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Boating History

It may be hard to believe, but amazingly enough, whitewater rafting has not always been about rubber and plastic. The original boatmen in the Salmon River Canyons were most likely the Nez Perce Indians who used the river as a frequent mode of travel.  They had canoes, ranging from 15 to 40 feet long, and water tight skin boats. 

The newer Western settlers soon began to realize the importance of the Salmon River as a transportation route.  Surveyors conducting the 1872 Northern Pacific railroad survey traveled much of the river in boats built in Salmon, Idaho.  This started a trend, and in the 1870s, large wooden scows were built to transport mining supplies downriver.  The scows were typically 32-feet long and 8-feet wide with double hulls and 3-foot high gunwales.  Such craft was steered by two boatmen operating “sweeps,” two 22 to 28 foot poles with 12 to 14-foot blades, set on a pivot, one on the bow and one on the stern.  At the end of each trip, the scows were dismantled and the wood was sold for building materials, since there was no way to get them back upstream.  This is how the Salmon River earned the nickname “River of No Return.”

The most famous riverman on the Salmon in the early days was Captain Harry Guleke, who piloted scows down the river from 1896 through the 1930s.  His trips included a National Geographic expedition in 1935.  Although you won’t see wooden scows on the river today, you can see a replica on display at the Visitor Center in Riggins on Highway 95. 

The first documented rubber craft to travel down the Salmon did so in 1929.  The four men paddled two 9 ½ foot rubber boats from Shoup to Riggins.  This venture down the Main Salmon still did not bring rafting down into the final four Salmon River canyons! 

Rafting trips as we think of it today, did not begin fervently on the mighty Salmon River until the mid-1970s.


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