Salmon River Odyssey
Years on the Middle Fork
Story by John Carter
Photos Courtesy of John Carter
In 1933, shortly after the marriage of Lydia Mae Connet Carter and Vernon Silas Carter, who were to become my parents, the newlyweds decided to have an adventure rather than get accustomed to life in Boise. Vernon, who was twenty-three, was among the nation’s lucky ones during the Great Depression, because he had a job, as an orderly at the Veterans Administration Hospital in town.
He quit it and headed with his eighteen-year-old bride for Salmon River country, where he intended to make ends meet by prospecting for gold and silver. They had a little camera and took many photographs, which they developed themselves.
Most of them have faded to the point of invisibility by now, but some are left. A few show Dad placer mining with the sluice box he built. They must’ve had a modicum of success because they lived down there, in what is now the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, for about eight years.
Their adventure was memorialized in a photo that ran in the July 1936 issue of National Geographic Magazine, as part of a wider-ranging story titled, “Down Idaho’s River of No Return.” The caption of the photograph begins, “Youth finds reality and romance in gold digging.”
The picture shows the young couple in the prow of a boat and the caption continues, “Passing down the Salmon, the expedition met several young placer miners who were trying their luck on the river banks. This couple has stopped prospecting long enough to accompany the National Geographic Society from Long Tom Rapids to the mouth of the Middle Fork.” The couple is not named, but they were my parents.
Neither my brother Bill nor I ever thought to ask Mom and Dad what led to their daring decision. I have to think it was primarily Dad’s idea. I just can’t picture Mom saying something like, “Vernon, I think we should throw caution to the winds, leave Boise, and head off into the wilderness. Out along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. We can live in a tent to begin with. You can mine for gold.
“We’ll float downstream from the town of Salmon with our provisions in a boat until we get to where the Middle Fork comes in. Then we’ll pull the boat by rope up the Middle Fork until we find a good spot. What boat, you ask? Our very own. We’ll buy the lumber in Salmon to build it, which we can do along the bank next to where we’ll launch it. Once we get where we’re going, we’ll tear the boat apart. You can use the lumber to make your sluice box. We can build a hard-sided tent. We’ll have a grand time.”
No, it had to be Dad. Had he read about that country in some pulp magazine? Or did he know someone who had been there? Every time I think about them doing what they did, I kick myself for not asking the obvious questions. What gave you the idea? Why there? It’s not easy to get in there even now, ninety years later. What sort of planning went into it? Think of all the stuff they needed. Tent. Stove. Winter clothes. Lantern. Lantern fuel. Tools. Hunting gear. Fishing gear. Camera. Film. Developing supplies. Food to last through a long, snowbound winter. Snowshoes.
Did they have a list? Did they carefully gather all this paraphernalia before leaving Boise? Or did they just drive to Salmon and start asking the locals what they would need? All these questions! And no answers. The bottom line is that they made a life together in that remote country for years. And toward the end of it, they had me.