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 30 – Day 33: Contemplating Slide Rapid on the Lower
From the journals and thoughts of Brooke Hess
We stayed at Mary Faurot’s house in White Bird after a couple of intense days paddling a very flooded Main Salmon. A bad safety decision on the water days before had put one of our team members at risk—and honestly, we had gotten lucky. We experienced a breakdown in communication as a team while paddling a stretch of river that was flooded beyond its banks, with 40-50-foot-long Ponderosa Pine trees being swept down river alongside us. This resulted in a close call that we later kicked ourselves for.
Fortunately, no injuries occurred, but even so, we spent the next few days focusing our energy on rebuilding team dynamics and communication. We ultimately decided to continue downstream as a three-person team rather than a four-person team for the remaining whitewater sections.
Hailey, Libby, and I launched from Mary’s house while a squad of women cheered us on from shore. A highlight of this project and expedition was connecting with so many incredible people who have been working on this conservation issue for decades. Mary Faurot is a fisheries biologist for Save The South Fork. I interviewed her over Zoom multiple times while I was doing research for my master’s thesis, which I wrote on the declining salmon populations of the Snake River Basin, but I hadn’t met her in person until this trip.
Sally Nutt and Ana Egnew joined Mary in the sendoff. We had spent the previous evening listening to Sally recount her many high water Selway descents back in the 1980s, before drysuits and plastic boats were a thing. These women and their accomplishments had already blown my mind when Ana casually dropped that she had been on the first descent of the Karnali River in Nepal. We felt honored that these incredible women had come to cheer us on.
We reached Hammer Creek, the typical put-in for the Lower Salmon, around mid-day, and checked the river gauge. 60,000 cubic feet per second of water was flowing down the Lower Salmon River. That’s 40,000 CFS higher than the cutoff for most commercial river outfitters, which we knew based on our research.
Most companies don’t run the Lower Salmon above 20,000 CFS because of one rapid—Slide—which a landslide created when it ripped a hillside into the river. At lower summer flows, Slide is nothing more than a class II wave train, but at high water, it is said to be impassable.
We called Brendan Wells, who had previously kayaked the Lower Salmon at 70,000 CFS and 90,000 CFS for a world record distance attempt. According to his beta, you could portage Slide on river left, but that the portage was extremely dangerous. “You can do it,” he told Hailey, “but it’s going to be a really full-on day.”
We then called Devon Barker-Hicks, a professional kayaker and longtime local in the Riggins area. Devon had been one of my mentors and role models as I was up-and-coming in the freestyle kayaking scene, so I highly valued her input.
Devon told us not to put on.
Weighing our skills, experience, and current strength and fitness levels, we made the decision to continue paddling into the Lower Salmon.
Day 33, our first day on the Lower Salmon: “It is absolutely stunning!!! The canyon is massive, and everything is bright green. Libby is the only one of us who has previously paddled the Lower Salmon, and she remembered the canyon as being dry and brown–- like summertime in Idaho. But I guess we are here early enough to catch it still green. It feels like being on New Zealand’s South Island again.”
The water was moving fast at 60,000 CFS, and most of the rapids that the guidebook referenced were gone—completely washed out by the high water. Several times, we paddled into canyons expecting to find slow, flat pools, but were instead surprised to find massive, house-sized wave trains and holes.
We camped about ten miles upstream of Slide, thinking the high water would allow us to bust those miles out super quick in the morning, so we would have the remainder of the day to focus on the portage.
In my journal, I wrote, “We chose a spot to camp up on a grassy ledge, thinking it would have nice views of the river. It did! But it also had cow shit everywhere!
A highlight of the day was turning around and seeing Hailey scooping up cow pies with her paddle and flinging them into the river. She was clearing a spot for her tent. Libby and I were laughing at her until we realized that she actually had the right idea, and soon all three of us were flinging cow shit. It was all fun and games until I almost flung a cow turd into Libby’s boat. Libby looked at me as if she had daggers coming out of her eyes.”
That moment was probably the closest we came to having a casualty on the trip.
Day 34: Reflections at the Salmon-Snake Confluence
From the journals and thoughts of Hailey Thomspon
01 June 2022: “We made it to the confluence with the Snake River. An exceptionally magical moment, after 527 miles, 34 days, so many people, wild weather, and some serious growth and love amongst our team, we met the Snake with a sense of awe. The confluence is a powerful place (as all confluences are) but this one felt more monumental to us. We’re en route to the Pacific…I feel it now more than ever.”
The powerful feeling at the confluence felt more magical by the knowledge we’ve since gained. Archaeologists from Oregon State University have recently shared finding projectile points (think arrowheads) discovered in this area from around 16,000 years ago. The Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) Tribe, Lemhi, and Shoshone-Bannock people have oral histories that long told of this presence, along with the presence of fish that their stories were peopled with.
The Nimiipuu believe that when people first came to this place, they were starving, and it was the Salmon who gave their bodies and with them, their voices, to nourish the people and keep them alive. In exchange, the Nimiipuu people promised the Salmon to always speak for them and protect the home of the Salmon.
The stories we had heard from Shannon Wheeler, Julian Matthews, and tribal elders echoed what we had heard from Russ Thurow back in the town of Salmon, Idaho—these fish are powerful. They changed this landscape, nourished the water and the soil and the plants and the animals here—kept it alive. They were more than fish, they were magic. I felt this deep ache. A longing for this place to be set right, to see the salmon return to their home. A sadness that I think all who love this place can understand without words.
Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of the ladies of the Grand Salmon Team unless otherwise noted. Read previous parts of the Grand Salmon Journals here. Learn more about the Grand Salmon Source to Sea and donate here, if you’d like to support the cause.