The Salmon-Challis National Forest expands over 4.2 million acres of Idaho backcountry. The wildlands of the Salmon-Challis National Forest are largely roadless; they contain essential habitats for plant and wildlife species as well as crucial waterways for ecosystems and water use across central Idaho. To celebrate the importance of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, ICL will be publishing a blog series celebrating this vital land and the opportunities provided within.

Of all the spectacular waterways that lace the Salmon-Challis National Forest, perhaps none is more revered than the tumultuous and enchanting Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The waters of the Middle Fork travel north, dropping from high-alpine mountain meadows to desertic, sage-covered hills, and through dramatic, rocky canyons before dumping into the Main Salmon River 112 miles downstream.

Annika Witt is a professional river guide on the Middle Fork. ICL spoke with her to learn about what the Salmon-Challis National Forest means to her, and what it’s like to be a steward of wild experiences. Witt shared stories of adventure, self-reliance, and connection. 

Adrenaline and adventure prevail

We sat down for a beer in Hailey, Idaho, on a bustling spring day that felt well removed from the serene rush of the Middle Fork; however, the excitement of the river bubbled up in Witt as soon as she started speaking about the river. 

“I have a lot of great memories from my time on the Middle Fork,” Witt began. “But one of my recent favorites would be last year at high water. We were in the Impassible Canyon.” The Impassible Canyon is one of the Middle Fork’s most dramatic stretches of terrain, with colossal rock walls that tower hundreds of feet above the river. This narrow beltway—one of the deepest gorges on the continent—is famous for non-stop action, with some of the river’s most vicious white water features.

Witt brings us into the moment: 

“Weber [rapid] is massive, and I’m already sweating. I’m repeating to myself what I’m going to do in my head. I’m seeing this train of people going through it, thinking to myself, ‘Oh man, what is about to go down?’ The horizon line is just massive waves.” Witt explained.

“So I get in there, and I swear it was a ten-foot drop, right off the bat. You’ve got one right lateral [wave], and then two lefts. The left lateral [wave] is what will get you. If you go in even a little bit sideways, you’re going to tip. But someone had told me: you want to tee up for that right wave, and as you come through it—at the very last second—put in a backstroke to be left. Then push hard.” Witt paused.

“And I nailed it. I think it was my second high-water trip, and I nailed my line compared to the week before. I was so stoked that I nailed my line and didn’t go in the water. And that feeling, that adrenaline rush, when it’s real high water… That’s amazing.” Witt smiled, before adding with a laugh: 

“Your guests are terrified and you’re going, ‘it’s fine, we are totally fine, just don’t look at me!

A connection with land becomes a connection with others

Sharing adventure on a rugged, untamed river with guests—strangers, prior to put-in—has profoundly influenced Witt’s understanding of the space, of the river, and of the surrounding wild lands.  

“You make your own little community out there, and it allows people to tap back into the most childish parts of themselves.” Witt described the ways children and adults alike become entirely engaged in the landscape, and how families find themselves becoming more playful and present.

“It’s such a spectacular place. It’s one of the most remote places you can get to, with no cell service, no roads… There are not many places left that are truly remote like that. I think that creates a special kind of connection between people.” Witt shared a story of a family she guided; they had recently undergone a great deal of trauma, and the wilderness space allowed the family to come together and begin to heal. 

“It was so amazing how together they were able to be. And how grateful they all were. We had some really intense, vulnerable, human talks [with the family]. [The mother] was really grateful for the time that they were able to be together, and felt like it was a really healing trip for them,” Witt shared. 

“I felt like the Middle Fork provided the recipe to make that safe space, that space to share, to work through some of what they’d been through.”

The grandest teacher

When asked about her own relation to the river, Witt could hardly settle on one aspect of her experience that outshone any of the others. However, she finally arrived at the theme she’d returned to all throughout our conversation: connection. 

“[The Middle Fork] makes me feel more connected to myself and connected to my values. In a time of a lot of noise, it’s a respite. It actually allows you to think.” Witt reflected.

“That was the reason I went out there in the first place. I was out of college and feeling lost, and I wanted the opportunity to get on the Middle Fork. I loved guiding, so I got a job. And it ultimately allowed me to connect with myself and with others in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

“It’s the grandest teacher, a river.” Witt smiled. 

“She is this powerful beast, and you can’t try to muscle her, or tell her what to do. She’s going to tell you what to do, and you have to work with her. I’ve learned so much in reading water and being out on the river, in problem-solving, in trusting myself… Gratitude isn’t the right word for what I feel, it is so unquantifiable. That’s why I love sharing it with guests every week. I think it’s such an incredible space to be in. And the more people who get to experience that, the better.”