“Very few Idaho recreationists get to see this stretch of river,” Rich Bupp, Executive Director of EarthKnowSys and former Jarbidge river ranger tells ICL staff as he places a few delicate paddle strokes. Our raft drifts along the deep-green waters of the Snake River. To our right is the Snake River Canyon’s signature wall of purplish-brown basalt columns, littered with bird nests. To our left, yellow hills climb up to the valley rim. On either side, the world above is covered in crops; from where we are, we can hardly tell, save the occasional irrigation pipe.
We’ve just passed Bancroft Springs, which runs cold and clear, cutting a swirling path into the green waters of the Snake. The springs are a perfect representation of the Snake River Aquifer’s almost mystical defiance of the surrounding rocky desert; crystal water erupts from seemingly solid volcanic rock, creating a vibrant oasis complete with willows, wildflowers, and butterflies. We spot trout and whitefish lingering in the confluence, right on the line between the clear and green water.
It’s relatively calm by Bancroft Springs, but that’s hardly the case across the entirety of the stretch we’ve floated thus far. From the put-in just below Bliss Dam, we’d barely been on the water for 15 minutes before running the splashy, angry calamity of Peg Leg, a Class IV rapid. Bupp informed us that Peg Leg has notoriously claimed a jet boat or two; they still sit, allegedly, at the bottom of the river. For all the nervous talk, however, Bupp guided us through with grace and ease.
The quiet and momentary distance we experience from the outside world while passing Bancroft Springs is similarly fleeting. Both downstream and upstream of the springs, we are reminded that this swirling beast of a river is allocated, first and foremost, to agriculture. We float by enormous irrigation pumps, their constant thrum audible from far upstream. The relics of failed aqueducts follow us on the canyon rim, cement crumbling down the slopes. An abundance of aquatic plants—known as macrophytes—billow in the river current; the dense mats of aquatic plants indicate an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen which flows from agricultural lands, fish farms, dairies, and wastewater treatment plants.
At the same time, this overworked river is home to a surprising array of wildlife. ICL staff spotted approximately 30 Great Blue Herons along the waters. Almost equal in number are chatty kingfishers chittering overhead. We watch several ospreys follow the river’s path, one with a sizable fresh fish lunch in its talons. A golden eagle hops from rock to rock on the bank, scouring the grass for a mouse or ermine, perhaps? We scoop up Western Pearlshell Mussels from the riverbed. This abundance of wildlife serves as an indication of just how much southern Idaho thrives thanks to the Snake River, from the alfalfa fields to the little American Dippers.
We float gently onward, crossing under I-84. Bupp chats with ICL staff about various efforts to protect the water quality of these stretches of the Mid-Snake. By the time we round the next large bend in the river, the canyon walls are slightly lower, and we can see the scattered properties of the King Hill community. The river slows here, thick and silty. In the heat of the afternoon sun, we reflect on this incredible waterway and its many sustained communities.
Our spectacular Snake River adventure with Bupp is nearly over. Delightful as the adventure may have been, that’s not what feels salient about at this moment. What sticks with us, as we watch the green fields of King Hill drift by, is a reminder of the value of restoring this river and keeping it healthy, clean, and usable for generations (of humans, of kingfishers, of trout) to come.
To learn about ICL’s work to clean up the Snake River, sign up for our Snake River Campaign Updates.