Pushing Limits on the Salmon River


The eddyline tore at my paddle. I was upside down, running out of oxygen. My muscles were exhausted even before I battled to find the surface with my blade. My lungs screamed. I gasped for air. And, then, oxygen flowed into my windpipe. I’d caught a lucky break and found a pool of green water, just enough to let me roll up. It was as dark topside, as it was beneath the chilled waters of the raging Salmon. I looked downstream. My compatriots were oblivious to my struggle, which reminded me just how quickly a situation could get ‘real’ if one of us swam.

The moon rose and fell amidst Idaho’s slice of the Rockies. We paddled through the night. But even in the dark, I could point out her peaks—the Salmon, Big Horn, Yellow Jacket and Seven Devils. This was home.

We turned our headlamps on, but when the moon illuminated the froth of rapids enough to give us an idea of where massive holes might be lurking, we switched them back off to conserve battery. After paddling for 20 hours, we were nearing delirium—Fear and Loathing on the Salmon. Our fingers were numb from gripping our paddles. We fought back sleep as it crept behind our eyelids.

Boatmen with more grit than any of us have met their match in these same rapids at similar flows. While spirits were still relatively high, the river demanded our respect. And I asked myself, again, why did we do this?

When it seems like all you do is sit and stare at anatomy books, memorize lab values, and drink far more coffee than your kidneys would prefer—given enough time—even the most ridiculous ideas shrouded under the label of “adventure” sound reasonable, like paddling 300 miles without stopping—it might not be so bad, until you actually do it.

I love the mountains. I love rivers. And I love the plains of Idaho. I was raised to love adventure and I may have been raised to believe my Idaho adventures far surpass all others. Put simply, I obnoxiously love all things Idaho. “Oh you think this floral IPA is nice? Well have you drank from the alpine streams of the Sawtooth mountains?” Yes, I’m slightly pretentious when it comes to making a connection over something as benign as another hipster micro-brew. Yes, I’m slightly bitter toward my current city of residence, Boston.

Unsurprisingly, my outdoor snobbery tends to result in fewer invites to anything resembling a social life. So, last year, I stared at the deepening western snowpack via the NOAA snotel sites. I drooled over every photo posted on social media of my friends choking on powder turns, a mandatory predecessor to high-water years. As the winter carried on and the snowpack on Banner Summit accumulated, it was apparent that this might be a great year to link up a few of my favorite sections of river in one go, literally…one go.

I wanted to paddle all 300 miles of the Salmon River in 24 hours. 300 miles of undammed river is almost unheard of here in the U.S. And get this, despite my subjective affinity for Idaho, we just so happen to have one of those unheard of sections of free-flowing water running through the Frank Church Wilderness, which also happens to be the largest contiguous unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48. I can’t make that up. (Idaho: 1, Boston: 0)

The idea was to catch the Salmon River at the highest flow possible. Put in at 6,515 feet on Marsh Creek with the Sawtooth Mountains glimmering in the background, paddle 15 miles downstream to Dagger Falls, camp, wake up at dawn and descend nearly 6,000 vertical feet over 300 miles to the Snake River. As long as we didn’t dislocate any shoulders, get an electrolyte imbalance, flip while peeing out of our boats, swim in the dark, get crushed by massive Ponderosa pines floating downstream…basically as long as we didn’t die or get catastrophically injured, we could pull this off. There are a lot of don’t(s) to be found in planning 300 miles with 6000 feet of vertical descent. But it can easily be summed up with, “whatever you do, don’t eff up and don’t flip in Chittam rapid in the dark.”

The Salmon River, including its tributaries, is a special piece of water for a number of reasons. It has a human history steeped in exploration, native culture, tests of mettle and daring. Lewis and Clark chose to freeze in North Country as opposed to navigate the Salmon’s wild rapids. The Middle Fork challenged boatmen for decades. Known for its constant gradient, Sweep Boats first used the Middle Fork to transport timber. Once the boat reached its destination, they were dismantled and sold for lumber. The profits were used to send the boatmen back upstream to do it all over again, earning the Middle Fork its name, The River of No Return.

What’s more mind-blowing than any of its human history, though, is its ichthyologic importance. Idaho’s Salmon River marks the historical epicenter for the culmination of millions of migrating salmon. Carrying nutrients and offspring, hundreds of miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean, these amazing fish found their resting place in the headwaters we now planned to launch from.

I didn’t know or particularly care about any of this when I first found the Salmon though. Looking back on it now, it’s maybe what made my love for it seem so pure. As a teen, my best friend invited me on a Middle Fork trip to celebrate his graduation. Huge snowflakes fell on the rafts as we unloaded at Boundary Creek. Other than regretting not wearing wool socks under my sandals, I was in love. I navigated an inflatable kayak with a canoe paddle for the next five days. I swam through rapids I felt certain would kill me. I bathed in hot springs. I saw mountain sheep. This was not a one-time tourist ride for me. I was smitten and vowed to never leave this place, at least not permanently. That first Middle Fork trip shaped my life, setting me on the path to who I would continue to become over the next 14 years. After guiding in California, throughout Idaho, and Patagonia, I was ready to make the Middle Fork my home.

For the next six years, I lived beneath the open skies of the Frank Church wilderness, doing whatever seasonal winter work I could to get me through until it was time to head back into the drainage. My first season on the Middle Fork, Mike Bond taught me the intricacies of the Sweep Boat. He would later become one of my many inspirations to become an ER nurse. In one summer in places like the Frank, friendships are forged that would take decades to make under ‘normal’ circumstances. I found a family there

As the snowpack ebbed and flowed throughout the spring, Sam Wells, Mike Bond, and I kept a keen eye on the gauges and the NOAA predictions. Never before had I understood the mental workings of a fanatical sports fan, religiously following stats, letting rises and falls inversely affect my attitude for entire weeks at a time. But I started to understand.

In the end, it boiled down to best-case-scenario, balancing flow levels and the schedules of our personal lives. We all make sacrifices in search of that balance between financial stability and true happiness. What sparks true happiness is balancing work with passion, which means we have to take advantage of the precious opportunities we have to follow our truest passions. Mike’s wife was pregnant and the due date was looming, go-time could be only a few weeks away. Sam was working like a madman in the ER through the nights and paddling the North Fork Payette at high water during the days. An Arizona transplant, he’s kind of southern Idaho’s dark horse—the guy who shows up to the party sits quietly in the background and then comes out of nowhere spinning fire while riding a motorcycle and playing a classical piano all at the same time.

And then there’s me. If I skipped syllabus week, I could escape nursing school for 10 days. I packed my gear and headed home.

We warmed up on the plains of the Bruneau desert and in the high mountains of the Middle Fork’s tattooed surly sister, the South Fork Salmon. We took a mandatory North Fork Payette lap or two. And then we felt it was time, no matter the flow, to give this ludicrous trip a try. The projections weren’t good enough but they would have to do. We loaded our Liquid Logic Stingers, measuring in at over 13 feet, which would hopefully help in maintaining speed through the massive boils of the Lower Salmon.

There’s a legacy of pushing limits on the Salmon River. Daisy Tappan, an early settler, lived off the land and raised a family amongst the canyons of the Middle Fork. Polly Bemis, a Chinese slave who, as legend has it, lost her freedom in a game of poker, overcame a seemingly doomed fate to live among the banks of the Main Salmon. Boatwomen like Lisa “Whizzy” Whisnant and boatmen like Dustin Aherin have lived out decades of their lives flowing downstream for fun and profit, taking pups like me under their wings along the way.

Lives have been lost to this river, and I’m willing to bet more than a few have been conceived here as well. But Mike, Sam and I were most inspired by the pursuits of Jon Barker and Clancy Reece. Not only did these legendary oarsmen row and sail 900 miles from the headwaters of the Salmon to the mouth of the Columbia in 1988, but they also attempted to set the 24-hour river-miles record in a high-water descent of the Salmon eight years later. That endeavor claimed Reece’s life, but his legacy lived on, as we were proof.

Looking back, I can’t say for certain what we set out to do. We knew that paddling 300 miles in 24 hours was possible with the right flow. We certainly didn’t have that. Oarsmen like Jon Barker, Ian Faurot and Shane Moser, as well as kayakers like Tyler Bradt, Aniol Serrasoles and Brendan and Todd Wells, had broken the 274-mile mark in under 24 hours within days of each other when the flows lined up just right. But even when it became blatantly apparent that the high flows we needed to set a speed record weren’t coming, we still wanted to go. Maybe, we needed to go. We wanted to paddle over 300 miles of the Salmon River, including the Middle Fork, as fast as we could. None of us really knew why.

Studies show how suffering through pain together builds bonds between people. I can safely say the three of us forged a unique bond on this trip, but maybe what we were truly after was a special bond with the Salmon. A relationship only the few of us who have endured her wrath for 24-hours straight can fully understand. Centuries worth of lives and their interconnected stories have touched this place. I suppose we just wanted to be part of that in some novel way.

We spent the eve of the unofficial put-in dialing in our outfitting. We added foam to areas that might be prone to hotspots and considered how much Vaseline we should pack for our nipples and armpits. And then, we headed for the high country. A late start out of Boise put us at Marsh Creek around dusk. (Turns out, it takes a lot of time to fill a 15-burrito order.) We were greeted with snow-topped peaks. Deep berms covered the road turnouts and at the normal access point for Marsh Creek the snow was still four feet deep. The plan was to put in and paddle 10-12 miles, make camp, and officially put-on at dawn the next morning.

As we shuffled gear and portaged around bridges, my nerves constricted as the reality of what we were about to attempt set in. Each turn of the raging trib sent us sweeping around blind corners potentially congested with river wide logs. Mike had never paddled a “long boat” before and had the pleasure of warming up on a raging class V Dagger Falls run.

We collected in the eddy below camp as the last sliver of dusk faded, replaced by the glow of a full moon. With the moon cresting over the mountains, it was a scene that would have made Ansel Adams lose his shit. The five hours of sleep that night was poor at best.

Four AM came as if we never went to sleep. There was ice in our boats. And as we shoved burritos down our throats, forcing our bodies to bank calories, we wriggled into the frozen neoprene tunnels of our skirts. Our bows tore out of the eddy at 6:33 and the Middle Fork welcomed us with burly arms.

In nine hours, we stopped only once to warm our hands in sunflower hot springs and watch in awe as a deer swam by, looking just as confused to see us, as we were to see it. Miles fell away as we ripped through sections that Mike and I typically considered incredible fishing holes. We now speculated about which downstream features would be massive holes or waves.

The river swelled to 65,000 cfs (74% more water added to the flow) when we hit the Main Salmon. We stopped briefly to stretch and offload a few burritos before making a push for ‘Whiplash,’ a notoriously dangerous rapid at high-water about 50 miles downstream of where we stood. As the sun began to set again, we grew apprehensive about paddling a piece of water known for swimming kayakers and oarsmen or taking them for violent eddy rides. With surging eddy fences that can deny even the strongest oarsmen and women, spotting our line as we dropped in while it was still light out was preferable.

The lengthy Idaho summer days acquiesced with our wishes. And although we eddied out in a thicket of poison ivy below Whiplash, tensions eased. We dawned high-powered headlamps for the darkness to come and forced another burrito down. From here we still had Chittam, Ruby, Lake Creek, and the boiling mess that flat water becomes with high flows to paddle through before dawn.

The waxing glare of the moon and bright lights of the small town of Riggins played tricks on our minds. I felt as if I was in a Hunter S. Thompson novel. Nausea and vertigo came and went and as dawn approached, we had nearly 70 miles to go until the confluence. While we paddled, the rational world had awakened, lived a full day and gone back to sleep. And here we were, still paddling, still exhausted; every joint hurt, our asses screamed. Our spinal columns felt permanently hunched. Our hands were raw. Our lips cracked. The nerves in our wrists were being compressed by inflammation, leaving individual fingers completely numb. I worried that my friends would hate me for this. I hated myself a little. Then again, if we were going to do it, we might as well overdo it.

The three of us had paddled waterfalls in Mexico together and big water on the Stikine in British Columbia, but this was a different sort of beast, an ultra marathon of kayaking. When your body starts to break down, your mind starts to play tricks on you and all you want is sleep, a different set of challenges await. I had only ever occupied that mental space very briefly in the past. This felt like a crash course.

“You look like shit, buddy,” said Sam as I crawled from my boat to the bank at the 24-hour mark and laid my pale and waxy face on a comfortable rock. I had slowly gotten more and more chilled throughout the night without realizing that my core temp was falling. We still had miles to go, but we could see the road across the river. It would be so easy to quit.

My body screamed for me to go to the road and just stop. We could easily justify calling it quits here. Later that month, a crew of professional kayakers would break the 24-hour mileage record at higher flows. When they hit 1140 minutes (24 hours), they would lie down and sleep, rest their bones, congratulate themselves after a job well done. At that same moment for us, all we had to look forward to was another 8.5 hours of paddling without rest. This was going to get vivid.

I broke my own sanity’s heart when I decided to don a puffy, run around a cow-shit-laden field, eat another freakin’ burrito, and attempt to pull myself back together for the final push. Sam and Mike later found themselves in similar situations as the current died down and slack water overtook us. Mike fell asleep a number of times while paddling an oxbow section, being awoken by that little thing in your ear that alerts you when your bodily orientation has been rapidly altered…like when you flip upside down in a kayak.

After nearly 31 hours, we found ourselves facing the last challenge of the trip. ‘Slide,’ a gigantic constriction rapid that on this day, funneled 65,000+ cfs through the tightest channel in the entire Main Salmon, and left us vacillating on the scree-covered banks. Do we run one of the biggest piece of whitewater we’ve ever seen with the potential to blow our skirts or push us into a violent eddy of ponderosa pines? Do we unload our heavy boats and portage multiple times across this loose scree field with boulders the size of mini-coopers just waiting to roll on us? Sam pointed to the right bank and simply said, “That’s the eddy you go to die in…”

To say we portaged is doing us a kindness. In truth, we stumbled, fell, and cursed our way to a sufficient seal launch, plopped into a turbulent eddy of driftwood and fought to reach the current. As we rounded the final corner to the confluence the most magnificent site of my entire life appeared: Dale McGreer, a family friend and jet boat pilot.

Knowing a thing or two about self-induced punishment, the 2x Ironman had driven his high-powered aluminum boat from Heller Bar with his two golden retrievers and a full case of beer to greet us at the Snake. Something along the lines of, “You guys look like you could use a ride” poured out of his mouth followed by a knowing laugh. In the midst of our exhaustion, we managed to celebrate the good fortune of river family. We had all been dreading the extra 20-mile paddle on the Snake. Dale was our hero.

Soon after Mike and I walked through the doors of his Boise home, aching for a long night of deep sleep, he lumbered down the stairs in a groggy panic. His wife’s water had just broken. Baby Arlo was three weeks early and just in time to welcome his dad home from the Salmon. And so, as we ended our journey following in the footsteps of generations of Idaho boatmen before us, we opened our arms to the newest generation.

Editor’s note: Be sure to check out the full film, The Long Stretch, from Seth Dahl and Big Cedar Media