We reached the dam at sunrise
and found the river siphoned
away by three large irrigation
canals. Above the Milner Dam,
the Snake River rolled at more
than 8,000 cubic feet per second. Below, the flow was only
230 cfs. The river, America’s
10th longest, was suddenly so
narrow you could nearly hop
across it. it was as if the empire state building had been reduced to four stories, or King
Lear truncated to one act.
Even the power station had shut down.
In a drought year the farmers were squeez-
ing every drop out of the river to irrigate the
desert. Plant operator Stan Bell took us on a
tour of the maze of tubes and massive steel
turbines inside the concrete bunker a mile
below the dam, at the bottom of a cascade of twisting rock for-
mations called the “Milner Mile.” When the Mile is flowing—once
every few years—it’s one of the most hell-roaring whitewater
runs in the West. At 230 cfs it’s a series of shallow waterfalls.
We planned to run the eight-mile Class III stretch that’s normally
fed by the power plant, but Bell nonetheless tried to warn us off.
“At this water level, boy, I wouldn’t suggest it,” he said. “Not at
Photographer David Stubbs and I had come to south-central Idaho to paddle Red Canoe on the sixth leg of its odyssey
down the Snake River. Our mission: put in below the infamous
Milner Dam to get a look at a river de-watered. The previous
night, we had camped on the edge of a farm where the Snake
was being spit across fields of potatoes, beans, and sugar beets
in an inexorable tit-tit-tit of sprinklers.
Despite Bell’s warning, we were eager to explore down-
stream. Peering over the edge of the basalt gorge some two
hundred feet deep, it seemed an oasis paradise. We could see
dark shapes slithering in the bright green river. “Salmon?” David
asked, eyes wide. “Maybe steelhead,” I replied.
Putting in, we now saw they were carp, three feet long and
slurping at the foam on the surface. Our shuttle driver, Jenny,
would later tell us that her husband and his friends shoot them
with bows for target practice.
As we paddled downstream, the canyon quickly deep-
ened, but we hadn’t gone 50 yards when we encountered our
first portage—a pile of rocks 10 feet high that under normal flows
was allegedly a Class III riffle. We shoved the canoe atop the
rocks, then handed it down the other side. Repeat.
The river offered little relief from the 90-degree heat. Pol-
luted by agricultural runoff and thick with suspended particles of
algae, I never considered a cooling dip. A bathrub ring coated
the exposed rocks. It was like being at the bottom of a drained
Twelve portages later, as darkness set in, we ditched the
canoe. We were low on water, and didn’t have enough warm
gear to bivoac. We spied an opening in the cliffs where a small
draw emptied into the river, and decided to hike out. On top of
the rim we followed, what else, an irrigation ditch toward the
lights of a farmhouse, dry bags slung over our shoulders like
hobos. The owners were an ancient couple who eyed us sus-
piciously. They pointed us toward the takeout at Caldron Linn,
about a mile away, and gave us water, but did not offer a ride.
The next morning we hiked upstream and finished the run.
It turned out the portage where we abandoned Red the night be-
fore would have been our last, and we could have made the rest
of the flatwater paddle in the gathering dusk. Our one solace that
morning was a gushing spring on the side of the canyon, one of
thousands that pour out of cracks in the volcanic rock and help
restore the abused river. One look at each other was all it took
for us to turn the canoe around and paddle over to the bank.
We stood under the gushing waterfall in the cool, clear water,
the pains and tribulations of the previous day washed away into
The idea for the Red Canoe Journals is to paddle an old faithful ‘red canoe’ down the Snake River. The put-in was at the Jackson Lake dam, and, en route to the Pacific, we will investigate one of the country’s most important rivers>,