The sun bursts over the edge of white granite cliffs along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho, filling the V-shaped canyon with rays of morning light that shimmer on the turquoise-green water. Overhead, an osprey soars across the deep blue sky, while below, a school of cutthroat trout swims in the swirling current in search of aquatic insects.
“Look up over there, on the right, and you’ll see a huge cavern in the cliff wall,” says Peter Grubb, 50, as he guides a group of six paddlers down the remote 100-mile river in a 14-foot inflatable raft. “That’s where we’re going to hike up to see Veil Falls.”
The group drifts silently through the canyon, enjoying the natural splendor until Grubb lands the raft on a small beach. The group trudges 100 yards uphill to see the giant cave and waterfall, a tiny mountain stream that spills over a rock cliff and descends as a mist onto a bed of ferns and moss-covered boulders 200 feet below.
“Hiking up to Veil Falls is a magical moment for me,” says Grubb, the owner of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based River Odysseys West. “When we wind down the trail to the bottom of the falls, you feel a sense of power, peace and respect for the magnificence of nature. I love to share that with my guests.”
Before the day is over, Grubb and his river party splash through a series of fun-filled rapids that send water crashing over the bow of the boat, drenching the paddlers and making them laugh with glee. They visit American Indian pictographs in Rattlesnake Cave, enjoy a chance sighting of a bighorn ram and explore a long-ago abandoned gold miner’s cabin.
An act of preservation
The Middle Fork is the epitome of a wild and scenic river. Surrounded by the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork of the Salmon is one of America’s most-prized free-flowing rivers, and was among the first protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.
“The people who supported the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act were really far-seeing to protect that river,” says John Littlejohn, 67, of Wilmington, N.C., who floated the Middle Fork with Grubb last summer. “I felt really fortunate to experience it.”
In October, America will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the federal legislation, which protects 165 rivers for their remarkable beauty, geology, history and wildlife, and abundance of recreational opportunities, including fishing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting.
Rivers protected by the act include glacial-fed mountain streams in Alaska; sections of the Rio Grande in the desert Southwest; pristine New England streams; and a 19-mile stretch of the Saline Bayou, a slow-moving, black water river in Louisiana.
“Every river is unique and has its own special values for why it was designated,” says Dan Haas, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee in Richland, Wash., and member of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Council, which helps set policy for federally protected rivers.
In addition to the Middle Fork of the Salmon, seven other rivers—the Middle Fork of the Clearwater in Idaho, the Rogue River in Oregon, the St. Croix in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Eleven Point in Missouri, the Middle Fork of the Feather in California, the Rio Grande in New Mexico, and the Wolf in Wisconsin—were among those preserved by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act four decades ago.
Today, more than 11,500 miles of river are part of the national system. Thirty-eight of the 50 states, and Puerto Rico, have at least one wild or scenic river. With 48, Oregon has the most, followed by Alaska with 25; Michigan, 16; California, 14; and Arkansas, 8.
Wildlife and whitewater
The nation’s wild and scenic rivers are sanctuaries of biological diversity. They provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife, and offer recreational opportunities for fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts.
Otter, alligator and West Indian manatee inhabit the Wekiva River in Florida; the Farmington River in Connecticut provides fish for nesting bald eagles, and more than 140 aquatic species, including 44 types of mussels, have been identified in Big and Little Darby creeks in central Ohio.
“A lot of the species wouldn’t have survived” without government protection, says Anthony Sasson, freshwater policy specialist for The Nature Conservancy in Dublin, Ohio.
The Chatooga River, featured in the 1972 hit movie Deliverance, is a whitewater gem. Buoyed by publicity from the movie, some 50 miles of the Chatooga along the Georgia-South Carolina border were added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system two years later. The rapids that gave actors Burt Reynolds and John Voight a white-knuckle run now provides thrills for tens of thousands of kayakers and rafting enthusiasts each year.
“The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act absolutely saved the Chatooga,” says Don Kinser, 48, an avid kayaker from Marietta, Ga., and board member of American Whitewater, a national group dedicated to river access, conservation and safety. “Georgia Power owned it all, and they could have dammed it, if it hadn’t been protected by Congress,” Kinser says.
Grubb, meanwhile, continues to spread his love for rivers by taking more than 3,500 people down the Middle Fork, the Missouri, and other wild and scenic rivers each year. In 2005, he built River Dance Lodge on the banks of the Clearwater River in northern Idaho to allow guests a chance to spend more quality time by the river.
“I’ve got such a passion for rivers that I’m hopelessly hooked,” Grubb says. “I’m sure I’ll be doing it until I can’t do it anymore.”