Over the course of the spring and summer in 2022, The Grand Salmon team skied, whitewater kayaked and sea kayaked from the headwaters of the Salmon River in central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. The women completed this 1,000+ mile source-to-sea expedition as a conservation project, promoting the removal of the four lower Snake River dams and a moratorium on the Stibnite Gold Project, in order to save the rapidly dwindling Snake River Basin salmon populations from extinction.
Following the natural migration of chinook and sockeye salmon, the team launched on April 29, around the same time the salmon were hatching from their spawning grounds at the headwaters of the Salmon River. The team followed the salmon smolts’ migration path for the following 79 days, reaching the Pacific Ocean around the same time the salmon reached the ocean.
The following is a collaboration of journal entries, art, and reflection by the three core paddlers of The Grand Salmon team: Hailey Thompson, Libby Tobey, and Brooke Hess.
Day 1 – Day 8: Skiing the Headwaters and Hopscotching Log Jams on the Middle Fork
From the journals and thoughts of Libby Tobey
Intentionally shoving myself sideways through a logjam (in a longboat, during a blizzard) wasn’t quite as romantic a beginning to the Grand Salmon as I’d expected. We were only a few miles into the paddle down Marsh Creek, but Brooke Hess, Dave Gardner and I were already questioning the decisions that landed us there. In many ways, though, this scenario illustrates the reality of the project. The Grand Salmon was a massive effort, and a pretty sexy one in the grand scheme of conservation advocacy—looking at you, Benny Marr—but it certainly wasn’t always a walk in the park.
The first lines in the journal I kept during the expedition read: “How are we already here…? After so many months of planning, agonizing, and dreaming about what this project could be–it feels impossible to be standing at the starting line.”
The actual starting line, which preceded the log jam fiesta of Marsh Creek by a day, graced us with a window of sunshine before the storm clouds rolled in. We had decided, in our pre-expedition enthusiasm, to ski tour the headwaters of each fork of the Salmon before launching on the river. And so, on the morning of our first day, we toured up the headwaters of Cape Horn Creek, with stunning views over Banner Summit and the tiny stream in the valley below us.
We even, after a slushy but glorious ski back to the valley floor, sloshed into the creek in our ski boots and scooped up handfuls of snowmelt to drink. In that moment, I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer sense of scale, gazing at the creek and thinking about the hundreds of miles of travel awaiting us. Those thoughts came with a huge sense of impostor syndrome: who were we to be wading into this decades-long fight? What could three kayakers really hope to accomplish in a challenge this big…?
The next morning did nothing to improve the sense of Impostor syndrome. Our planned launch on Marsh Creek coincided with one of the biggest winter storms to hit the Sawtooths all season. Dave, Brooke and I packed our Green Boats along the side of the highway in driving snow and launched from four-foot snowbanks into the creek, which was two-four inches deep at best. That first day was a portage-filled slog. The past season’s fires had primed the headwaters for downfall, and it felt at times like half the forest had ended up in the creek.
We took turns hopping out of our boats to scout, alternately standing in the water and hauling each other over barely submerged trees. Any portage (and there were lots) included post-holing through knee-deep snow and wildfire debris. At one point, I was convinced I’d cracked a brand new boat, and Brooke, livid on our sixth or seventh portage, tried to hack through a fallen old-growth tree with a handsaw. We also completely underestimated the day’s mileage on the mainstem Middle Fork and rolled into the Dagger Falls campground around 9 PM.
All things considered that day, and the rest of the Middle Fork (the expedition’s first segment) went pretty smoothly. The weather eased up for us downstream, and the sky rewarded us flashes of sun that illuminated the high peaks, all crowned with snow. Our incredible friend Izzy Guthrie flew into Indian Creek with a support raft, and we spent the next six days soaking in hot springs, falling asleep under the streaks of the milky way, and ingraining the feel of the Idaho headwaters into our memories.
Starting the expedition on the Middle Fork was particularly special for me; it’s the place that made me fall in love with river guiding all over again. It’s also home to a fully wild spring Chinook run whose spawners run farther and higher in elevation than any other salmon species, and whose tiny smolt we were following downstream. It’s rich with human and natural histories and tucked into one of the most rugged, stunning corners of central Idaho. To me, this was the place I knew I’d be holding in my mind when we paddled into the swell of the Pacific Ocean.
Day 9 – Day 17: Paddling the Upper Main and Community Outreach in Salmon, Idaho
From the journals and thoughts of Hailey Thompson
8 May 2022: Two magical days in Stanley, Idaho—ski touring and snow machining up into the headwaters of the Main Salmon with Brooke, Libby, Izzy, Woody, & the Davis Brothers. The weather has been mercurial—drifting between thick, feathery snow and cloud-openings of glittering sunlight. A day amongst snaggle-toothed peaks, searching for the narrowest ribbon of stream slipping out of the heaping, frosted banks, where the snow feeds the drainage of the Salmon.
I’d flown in to join the squad a little late. My Coast Guard obligations held me in Alaska while the team had scraped over the logjams of Marsh Creek and found heavenly hot springs and beautiful habitat on the Middle Fork, but we were united, finally, in the hand-hewn cabin of Bob Beckwirth and his incredible family in the Sawtooths. They hosted us while we juggled the logistics of ski touring and filming in the upper reaches of the headwaters, and then as we shifted gears to pack our Green Boats to paddle the outflow of Redfish Lake in a howling, late spring blizzard.
The days spent paddling the Upper Main Salmon were sublimely beautiful (and more than a little frigid). Blizzards, hail, knife-sharp headwinds and freezing temperatures tested us through the miles from Stanley to Salmon. We would pull our numb hands from pogies to revive them in river-side hot springs and wake up in tents coated in ice and snow. But as we worked our way downstream, the blizzards, if not the headwinds, subsided, and the chilly days of making miles were sunlit.
The scenery had shifted from the high-country surrounds of Stanley, where snow-covered lodgepole pine and ponderosas grew in gravel slopes between rocky, granitic outcroppings, into dramatic alluvial rock canyons and cliff faces that would open onto cottonwood river plains and sagebrush expanses surrounding the small town of Salmon, Idaho.
Every single day, a plethora of Great Blue Herons, Eagles, Osprey, Kingfishers, American Dippers, Sandhill Cranes and Western Tanagers accompanied us. The abundance of wildlife flourishing within and around the banks of this cold, clear river was breathtaking, and it was easy to feel that given the opportunity to complete their migration, salmon as a species would flourish here once more.
Friends greeted us at Sweetwater Hollow in Salmon, Idaho on the afternoon of May 12. It was a busy stopover with resupply and laundry, podcasting, writing and posting, planning river miles and rough camps for the next stretch of days, working a community float and bluegrass night. Tyler and the Trainrobbers had everyone stomping their boots while local artists put on a show of vibrant, Salmon River-inspired pieces. We squeezed in a bit of time teaching our beloved friend Izzy to roll, found a few hours to write postcards to representatives with folks from town to encourage breaching the Snake River dams, and had the pleasure of meeting our Salmon Fisheries Biology guru, Russ Thurow.
I managed to slip away for breakfast with my childhood best friend, Kat, and the next thing I knew, it was time to put back on the river. The delightful, fast-paced days in Salmon were our first taste of the realization that although river days were long in miles and high in exposure to the elements, it was going to be the days in towns that exhausted us the most, albeit in a soul-filling way.
Day 21 – Day 23: A Breathtaking Confluence
From the journals and thoughts of Hailey Thompson
19 May 2022: The Main Salmon below Salmon, Idaho is astoundingly beautiful. We’ve hit it as spring leaves are unfurling on Cottonwoods, as Ponderosa bark is heated in the sun, releasing a vanilla aroma into the air. Balsam Root & Lupine are blooming & flows in the river continue to rise…this is paradise on earth!
It really was. The journey below Salmon, Idaho, was lush. Leaving behind the prolific snow and sleet of the high country, we were treated to the high water that such precipitation had promised. The higher flows made the relatively flat miles pass quickly, and as we approached the permitted section of the Main Salmon, we found our rhythm on the water and off.
As we moved downstream, the canyon walls rose, and the winding channel became more and more playful. Tributaries helped the river to swell in volume, and the whitewater grew into dreamy, playful wave trains. We passed the North Fork, Spring Creek, Pine Creek—countless creeks and gulches that were rapidly evolving into ephemeral streams—before we made it to one of the most sacred feeling places on our journey.
The confluence of the Main Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River looms amongst towering granitic and gneiss cliffs, where ancient Ponderosa Pines stand as if they are sentinels guarding the river corridors. A hewn log, perched on the dusty, sage-covered embankment there reads “Yonder lies the Idaho wilderness.” And that simple line holds true. It is wild out there. Wild and wonderous.
21 May 2022: “We woke up at Barth Camp on the Permitted Main Salmon. Last night, we roamed up the steep banks of the river to locate the hot springs, and we returned this morning to soak in our own sort of ablution, listening blissfully to the river, and were rewarded with a visit from a family of river otters who passed by on their own morning swim.”
The river continued to swell in volume. Day after day, creeks poured into the Main Fork, and the canyon walls became more and more verdant with greenery. Signs of bygone wildfires were being reclaimed by lush thickets of lupine, paintbrush and balsamroot. Another river otter lolled about in an eddy above Elk Horn rapid, waving its paws as if to indicate a good line in the rapid below.
We watched a satiated eagle at the South Fork confluence picking apart a fish it had plucked from the river, and we floated beside each other, gazing up at the sculptural cliffs of Sheepeater territory. The feeling of knowing we were absolutely on the right path, that this river of fish and ponderosas and ancient, powerful canyons was deserving not only of our protection and conservation, but also our love and reverence, had become indisputable in our eyes.
Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of Dave Gardner, Trent Holenback and the ladies of the Grand Salmon Team. Learn more about the Grand Salmon Source to Sea and donate here, if you’d like to support the cause.