The Once and Future River
It's a fiercely wild river - the only one in the lower 48 states to claim a Wild & Scenic designation along its entire path. Its waters become especially feral when provoked by winter storm and spring snow melt...
story by Ethan Schowalter-Hay
photos by BLM staff
This is the Salmon River.
And if you travel an hour's drive from Portland, you'll find it packed with stories of rock, water, fish, and people - all passing through dimensions of time across every foot of current.
And though it's no stranger to visitors, the Salmon River has cloaked itself in dramatic scenery befitting its nature: from volcanic rock to frozen ice, from lava canyons to cold jungles. Anadromous fish return from the sea to spawn in its rapids; elk thump shadowed woodlands alongside massive waterfalls. Hikers tread next to this giant that's no stranger to the company of foot-bound travel. And motorists whiz past on the Mount Hood Scenic Byway, shadowing the phantom route of 19th-century wagoneers who came before them. Now please join me on a river trip that begins, of all places, at the top of a volcano.
Woods Run Deep
The Salmon River is birthed by cold, sediment-frothed rivulets drawn off Palmer Glacier onto Oregon's greatest volcano from Tygh Valley to the Willamette lowland: Mount Hood. Careening due south down Hood's volcanic slopes, the Salmon arcs northwestward for the Sandy River which accepts its waters at the small community of Brightwood before carrying them to the mighty Columbia. In all it's a 33-mile journey from ice-field to mouth, during which the river drops some 6,000 feet.
Three miles from the Sandy - before taking a few final, proud meanders - the Salmon flows past the Wildwood Recreation Site, a 550-acre area maintained by the BLM where visitors can sit on the Salmon's banks and wander its shady forest and immerse themselves in all its richness. Further, Wildwood pays homage to the river's power through a series of fascinating interpretive trails, beautiful picnic grounds, and open sports fields. From the Wildwood Recreation Site, the waters then gain access to the rugged Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness to the south where the Boulder Ridge Trail climbs upwards to a summit some four thousand feet up Huckleberry Mountain, one of Oregon's great wilderness landmarks.
River's Power to Unite
If you can, I highly recommend taking the Wetland Boardwalk Trail into what is a beaver-flooded backwater between the Salmon River and one of its tributaries, Sixes Creek. In late winter and spring, skunk cabbage flares yellow; in winter, the willow and alder form skeleton thickets. Great ponderous blue herons flap hunch-backed, announcing pleasure and annoyance alike through their shamelessly raucous squawks. This sound of pure wildness - of mystery - is a good one to hear, to overtake our senses in a Cascade wetland located not far from the urban horns of the cars littering downtown Portland, Oregon.
Along this lower course, the Salmon hugs a north-facing foot at the steep slopes of the Western Cascades. Bottomland sloughs of marsh marigold, wood duck, and red-legged frog are framed by blue-green knife ridges rising steeply with rhododendron groves, pumas, and subalpine fir. It's a stark contrast of landscapes.
Such is an example of how our rivers unite such divergent scenes and bring a fierce, highland spirit down to gentle lowland vistas filled with bits and pieces of every corner of the watersheds they drain and move.
An Ecological Journey
For more exploration of Salmon River ecology, the BLM's Wildwood Cascade Streamwatch Trail brings us on a rambling path through a riverside forest of Douglas-fir, red cedar, big-leaf and vine maple, and red alder - all across a bed of sword fern, oxalis, Cascade mahonia, salal, trillium, and other herbs and shrubs.
A unique underwater viewing shelter affords an intimate look into one of the Salmon's tributaries. These feeder channels flood more slowly and less violently than the river itself, attracting spawning salmonids and their tiny fingerlings. Depending on the time of year, you might spy on gentle steelhead, Chinook, or cohos shrouded beneath the shaded stream pools. Alders that canopy these streams loose nitrogen-rich leaves upon their surface, which are fed upon by the aquatic insects that in turn nourish the growing fish. Truly an ecological marvel.
The Ol' Swimmin' Hole
But never forget that upriver - not so many miles away after all - the Salmon serves as conduit between a violent, black-rock canyon cleft through a heavy and brooding temperate rainforest. Great waterfalls serve to stagger and gentle its course: Stein Falls, Split Falls, Little Niagara Falls, Vanishing Falls, Frustration Falls, and then, aptly, Final Falls, a nearly 80-foot plunge that defiantly gates the upper Salmon from the salt water sea life. With a chasm so rugged, torrents so precipitous - extreme kayakers speak of the Salmon River Gorge in tones of hushed reverence.
Between Churn & Bedrock
Moss-walled defile marks a confrontation between the Salmon's relentless churn and the Western Cascades' bedrock. A grand view of this never-ending battle is gained by hiking from the West Salmon Trailhead south of Highway 26 and upstream from the Green Canyon Campground. For two miles you'll stroll a fairly level path through magnificent old-growth alongside the riverbanks. Barrel-trunked Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and red cedar - with big-leaf maple, red alder, and black cottonwood interspersed - shadow an understory of devil's club, salal, and vine maple.
Past Rolling Riffle Camp, you'll pull away from the river and make a switchback up the slopes of the gorge. Some 3.5 miles in, a southern prospect opens up to reveal the gaping, heavily-timbered canyon, scarred here and there with basalt cliffs. The Salmon churns far below, barely visible, and the roar of unseen Frustration and Final falls can be discerned even in low flow.
Well upstream, the Salmon tumbles through a headwaters gorge, excavated in Mount Hood's volcanic pumice, ash, and mudflow outwash south of Palmer Glacier. Below that and between the upper and lower canyons, the river meanders through a series of marshy meadows in a mudflow basin. These high-elevation flats, sporting sedges, isolated tree groves, shrub thickets, and nesting sandhill cranes serve to constitute a unique ecosystem in this portion of the Cascades.
A Long and Winding History
In all this appreciation of natural wonderment, don't forget that this river shoulders much human history too. A number of Native American cultures have long lived in and used this region. A historic campsite identified by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs lies to the near east of Wildwood on the Salmon's banks. Tribal travel routes included a probable path around the southern slopes of Mount Hood and across the upper Salmon which is the likely precursor to the Barlow Road of the Oregon Trail - as well as the eventual Oregon Highway 26.
Early Oregon pioneer Samuel K. Barlow's party explored this leg of the Salmon in 1845 while seeking an alternative to the harrowing boat ride through the Columbia River Gorge. Their cross-country option swung past the Salmon River close to the Highway 26/35 junction - near the Pioneer Woman's Grave, a good spot to observe vintage Barlow Road ruts while honoring the memory of those who died along this steep route.
The Once and Future River
Elk trails, footpaths, wagon roads, paved highways: the Salmon has seen them all materialize and fade along its banks. Meanwhile, with such special resolution as belongs to moving water, the river has continued its march from glacier to parent stream and back - all convinced that the windswept toe of the Palmer Glacier must be carried out where it may drain into the Pacific Ocean.
Back on the Salmon River, a fish once babied by quiet side streams may be easily swept along to the ocean where it must then someday fight its way back, against currents, to return to the Salmon's nursery beds. A story of there and back again. Such are the old and immutable ways of the river.
The BLM's Wildwood Recreation Site is a day-use facility nestled in the forested foothills of the Cascade Mountains along the spectacular Wild and Scenic Salmon River about 40 miles east of Portland. This 550-acre forest park features Cascade Streamwatch and Wetland Boardwalk interpretive trails and offers access to the pristine Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. Wildwood also has group and family picnic sites, a playground, and a ball field. To learn more about Wildwood, the Salmon River, or any of the other spectacular recreation opportunities on public lands, please visit Wildwood online.