Drifting down the Main Salmon can feel like drifting through time. The deeper into the Frank Church Wilderness you float, the farther back in time you go. Back before screens dominated our world. Before phones connected and disconnected us. Before cars sped us up and spread us out. Before men made clusters of permanent structures. Back to when the only hominids roaming the landscape were Native Americans.
It is essential, during our trip, to stop and appreciate these historical signs of life. They give us the subtle reminders we need to keep us in the present — to keep our minds from drifting to our waiting desks or voice messages or emails. They remind us that life did go on before all of that. Successfully. Fluidly.
So, once past Devil’s Teeth rapid, we pull our boats to the banks and climb out in search of the Devil’s Toe pictographs. We are searching for the painting of a different group of humans from a different time.
The Nez Perce was the largest group of people to reside on the Main Salmon River. The Nez Perce depended on the life waters of the Salmon. They used the deep canyons of the Salmon to protect them from the winter chill. They used the dependable spring and fall run of anadromous fish to nourish them.
The Nez Perce spent most of their winter and spring months on the banks of the Salmon River. The men forwent hunting large game for catching fish. The women harvested roots from the fecund riparian zone. Food was dried and stored in wicker baskets made of grass from the steep hillsides surrounding the river.
Even in the summer when they left the river canyon for higher ground, the Nez Perce brought the river with them. They decorated themselves in river shells and teeth from river animals. They brought along caches of dried and smoked salmon to use for eating and trading.
In the summer months, when the heat of the canyon became unbearable, the Nez Perce would travel to the high plains to dig for camas root and kaus plant and hunt for deer, elk, and bear. The migration and the hunt were made easier sometime in the early 1700’s when the Nez Perce acquired horses. The horses quickly became a status of wealth within a tribe. One wealthy man may have owned several hundred horses.
The animals allowed them to move with the seasons up and down the Salmon River valley. It also allowed for trading with the Plains Indians. The Nez Perce would bring the shells, salmon oil and fish of the river and trade for the buffalo skins and feathers of the plains.
While on the riverbanks, the Nez Perce lived in partially subterranean circular houses and circular tents. They used reeds and grasses from the riverbanks to create roofs for their dwellings. Several families would live in one large house for warmth and socialization.
While the largest, The Nez Perce were not the only group who depended on the Salmon River and surrounding area for life.
In stark contrast to the highly populous Nez Perce were the Northern Shoshone. The Shoshone inhabited the Northern Great Basin area – an area where subsistence living was much harder. The area received very little rain and thus held very little vegetative or animal life.
As a result, the Northern Shoshone were a sparsely populated group. The Shoshone were split into many different bands. One band, known as the Mountain Shoshone or Sheepeaters traveled up the Snake to the Salmon and made a home of the steep mountains surrounding the Middle Fork and Main Salmon River.
There, they hunted the big game of the area. Above all, the Sheepeaters lived on the meat of elk, deer and, as their nickname suggests, big sheep. They were known as the best hunters on foot in Idaho. Their bows, made out of laminated big sheep horns or elk antlers, were renowned and the Sheepeaters were able to make valuable trades with them.
Sheepeaters were also known for their intricately made clothing. Unlike their plains neighbors who wore light skins combined with bark and woven grass for clothing, the Sheepeaters wore a variety of expertly tanned animal skins. Women wore gowns of mountain sheep skin, men wore breach clothes of antelope skin. Moccasins were made of badger, elk, or deerskin. Their finest garments were thick robes made of the hides of wolves. These, like their bows, could be traded with the Plains people for buffalo meat and even horses.
Though they may have had the chance, for the most part Sheepeaters never became a horse people. Their home was far too rugged to support the animal. Instead, the Mountain Shoshone migrated, gathered seeds and roots, and even hunted on foot. The rugged people made snowshoes in the winter so that they could continue to hunt big game. In the summer, they wandered the river canyons, adding a riparian element to their diet.
While the Sheepeaters did make a winter home of the Upper Salmon river near the confluence of the Lemhi, their time spent further down the Main Salmon was in the summer. They would come down from the Salmon Range to gather seeds and roots and to fish the large salmon with dams and weirs.
Though, unlike the Nez Perce, the Sheepeaters relied more on the plants and animals of the high mountains than the river, the Middle Fork and Main Salmon were still an important part of their lives and their survival. And evidence of their beautiful existence in the area can still be found along the riverbanks — in old fire rings, in sacred burial grounds, and in the red markings on the stones above the river.
With a short hike up, we can see the Devil’s Toe pictographs. The bright rust-red symbols stamp the rock with history, with the paintings of these skilled people. Archeologists have identified these particular images as the art of the Sheepeaters though both the Nez Perce and the Mountain Shoshone roamed the area. It is nice to sit for a second and listen to the river below and contemplate the two amazing groups of people who lived so naturally and harmoniously in this beautiful place.
When we get up to leave, to continue our journey downriver, we feel inspired by the artwork of those who came before. The images remind us to really enjoy and soak in the rest or our journey through the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
Walker Jr. , Deward E.. Indians of Idaho. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1978. Print.
Orr, Elizabeth, Orr, William. Rivers of the West. A Guide to the Geology and History. Eugene: Eagle Web Press, 1985. Print.
Carrey, Johnny, Conley, Cort. The Middle Fork. A Guide. Cambridge: Backeddy Books, 1992. Print.
“A History of the Salmon National Forest.” U.S. Forest Service. n.p., n.d.. Web. April. 2015. http:// www.foresthistory.org/ASPNET/Publications/ region/4/ salmon/part1.htm.
“Natives and Locals.” National Park Service. n.p. n.d. Web. April. 2015. http://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/upload/part1.pdf.