Monday, August 30, 2010
In the River of No Return Wilderness
Writer pal Pat Browning, a fellow blogger on Murderous Musings, wrote a week ago about places you can only get to by air. It brought to mind a memorable venture I took in the early 1980's to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The destination was Harrah's Lodge in the heart of the River of No Return Wilderness, a 2.3 million acre area 100 miles northeast of Boise, Idaho.
Built by casino-operator Bill Harrah, the facility hosted many Hollywood stars and at least one president, Jimmy Carter. It has been rebuilt and improved in recent years under new ownership and is now called Middle Fork Lodge. I won a five-day stay at Harrah's while attending the American Society of Association Executives convention in Phoenix the previous fall.
My wife and I flew into Boise, which back then seemed like a quaint town in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We were met by a representative of the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau, which sponsored the prize, and got a tour of the city. Several spots provided reminders of Idaho's most famous product, the potato. The following morning, we returned to the airport and boarded a small plane for the one-hour flight into the Rockies. The only way to reach the lodge was by air, water, or horseback. If you look at the area on a road map, it appears as a vast vacant spot bisected by a green line representing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. There are no roads in the wilderness area.
Getting there was one of the most exciting parts. After flying over mile after mile of the rugged landscape dotted with pine, spruce, and fir, we spotted the winding river below and what the pilot assured us was a landing strip beside it. And that it was, a strip of land. An 8,813-foot mountain jutted up across the river. Not far away on the other side was a 9,722-foot peak. I guess it helped that the Indian Creek Landing Strip lay 4,662 feet above sea level. That only left about 4,000 feet to maneuver our way to the ground. The pilot began to let down in a corkscrew pattern between the mountains. It was breath-taking to watch.
Finally on the ground at the dirt strip, we hauled our bags over to the water's edge, where a large rubber raft awaited us. The plane also carried supplies for the lodge, which were loaded into the raft with us. A couple of other passengers were along for the ride, and after all were secured with life jackets, our "crew" shoved off into the current. Oh, yes, I didn't mention that the Middle Fork is considered America's premier whitewater experience, with more than eighty rapids rated up to Class IV.
We had brought jackets for the cool nights, but with the sun bearing down, it got a bit warm during the trip. The view was awesome, though. The area has been protected since Teddy Roosevelt's days, and the 107-mile stream is America's most pristine. With the soothing sound of the cold, clear water rushing past banks populated by occasional aspen and towering pines, we soaked up the untainted landscape little changed since the time the Shoshone Indians roamed the area. Rising high above the banks that varied from clumps of pine to piles of boulders were soaring crags of granite.
Soon the sound of the water shifted into a roar, and we bounced through our first taste of the rapids. We hit only one spot where the raft tossed about quite a bit, but it was an exciting ride. After a couple of hours, though not too many miles, in which the river dropped more than 250 feet, we reached he landing spot for Harrah's Lodge.
The main building stood back from the river, a large, two-story log structure with long porches on both levels. Scattered up the grassy landscape to the right were a few small log cabins. We occupied one that had a bedroom and bath, comfortable though not roomy. The lodge featured a large room with sofas and chairs and a massive stone fireplace. Leading off of it was the dining room and kitchen. Meals were served family style, and we were encouraged to raid the kitchen whenever we wanted a snack. The cook probably got his start feeding cowboys from a chuck wagon as the meals were sumptuous.
A swinging bridge gave access to the other side of the Middle Fork, and we did a bit of hiking along a trail that followed the riverbank. They had horses we could have ridden, but we passed that up. One of the highlights was gathering around a campfire at night, listing to a veteran guide tell stories about the area. The tale I remember best (I recorded it on my mini-tape recorder, which crashed several years ago), was the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that lived in Oregon and Idaho. He told of the Nez Perce's "trail of tears" after refusing to go to a reservation.
Chief Joseph led them on a wandering 1,100-mile journey through Idaho and Montana, hoping to reach Canada. They fought the U.S. Army all the way and were trapped forty miles from the border. The once-large tribe had dwindled to only 431 warriors. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph gave his famous surrender speech which concluded with, "My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." You'll find all of his brief speech here.
We enjoyed the sunny days, relaxed on the porch as we watched and listened to the Middle Fork splashing along its banks. We spotted animals like elk and big horn sheep wandering about. The refurbished lodge features satellite internet connection, but when we were there it had no link to the outside world except a radio used to communicate with Harrah's offices in Boise. All supplies were shipped in, and all garbage was shipped out. It was illegal to leave anything behind that you brought in.
After those few idyllic days, we boarded a larger plane, a DeHavilland, I believe, at the Thomas Creek Airstrip across the river and headed for home. Thanks to Pat Browning for reminding me of that journey. I used the location in the third novel I wrote back in the early nineties. It's one I plan to revise and try again at publication.