Another Perspective

Big River

Before the lush green and floods of spring give way to the brown and dry conditions of summer.

By 6.1.09

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I was walking in Island Park in Salmon, Idaho, the other evening when I heard a long, sharp cracking sound. From the trail I looked to my right just in time to see a medium-sized cottonwood tree -- twenty or thirty feet tall -- crash with a splash into the Salmon River from the opposite bank. The river had undermined the tree's roots, and it splintered and toppled over of its own weight. I watched the surging current sweep it away as the branches whipped and thrashed under the low bridge that leads into the park, and then drift easily under the higher Route 93 highway bridge.

The Salmon River -- like all rivers in the Rockies -- is now in its annual mid-May to mid-June flood as the snow comes out of the mountains. Here the snow doesn't just melt, it moves; filling hundreds of creek drainages that in turn feed the rivers. This year it started slowly, but got a big jolt by a regionwide mini-heat wave in the 90s on the weekend of May 16-17. It's cooled off since then, but the river stays high, and will remain so for a couple more weeks. The mountain snowpack as viewed from Salmon looks more mottled everyday.

The river is the color of coffee with cream. Gravel bars with willow brush growing on them have disappeared, leaving the top couple of feet of willows waving and pointing downriver in the onslaught. Logs, limbs, and odd debris bob downstream. On that first hot weekend when the river was rising but still clear (and bracing cold), I watched some high school kids jumping off the low bridge. The current swept them along for fifty yards, and as it did they swam to their right and across it, neatly washing up on the concrete boat ramp under the highway bridge, then wading out and repeating the amusing ritual. But the hot weather supercharged the river in the following days, and the swimmers have temporarily disappeared, as has the boat ramp, when the river rose another two feet up the highway bridge abutments.

I've reached my first anniversary of living in Salmon (I moved here during the first week of June, 2008), and while I recall that the river was high upon my arrival last year, it seems much higher this year. This year, low grassy areas of Island Park are underwater, not because the river has overwhelmed park, but because the water table has risen so much that it's invading the park from below. The river is literally under the park. So much for softball or Frisbee-tossing or playing fetch with Fido -- unless you're wearing rubber boots. And north of town there's a ranch near the river with a corral that's usually home to four horses, but not lately. I rode by on my bike the other day to discover that they had been relocated somewhere, and the corral was momentarily home to a mated pair of mallards swimming around as if it were a fenced-in pond.

I see by my regional online newspapers that this flooding is uniform across the Northern Rockies. As I write, flood watches and warnings have been posted for many of the rivers of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, with the Yellowstone in the latter state especially ornery. Livingston, Montana, seems to be annually under the gun, as it is this year.

But all the melting snow and some recent rainy days do make this part of the world a lovely place to live at this time of the year. Brown and roily rivers and creeks are contrasted with a rich green. Viewed from my kitchen window the sagebrush slopes of the Salmon River Mountains running up to the pines remind me of a trip I once took to Ireland. On those verdant slopes are tiny black specks that look like pepper spilled on a pool table. My binoculars show me that they are Black Angus steers grazing. The cottonwoods and gnarly white aspens along the river have fresh new fluttering leaves, and Salmon's ubiquitous in-every-yard lilac bushes are all in purplish fragrant bloom. The whining of distant lawnmowers is heard. Backyards have the loamy rectangles of freshly rototilled garden plots.

All this verdure will last until approximately the Fourth of July, when the landscape will slowly return to its normally arid, brown state. Wallace Stegner once said that to live successfully in the West, one must get over the idea of green. So water that lawn and garden to keep them alive. Ranchers will be irrigating pastures, those horses will be back in a dusty corral, and those kids will be jumping off the bridge again in the blazing afternoons of summer. Kayakers and rafting enthusiasts will be bobbing under the bridges and waving at the kids. The gravel bars will reappear, and the mountains will be their summertime gray-granite selves with a gash of snow holding on here and there. And that cottonwood tree will eventually wash up on a gravel bar.

Way, way down on the Salmon River. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.