The beautiful thing about floating down a river — any naturally flowing river (and there aren’t many of them) is how very alive they are. Water is the lifeblood of all living things and the Salmon river is the arteries that carry the lifeblood of the Frank Church River of No Return. It is the pulse with which all rhythms keep count. And like any living thing, it often changes drastically with time. If you know the signs, you can see that change long after it has happened.
We are coming to the most recent major change on the Salmon River and also the first of the major rapid — Black Creek rapid. But first, we must float over what feels like the graveyard of another renowned rapid that was eventually tamed by the elements.
For many years Salmon Falls was
one of the most difficult rapids on the Main Salmon. For most of the summer, the rapid had big boulders, exposed and dangerous, blocking the current. Faithful to its name, the rapid dropped significantly and had large, tumultuous holes at the bottom.
Before it was called Salmon Falls, the rapid was called Black Canyon Falls and was the bane of boaters’ existence. Then, the Salmon River was used more for utility than recreation. Men navigated the river in large, sluggish wooden boats designed to carry freight to mines and homestead along the river. One such craft was piloted by Hugo Vater and Roger Hoffman.
Vater and Hoffman were running the Salmon River in their homemade wooden sweep boat with the goal of striking it rich in placer mining. Inside their boat was enough food to last a year and all the tools needed to operate a placer claim. They reached Black Canyon Falls in mid-August when the river was low and showing more rocks than water. Their boat violently struck a rock at the top of the rapid and Vater disappeared over the edge into the boiling maelstrom of the Salmon.
Hoffman searched the surging waters for his partner and finally spotted Vater’s body floating downstream. But before he could do anything to save him, Hugo Vater disappeared for good.
With the death of his friend, Hoffman gave up the Placer mining dream and left the Salmon River corridor. A week later, Vater’s body surfaced in the eddy in front of what is now Barth Hotsprings. Salmon River residents Monroe and Masie Hancock buried Vater under a tree near the hot springs. They set a white wooden cross atop the grave that has long since been washed away.
Because of tragedies such as that of Hugo Vater, men eventually and repeatedly took dynamite to Salmon Falls rapid until it became manageable.
The rapid was now a muted, dynamited version of its former self. But even after these man-made alterations and the replacement of clumsy, sluggish wooden crafts with more nimble, forgiving rubber rafts, Salmon Falls continued to evoke “fight or flight” reactions: sweaty palms, racing heart rate, shallow breathing. The chutes were still narrow and the consequences still ugly.
Until early April of 2011 when everything changed.
Black Creek enters the Salmon River from the north, just downstream of Salmon Falls Rapid. In the spring of 2011 the steep slopes of the creek and its tributaries were saturated and capped by a “rotten” snowpack, The snow was poised just below the melting point, waiting to release its store of frozen water. A process that would normally take weeks of cycling between frozen nights and melting days was jump started by a massive thunderstorm into one catastrophic event.
Cascading sheets of warm rain bathed the snow covered slopes, causing several to give way. Snow, trees, house-sized boulders and earth careened into the creek bottom creating temporary dams. As the rains poured down the slopes filling nature’s reservoirs, the weight of the water surpassed the power of the dams. A torrential, slurried mass of water broke through the barriers and headed for the main river.
Massive trees three, four, five feet in diameter, once perched high on the slopes of the creek were now caught in a 50-foot wall of water that was ripping and scouring the narrow canyon walls.
To understand the pure strength and raw force of water is to look at the mouth of a creek after a flood. Or better yet, to be there, safely perched high above, when it happens. To witness the pure energy behind the torrent of water. To literally feel, in a rush of air and a wall of sound, the streambed being ripped to the bone and carried into the river.
The rocks, trees, and silt that made up the Black Creek debris flow forced its way across the Salmon creating a natural dam in the river. The mighty Salmon River was forced to pause behind the debris, covering the once treacherous Salmon Falls under several feet of water.
After all the effort men had taken over years to attempt to tame Salmon Falls, little Black Creek did it in one blowout.
For weeks the river was impassable as the main river began to scour new routes over and through the debris dam. The process created a new rapid, quickly dubbed Black Creek Rapid by the river community.
Some projected that with time, this rapid would be swept away and Salmon Falls would rise again.This may still happen but for now, Black Creek has garnered the respect and attention of every boater.
As each season passes the newly deposited boulders under Black Creek Rapid move. Last winter’s ice flows nudge them. Peak spring flows roll them. With each season, the rapid changes, adding an unnerving level of unpredictability to the table.
Salmon Falls may have been steeper, its chutes narrower, its holes bigger, but Salmon Falls had been around for decades. The boulders that made Salmon Falls had settled. It was predictable.
Experienced boaters love this new challenge. The calm waters covering their old friend Salmon Falls only heighten the adventure of seeing what their new friend has to show.
We are floating through the slack water before Black Creek, the calm makes the rapid that much more ominous. The overwhelming sound of the rapid adds to the tension. We float closer, adjusting the angle of the boat as we go. The dramatic fall line makes it hard to see what’s below. The oarswoman is up on her feet, stretching to read the features of the river.
At the top of the rapid, as the current speeds up catching the nose of the boat as it does, senses are heightened. We can hear the water crashing into the rocks below, we can see the big waves curl into one another, we can feel the force of the river grab the boat and thrust it forward.
It is over quickly, too quickly. The tumbling down, the charging through the walls of water. Our adrenaline is still pumping, and hair and clothes are drenched. Nothing can stop the joyful cries we let out — for the river and for ourselves. We look back at the rapid. We think of how much Mother Nature gave to make it. We soak it in.
Then we turn out boats downstream and float on.
Carrey, Johnny, and Conley, Cort. River of No Return. Cambridge: Backeddy Books, 1978. Print.
Farr, Derek. “Haven’t Run the Salmon in a While? Meet Black Creek Rapid.” River Currents Blog: Holiday River Expeditions. April 2015.
Hill, Kathy D. Spirits of the Salmon River. Cambridge: Backeddy Books, 2001. Print
Landers, Rich. “Blowout Blocks Salmon River, Creates New Rapid.” The Spokesman-Review 21 April 2011. Print