SMOKED SALMON, July 15, Below Elkhorn Rapid

July 28, 2021

Photo Credit: Jim Brainard © 2021 used with permission.

This photo and caption came over Jim’s phone as Sandra and I worked our way north to an eagerly anticipated rafting trip on the Main Salmon River in central Idaho – one of the most pristine and remote whitewater runs in the United States.

Sandra won a coveted private rafting trip permit on the Main Salmon River for July 2020. We put together a group of 16 experienced boaters, mostly friends from earlier trips. It would be 100% self-support with boats and gear supplied within the group. It sure would be great to see these folks again on a big river!

Covid put a stop to those plans in 2020, but the Forest Service – in a generous move – made it possible to roll the trip forward to 2021. These same 16 boaters were especially ready to get out and spend seven days and six nights on the Salmon River after a year of Covid restrictions.

Jim Brainard and his wife JoAnne Allen, friends from our Grand Canyon trip, along with Peter Coha and eight other friends were running the Salmon River a week ahead on JoAnne’s permit – then circling back to the put-in join us. Jim would be the gear czar of our trip, organizing the eight rafters and two kayakers – and all their kitchen, camp, water, sanitation and medical gear – that would support our trip. He was living proof that ‘you can herd rafters’ and their trip would be a great scouting report for ours which would immediately follow.

Several Austin friends who helped organize our trip, Mike Smith and Thelma Coles, along with John Wills from Albuquerque, had landed spots on a Middle Fork of the Salmon trip timed to join us at the launch and complete the desirable Middle-to-Main Salmon run. Others from Austin and New Mexico would join us at the launch camp at Corn Creek.

This image was in our heads – this is what the Salmon River is usually all about!

Clear day on the Main Salmon River in Idaho

Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Carrie Thompson

As we headed north, the news became worrisome.

A massive heat dome baked the West and Canada with temperatures never imagined. The fire season broke early with ferocious intensity on the dry landscape. Then fires broke out in the small enclave of Dixie, Idaho, just north of the river. As Jim and JoAnne’s group headed downstream – off the grid except for Jim’s satellite communication – we watched the fire reports. The soon to be named ‘Dixie-Jumbo Fire’ grew rapidly, gaining its own Facebook page and daily briefing by the Forest Service. We watched those briefings when we could get cell service as we camped our way north through New Mexico and Colorado to join them in Idaho.

By the time we got to Grand Junction, Colorado, it was clear this fire was growing fast and that many even larger fires to the west were filling the skies with smoke. Originally the fire was in the mountain ridges just north of the river – but to my surprise – it moved downhill, eventually covering about 15 miles of the north shore of our Salmon River route. The river’s deep canyon filled with smoke every day. When we finally heard from Jim, they were downstream beyond the fire zone. He reported two days of intense smoke, burning eyes and raspy throats and overall smoke levels that dimmed the sun for many days. He thought that N-95 masks might be of some help for our trip – if we planned to go ahead.

We watched the reports, knowing that the fire was growing quickly from the nearly 7,000 acres they experienced. It grew to 37,000 acres by July 24th – the day we would have rafted through – if we had launched on July 22 as scheduled. 

With great reluctance, Sandra cancelled her permit and called off the trip. After all – this was to be a recreational river run for fun through one of the most beautiful canyons in the western United States. Surviving a run through a major forest fire was not our idea of fun or worth the risk and discomfort.

Jim and JoAnne’s scouting mission turned out to be more prescient than we had imagined!

Credit: U.S. Forest Service, Dixie-Jumbo Facebook page, July 24, 2021.

Night fire glow along the Salmon River was followed by days where the sun dimmed as witnessed by Peter Coha’s pictures.

Photo Credit: Peter Coha © 2021 used with permission.

Photo Credit: Peter Coha © 2021 used with permission.

As we continued to plan our summer, we pondered whether to continue with the three-week August camping trip in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons where other massive western fires are covering the entire continent with smoke – from Washington State and British Columbia to New England and the Canadian Maritimes. Seeing smoke instead of the majestic Grand Teton range is not what we had in mind. Will the Western summers ever be free of smoke as the climate warms?

Credit:  fire.airnow.gov website, July 28, 2021

The Grand Teton webcam page shows ‘Good Visibility’ and ‘Bad Visibility’ days as a benchmark.

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/air/webcams.htm?site=grte

Here’s the webcam view on July 28, 2021:

Credit: National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/air/webcams.htm?site=grte

It’s clear that everything is connected to everything else – and that includes the air in the Grand Teton. We decided not to go and headed south to New Mexico – out of the major smoke areas.

The extent of fires in the West is rapidly increasing as shown in EPA data.

Credit: epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-wildfires

Credit: epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-wildfires

Of course, our cancelled rafting trip and Grand Teton and Yellowstone plans make the climate change in the West personal to us – yet it pales in significance with the lost lives, homes, forests and crops throughout the region as the climate heats and the fire season and drought pattern intensifies.

We can’t help but recognize that all our work on ‘conservation’ of pristine natural areas for recreational and aesthetic value – Sierra Club’s passion for their first hundred years – comes to naught if we can’t develop the political will locally, nationally and internationally to stop climate change and create a lasting climate justice.

The degradation in the West doesn’t stop at a national park boundary. You can’t protect a park if you can’t protect the planet it’s on. What we do to stop further climate change is critical.

I fear that these smoke-filled fire seasons will seem like the good old days for my grandchildren as we careen past the Earth’s climate tipping points and the world warms even further. Will they ever be able to enjoy the natural world we have known? And how will they – and the rest of the world’s people – survive as the habitable zones crowd further north?

We are already living with the increasing consequences of climate change. Will we really do more to change its trajectory and make a livable world for the future?

A hell of a lot more than clear mountain views is at stake.