I’ve always wanted to run the whole Salmon River from the source to Lewiston, a journey of 425 miles on the longest free-flowing river in the continental United States. It’s definitely on my bucket list.
In the summer of 2018, some friends of mine actually took that dream one step further. They floated the Salmon River from the headwaters to Lewiston — and trip leader Bob Beckwith went all the way to Fort Clatsop near Astoria, Oregon, a 900-mile-plus adventure. Beckwith called the trip “Source to the Sea.”
These modern-day Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns floated the river for fun. But Beckwith, a retired science teacher from Eagle and Stanley, also wanted to track water quality and environmental DNA (eDNA) as they cruised through a wide variety of countryside along the way.
“Team Science” was the name of the water-testing crew, with Karoline Woodhead at the helm. Woodhead is a senior at LeHigh University in Pennsylvania, majoring in environmental studies. She got her guiding chops with Cascade Raft & Kayak on the Payette River.
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“It was absolutely amazing,” Woodhead said. “It was one of the coolest river experiences I’ve ever had — almost magical.”
Jeff Hennessy and Doug Lawrence, two seasoned river guides with 40-plus years of experience from Boise, joined Beckwith on the trip. They both had dreamed of doing the full length of the Salmon River for decades. They’d done Middle Fork-Main trips, and the Salmon River from Stanley to Lewiston. Now that they’re all retired, they had the time to pull off the whole drainage.
“I’ve known Bob since we were at the College of Idaho,” Hennessy said. “He’s guided for me on the Salmon River for at least 20 years. So we’ve been talking about it forever.”
“It’s been on my bucket list for a long time,” added Lawrence. “I’ve always wanted to do the whole Salmon River. In fact, I want my ashes spread in the Salmon River when I’m gone. It’s one of my favorite places on the face of the earth.”
Combined with Team Science, Beckwith had assembled a modern-day version of a mini-Lewis and Clark expedition of sorts, with a few added characters to boot.
Beckwith wears a signature beard that’s strikingly similar to one you might see in a late 1800s saloon. He’s the science geek with built-in adventure chops. Woodhead calls him “papa bear.”
With a full head of gray hair and a thick gray beard, Lawrence looks strikingly similar to Ernest Hemingway, especially when Doug’s easy smile opened up that bushy face into a shining light. “I just love kicking back, putting my feet up on the cooler, and watching the world float by for weeks on end, day after day, day after day. I wish the trip could have gone on forever,” Lawrence said.
David and Carol Lindsay, a retired couple from Coeur d’Alene, ran a raft for the first time down the Salmon River and did great. “It was first time Dave had rowed a raft, and he did the whole Salmon River. Pretty cool!” Lawrence said.
An initial group of 10 people hiked to the very headwaters of the Salmon River to begin the trip on June 25. “We took the Mule Creek Trail up into this hanging cirque on the Salmon River side of a high divide,” Hennessy said. “The headwaters were like this spring by a patch of snow maybe as wide as a 2-by-6. And we’re all standing there, and agreed, that we’re pretty damn close to the source.”
Team Science took their water samples in the headwaters and at many other locations along the way. The collection of eDNA will allow researchers to identify the presence/absence of Pacific lamprey in the Salmon River drainage, officials with the College of Idaho said. They also took temperature, pH and water-quality data.
From there, the group base-camped in the Sawtooth Valley and took 3 days to float from Smiley Creek to Stanley in inflatable kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. They switched to rafts in Stanley and ran rapids in the day trip section below there, then left the forest and entered a cottonwood ecosystem through the towns of Challis and Salmon. They stopped at Challis Hot Springs, of course, and got resupplied in Salmon.
“We saw a lot of deer and bald eagles in that section,” Hennessy said. “All of that cottonwood forest was really cool, but the mosquitoes were really bad at night. That’s the only time I had to sleep in a tent. We often were diving for cover with our dinner in hand.”
Speaking of food, they planned a 6-day meal rotation for the duration of the 30-day trip. They resupplied in places like Salmon, Riggins and Lewiston.
To get permits for the wilderness section of the Salmon River, multiple trip members applied in the 4 Rivers lottery (recreation.gov). Two of them were successful.
In the River of No Return section of the Salmon, the river party grew in size as friends and family joined the group. Newcomers included Lawrence’s wife, Maggie, and good friend Andrew Rafkind and his sons. They took a jet boat from Vinegar Creek to Corn Creek to start their trip.
Both Hennessy and Lawrence loved doing the trip with close friends they’d known since the 1970s, when they were at the College of Idaho. “That was one thing that made the trip super special,” Hennessy said. “I mean, I was the best man at David Lindsay’s wedding 35 years ago. To do a trip like the full Salmon with a bunch of your best friends makes the whole trip a blast.
“There were no mishaps anywhere along the way. The only medical issue that came up was a stubbed toe.”
The group resupplied in Riggins. They ran all of the fun rapids in the day trip below Time Zone bridge, floated the Lower Salmon to Hells Canyon, and motored down Hells Canyon to Lewiston. Most of the group left the trip at that point.
In Lewiston, Beckwith got resupplied for the second half of the journey to Astoria. He had the tenacity to brave big winds motoring through eight dams and reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia rivers, going roughly 7 mph in his 18-foot Riken raft with a 16-horsepower engine. His 13-year-old grandson, Kace, joined him for that part of the trip along with Eli Rolapp, a C of I senior, and Kaitlin Galemore, a C of I graduate who was in charge of all of the data collected by Team Science.
The trio had to camp in some challenging, makeshift spots along the way, sleeping on the boat or on a dock next to shore — or not sleeping at all because of bright lights and noise. “We were worried about dodging barges, but didn’t see hardly any barges, but the trains were running constantly,” Beckwith said.
Beckwith isn’t the first person to log that remarkable journey from the source to the sea — John Barker of Lewiston has done it in the spring at high water, and at least one kayaker has completed the journey.
Everyone loved being on the trip. “We kind of turned into a family out there,” Woodhead said. “We kind of had mom and dad and a whole bunch of crazy aunts and uncles. Jeff called us ‘The Commune’ after a while. We all bonded really well together.”