In my last blog I wrote about my experiences on the Snake River. A few weeks after that excursion, I undertook another. I motored from Boise up along the western edge of Idaho nearly to Canada, then dropped down and traversed the state on Highway 12 to Missoula. I re-entered Idaho just north of North Fork and made my way to Ketchum and home. Yes, that’s a long trip! 2,400 miles. It was never less than wonderful.
Among the numerous and diverse landscapes I saw and vowed to paint this year, I’d like to tell you about what most impressed me.
The Salmon River.
It seems that any discussion about the wonders of Idaho always comes down to rivers. They are not only the lifeblood of our home, they are also its artists. You may have noticed that Idaho is very bumpy. It’s so bumpy that only Alaska has more bumps. While volcanoes and uplifting plates pushed up most of those bumps, it’s been water that’s been cutting them down to size. And shape. All that vertical land makes water collect and flow. The flows ceaselessly carve out the canyons that define the character of the rivers.
I spent a major part of this trip cuddling with the Salmon River. I picked it up in Riggins as it came out of the Frank Church Wilderness and it stayed with me like a loyal friend to White Bird. There it left me to join with the Snake some 70 or so miles west. After I went north as far as Bonners Ferry and crossed the state, I reunited with the Salmon at North Fork. From there we two friends chatted and cried and laughed all the way to its humble beginnings due west of Galena Summit.
Unlike the Snake, the Salmon River borrows water from no other state. It is the only major river that begins and ends in Idaho, at its confluence with the Snake. It also is the only major river in Idaho that flows unabated along its entire length. There once was a dam at Sunbeam to serve the dredging there for gold, but that dam got its legs blown up many years ago.
Unlike the Snake River, the Salmon River truly is the People’s River. Even by car, you can keep it in your sight for all its north/south sections. Its shores remain accessible to everyone in most places. Very little agriculture lies along it. East to west, you can easily plop a boat in and float deliciously on its waters. Scream through its rapids. Nowhere does it cease being a strong current, happy river.
I realized on this trip that in my time in Idaho I have walked, driven or floated every part of the Salmon River. I’ve stepped across its headwaters, driven Highways 75, 93 and 95, and plied oars from the confluence with the Middle Fork to its confluence with the Snake. I’ve done that four times. While the Middle Fork is an experience unrivaled in rafting, the Salmon itself is unrivaled for its continuous, lengthy magnificence. Those hundreds of miles from its humble beginnings springing from a hillside to its marriage with the Snake have no flaws. Not one. The canyon of the Salmon, or rather the canyons of the Salmon, are the work of an artistic genius.
Other rivers, of course, make their aesthetic case. None match the Salmon for its unerring designs for such a long distance. Everything surrounding the Salmon River for its entire length is at any point a spot to sit and marvel at nature’s good taste and impeccable design. While you do have to either score a permit or hire a company to get through the wilderness sections, I contend that the most impressive part of the Salmon River is anyone’s — with access to a car.
On this trip I was reminded of this fact. So taken was I that I’ve now come to claim that the drive from North Fork to Challis along Highway 93 could be the most beautiful drive in the country. I won’t back down from that claim. Other drives in other states may be wonderful, but none are more so. I encourage you to test my claim by making the trip yourself. It’s worth every effort to get there.
What’s so good about it? It changes around every turn. The river is the constant, always by your side, always in view. It’s the artist at an exhibition of its work saying, “Look at what I’ve done! Really look at it!” The raw materials remain the same – rock, vegetation, water. The variations of creation with those materials create motifs that never repeat. Color, texture, density, rough/smooth, three dimensions, maybe four, a sense of time, a sense of intent as if the river planned out and knew exactly what it was going for in every half mile section. Nothing looks out of place yet everything surprises.
The speed limit is 65 but should be about 30 at most. A bicycle would be best but I wouldn’t be caught dead on one on that road. Actually, you might be caught dead on it on a bicycle. No, it’s a car path, mostly built up without any shoulder. But the locals are in a hurry. I had to constantly look for a pull over to let them pass. It did give me time to wipe some of the drool off my chin.
So the Salmon River is my favorite river in a state full of rivers that would be favorite rivers if they weren’t all in Idaho. We have an embarrassment of riches. In the Gem State, the Salmon River is the real deal. If the Snake is like hearing Caruso’s voice scratchily played on an old 78 rpm, the Salmon River is like having Caruso in your living room, who after breaking some wine glasses with the power of his voice, then breaks your heart and soothes your mind with the clarity and depth of his singing.