Buffalo River. Big name, little steam. The Buffalo River begins at the junction of two big springs just 10 miles west of Yellowstone Park. At the put-in the river is barely wider than a canoe, but within a couple hundred yards it becomes a lovely little river. Only 8 miles long, it joins the Henry’s Fork of the Snake river near Island Park, Idaho. Janene and I took advantage of some fine mid-September weather to rendezvous in Island Park with our pals Mark and Nan.
In 2011 while Janene and I were working in Kazakhstan we attended a teacher conference in Thailand. Sadly, worldwide, such conferences usually consist of enduring a butt-numbing series of seminars of no practical value led by professional presenters who generally have no connection to real classroom life. Optimist that I am, despite 33 years of suffering through such conferences, I always hoped to get at least one good thing to take away. Turns out the one good thing was that by chance I ended up sitting next to Nan during one session, which led to dinner out and getting to know this fine couple.
At a restaurant dedicated to condoms.
Cabbages and Condoms is the actual name. From their website: “Our restaurant was conceptualized in part to promote better understanding and acceptance of family planning and to generate income to support various development activities of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA). We also provide catering services to meet all requirements. And remember, our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.“
Most of the decor, as exemplified by this tasteful lamp, was made of condoms.
Including the greeting committee in the lobby. Instead of a bowl of mints at the register, there was a bowl of condoms. Janene and I knew right off that any couple who would suggest to strangers to go out to such a restaurant would be a fun couple to get to know.
Nan was teaching in Saudi Arabia where Mark worked as a business consultant. We kept in touch, and in 2012 met up with them again, this time at a teacher conference in Athens. International school conferences are as worthless as the ones back in Oregon, but they sure are in nicer settings. Now Mark and Nan have retired to Bozeman, Montana, close enough for us to get together once in awhile. Small world.
No whitewater. Floating the Buffalo is like riding a conveyor belt of crystal clear water over and through a meadow. The water is so clear that enough sunlight gets through to support dense vegetation on the bottom. The stream itself wound through continuous islands covered with grass tall enough to conceal the canoe ahead of us, making it appear that Mark and Nan’s bodies were magically gliding through forest and meadow. Considered one of Idaho’s premier floats, it was over all too soon. And we had it all to ourselves.
Just a few miles away another stream gushes from the ground at an estimated 186 cubic feet per second. That is 83,00 gallons a minute. Appropriately named, Big Springs Creek soon swells with the addition of many more springs and flows just one mile before joining the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.
Designated as “Big Spring National Water Trail”, this stream is one of many throughout America. Administered by the National Park Service, the NWTS website explains “The National Water Trails System is a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.” Which means there are lots of signs, and nice places like this to put in and take out your watercraft.
Our collapsible canoe, Packy.
Looking for a special place to paddle? Check it out at the NWTS website https://www.nps.gov/WaterTrails/
Despite the popularity of this stream it was not exactly overcrowded on this day.
But we did see others using the river, like this mother and daughter.
Janene is an fine guide while on the oars of a raft on whitewater rivers (“on the sticks” as we hip river folk like to say). I can completely focus on the fishing and not worry a bit about the whitewater dangers. She can also read the fishing water well and sets me up for good spots to cast. She even gets a little bossy and chews me out sometimes when I get tangled up or something and miss a spot to fish. So I tried to conjure up a few trout with my magic wand on this float, but to no avail. I’ll blame it on my guide, as it was her first attempt at steering the canoe solo. It was a very windy day, so let’s just say our course was a bit erratic. But nice guy that I am, I’ll give her more chances to work on her canoe skills, so I can get in more time fishing.
On wilderness trips you learn to read the water, and can read the subtle and sometimes not so subtle signs that a big rapids lies ahead. On a NWTS stream the signs are pretty clear, and even a novice boater should be able to catch on.
The float over, Mark and I shuttled the cars. Packy lies collapsed in the background. We returned to find Nan and Janene busy with their dueling ukuleles. Any tune from Deliverance come to mind? (No pig squeals in the comment section at the end of this blog post, please.)
Two days, two floats, two nights around the campfire, maybe two beers, and then it was time to part ways. We hope for a lot more river rendezvous somewhere between Bozeman and Boise.
Like many states, to promote tourism Idaho has designated special road segments as either Scenic, Historic, or Back Country. Janene and I headed home via the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. It lies just west of Yellowstone Park.
This byway follows the path of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. We stopped to check out the historic Big Falls Inn. Built around 1910 to try to capture early car traffic on the way to Yellowstone, it was closed during the Great Depression and fell into disrepair. Restoration work took from 1997-2001, and it now serves as an interpretive center and bookstore run cooperatively by the US Forest Service and Idaho State Parks.
My great-grandmother and two great-uncles made an epic Portland to Yellowstone road trip back in 1914. Perhaps they took a break on this same porch. But they were car camping, and so like me were probably too cheap to stay at such a nice place.
River running tip: when the entire river disappears from sight ahead of you, pull to shore fast.
Upper Mesa Falls
I snapped a group picture for the fellow tourists. Note the can of bear spray at the ready on his hip. Life is dangerous out west, you never know when a marauding Griz could show up on the boardwalk.
The fabulous Henry’s Fork of the Snake flows on. Known for its crystal clear spring-fed waters, it is truly world famous among trout fishermen. Soon it will join the South Fork of the Snake, the renowned river that flows through Teton National Park. From here, on the edge of Yellowstone Park, it will flow 400+ miles to the Oregon border and on into Hells Canyon. By that point it will have absorbed all the effluent of Idaho’s cities and the runoff from industrial agriculture. Big Ag, enticed to Idaho by our politicians promoting our business friendly low water quality standards and lack of enforcement. By that point in its journey to the sea it becomes known as “Idaho’s Sewer.” Unfit for trout, it was this summer declared unsafe for human contact, and dog owners could not allow their dogs to drink it for fear of death by toxic algae poisoning.
Best for the Henry’s Fork not to know what lies ahead.