Location: The Salmon River runs across Idaho, from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains until it empties into the Snake River at Lewiston. The area of Clark’s reconnaissance can be explored just off U.S. 93 at North Fork, Idaho, about 20 miles north of Salmon, Idaho.
The Salmon River is one of the premier recreational rivers of the world. Depending on the time of year you go and the section you choose, you can experience anything from gentle rafting to heart-pounding whitewater action. You can also go for almost any length of time you choose, from half-day excursions to week-long camping and rafting trips. A few years ago, we took a half-day float trip and I have been dreaming about getting back and going for longer ever since.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark also dreamed of taking a trip on the Salmon River. When they reached the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, they were confronted with the reality of crossing the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. Not surprisingly, they quailed at the idea of subjecting themselves and their men to such a brutal and risky ordeal. Lewis and Clark were camping with Sacagawea’s people, the Shoshones, and interviewed them as to the prospects for navigating through the mountains by river.
Despite assurances by the Indians that “it can’t be done, hoss” (or words to that effect), Lewis and Clark decided it would be worth doing a reconnaissance of a large river that lay just ten miles from the Shoshone camp. Clark hired a Shoshone guide known as Old Toby and headed out on August 21, 1805. That first night, Clark and Toby camped just off the modern highway. Clark was impressed with the size and beauty of the river and noted:
I observed that it was a handsom river at my camp I shall in justice to Capt Lewis who was the first white man ever on this fork of the Columbia Call this Louis’s river.
By the next day, Clark found the going very rough. The river tumbled through steep mountains and was as swift and treacherous as it was lovely:
proceed on with great dificuelty as the rocks were So Sharp large and unsettled and the hill sides Steep that the horses could with the greatest risque and dificulty get on.
After two days of exploration, Clark had to admit it. Not matter how you sliced it (or spelled it), Lewis’s River was impossible. In his methodical Army way, Clark enumerated the difficulties:
1. The going was awful: The River from the place I left my party to this Creek is almost one continued rapid, five verry Considerable rapids the passage of either with Canoes is entirely impossable, as the water is Confined betwen hugh Rocks & the Current beeting from one against another for Some distance below &c. &c.
2. A portage would daunt a suicidal mountain goat: at one of those rapids the mountains Close So Clost as to prevent a possibility of a portage with great labour in Cutting down the Side of the hill removeing large rocks &c. &c. all the others may be passed by takeing every thing over Slipery rocks, and the Smaller ones Passed by letting down the Canoes empty with Cords, as running them would certainly be productive of the loss of Some Canoes.
3. There was nothing to eat: Those dificuelties and necessary precautions would delay us an emince time in which provisions would be necessary. (we have but little and nothing to be precured in this quarter except Choke Cheres & red haws not an animal of any kind to be seen and only the track of a Bear)
4. The intelligence didn’t look too good either: My guide and maney other Indians tell me that the Mountains Close and is a perpendicular Clift on each Side, and Continues for a great distance and that the water runs with great violence from one rock to the other on each Side foaming & roreing thro rocks in every direction, So as to render the passage of any thing impossible. those rapids which I had Seen he said was Small & trifleing in comparrison to the rocks & rapids below.
Clark and Toby followed an Indian road to the vicinity of present-day Shoup, Idaho, a tiny burg where today’s recreational boaters can get gas or a burger. The two men climbed to a high point, where Clark had something of the same revelation that Lewis had a a few days earlier at Lemhi Pass: namely, that that they faced an ordeal now greater than any that had gone before. If he and Lewis failed here, the expedition could be defeated. They could even die here.
Reunited on August 26, Lewis and Clark talked it over. Turning back was never an option. They hired Old Toby as a guide, and got busy trading for horses and getting ready to take to the mountains.
The very whitewater, steep cliffs, and mountain views that made the Salmon River so impractical for Lewis & Clark’s dugouts now attracts thousands of people a year to the region for incomparable canoeing, kayaking, and rafting, along with fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and camping. It is the centerpiece of the largest designated wilderness area in the United States, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area (named for the legendary Idaho senator who wrote the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the nickname of the river bestowed by early gold prospectors).
There are literally dozens of rafting outfitters in Idaho who can help you go on an adventure that suits your fitness level and thirst for adventure. The huge whitewater rapids are in May and June; we went in July and had a gentler float with just a few small rapids, though we did get pretty wet! It can be confusing deciding what you want to do and where. I recommend sitting down with a good guidebook and reading up on the options before starting to browse the web and becoming overwhelmed with information from all the outfitters. However you decide to experience it, don’t miss this gorgeous piece of American wilderness.
After our trip, we stayed at the Stagecoach Inn, a quaint motel in Salmon, Idaho, with barrels of flowers outside each door and the Salmon River running right outside! We had a wonderful dinner of trout and great potatoes at a restaurant called the Shady Nook. I would like to return here someday.