The Salmon River of Idaho cuts a swath of country wild and rugged, inhabited over the eons by wandering nomads and wayward hermits. Tracing an arc from its origins in the Stanley Basin and nearby headwaters, it follows a well worn crack revealing some of the oldest minerals visible anywhere on earth on its north then west then south before turning west again path towards its confluence with the Snake River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean.
The geology within its canyon walls dates back at least 1.4 billion years to the Precambrian and Paleozoic epochs. As forces of nature deposited a variety of sediments across the state which later metamorphosed into the gneiss, schist and quartzite visible inside its gorge, the river began its ravenous gravity fed journey towards the sea. Shaped by faulting and uplifting of the central Idaho batholith the downward cutting eventually shepherded its raucous currents to form the channel it follows today.
Inhabited by a variety of peoples dating back to at least 8,000-11,000 years ago, descendants of the ancient Cordilleran culture which wandered south through the Rocky Mountains eventually began to scratch out a living amid its unique climate. The Nez Percé (named as such by Canadian fur trappers for their traditional pierced noses) were one of the descendants of this clan which remained and became lasting nomads of the forbidding terrain.
The Nez Percé considered the Salmon River country sacred as it provided in abundance the sustenance needed to survive thanks to its abundant salmon and steelhead fishery. Before the modern era of hydro dams and pollution the Salmon provided 45% of the stealhead trout and summer and fall Chinook of the entire Columbia watershed.
The River of No Return
It earns its name “The River of No Return” for its wilderness shrouded, roadless section which spans a massive piece of country between the outposts of Salmon and Riggins Idaho. This stretch once nearly 200 miles in length with canyon depths upwards of 5,000 feet was and in some regards still is, a one way street. Pioneers managed to assemble watercraft to navigate the waters but once they passed into the canyon no way back to the start existed. Massive “sweep” boats served as the early supply line into the canyon, but once they reached their destination, currents proved to powerful to return them back to their point of origin thus forcing the hearty men and women to disassemble them and use them for lumber. Hence the name “River of No Return”.
Lewis and Clark
Lewis and Clark came across the Salmon River and went on to describe it as “foaming and roaring through rocks in every direction, so as to render the passage of anything impossible.” This was in 1805 and it would be nearly fifty years later before gold was discovered that the drainage would be thoroughly explored and catalogued. Gold fever brought about an era of mining and prospecting that ultimately only managed to produce fewer pinches of gold dust than epic stories of survival and perseverance.
Over the decades roads did find their way to the river’s banks but an 85 mile section of wilderness remains, fittingly named the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness after the conservation minded Idaho senator and native son who served 24 years in congress as a noted progressive, environmental legislator.