After getting thoroughly drenched from Black Creek rapids, the sandy white beach below Barth Hot Springs is a welcome sight. We pull our boats over, stepping onto the warm, soft sand. A narrow trail leads up a steep hill to another historical and incredible spot on the river. Another example of Mother Nature and all she has to offer. We slip into the emerald-colored depths of the natural hot water of Barth Hot Springs. The established springs are perched high above the Salmon River, the edge blending with the river water below creating a man made infinity pool.
The hot water that makes up the springs comes from deep below ground. Water follows similar patterns to the terrain above ground. With the steep, rugged mountains that surround the Salmon River, come steep water gradients. Streams and rainwater seep underground and dive deep below where it runs along hot granite. As the water heats up, it rises quickly, running along the many fractures that make up the bedrock of the Frank Church River of No return Wilderness. Some of those fractures run all the way to the surface where the hot water spills out making a steamy mineral rich oasis.
As we soak in these subterranean waters, we can imagine that this would be a good spot for early boaters to spot and rest. Indeed, it was.
There are many well-known boating pioneers who used the Barth Hot Springs as a stopping point and not only because of the wonderfully hot water. Boaters also stopped because of all the minerals that come out of that water. The springs were a logical place for placer mining. In fact, for a long time, before the lands around the Salmon were established as wilderness, there stood a cabin across the river from the springs and flumes on the spring along with other tools used to mine the water for gold.
Many stopped to mine the springs. And some stopped simply to rest. Of the well-known characters of the river that paused at Barth Hot Springs, there were a few who stood the test of time. Harry Guleke was one of those people. The best boater of his time, Guleke mastered the difficult art of navigating scows down the Salmon River. Scows were big, sluggish wooden boats designed to carry heavy loads of gear. Guleke was the captain of the scow and was affectionately known as “Captain Guleke” or “Cap”.
Guleke ran the Main Salmon River from 1896 to 1939 and in those 40+ years, he put the Salmon River and scow boating on the map. He provided a reliable freight service for the river while training others to run the scows so he could take two or three boat loads at a time. He also, like the modern day river companies, took many adventurous souls down the river for the experience. This was how the “Cap” gained national attention by being featured in a “Field and Stream” article in 1921.
The Captain’s habit was to build the large scow boats in Salmon,Idaho, run them all the way to Riggins, and then sell them there for parts. He would then make his way back to Salmon by land and repeat the process. It was from this trend and the fact that the boats never came back, that the name “A River of No Return” spawned.
While on the river, Guleke commonly stopped at the hot springs and stayed in the cabin built across from the springs. It was such a regular stop for him that the springs became known as Guleke Hot Springs. This name stuck for over 30 years until homesteader Jim Barth build a place on the bench above the springs in the 1920s.
Captain Guleke was in some way involved in most river stories. It was Guleke who found Anthony Marsh, a North Fork resident who drown after his wooden boat full of timber crashed into rocks in Salmon Falls and fell apart. Guleke found his body near the hot springs days later and buried him by the springs.
Guleke was also around to meet another infamous and enigmatic Salmon River boater: John McKay.
McKay was a Scotland native turned Salmon River recluse. It was local belief that John McKay was the first person to run the river from Salmon to Lewiston in around 1872. After that, every spring he would build a small scow, fill it with enough supplies to last the year, and then slowly make his way down the river, mining for gold along the way. McKay would winter in the river canyon, often turning his boat into a house. He would spend a year to three years per trip down the river.
Once in Riggins, McKay would sell the scow and make his way back to Salmon, always taking the least-traveled paths to get there in order to avoid human interaction.
McKay was known to have run the river at least 20 times in this manner – slowly floating along, exploring sidestreams, interacting with more wildlife than humans, collecting gold. He spend over 48 years exploring the Salmon River canyon.
Some accounts say McKay was last seen placering for gold at the Barth Hot Springs at 90 years old. Other say he finally left the river canyon for San Francisco. No one knows for sure what happened to him in the end.
One thing the secluded McKay left behind was etchings on various rocks along the river. He would document his trips by carving his initials and dates into the river rocks. A frequent stopping point for him was Barth Hot Springs as indicated by the J.N.McKay 1872 + 1905 + 1914 found on the flat face of a rock near the springs.
We step out of the warm water feeling relaxed and at the same time refreshed. We pause to look at the old, solitary carvings of John McKay. It is so quiet, with only the water sounds and the tree sounds and the wild creature sounds. We look at the steam rising from the springs and understand how it could have brought much comfort to a man floating the river alone.
We nod in thanks, one more time, to Barth Hot Springs and continue on our journey down the Salmon River.
Carrey, Johnny, and Conley, Cort. River of No Return. Cambridge: Backeddy Books, 1978. Print.
Hill, Kathy D. Spirits of the Salmon River. Cambridge: Backeddy Books, 2001. Print
“Part Three, Sweep Boat Journal, 1928.” Rivers and Mountains. Exploring Central Idaho from the Town of Riggins on the Legendary Salmon River of No Return. December, 2013. Web. April, 2015.
“Part One: Early Day, Pre-National Forest.” A History of the Salmon National Forest. U.S. Forest Service. Web. April, 2015.
“Salmon River (4 Rivers), ID.” Recreation.gov. Web. April, 2015
“The River of No Return, Wooden Scows.” Idaho Public Television. Web. April, 2015.
U.S. Forest Service, The Salmon, a Wild and Scenic River, Ogden: US Forest Service, Print.