The meandering Snake River shapes Idaho’s past, future

Published in The Idaho Statesman, Oct. 21, 2015, as part of the “Seven Wonders of Idaho” series.

Riverboat captain Rob Baker grew up on the banks of the Snake River. He has spent his entire life there.

He delivers the mail to 18 boxes accessible only by boat — on a postal route run on the river since 1912. Baker is part of history, part of the story of the Snake River. He’s part grocery delivery man, part fishing guide. Sometimes, he’s the only outside company for folks who live deep in the high desert.

He knows which houses have wood-heated hot tubs, which have baby grand pianos (carted up the river by the Asotin, Wash., high school football team).

Baker navigates his jet boat through rapids that have swallowed steamships in a canyon named for Hell. He knows he is at the mercy of the Snake.

“You’re never done learning,” he says. “Things change on a river.”

Like the name of this state itself, the river’s identity was lost in translation. To the Shoshone, a quick slither of the hand meant they lived near a river filled with swift-swimming salmon. White explorers saw the gesture and thought, “Snake.”

Still, the mistaken name fits. The river uncoils around granite cliffs, basks in the desert sun, and strikes with sudden force in steep falls and rapids.

A river of wonders

On average, the Snake River gets spectacular about every 150 miles.

The Henrys Fork attracts fly fishermen ready to spend more than $400 a night at one of its plush resorts. Mesa Falls rushes with the untouched force of nature itself. Moose line the South Fork on foggy mornings and trout teem under its rippled surface.

Shoshone Falls are higher than Niagara. The glassy flows at Thousand Springs emerge after two centuries underground. Raptors soar and dive along the desert cliffs south of Kuna. Stoic bighorn rams watch jet boats and rafts flow beneath them in Hells Canyon.

A river of history

The river sustained the first Idahoans. It powers and feeds us now. Without it, most of Idaho couldn’t exist.

But just as it is a conduit for life and progress, it has long been an obstacle.

Simply crossing the Snake can land you in the history books.

In 1877, Chief Joseph led his Nez Perce followers across at Dug Bar, a site still preserved in Hells Canyon. Ira Burton Perrine is memorialized by the bridge that spans a canyon some 486 feet deep. Ferryman Gus Glenn is still on the map more than 140 years after he found a better way to carry goods across the river.

Legend has it that Idaho’s Chief Nampa dove off the cliffs near Kuna, emerged on the far side of the river with a salmon under each arm, and feasted within sight — but not firing range — of his pursuers.

“The hard part for me to believe is that he was able to keep his pouch of salt and other seasonings dry while in the river,” Snake River Birds of Prey biologist John Doremus says.

If you try with enough panache, folks will remember even failed attempts for more than a quarter-century. Evel Knievel’s earthen ramp still stands in Twin Falls.

A river of contrasts

You can wade the Henrys Fork, but it’s better to drift down the South Fork. Daredevil racers reach 140 mph in runabouts powered by souped-up car engines in the Idaho Regatta in Burley.

Kayakers love Pair-a-Dice and other expert-class rapids in the Murtaugh stretch between Twin Falls and Burley; Al Faussett survived the 212-foot Shoshone Falls in the 1920s; and rumor has it a guy once ran Auger Falls in a canoe.

Scullers row the two miles of slackwater between the Twin and Shoshone falls. Rafts and cat-boats are best for the big water past Hells Canyon Dam, and the only way to enter the chasm from the north is in a jet boat. Grain growers and Lewiston shippers prefer the barge.

If you can’t get down the river in one boat, how can you write about it in one story? How can you choose one section? One bend? One rapid? You can’t.

Your only hope is to meander like the river itself.

Even the folks who know the river best have trouble agreeing.

Rick Just, an Idaho Parks and Recreation planner, pines for the Thousand Springs of the early 1900s, before hydro projects left the flows “pinched down to nearly nothing.”

“Bliss Dam downstream to Walter’s Ferry,” picks biologist John Doremus. “My understanding of geology, biology, botany, paleontology, economics, history, exploration, sociology, agriculture, recreation and ecology have all been influenced by what I have learned working on the Snake River Plain and along the Snake River.”

Clive Strong, the top water lawyer in the attorney general’s office and a Wendell native, can’t name one stretch. History will tie him to Swan Falls, though. He was assigned to the state’s defining water-rights case just three days into his job in 1983.

The repercussions are still in debate, and decisions Idaho judges could make soon will define Idaho’s future.

It took decades for us to learn that the river and the aquifer below it flow as one. How we decide to manage the intermingling surface and ground water will dictate how Idaho develops in the decades to come.

A river of power

The Snake River is wild at points and scenic at others, but it powers through more than two dozen dams and irrigates millions of acres. Hundreds of thousands of people live in its watershed. Millions fish, hunt and play in its waters.

Idaho’s iconic Len Jordon, a former governor and U.S. senator who ran a Hells Canyon sheep ranch with his wife, Grace, called the Snake a “working river.”

It still is, though its job is always changing.

Baker, the Hells Canyon postman, now brings mail to more outfitters and vacation home-owners than he does sheep and cattle ranchers. The canyon was once surveyed for even more dams, but its economy now relies on salmon and steelhead.

A river of beauty

Unlike the Salmon River, which begins and ends in Idaho, we have to share the Snake. It flows from the mountains of Wyoming, cuts our border with Oregon and rolls into the Columbia in Washington.

The bulk of its beauty is ours, though. We have the stonefly hatch in Island Park, the mist at Mesa Falls. We have the ice-clear water at Thousand Springs, which helps the valley raise 95 percent of the nation’s farmed trout. We have the piercing call of the red-tail hawk that drew birdman Morley Nelson to the conservation area that may one day bear his name.

We have to share Hells Canyon, but Joni Bullock sees seven miles of the Idaho side every Wednesday, when she four-wheels down to meet Baker’s mail boat from the 28,000-acre ranch she, her husband, and their two teenage boys manage. The Snake is their lifeline for mail, milk and library books.

Every week, the canyon is different, she says. New wildflowers. New wild animals. At first, she couldn’t judge the vast distances. She couldn’t reckon her place in the gorge.

“The scope of the scenery,” she says, “my eyes had to adjust to it.”

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