Rafting Idaho's River of No Return

Erik Madigan Heck

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho is known for many things—its wildlife, daredevil rapids, pristine wilderness. But where have all the Chinook salmon gone?

A mile or so downriver from Loon Creek, the hail begins to fall. Late July in Idaho’s high country can be unpredictable, but the past few days have been warm, dry, and calm. Just last night at White Creek camp, I stretched out on my cot under clear stars, watching meteors and the Big Dipper as the half-moon slipped away to the west. But now I stop paddling to gaze in astonishment as the ice and rain come down in a roar, darkening the sky and shattering the water all around.

It is the halfway point of a six-day run down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and already I am astounded at the scope of the beauty of this rugged place and by its unexpected delights. Getting caught in a hailstorm on a flat stretch of water—it’s all just part of the fun.

The Middle Fork starts at the confluence of Marsh and Bear Valley Creeks, about 20 miles northwest of Stanley (which is an hour north of Sun Valley), and flows north for 100 miles until it meets up with the main stem of the Salmon River, up near the border of Montana. Cutting through thick forest, high desert, rolling meadows, and deep rocky gorges, the river is the central feature of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness—at 2.4 million acres, the largest contiguous protected wilderness in the Lower 48.

I came to Idaho exhilarated at the thought of floating through some of the most remote and inaccessible territory in the country: no roads, no phones, no e-mail. But most of all, I was curious about another absence. Where had all the salmon gone? The Middle Fork is pristine habitat for Chinook salmon—perhaps the best, in fact, in the entire Columbia River Basin, once the most productive Chinook territory in the world.

In the time of Lewis and Clark, many millions of the fish left the Pacific Ocean annually and swam up the Columbia River. Of those, an estimated 4 million headed for the Snake River and its two main tributaries, the Clearwater and the Salmon. But by 1995, only 1,200 wild Chinook were entering the Snake, which meant just a few hundred made it up the Salmon. The fish were listed under the Endangered Species Act in the early 1990s. Numbers have gone up marginally in recent years, but the Chinook remain very close to extinction.

“The subtext of any salmon discussion is dams,” says Tom Stuart, a retired Air Force pilot who first came to Stanley in the mid-1960s, is on the board of Idaho Rivers United, and serves as president of Save Our Wild Salmon—nonprofit organizations working to bring back salmon populations. “And the Pacific Northwest is the birthplace of one of the biggest dam-building eras we’ve ever known.”

More than 400 dams were built in the Columbia River Basin between 1935 and 1975, almost a dam per month. “Salmon were plentiful up here—like tens of thousands—until the ’70s, and then they plummeted. Just dove off a cliff,” Stuart says in his high-energy, gravelly voice, sitting on his deck overlooking the main stem of the Salmon River in Stanley the day after I got off the Middle Fork. “Downriver below the dams, survival rates are almost four times what we have in the Middle Fork.”

There are eight dams between the Salmon River and the Pacific Ocean—four on the Snake and four on the Columbia. The dams were built with fish ladders, but they’re still lethal. Juvenile salmon, which have evolved to be flushed quickly down the river to the ocean, get disoriented in the reservoirs just above each dam, becoming easy prey for birds and other fish. Efforts to truck the salmon downstream have largely failed. The fish often die from warm water temperatures or are killed because they are forced to skip large portions of the river that serve as transition zones where their bodies are meant to transform in preparation for the ocean.

Each dam has a cumulative negative effect on salmon survival rates. Removal of any of them would improve prospects for the fish, as has happened elsewhere in recent years, resulting in rejuvenated rivers and surging stocks of salmon, shad, and trout all over the country.

To aid the Chinook’s comeback, “you don’t have to take out all 400 dams. You don’t have to take out all eight between here and the ocean. Just the four on the Snake,” Stuart says. Those dams, built between 1961 and 1975, produce only small amounts of power and have become obsolete. “It will cost something to remove them, but not as much as keeping them,” he says. And a thriving fish population could mean an injection of more than $500 million into Idaho’s economy through fishing and tourism.

Still, Stuart’s efforts can accomplish only so much. “The president could do something about it, but we may not be able to remove them without Congress,” he says. Congress doesn’t seem inclined to act, but in early May a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit that the U.S. government’s fish-restoration plan did not go far enough to assist salmon recovery in the Northwest. It was the fifth time in 15 years the court had invalidated the government’s plans, and the judge stated that the law “may well require consideration” of dam removal. It was a victory for conservationists, but the government was given until March 2018 to come up with a new proposal.

Before seeing Stuart, I’d spent some time looking for spawning Chinook with Russ Thurow, a fisheries research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. Thurow is in his 60s, tall and fit, with a quiet self-assurance. Originally from Wisconsin, he started working in the Middle Fork drainage in 1979. He’s a student of all wildlife in the area, and as we walk in waist-high grass along the banks of Marsh Creek, he frequently stops to point out elk tracks, deer and antelope, bluebirds and sandhill cranes.

Meriwether Lewis described the hordes of salmon that he saw as he came through this part of the Pacific Northwest as “almost inconceivable” in 1805. “Think about what he had seen,” Thurow says. “Millions of bison, probably millions of elk and antelope on the Great Plains. And still he said the numbers of salmon were almost inconceivable. Basically that population disappeared.”

Middle Fork salmon are born in freshwater streams and rear there for up to two years. They are flushed downstream in spring, when the rivers are swollen with snowmelt. After spending three years or so in the ocean, swimming as far as the Aleutian Islands, 1,200 miles from mainland Alaska, they return to the shallow streams of their youth to spawn. A female excavates a nest called a redd by turning on her side and thrusting her tail violently. She releases eggs and a male fertilizes them. She repeats this several times, burying the eggs in layers of loose gravel. Then the adults die. The eggs stay in the redd all winter and hatch in the spring. One female can lay 5,000 eggs.

The fish are considered a keystone species—about 95 percent of their biomass is from their time in the ocean, and the nutrients they bring upstream are essential to the freshwater ecosystem. Dead salmon provide vital nourishment for newly hatched fish and a host of other aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals, including otters, eagles, wolves, and forests of ponderosa pine. “Those nutrients end up on a hillside because an osprey or a bear takes a carcass there,” Thurow says. “It’s really the foundation of production.” Without salmon, an entire ecosystem is at risk of collapse.

What makes the Chinook of the Middle Fork unique is the distance they migrate. “They are spawning above 6,000 feet—the highest elevation of any spring/summer Chinook in the world,” Thurow says. “And they swim 800 miles from the ocean. A few other stocks migrate this far, but none spawn this high.” What’s more, the Middle Fork is one of the few areas anywhere without hatchery fish; the Chinook are completely wild. “They’re basically irreplaceable,” he says.

We arrive at a beaver pond, and there, just a few feet away, are seven huge Chinook. The biggest one—a gravid female—is about four feet long. The fish have probably been in the pond for a couple of months and have only a few weeks to live. Soon, when the conditions are right, they’ll head off for their final act. “Think about all the obstacles, and all their unique qualities, and what they mean to the whole ecosystem,” Thurow says as we watch the fish. “They’re remarkable critters.”

Every September, Thurow flies over the entire Middle Fork basin, leaning out the door of a helicopter at treetop level to count Chinook redds. His preliminary estimates show that in the 1950s and ’60s there were as many as 24,000 redds per year—far fewer than in the early 1800s but still a healthy number. Over the past two decades, the Middle Fork basin has averaged fewer than 800 redds per year. (In 2015, Thurow counted 1,074.) Population fluctuations are natural, but with figures so low, they’re also dangerous.

“This is emotional for me. When I look at that fish and realize what it’s gone through to survive...” Thurow’s voice trails off. He looks down and swallows hard. “I’m an old man. Most of my peers have retired. But I can’t until we’ve made real progress on bringing back the salmon. I have to see that in my lifetime. We’re down to the point where every fish counts.”

On my last night on the Middle Fork, we camp just below Cliffside, one of the roughest rapids we’ve seen yet. I’ve spent much of the trip in an inflatable kayak, in which rapids that might seem moderate from a large raft are suddenly far more substantial. That night, over a few cans of beer, Blake King, one of our guides, describes what awaits us on our last day.

He mentions a rapid named Devil’s Tooth but says the real concern is the one just below it: House of Rocks. The key to getting through, King says, is to stay left, away from the dangerous boulder sieve that can pin a kayaker underwater. “Don’t go right,” he says. “It’s fatal.”

The next morning a few people are up early for a last day of fishing. I get in my kayak and paddle hard to warm up and calm my nerves, King’s warning stuck in my head. Soon we’re at Devil’s Tooth, and I misjudge the size of the rapid. I drop into the wave and suddenly I am underwater, in a tumble of paddles and gear.

The water is surprisingly deep. Instinctively I stretch my legs down in hopes of pushing off the riverbed—a terrible idea, and a good way to break a leg—but hit nothing. For a fleeting instant, I wonder if some Chinook might be under me, watching this ridiculous scene as they wait for their time to head upstream. I come up and pull myself onto my kayak. House of Rocks is already in view. A guide reminds me about the sieve and implores me to stay left: “Follow my line.”

A few strokes later, the lead raft makes its left turn into the rapid. Just before slipping out of view, the guide looks back, thrusting his arms emphatically at the proper path. And then, for a few heart-pounding moments, I am alone on the Middle Fork. The canyon walls shoot up to the blue sky on either side. The river rushes along beside me, beneath me. And there is House of Rocks, coming up fast. The sieve is to the right, water sucking through it. I feel the pull of the current and dig in with my paddle with all that I have. The boat turns to the left, and I find myself cursing loudly as the nose drops into the rapid and I am swallowed by a wall of dark water.

And then I emerge, still on my boat, and am thrown back into the light.

The rapids of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River are plentiful and challenging but accessible enough for a wide range of adventure seekers. We recommend Mountain Travel Sobek, which runs trips from mid-June to early August. Six-day treks from $1,995 per person; 888-831-7526; mtsobek.com.

Image Credits: Neil Ever Osborne; Erik Madigan Heck