First Rivers | An OTT Guide Series | “Pretty Richard” Alves | Salmon River Love

Guides’ First Rivers Series

River guides are notorious storytellers. And whether they be true or tall or somewhere in-between, the stories we tell about the river are a part and reflection of our own story. They are a part of who we are and we will be. (Deep water, brother…)

So, in this spirit of storytelling and in homage to rivers everywhere, we’ve asked our guides to recall a notable “first” paddling experience, broadly defined, and to tell a story about that experience. 

Salmon River Love

Richard, his fiancé, Jamee, and her dad, Grant, on the Main Salmon River in our previous model IKs

I first paddled the Main Salmon River in June of 2008. I remember the drive out from Oregon with the OTT crew, and how excited I was to run some Idaho whitewater. The first night in Idaho, we camped next to a beautiful river called the South Fork Payette, bathed in a natural hot spring beside its cold rushing water, and watched the sun paint the huge sky in the final hours of one of the longest days of the year. I knew Idaho was going to be a special place.

The next day, I was listening to some Led Zeppelin to get pumped up for a day trip on the South Fork. I will forever link “Immigrant Song” with my first impression of Idaho:

We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.

Not only did the lyrics contain some images from the night before, but they seemed to come from the perspective of the water that feeds all of Idaho’s rivers, including the Salmon. This lifeblood of Idaho falls as snow in the winter, melts in the spring, and gushes westward through the summer. It’s been doing it that way forever.

Not concerned with choice, water falls where it falls, and then down, down it carves out a place for itself as it passes through. For humans, choice is a luxury that most people in the world don’t get to experience much. But most people in this part of the world, including myself (and probably you), have the opposite problem: too many choices. What to do with our lives. Where to live. How to spend our time and effort and money. Thousands of choices like these add a lot of complexity to our lives and leave most of us yearning for a break from it all.

Richard hiked up to the top of the mountain behind Shepp Ranch to capture this view of the Main Salmon River.

When I made the choice in college to spend my summers on Idaho’s Salmon River, I was looking for an escape from the mundane choices that we use to govern our “regular” lives. I felt the looming pressures of seemingly big choices in life after college, and I wanted to experience something separate from what that world had to offer.

Choosing to spend time on the Salmon River was one of the better choices I’ve ever made. Two to three months of the year I am lucky enough to ride whitewater on a pristine wilderness river, surrounded by mountain peaks, dramatic canyons, green trees, fresh air, blue (and pink and purple and gold) skies, and people who I generally like.

My few summers working on the Salmon River have produced a lot of meaningful experiences. I’ve witnessed some ridiculous sunsets and sunrises that only “Big Sky Country” can offer. I’ve met a lot of interesting people on trips and traveling around Idaho. I’ve eaten some pretty satisfying meals in the warm, upriver breeze of the canyon. I’ve participated in some first-rate mischief with first-rate friends. I’ve seen a lot of people have a really good time. I’ve seen a few people have too good of a time. Through it all, my love for this river has done nothing but grow.

One of those “ridiculous sunsets…that only ‘Big Sky Country’ can offer.”

There are Native American pictographs along the river that date back thousands of years. Clearly, we are not the first or the last people to treasure this place. On one trip, a guest was in literal disbelief that native people scrawled the pictographs so long ago. She insisted they were concocted by river guides as a ruse, as if it were impossible that people had existed in that same place so long before our short visit there.

In river time, even the Native American presence in the canyon is a blink of the geological eye. For millions of years, the Salmon River has indifferently followed gravity westward across what is now Idaho. It bored through mountain ranges and carved out one of the deepest canyons in North America. And still it continues to carve deeper, just as it will long after humans are no longer around to enjoy its beauty.

Even in the short time I’ve been on the Salmon, landslides have created two substantial rapids on parts of the river that were previously placid. One of the biggest rapids on the river, Black Creek, was not even a riffle four years ago. The river is alive and changing, digging ever deeper into the earth. We are just visitors of time and space, fortunate enough to be part of a journey that will never end, if only for a few days, months, or years.

Richard in a series of action shots from the Main Salmon River
(the center photo pictures the top of Black Creek rapid, mentioned above)

There are many good reasons to run a river: the excitement, the adrenaline, the relationships you forge, the beauty, the novelty, the sense of accomplishment. While these are all positive aspects of river trips on the Salmon, even meaningful reasons such as these are overshadowed by the real reason to be there: the river itself.

Reading articles like this and books like Anything Worth Doing can give you some idea of what this river means to other people. Most people who keep returning to places like this would probably tell you that it’s not so much a choice as some kind of compulsion. Some force that draws them back like gravity pulling on water. The only way for someone to feel this resignation of choice, the feeling of utter helplessness against the beauty and grandeur of this place, is to go there.

Once you feel the power of the Salmon River firsthand, and experience the beauty that it created, you will find yourself unable to escape its flow. The insignificance you feel staring up at galaxies of stars filling in the void between the perpetual blue glow of the canyon rims is more significant to me than most experiences in “normal” life. To be part of something so much bigger than yourself, so much bigger than whitewater or adrenaline, is what these trips are about. It’s not really about running rapids, or kayaking, or even the people you share the experience with. It’s really all about the river, a force so old and great, we are blessed to be part of it for any amount of time.

First-Rate Mischief with First-Rate Friends on the 2013 Guide Training Trip