Passing through Idaho, it’s not uncommon to be in awe of the harsh beauty and wild existence of what’s flashing by your window. By the time you’re outside and are greeted with the smell of sagebrush, towering canyon walls and the gentle roar of a river, you’ll feel fired up in excitement for your journey ahead.
Outward Bound offers several different expeditions on this infamous stretch of river: a week for adults, teens and as a part of a longer gap year program. No matter what age you are or the program length, the lessons learned from the Salmon River area largely remain the same.
Adaptability Is Key
Your boat flips? No big deal, treat it like a rollercoaster ride and enjoy the float. You burned the instant rice? Douse it with some butter and eat it like popcorn. Your campsite was taken and you need to float downstream a few more miles? Great, you get to experience the river during the magic of the Golden Hour. Some days you may not like your crewmates. However, when they pull you out of the river after an unintended swim, you realize that nothing beats the support from your crew on an expedition.
The Salmon River is swift and provides endless action through four distinct canyons. Green and Cougar canyons afford you the opportunity to learn captaining skills, while Snow Hole and Blue canyons put you to the test. What I love about the Salmon River is that you’re perfectly set up to make benign mistakes in the earlier sections in order to learn and set yourself up for success through the big water. And after a big day on the water, nothing can beat the transition into camp. Some of my favorite moments on a Salmon River expedition are hanging out on the sandy beaches with my crew, playing a good game of rope rodeo.
Learn to Approach the World with Balanced Ferocity and Gentleness
I remember my first time rowing Snow Hole rapid, the most technical rapid on the Lower Salmon. I was nervous—I had never rowed a class IV rapid before. Everyone was telling me how Idaho whitewater was more serious than Oregon. Beware of the Tombstone rock, someone said. And of course, that was all I could see when I looked at the rapid, a glaring black shark fin right in the middle of the clearest line downriver. It was now or never, and the river only goes one direction so I really had no choice at this point. I readied my boat and rowed frantically downstream, trying to get myself into the right position. As I was about to enter the rapid I let out this primal scream because I had so much nervous energy. One, stroke, two, and I was set up to pass Tombstone. Then this light, elevating, calm washed over me and I stopped fighting the river and let it take me downstream.
When I talk to my students, they often feel similarly when captaining their first major rapid. You build yourself up to this ferocious version of yourself, and then once you get into the flow, your gentleness returns. This yin and yang harmony is an endless flux on an expedition where you are constantly challenging yourself. And, it’s this apex where these two qualities meet that is where we truly feel alive.
It’s Okay to Swim Upstream
Salmon are not content with luxuriating in the sea, so to reach their true fulfillment they must make an arduous journey upstream to river headwaters. Perhaps your crew will take a short scramble up to a breathtaking viewpoint of the confluence of the Snake and Salmon Rivers. There’s nothing like gaining a little perspective while on top of a cliff band and staring at two major arteries of the earth’s water system joining in churning froth below you. When I’m here, I like to pick a comfortable spot on this precipice to sit in quiet solitude. I smell the dry grasses, listen for the canyon wrens, and take-in the awe-inspiring beauty of the two deepest river canyons in America right before my eyes.
When we choose to spend our time on an expedition, we are investing in ourselves by learning to be comfortable in the un-comfortability that is swimming upstream. This is what it means to be resilient. To look ahead and see a series of challenges not as impassable rapids, but as navigable waterways to a more fulfilled existence, is the mindset that is developed through an expedition on the Salmon River.
No matter what Salmon River expedition you choose, you are guaranteed to return a slightly changed, rejuvenated and better version of yourself. So my final learning is this: Like salmon, you can return to the sea, and always fight for your existence on the river and in the mountains. You can return from your expedition and navigate the familiar: work, family, friends, romantic relationships—and still exist in the mindset you’ve created for yourself through your time on the Salmon River.
About the Author
Kate Samp is an Outward Bound Instructor in the Northwest. She loves climbing mountains, yoga and whitewater rafting. She writes from her home in Bend, Oregon.