Rafting on the River Salmon: Where Are the Fish?
Last week, Traveler senior editor and resident tours expert Norie Quintos wrote about her sea kayaking tour in British Columbia.
This week, she writes about rafting the Lower Salmon River in Idaho.
And tune in next week when she shares tips on great family vacations.
My family likes salmon. We like it sautéed, roasted, poached, and grilled. I prefer to buy the wild kind (farmed fish contain higher levels of PCBs and fish farms have been implicated in contamination of the ecosystems they reside in) but with the slowing economy whatever is on sale usually rules the day.
But I can’t say we really cared about salmon. Then came our five-day family rafting trip on the Lower Salmon earlier this month with ROW Adventures, an outfitter based in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. We never quite realized it, but in the midst of all the fun we were having, we were getting quite an education.
The Corps of Discovery first spotted the river in 1805 and William Clark named it after his partner, Meriwether Lewis. But the moniker that stuck and made it on the maps was Salmon, named for the fish that ran thick in these fast-moving waters during their epic journey to the Pacific and back to their highland spawning grounds. Two centuries later, after a day or two of paddling and splashing in inflatable rafts, owner Peter Grubb asked, “Have you noticed that there are hardly any salmon in this river? Where’d they go?”
To answer his question, guide Jess Helsley drew two parallel lines in the sand to represent a river. The 11 kids on the trip were assigned roles as salmon, fishermen, bears, and dams. As the salmon swam upriver, a few were picked off by fishermen and bears, leaving enough fish to make it back to base. But when the dams were added, it was game over. Hardly any salmon survived the journey back to their spawning grounds.
A little simplistic, perhaps, but the lesson was clear. The Salmon River (no dams) leads into the Snake (four dams), which leads into the Columbia (four dams), which in turn pours into the Pacific (where the fish feed and fatten). Last year, there were only four—yes, four—sockeye salmon that made it through this manmade gauntlet to return to their spawning grounds in Redfish Lake (named for the red salmon egg nests that used to color the lake), near Stanley, Idaho. A motley coalition of environmentalists,
commercial and recreational fishermen, river outfitters, and community activists now want the dams, which they say are outdated and unnecessary, to go.
After the Yellowstone River, the Salmon is the longest undammed river in the Lower 48. Keeping it that way by dismantling the dams would not only save the fish (several stocks are classified as endangered), but keep the river scenic, natural, and wild, much to the delight of anglers and others seeking whitewater thrills.
And whitewater thrills, after all, was what my kids were here for.
From our put-in near Whitebird, Idaho, we hit some 20 rapids between Class II and IV during the last 60 miles of the Salmon. No one was disappointed, including grownups, who found they could dial down the ride intensity by sitting toward the back of the raft, the better to appreciate the four dramatic high-walled canyons our flotilla was coasting through.
Evenings and nights were spent on white-sand beaches you’d expect in Hawaii, not in Idaho. By camping terms, this was cushy living. Our tents were pitched for us (though we did have to take them down). A makeshift outdoor galley produced concoctions that rivaled what a fully equipped restaurant kitchen could do: prime rib, upside-down pineapple cake, eggs Benedict, and of course, herb-infused wild salmon. Coffee in the morning, s’mores and cowboy songs by the campfire at night. Most everybody even got used to the portable potty.
In keeping with sound environmental practices, there were no disposable plastic cups or utensils, or paper plates used. We’d been asked to bring our own water bottles, and were each assigned a mug for hot drinks. We ate our finger-food lunches at the water’s edge, with small food crumbs going right into the river (no napkins, either!).
More substantial meals were served on melamine plates with silverware; these were hand-washed by the crew with biodegradable soap. All trash was carried out.
Living on, tumbling in, splashing with, peeing in, and accidentally drinking the Salmon River made our family fall in love with it and with the wild salmon struggling mightily to survive in it.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
With the enthusiasm of new converts to the cause, I share our new favorite riddle: What does a salmon say when it hits a wall?
Eating with fingers, water fights, and saying the D-word with impunity. Now what kid wouldn’t love a trip like this?
Top photo: Nancy Harrison; bottom two photos: Norie Quintos