling you to sleep but gently waking you each morning.
There are river-ritas (margaritas sipped riverside), beer and wine. Dinners consist of wide planks of salmon adorned with lemon slices and served with pesto pasta, pizza cooked in the Dutch oven, and fajitas. There are appetizers each night — baked Brie smothered in raspberry chipotle sauce, stuffed mushrooms, smoked salmon pinwheels — and dessert served after dinner is cleared, apple rhubarb crisp, pineapple upside-down cake, and of course s’mores.
One day we stopped at the Buckskin Bill Museum, a compound once owned by the River’s most famous hermit, Sylvan A. Hart, also known as Buckskin Bill. You can look in at his shop, watch a short film, view artifacts and see how he survived in that remote country until his death in 1980. You can also buy ice cream bars and beer floats.
Another afternoon, we did a quick hike up to the Jim Moore homestead, a mining claim near Campbell’s Ferry, one of the only bridges spanning the river. Moore and Campbell set up shop selling supplies to miners and ferrying them across the river on their way to nearby Thunder Mountain, dreaming of gold. Matt tells us during the hike that Moore and Campbell made way more money selling supplies than any hopeful miner ever did.
It’s easy to get into a rhythm on the river. Everyone gets excited to spot wildlife, and sometimes the silence was only broken with someone shouting “eagle” as 20 heads craned to spot the bird.
As always, by the time we pulled into the takeout at Vinegar Creek five days later, I was overcome with sadness. I started out the trip itching for one more text, and ended it wishing I could spend at least two more days on that magical river, searching for the sliver of a sturgeon in the waters, laughing with my family about everything and nothing at all.
Once all signs of the wilderness were behind us, I kept my phone off for as long as I could before turning it on to check in with my mom. The minute the thing found service it began vibrating and pinging, racking up the notifications of all I had missed. It was overwhelming and I soon shut it off again, trying to regain that sense of calm I had so recently just experienced.
Reentry was slow too, but bolstered with thoughts of our next trip. We’ll go again when our younger daughter turns 4. I can’t wait to show her what wilderness can really mean — quiet, wild isolation with a touch of luxury and a true chance for connection.