The River of No Return: It’s Just Stuff

I AM TIRED. It is midnight. I have been following the winding black asphalt paralleling the Selway River in Idaho for hours, driving from Whitefish, Mont., to Grangeville, Idaho, and the Lower Salmon River where I am to rendezvous with a group of boaters. I’m here to report on this storied river where over seven days, we plan to float, fish, hunt and camp our way through Nez Percé country to its confluence with the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia River and on to the ocean.

We are strangers to one another, at least temporarily. The float is more than 60 miles long.

I have recently returned from guiding in Alaska. I have fished hundreds of rivers, but have never laid eyes on the Salmon River. No one in our group has. Our only intel is a map and a phone call to the local BLM office. Their personnel were nonchalant about the Class III and IV rapids, indicating they should be more navigable this late in the season.

We are counting on the quiet waters of autumn.

At 7 a.m., I arrive at the launch site in the midst of packing mayhem. Steam rises from the warming dark rock of the canyon walls as I greet my new companions. A rock wren bobs on a piece of basalt as if on a hot plate, its white throat and red tail twitch as a miniature bullfighter’s cape. The temperature is 35 degrees, moderate for the end of October. The forecast calls for high pressure all week.

Our group includes Bob, a photographer from Ketchum, and his friends Dave, Cameron, Harry and Mike. They are fishing guides from Idaho and Colorado. Mike’s girlfriend, Kim, and Cam’s dog, Rush, an English spaniel, round out our group.

The Nez Percé call the Salmon “Natsoh Koos” or “Chinook Salmon Water,” while early explorers termed it “River of No Return” because of their difficulties dragging wooden boats upstream through the rapids. This 425-mile-long river is one of the longest free-flowing stretches of water and one of a few unencumbered by dams in the Lower 48.

Our boats are a Hyde 15-foot aluminum-hulled driftboat and two 13-foot whitewater rafts outfitted with full rowing/fishing frames. The locals on the river use larger, aluminum, inboard jetboats. They fish conventional spinning or bait-casting gear. Our intention is to catch steelhead on the fly. These fish are large — 16-pounders are not unheard of. Their strength is legendary. They feed voraciously in the ocean for the majority of the year, then make the long journey upriver to spawn.

We carry a full complement of fly rods, 15 between us. Fourteen-foot, two-handed Spey rods, 9- and 10-foot, 7- and 8-weight rods are rigged with a full set of steelhead flies: the green butt skunk, a classic; purple articulated leeches, stonefly nymphs and egg patterns are a few of our staple selections. Some of the fishing utilizes “traditional” steelhead tactics — quartering downstream casts, swinging wet flies and leech patterns, stripping through inside seams. On our first day we meet with limited success, landing a few rainbow trout, but no steelhead.

The water is deep; I lack conviction in swinging unweighted flies. I opt to fish a heavy nymph set-up. I attach an indicator with a 13-foot fluorocarbon leader to 5/0 split shot, 18 inches down to a 1/8-ounce pink marabou jig, then another 18 inches to an egg pattern. I focus on the difficult timing of pulling the heavy rig from deep beneath the water’s surface and balancing a cast that requires a different type of “finesse.” The arm becomes a shock absorber for the weight on the backcast. I am forced to steady myself and almost knock myself unconscious when the jig inevitably hits me in the back of the head. It hurts for days.

The water is mixed with tannins of centuries-old volcanic activity. Sagebrush lines portions of the shore, intermixing with white sand beaches. The bank walls are symmetrical in places. I am reminded of an ancient fortress — stone walls with moss-capped sentinels. As we drift in the slow-moving current, we quickly notice large, uprooted trees a dozen vertical feet above the water line. It reminds us of the power of the river at higher levels. The mosaic of yellows, greens, reds and golds of autumn offer sharp contrast to the black basalt walls. Trees grow out of these same steep cliffs.

We fish and float, enjoying the scenery and getting to know one another. We catch nothing. The clouds swirl, forming deer, a crab, a salamander. We hear only our own echoing voices, the dip of the oar blades and the canyon wren.

The next morning, sipping coffee around a campfire on a quiet beach, Bob and Cameron head off for a couple hours to scare up chukar, a grayish-brown South Asian partridge with red legs and bill. Others cast into seams from shore.

In the evening, we feast together on curried chicken and rice concoctions or marinara pasta dishes. We sip whiskey and tell stories around the fire until the blanket of clouds opens to reveal stars on the night canvas.

“I don’t need to catch a fish. It’s about the experience of being out here,” says Cameron. His comment is sincere. All anglers have uttered the words. But the amount of times you hear it around a campfire is in inverse proportion to how many fish are being caught.

We are anxious to land some of the giant steelhead the Salmon is renowned for. And the chukar? Well, at least we heard a few.

But on the second evening, Cameron and Bob set off with their guns and I watch Rush deftly avoid the pad-piercing defenses of the prickly pear cactus that inundate the area. A few minutes later we hear a lone shot and Cameron returns with a grouse. The meat is red and tender, delicate.

WAKING ON THE THIRD MORNING I feel that our luck is about to change, even if a packrat has run off with my expensive fluorocarbon tippet. The day is gorgeous and the sun’s rays are quick to melt the evening frost. Our map tells us that this section will contain the most whitewater on the trip, offering a section of Class III rapids and one Class IV, a fun-filled day of watery wave trains.

We scout the early sets of rapids, taking care to communicate with one another. Harry is on the sticks today and we run the first rapid without incident, water splashing over the tubes, onto our faces, invigorating our spirits. I glance back to see Cameron and Bob running a rapid in the drift boat, sun gleaming off the aluminum bottomed hull, exposing the entire bottom of their boat as they enter a 2-foot drop.

We stop to fish in a deep run before scouting Snowhole Rapid, the lone Class IV we have identified on the map. I am offered the oars, but decline. Harry leads, maneuvering the raft into the first wave and makes the crux move. The bow is facing downstream left and Harry pivots us at the exact moment to downstream right, simultaneously pulling us away from a large exposed rock. We skirt the sucking hole the rock creates and slide outside the heaviest river current.

The dory and raft make equally impressive maneuvers. We breathe a collective sigh, bobbing above the gurgling and swirling water, the biggest rapid of the trip is behind us. An ever-vigilant osprey circles above as we pass around a red-wine-filled milk jug and toast our success.

Our light is waning, yet we have covered barely seven miles. The group agrees to push a few more miles to what appears on the map to be a decent campsite. Invigorated, I offer to take a turn rowing.

Thwack! A loud splash between the boats shatters the silence.

“That was a big steelhead,” shouts Harry. “I saw it. It was huge, man!”

No one has seen the flash of fish, though we nod in conceded agreement. Moments later, heads turn in the direction of a second thwack! just in time to see a beaver’s furred form disappear beneath the surface. We laugh in unison.

The water is slow-moving and makes a meandering left turn. The land and rock mass that created the bend in the river has muffled the sound of the rapid below us. It is a snakish piece of water, littered with boulders on the right side. Cameron and Bob are in front in the dory, having assessed it from the water, deciding to run it without further scouting. Mike, Kim and Dave are 50 feet behind them. We are 150 feet behind them.

The river pitch drops and I lose sight of Cameron’s boat in the rapid. The nose of the boat points skyward. In a flash, I see bodies jettisoning, dog swimming, dry bags floating, the boat resembling a mini-Titanic, the stern filling with water, each bob dragging it deeper, deeper. The bow is visible until the fore storage compartment fills with water. The bow disappears.

Mike has been following too closely. Too late, he realizes the freestanding wave in the center of the rapid is an RV-sized boulder. The raft strikes the rock, capsizing it, ejecting its passengers into the icy water.

“Harry … ” my tone is high, struggling for control.

Harry is staring off dreamily toward the right shore, oblivious to the mayhem.

I lose control. “Harry!”

Harry snaps to and we watch in unified horror as more bodies hit the water. I see one figure clinging to the overturned raft; another sopping person crawls up onto the shore, another swimming hard toward shore.

“Harry, we’re not going in there!” I scream. I know enough that more victims can’t help. We have enough statistics in the water already. We need to help our waterlogged partners, but how? I pull hard to a right-side eddy line, anchor and clamor atop a boulder to get a better vantage point. Harry climbs up behind me. In the dusky light, we see sleeping bags dancing as colored buoys alongside the capsized raft resting in an eddy below the rapid.

Time distorts in crisis. Maintaining a sense of it is critical, particularly when people are swimming downriver.
We quickly consider options. Walking the boat through the rapids is not possible. Portaging the raft is the most sensible option, but time-consuming. At the height of our quandary, a large, silver jet boat rockets up the river and begins plucking bodies out of the water. We gawk in thankful disbelief, assuming there would be no help for many miles. In the waning light, sopping, clothed figures crawl into the stern of our saviors’ boat.

A few minutes later, the boat blasts through the rapid and pulls up alongside us. Bob is at the bow’s railing, disheveled, but intact. Don Vogel, the jetboat captain, is at the helm, his Carhartt jacket, jeans and boots more suggestive of ranch work than river rescue. His wife, Vickie, a diminutive woman in jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, is the first to speak.

“You fellers alright?”

“Uh, yeah,” I answer sheepishly. “How did everyone fare?” I ask, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.

“Everyone is okay,” she says. “Cold and shaken, but okay.”

“We … pretty much lost everything,” says Bob, slowly, sadly. The borrowed boat, fishing gear, hunting gear and camera gear is at the bottom of this surprise rapid.

Harry and I absorb the information, then begin the task of figuring out how to get our boat through the whitewater.

“If you just run the rapid tight on the river left, it’s no problem.” says Don.

Harry and I look at each other, thoughts of witnessing the carnage fresh on our minds.

“Let’s portage,” we say in unison.

Comforted with knowledge of the others’ safety and spurned by the oncoming darkness, we begin the drudgery of lugging the raft and its contents around the rapid. The process takes hours. We wantonly reload the raft by the light of headlamps, then row downriver to Don and Vickie Vogel’s fishing cabin, nestled into the steep walled banks of the river.

The scene is part Shangri-la, part refugee camp. Warm light on the deck reveals drenched socks, underwear, waterlogged camera gear, fly boxes and soggy bread. Our situation is a significant improvement over the watery tomb that holds our dory and gear.

Vickie relays her version around a woodstove. The faces of our companions reflect a mixture of shock, contentment and complacency.

“I heard voices, then a little while later, I saw some stuff come floating by, so I looked through the spotting scope and said ‘Hun, better go fire up the boat.’”

Vickie’s tone indicates that this is not their first rescue.

“Yep — that’s China Rapid. Not the worst one, but people hit that rock sometimes.”

There are nods.

I ask Dave about his first thoughts.

“It happened so fast, I just let go of my rod and started swimming. Material possessions don’t mean much at that point.” His voice is hollow.

“It’s just stuff.” Bob is attempting to be optimistic, though he has lost all of his camping gear, his wallet, shotgun, fly rod and reel. His camera equipment is ruined. “I’ve never even lost my wallet before. I managed to hang on to that original social security card for 40 years. It’s gone now,” he finishes, eyes fixed on the far bank.

His stare is elsewhere, deep in the past. As the trip organizer, I can tell that he feels a measure of guilt for the debacle. The reality is that blame is best spread around. We are a team, theoretically competent, able to keep an open dialogue amongst ourselves.

“Well, my boss’s boat will sure make good fish habitat down there.” Cam’s smile is unforced, understanding that the past is just that. His shotgun and fly-fishing gear lay inside the boat that he had borrowed, now a watery tomb at the bottom of a 40-foot deep hole.

Morning comes quickly. We mount a search in the light, praying that the current has moved the dory into shallower water. We are rewarded with a hat and a chunk of floating line. Not exactly what we had hoped for.

Don agrees to run our gear and us to the take-out, only a few hours in his 22-foot, 350 HP Chevy-engine-powered boat. The ride is surreal as we maneuver in, above and through the pulsing current. In these few hours, we cover the distance that would have taken four days. I wonder how many steelhead we are powering by. We converge with the Snake River at the lower end of Hell’s Canyon, and a few miles later we are at the take-out. Our trip is over.

We pool what cash we have, abashedly placing it in Don’s hand with a thank you handshake. He does not expect money. His kindness is genuine, but he accepts our humble offering. We part company, exchanging goodbyes, continuing to recite our new mantra. It is our bond: “It’s just stuff. It’s just stuff. It’s just stuff.”

Alone, I pause before leaving the take-out to look upriver one last time. The sun’s rays run red across the hills. Tragedy. Salvation. Kindness.

I’ll find a steelhead next time.

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