Where Salmon Danced
Mourning on the River of No Return
By Jim Mullen
“Eddy out, eddy out, eddy out!” Arms circle overhead, the shouts carry across the water and bounce off canyon walls as kayaks swoop and spin into the calm water. Melissa, our guide, a cowboy hat on top and pigtails on each shoulder, is perched high on the back of the six-man raft. “Good job, duckies, good job,” she calls. We do look like rubber duckies, the bathtub kind. Our bright yellow helmets and scarlet-red life vests are the only part of us visible above the waterline.
The birth of the Salmon River started in the Eocene epoch about fifty million years ago, when the Sawtooth Range was thrust ten thousand feet above Idaho’s sea level. Pleistocene glaciers slowly started carving the lakes, gorges, moraines, horns, hanging valleys, cirques, and arêtes two and half million years ago. When the Ice Age ended, a pinecone that dropped into the Salmon River could have floated a thousand miles into the Pacific Ocean. High up, the headwaters are only a trickle from the seasonal snowmelt. But downstream, with the accumulation of the spring rain, the Salmon stretches out into riffles, rapids, deep pools, meandering oxbows, and dogleg turns. Water like blood flowing through our veins is the source of all life. From this water the mighty salmon emerged, the great leaping fish that would for thousands of years play a life-sustaining role in the Pacific Northwest.
Our kayaks shove off into the fast water. We can hear the growing roar of the approaching waterfall and the rapids below. The six-man raft disappears, Melissa’s cowboy hat dropping off the horizon like a tennis ball rolling off a table. My stomach drops like a roller coaster ride, down to the bottom, leaning forward so as not to get sucked back into the foam pile of the plunge pool. Then boom, shot up on a six-foot wave, blinded by mist and spray. Fighting to keep the kayak’s nose pointing downstream, I shoot past boulders and over rocks the size of Volkswagen bugs. Melissa’s instructions are my mantra: stay right, find the thread, stay right, find the thread.