Listening to big water

Day 2 of my big road trip from western Nevada to northern Montana then to southern Arizona began with a lovely hike in Lamoille Canyon, eastern Nevada.  I then drove north through rolling hills toward Idaho, and without even realizing it, left the Great Basin and entered the Columbia River watershed.  No longer in the land of dead-end rivers, I was now headed into big water country.  Rolling hills quickly gave way to the immense flatness of the Snake River plain.  As I approached the agricultural fields, I ran into a heavy wind storm.  Dust, tumbleweeds, and top soil migrated across the highway in front of me, and obscured the view of my first big river – the Snake.

After stopping in Twin Falls for gas and a cup of coffee, I was only too happy to leave the dusty fields behind and get back into the mountains.  It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve last driven through the sleepy mountain towns of Hailey and Ketchum, and I was shocked to see that they now resembled the ski villages of Colorado, rather than the little towns I remembered.  It was late afternoon by the time I got through Ketchum, and even got caught in slow traffic at rush hour.   Leaving the pretty people behind, I headed over Galena Summit, and received another unpleasant surprise when the expected view of the Sawtooth Mountains was hidden by a thick cloud of smoke pouring out of the west.  The smoke got thicker as I drove into the Sawtooth Valley; a thick, choking haze that apparently drove everyone out, as there were few other cars on the road.  I had planned on camping in the area, but kept driving into the early evening trying to escape the smoke.  I headed up the Yankee Fork drainage, and finally about 20 miles up the road, inside the deep canyon walls, I escaped the smoke and found a nice pull-off to park for the night.  Although the light was fading as I pulled in, I could still see the impacts of past forest fires on the slopes above the river.  Extensive stands of pine and fir were now charred columns.  I was used to seeing this in the mountains of Arizona, but hadn’t realized how much of the forests of the northern Rockies had also been burning.

The Yankee Fork River is also home of the Yankee Fork dredge.  Something I’d never heard of, but will likely never forget.  In the 1940’s and 50’s, a huge dredge was set up  along the Yankee Fork to scour out the river bed in search of gold.  A million dollars of gold was recovered, but at a tremendous ecological cost.  For almost 5 miles along the river, huge piles of river gravel remain as testament to the attraction of gold.  To me, it looked like a series of bombs had been detonated in the area.  Dredging all but stopped 60 years ago, but the river has a long way to go to recover.  It was too late in the evening when I arrived to take photos, and for some reason I forgot on my way out, but the demolished river bed is easily visible on Google Earth and here’s a nice YouTube video about the dredge:

When I finally pulled into camp, the sun had already set behind the mountain and the temperature was falling fast.  Accompanied by the roar of the river, I quickly set up my table and stove, cooked a quick dinner and went to bed.  The Yankee Fork is not a big river, by northern Rockies standards, but a bit larger than what I was used to in southern Arizona and the Great Basin.  Although my camp was more than 100 feet from the river, I was enveloped by the sound of the river as it echoed off a rock outcrop and whispered through the trees.

Camp near the Yankee Fork River

Camp near the Yankee Fork River

I set the microphones out overnight, and monitored from inside the car.  Except for the rush of the river, it was a very quiet night.  I let the complexity of the river sounds, the rumbles and gurgles, lull me to sleep.  At first light, but before the sun breached the canyon walls, a red squirrel sounded the alarm:

Everything was covered with frost, and a check of the thermometer showed the temperature in the mid-20s.  But Shadow and I were very cozy inside the CR-V.  We had breakfast, then took a short exploration of the area while waiting for the sun to melt the ice from the windshield.

The road winds on through the mountains, eventually returning to highway 93 near Challis.  Unsure of the road conditions, I drove out the way I came in.  I stopped for a moment at a rest area on the Salmon River, thinking back to when I first saw the river in the fall of 1978.  Big salmon still ran in the river then.  Big, red  sockeye salmon, making their way 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean upstream to Redfish Lake.  They were so thick that it looked like the river was bleeding.  The large number of dams on the Columbia River began to take their toll, and just a dozen years after I had marveled at the red tide of salmon in the river, the run was all but gone.  Only one fish made it’s way to Redfish Lake in 1992.  Captive breeding has managed to restore some of the salmon run, with reports of around 1,000 salmon making their way upstream in the last few years.  But I saw no big red fish as I gazed upon the river that morning, with a touch of frost still in the air and the first hints of fall color in the cottonwoods.  Disappointed, I returned to the car and resumed the journey northward.

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4 thoughts on “Listening to big water

  1. susan f

    Vivid account of your travels – thanks! But I was hoping to hear the sound of “big water”. It doesn’t seem to be linked??


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