As your family floats down Idaho’s Main Salmon River, voyagers of all ages will find themselves utterly captivated by the awesome beauty of its rugged canyons and surging flow. A trip through this majestic gorge will leave you overwhelmed with the same passion that inspired its first explorers. Tucked away, in the shade of ponderosa pines, backed against walls of granite, engraved and painted on massive boulders, and hidden in forests beyond craggy peaks, you will find trace of others who shared in that wondrous enchantment. Rustic homesteads, hand-carved rock inscriptions, and ancient pictographs adorn these riverbanks: remnants of the few hardy (or crazy) enough to call this wild place home.
This is Steps and Strokes: Tales of the extraordinary visitors and inhabitants of Idaho’s Salmon River gorge and the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return.
Lewis & Clark: The Corps of Discovery Expedition
In this episode, we join up with the Lewis and Clark expedition only to find our westward path blocked by the mighty Salmon River. Peering ahead into the river gorge from a ridge far above, the stouthearted Clark is finally turned back by the steep canyons and raging whitewater below. But for you, that exciting sight is just the beginning of your 6-day Main Salmon River rafting trip; the launch beach from where you and your family of adventurers will descend into the remote Frank Church Wilderness.
Near the end of August 1805, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, having left St. Louis in May 1804 to follow the Missouri River into the northern reaches of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory seeking a commercial water route to the Pacific, found themselves turned around in a rugged wilderness, short of food, with a bitter winter coming on fast. Their hopes of finding a navigable river on the west side of the Continental Divide faded as they stood at the summit of Lemhi Pass, realizing that their greatest obstacle yet was gathering momentum around them in the form of gurgling creeks trickling down the slopes on their way to the deep gorges of the Salmon River. Only by journals of the explorers do we know the story.
Knowing they could not find their way through the western mountains on their own and unsure of the rivers below, Lewis sought the help of the local Shoshone people. Luckily, he came across a Shoshone woman who introduced him to Chief Cameahwait. Requesting his help to reach the ocean by water, Lewis bartered for their assistance.
Cameahwait swiftly crushed the dream of a water passage to the western coast. He warned of a river so fast and so violent that no boat could navigate its rapids, of canyons so steep as to make passage along the banks impossible.
Like you, Clark was skeptical and curious to see for himself. He took eleven men to scout and prepare boats in case the warnings were false. Meanwhile, Lewis and the remaining crew prepared for an overland portage of unknown length and difficulty.
On his way, Clark passed another Shoshone village. They too warned him of the troubled waters ahead. Still dubious, he employed a scout known only as Old Toby. Clark followed Toby to a point near present-day North Fork, Idaho, just upstream of the launch site for your Main Salmon rafting trip. For the first time, Clark laid eyes on the mighty Salmon River.
Finally, he began to see the sense in all the warnings. Fearful of the roaring whitewater he’d seen and daunted by the committing canyons of the river below, Clark turned back and prepared himself for a long overland portage.
In his journal for the 23rd of August 1805, he wrote:
“The River from the place I left my party to this Creek is almost one continued rapid, five verry Considerable rapids the passage of either
with Canoes is entirely impossable, as the water is Confined between hugh Rocks and the Current beeting from one against the other for
Some distance below . . . at one of those rapids the mountains Close
so Clost as to prevent a possibility of a portage with great labour . . .
as running them would certainly be productive of the loss of Some
Canoes . . . and below my guide and maney other Indians tell me that
the Mountains Close and is a perpendicular Clift on each Side, and Continues for a great distance and that the water runs with great
violence from one rock to the other on each Side foaming & roreing
thro rocks in every direction, So as to render the passage of any thing impossible.”
Reunited, Lewis and Clark loaded their horses and set out with the guidance of a small band of Cameahwait’s Shoshone. They would have to weave north around the Salmon, across the Lemhi Valley, and through the Bitterroot Mountains. There, the trials of thick forest, bitter cold, and near starvation rivaled the perils of navigating the Salmon River.
Eleven days later, they emerged from the mountain forests on the edge of the expansive Weippe Prairies, a thousand feet above the Clearwater River. Playing in the grass, they spotted two young Nimiipu boys. Old Toby explained that they had come to the central homeland of the Nez Perce.
To learn more or to explore the majestic Main Salmon River for yourself, click here.
As you enter the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness for a Main Salmon River rafting trip, you enter a landscape that has changed very little since Lewis and Clark struggled through on their way to the Pacific. The water still runs “with great violence” through steep rock walls, but expert guides now steer boats gracefully between the menacing boulders of Big Mallard Rapid, dancing through and over the standing waves of Black Creek Falls, bringing you and your crew of explorers to rest on sandy banks. Here, we feast on Dutch oven lasagna and fresh fruit desserts before dropping off to sleep under starry, Idaho skies. We wake in the morning to the smell of hot coffee and pine sap, thankful that the wilderness surrounding us remains so inaccessible and the waters so fierce that to this day, one of the only ways to appreciate them is with an explorer’s spirit and a Wet Planet guide at the oars.
The 3 Main Salmon River Multiday Rafting Trips we’re offering this summer are filling up fast. Click here to get more information or to book your trip. As always, give us a call at 877.390.9445 with any questions.
Author Jake Hochberger is a talented story-teller, raft guide, and kayaker with an affinity for garlic.