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CHAPTER 2
South Fork of the Salmon Wild and Free
An On-line Book by Jerry Dixon
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Published by the Idaho State University Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Opinions expressed herein are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.
Text and photographs © 2001 Jerry Dixon and used by permission (see permission notes).

Chapter 2: Across the Salmon River Mountains

THE SALMON RIVER MOUNTAINS were born when molten igneous rock intruded the earth's crust about 120 million years ago and formed the central Idaho Batholith.  Glaciers in the Pleistocene cut deep valleys and falling water chiseled sharp canyon walls. 

The South Fork of the Salmon has for time immemorial been a "terra incognito" because of the frozen mountain passes and steep river breaks.  The Sheepeater Indians lived in this land of rugged canyons and vibrant rivers until defeated in battle in 1879 and herded onto a reservation. 

For the most part it has been left to miners, trappers and homesteaders.   Since the canyons are so steep and the passes locked in snow much of the year the only way to the river was to descend into the gorge.  Thus a person was said to come down to the river.

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In 1975, Eric Ryback and I planned a traverse of the Salmon River Mountains from McCall to Stanley during the high-water months of May and June.  Among other reasons, we wanted to bring attention to the Idaho Primitive Area, the largest expanse of wild country in the lower 48 states.  During this time, many Idahoans were actively working for permanent congressional protection of the area as the River of No Return Wilderness.  Moreover, the previous winter had been a heavy snow year, and I wanted to document the effects of anticipated heavy runoff and associated erosion.  The trip promised to be challenging.  I could find no written or oral record that the range had been traversed during high water. 

We began skiing near McCall the 19th of May on wooden Bonna skis with hardwood edges, "Yea, 70-degree weather, ski in cutoffs down to the river, you bet," Eric said.

"The ice only went off Payette Lake two days ago.  It has got to warm up."

We skied to the cordillera that divides the South Fork from the North Fork of the Payette.  Historically Chinook salmon and Steelhead ran up both these rivers.   The pioneers reported that there were so many salmon that a horse would shy away from the water when at spawning time the rivers teemed with them.  The Payette river was made safe for horse crossing when a dam was erected in 1912 and the run was exterminated.

The South Fork even today has a remnant population although they have been strangled by dams and their eggs choked with sediment.  We skied into the South Fork's deep canyon where Audubon's warblers and Empidonax flycatchers were singing, a sharp contrast to the passes we had just traversed with 10 feet of snow.  We would need to ski two more passes and traverse over 200 miles of South Fork and Middle Fork of the Salmon drainages to reach Stanley, our destination.

We spent six days at George Fritser's ranch, in the hall of the river king.   My friend Jamie Fereday, Jeff's brother, had skied in with us and would ski back out in a week.  One of George's guests was a 24 year old woman who lived in a tent down river. 


George Fritser 
(Photo by Jeff Fereday)

Kiki was on her way to Alaska in the fall of 1972 having already graduated from college and spent time on a Kibbutz in Israel.  She happened to come down to the river that fall, found a camp spot that was a good place to placer mine, pitched her tent, and two years later still found herself on the South Fork.

The snowpack the winter of 1974-75 was very heavy, and it was a late spring.   "Do you think it will be a hard runoff," I asked her.

"Yes but not like last year."

"The only reason you thought last year's flood was so bad was because you lost your horse." 

The spring melt was late in 1974.  Then in June it warmed up quickly and the rivers flooded.  The Salmon River was over the road at Riggins.  Several boaters died on the Middle Fork.  Kiki had tried to cross Bear Creek near her tent when the waters were raging.  The horse stumbled and was knocked into the South Fork at high water.  It is no place to be swimming when the waters crest. 

"I was lucky to get out," she remarked.

"Did you ever find the horse?"

"No, I even lost George's best saddle."

She was indeed fortunate.  It was beyond the call of duty to try and swim the horse out as long as she did.  Right below Bear Creek is a rapid near Amacher's cabin where the river has recently switched channels.  Swimming there would have been fatal.  Later in the summer while kayaking and further down river near Elk Creek, I found another horse trapped in a log jam with its saddle still on.

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Writing in a 1975 Idaho Conservation League Newsletter and then again in 1979 for the first edition of South Fork of the Salmon River Wild and Free, I argued that damaging erosion cycles can be expected to occur in 10-year cycles.   During such cycles, unusually heavy runoffs caused by a sudden warming of winter snow packs wash the easily eroded granitic soils of the South Fork canyon into the river causing great harm to the summer run of Chinook salmon.  At the time, however, the Forest Service maintained that disastrous runoffs were "one in a 100 year events."

I also predicted that we would see "unusual" weather events that would continue to cause logging roads--roads that never should have been built--to wash into the South Fork.   Such events occurred in 1982 when high water washed a log off a boulder 20 feet above normal river level in Elk Creek Rapids.  The log had been there since the 1974 flood.  It happened again in January of 1997 when catastrophic floods essentially cut all the major highways leading to McCall and altered the structure of some of the river's rapids.

During the fall of 1973 and 1974 I worked with a hydrologist on the South Fork after the smokejumping season was over.  We surveyed salmon spawning beds and found the beds choked with sediment, the direct result of miles of logging roads having washed into the river during the last erosion cycle.  Salmon spawning areas that were once gravel, perfect for protecting eggs, were now covered with silt.  The eggs of what few salmon returned were smothered in the granitic fines of the road failures.  What really astounded me was that these cyclical storms were referred to "unprecedented" or "unusual" thereby allowing the public to believe that road building in granitic soil could continue. 

Salmon River Country: 
Aerial View of the Main Salmon Canyon

After an exhaustive search of the literature and several years of doing oral histories on the river, a clear pattern developed.  Periods of erosion which occurred as the result of "rain on snow" or "unusually high water" were regular cyclical events.  Oral histories from Fritser and others describe high water occurring in 1890 and 1932.  Forest Service publications note the following events: "one in a hundred" (1948), "hard runoff" (1954), "record breaking rain on snow" (1955), "excessive precipitation intensities" (1959), "wettest on record" (1962), "unprecedented heavy rain" and road system blowouts (1965), and a "one in a hundred year flood" (1974).  It appeared to me that no one was reading these reports!

The first Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on logging in the South Fork Salmon River drainage came out in 1975.   I organized a letter writing campaign to protest further logging on the river and used much of what I had learned to give slide shows and talks.  In 1976 when I applied to work again for the Payette National Forest, my boss of the previous year told me, "When all those letters came in from Pocatello, the Forest Supervisor would bring them to my desk and say, "'Dixon is behind this!'" The EIS plan was eventually rejected, and I got transferred to Alaska.

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.Eric and I spent our time on the South Fork of the Salmon working on Kiki's new cabin, plowing George's garden and reveling in the beauty of the South Fork during green up.  Towards dusk Kiki would sit down by the river and play her fiddle.  The most important part of my day was watching Rufous hummingbirds fly between apple blossoms and counting deer grazing on the upper pasture.  The evening meal was always accompanied with fresh biscuits and a dessert that Kiki could make from scratch in a few minutes.

Eric and I started hiking down river the seventh day and then turned east to head up Elk Creek.  We had been on the river for a week.  We went to sleep each night and woke up when dawn lit the mountains.  Several miles farther we found a teepee.  Tepee Rickie and Chris invited us in. 

Teepee Rickie had come from the east coast and spent the past two winters in the wiki'up.  Wearing decorated moccasins and a powder horn around his neck, he could have been mistaken for a mountain man, an image he didn't try to dispel.   He was carrying a muzzle loading Hawkins rifle when he greeted us.  When I first met him on the river a year earlier he was riding bareback on a buckskin horse that had its mane braided Indian style. 

They invited us to stay in the tepee and told us of winters and spring bear hunts.   "Why are you not carrying a rifle?" he asked us.

"Too heavy, we have to carry skis for the three passes," I said.

After trying my marksmanship with a breech loader, we continued on our journey.  The route we skied took us to the top of Elk Summit which divides the waters of the South Fork from that of Big Creek and the Middle Fork of the Salmon. 

Eric and I would spend the next two weeks descending Big Creek and then hiking up the Middle Fork and eventually skiing to Stanley.  It was the first of many marathon hikes for myself and for Eric the only one he would finish with another hiker. 

I had met Eric when he took the kayak class I instructed at Idaho State that spring.  Eric had hiked 9,000 miles by the time he turned 22, including a first of the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico.  His stamina was astounding.  I had done smokejumper packouts throughout the Salmon River country carrying loads as heavy as 135 pounds yet Eric continually left me in the dust. 

His Pacific Crest Trail achievement was featured in National Geographic.  The first edition of Backpacker magazine featured Eric with an article "First to Hike all Three." Even though I was one of his kayaking instructors he would eclipse me when he returned to Big Creek in 1978 and kayaked it in high water which almost cost him his life.  That descent would be only a few weeks after Walt Blackadar, America's preeminent big water boater, died kayaking.

Traversing the Salmon River Mountains: Eric Ryback and Jerry Dixon. Note the wooden skis used to surmount the three passes encountered along the route.
As we traversed these spectacular mountains Eric seemed to have less and less patience with me not keeping up.  In many places he had to wait because we had only one pair of tennis shoes and had to pass them back and forth to wade sections of the Middle Fork that was in high water. 

Eric was ahead when he tried to traverse Elkhorn Creek near Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork.  He had taken his boots off, strapped them on top next to his skis and was fording a swollen river that was chest deep.  The current knocked him over and he was swimming only a few yards from the Middle Fork his boots having been surrendered to the flooded river. 

"I almost got it pal," he volunteered when I caught up. "What saved me was the skis." 

"How did the skis help?" I asked as I saw him soaked by the river.

"I ended up swimming with my pack.  The skis caught on that yellowpine root and stopped me.  I was finally able to hold onto the root and get to shore."

"That was close."

"Too close.  In all my hiking that was the time I could have died."

I swam Elkhorn Creek and then Eric dismantled our packs and threw items across one at a time.  Then he swam it.  The near drowning left its lasting mark.  It brought us together, and for the past 25 years we have remained fast friends. 
 

End of Chapter 2 . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 3
To go to the previous chapter: Chapter 1
To view maps of the South Fork: Maps
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Copyright Information
The book South of the Salmon Wild and Free is copyrighted (© 2001 by Jerry Dixon) and has been used by permission. Links to these pages are welcome, but if you wish to reprint or reproduce significant portions of it, you should first obtain permission from the author Jerry Dixon at: js2dixon@hotmail.com. [Return to top of this page]

 

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