What If… The Salmon River Banner

Friday, August 23, 1805. The river. . . is almost one continued rapid. . .the passage. . .with canoes is entirely impossible. . . my guide and many other Indians tell me that the. . .water runs with great violence. . .foaming and roaring through rocks in every direction, so as to render the passage of anything impossible. Those rapids which I had seen he said was small and trifling in comparison to the rocks and rapids below. . .and the hills or mountains were not like those I had seen but like the side of a tree straight up. — Captain William Clark

Dugout on Salmon River

It’s fun to play “what if” with historical events. So here’s one. What if Lewis & Clark and the Expedition had launched dugout canoes down the Salmon River?

Interesting question. Of course, no one knows the answer, since the Expedition chose to take horses north through the Bitterroot valley, then west on the Lolo Trail. But some people have theories, and others are willing to experiment!

Geographers of the day had convinced their fellow Americans that on the other side of the Continental Divide would be a big river that ran to the ocean.

But the nation’s dream of an easy Northwest Passage, connecting East with West, died on August 12, 1805, the day Meriwether Lewis peered westward over the top of Lemhi Pass. Instead of rolling hills and a mellow river, Lewis saw towering mountain ranges covered with snow. Later, William Clark would describe the river as “almost one continued rapid… foaming and roaring through rocks in every direction, so as to render the passage of anything impossible.”

In late August of 2001, a group of buckskin clad men decided to take dugout canoes down the Salmon River. The group is part of an Idaho muzzle loader club specializing in the history of the American fur trade. One of their objectives has been to trace the path of Lewis & Clark through Idaho.

Salmon River rapids

The men launched their two canoes a few miles upriver of North Fork and proceeded down the Salmon for several miles, with little difficulty.

It was further downriver, near the town of Shoup, at a rapid known as Pine Creek, that the men realized what they were in for! This class IV rapid is what convinced William Clark that the Salmon River was too dangerous to canoe.



Bottom of dugout in river rapids

The modern day buck skinners were willing to give it a try, but even before they got into the heart of the rapid, their canoes tipped over, sending one through the rapid by itself. Given the tremendous power of a log filled with water, it’s probably a good thing no one was on-board!

Afterwards, the men discussed their canoe experience. “I could see a 500 lb boat trying to crush somebody who fell out of it,” said Vern Illi. “The rapids are moving so fast that your reaction time has to be right on in order to negotiate. A 500 lb log doesn’t negotiate real quick.”


“Dugouts are still logs, no matter how pretty you make them,” said Tom Fleming. “When they fill up with water, they just become dead.”
“If they had tried it, they’d been lucky if any of them got out alive,” commented former outfitter Dave Benson.
“It would have been like Roanoke,” commented Jim Baillargeon. “The whole expedition would have disappeared and no one back in Washington would have known what happened.”

Idaho author and Salmon River guide Cort Conley believes the Lewis & Clark Expedition would have had great difficulties on the Salmon River.

River rapids

“ I think that the best evidence is that in 1832 four Hudson Bay trappers went down the river in two canoes. They wrecked both canoes, and two of them drowned. The two who survived were once again rescued by the Nez Perce because they were starving and naked.”

Here’s another “What If…” What if the crew had happened upon the Salmon River after they had canoed the Columbia River?

According to Conley, “They would have said, Let’s do it! Let’s go for it! On the Columbia they were running huge water. They ran rapids that the Indians wouldn't even run, and they did it without turning over and without lining the boats. Lewis remarked that the Clatsop and Chinook Indians were the finest river navigators he had ever seen. So Lewis and Clark were no slouches. I take my hat off to them.

“Had they run the rapids of the Columbia before they encountered the Salmon, I think, without question, they would have said, Let’s go for it. We can handle this. This is nothing.”

To learn more about the Salmon River, check out our Salmon River Country website.

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