Urban Access, Wild River


As a kid growing up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I was always drawn to the banks of the Yampa River. During the summers, I couldn’t get enough. I loved anything river-related. My mom marveled at my affinity for time spent in the water, often comparing me to a cross between a fish and an enthusiastic Labrador retriever. I turned river rocks over to see what aquatic insects lay beneath, which I categorized into “big ones” and “little ones.”

As I grew older, river time remained a constant, though it wasn’t structured around any particular sport. In my early teenage years, sometimes, we rented kayaks from Pete at Backdoor Sports to navigate the mild rapids. We fished and swam. Sometimes, I just sat by the river and watched. But my favorite spot on the river was undoubtedly Charlie’s Hole, aka the “C-Hole.”

The C-Hole was built during the kayaking boom of the early 2000s, when playboating was the name of the game. In May and June, my friends and I flocked to the C-Hole to watch kayakers surf and play, culminating in early June with the annual Steamboat River Festival and freestyle contest. As the water dropped, we tried to surf it ourselves, often resulting in missed rolls and lots of swims.

Since the 1990s, urban whitewater parks have become common in the US. They vary in scale from full Olympic-scale slalom courses to intentional river access points and terraced riverbanks perfect for picnics. However, all river parks provide access to rivers, an underutilized resource in a world increasingly dominated by technology, screen time and urban spaces. While many Colorado towns lead the way, there are now quality river parks in almost every part of the country—from Asheville, NC, to Bend, OR, river access is better than ever.

By July, C-Hole became Steamboat’s de facto beach scene. Parents would drop kids off to swim worry-free. The river was a natural gathering spot for the entire community. Entire teenage romances came and went on C-Hole’s shore. I spent countless hours swimming, holding on to a hand-sized hole in the rock in the middle of the wave and letting the water rush over me. Looking back, the easy river access that C-Hole provided led to irreplaceable memories and contributed to my ever-growing love for rivers of all kinds.

I no longer live in Steamboat, but rivers remain a cornerstone of my life. In 2020, after years spent guiding in Idaho, I moved to the small town of Salmon full-time. While small, Salmon’s existence exemplifies the frontier spirit of the American West. The town of Salmon was founded where the Salmon and Lemhi River valleys meet, in the heart of Agai Dika (Lemhi Shoshone) territory. It lies on Lewis and Clark’s westbound route to the Pacific and is the birthplace of Sacajawea, the woman who successfully guided the Corps of Discovery through the upper Missouri River basin to the Pacific.

Much of the town faces the towering vertical mile of the Beaverhead Mountains, which make up Idaho’s modern border with Montana. The Salmon River bisects the town at Island Park, with late summer flows still in excess of 1000 CFS and spring floods often besting the 10,000 CFS mark.

In 2024, Salmon is a growing town. Not explosively and unsustainably like Steamboat, Jackson, or other highly visible skiing-oriented mountain communities, but slowly, steadily, stubbornly. Salmon’s isolated location may be its biggest asset, as well as its biggest limiting factor. It is a town of opposites.

If you take a seat at the often smoke-filled Lantern Bar on a Friday night, you might be at risk of having an interesting conversation. Middle Fork and Main Salmon river guides, pockets full of cash tips, bar hop Main Street between commercial trips. Ranch hands belly up to the bar, Budweiser in hand, next to PBR-swilling Forest Service interns and old-school Fish and Game biologists. Weary hunters and steelhead fishermen weave elaborate stories about the good old days. All of them rely on the Salmon River: for irrigation, for cattle, for wildlife, for work, for fun.

Idaho is the undisputed king of inaccessible world-class whitewater. Permits are hard to come by. Shuttles are long, the season can be short, and many runs are extremely remote. With a few exceptions (shoutout to the Payette), boating in Idaho takes ample effort and resources. The Salmon River is a perfect example. It’s one of America’s wildest rivers, offering over 400 miles of uninterrupted navigable water, almost entirely contained within federally designated wilderness or otherwise remote country.

Despite Idaho’s reputation for inaccessible rivers, I was surprised by the apparent lack of easy river access in downtown Salmon. The river is the defining feature of Salmon’s physical landscape and the common factor of its people. Even with a huge city park, which features an entire island in the river and many boat-ramp-oriented river access points, there was no “C-Hole” equivalent. Rather, the riverbanks through town were lined with sharp riprap, weeds and steep banks.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that the Salmon River in Salmon was an underutilized resource. Around 2010, long before my arrival, a few river-focused locals—I’d go as far as calling them visionaries—started organizing to propose a wave park in Salmon. Craig McCallum, Breann Green, Russ Chinske, Seth Tonsmeire, Chase Slavin, Mark Troy and Amy Tonsmeire hoped that Salmon’s long history with river running and a strong river culture would energize the community to support a river park. They were right. Eventually.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sweep scows were used to transport goods downriver to miners and homesteaders on the Salmon River. Scow captains like Harry Guleke became local legends. By the 1960s and ‘70s, commercial and private recreational river trips on the Middle Fork Salmon and Main Salmon were a boon to the local economy.

River running is a part of Salmon’s fabric and identity. However, much of Salmon’s river culture is focused on multi-day trips and steelhead fishing, which is consistently inaccessible to many Salmon locals.

In short, there was no C-hole, no “city beach,” and no easy, accessible way to expose local kids and families to this incredible resource.

In the early years, there wasn’t much traction organizing and fundraising for the Salmon Whitewater Park. The entirely community-based fundraising was slow going, with an annual “Riverfest” event as the main revenue source. The same core group of local supporters lacked the financial muscle to push the project forward.

The engineering and design of the wave features were complicated and expensive due to the presence of ESA-listed anadromous fish (chinook, sockeye and steelhead). Creating a surfable feature in a river that supports endangered anadromous fish has little precedent. After years of effort, the Salmon Whitewater Park Association was forced to downsize the project due to concerns over fish passage despite larger, natural rapids downstream that fish have no trouble navigating.

Salmon Whitewater Park’s success and hopes ebbed and flowed until 2020, when an anonymous donor pledged a 4 to 1 match up to $800,000. With this opportunity, the community showed up in a big way. Local businesses from diverse backgrounds came out of the woodwork to support the park: real estate brokerages, outfitters, grocery stores, contractors, airlines, and many more. Local families pounced on the opportunity to multiply their donations. Within a few short months, the park achieved the full match, despite being in the depths of the pandemic.

Fast forward to the spring of 2023. The 10th annual Riverfest, and the first featuring the newly constructed wave feature, now named Guleke’s Wave, was a huge celebration. Downriver races and surfing contests were competitive and lively. The Salmon Riverfest original “Big Balls” contest drew laughter from both contestants and onlookers. Hundreds of people lined the bank to watch. Longtime supporters celebrated and previously uninvolved locals stopped to see what all the commotion was about, only to stick around to watch the next event.

As I watched the celebrations, I immediately thought of C-Hole.

Salmon’s wave park, despite its simplicity, is a big deal for a small town. Now, throughout the summer, kids and their families use the park to surf, swim, and enjoy the sunshine, making memories that might inspire a new generation of river lovers.

Throughout the summer of 2023, swimming and boogie boarding the wave, followed by laying in the sun, all within walking distance of Salmon’s downtown area, became favorite activities for locals and visitors alike. Kids examined and identified native fish, designed and cast in bronze by local artists, fastened to the park’s terraced boulders in appreciation of the park’s financial donors. Chinook, sockeye, steelhead, bull trout, cutthroat trout, sculpin, sturgeon. Rafters and kayakers traveling to and from the Middle Fork and Main Salmon rivers stopped to watch surfers while stretching weary legs from long shuttle drives. Stand-up paddlers started to master the feature. Local teenagers used the park as a meeting spot and hangout.

Between the bustling main drag, new breweries, and the wave park, there were undoubtedly a few people asking a pivotal question, “Is Salmon, like, COOL??” Salmon has always been cool, but perhaps not to the naked eye of the average visitor.

Salmon Whitewater Park Association (SWPA) members dedicated countless hours to making their vision come true. It hasn’t been easy, and the work is ongoing. The SWPA will continue to manage and hold a maintenance fund to maintain the park in partnership with the City of Salmon, which manages the adjacent Island Park and Veterans Memorial Parks. Signage is due for installation in 2024 to educate new river users about river safety, native fish, and the history of the Salmon Valley.

In the long term, there will be necessary maintenance to the wave feature and surrounding areas. Perhaps, with the growing community appreciation for the park, an expansion into the west channel could be feasible, especially with the engineering already paid for and completed.

Over the past 20+ years, dozens of urban river parks have come to fruition across the US, in turn creating new kayakers and river enthusiasts and forging a community. As a river lover, it’s heartening to see; whitewater parks might be our best tool for introducing rivers to new generations. Unfortunately, they are also expensive to build and maintain. And small towns, Salmon included, are notorious for a proud resistance to change.

It can be hard to see the need to refigure a river that already gives shape to the community and landscape. Yet I can’t help but think Salmon’s Wave Park is both proof of the value of community organizing and inspiration for future projects.

In March of 2024, during an unseasonably warm spell, I slipped into my kayak in downtown Salmon. The water was cold, but the sun was shining. At low flows, the feature is small, but it felt good to be back in the river after a long winter. On this day, I surfed alone. But come summer, I’ll wait in line alongside swimmers and boogie boarders, families and surfers–river lovers.

For Salmon’s youth, this is the new C-Hole. Maybe when the water warms up, they can help me find a little hole in the rocks. One that is just right to hold onto while the river rushes over you.


Guest contributor Jonas Seiler grew up in northwest Colorado. After graduating with a degree in Natural Resource Recreation & Tourism from Colorado State University in 2014, he made his way to Idaho. Jonas now lives in Salmon, spending summers enjoying Idaho’s many rivers, and winters skiing at Lost Trail Pass. Photos courtesy of Nyima Ming and the University of Idaho Archival Photograph Collection.