The River of No Return

September 5th, 2017

The much anticipated departure date has arrived. Soon I will be rafting and kayaking the Salmon River in Idaho with a group of remarkable young environmental and socially-conscious entrepreneurs and visionaries.

A few days before departure, a friend sent me a map of the fires and smoke in the Northwest. Idaho, like many of its neighboring states, was on fire and choking in smoke. The map looked ominous.

Taking into account my sensitivity to smoke, I decided I would fly to Sun Valley and then make the decision whether to proceed or return home.

September 7th, 2017

Place of departure onto The River of No Return

The smoke in Sun Valley caused only minor irritation to my eyes and respiratory tract. I decided to go forward with the trip and take my chances. The thought of unplugging from modern life and doing a digital detox in the wilderness sounded appealing. Without wireless connection, I know that I will have the possibility of making a deeper kind of connection with myself and with nature, as promised in the guiding company’s brochure.

Getting to know each other by solar-powered lanterns.

Dry bags ready to load.

Ready to head out onto the mighty river of metaphors.

The trip is guided by Middle Fork River Expeditions, and especially tailored for a group of “fellows” who have been the beneficiaries of an organization called Wild Gift. Every year, Wild Gift selects a small group of entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place and gives them a Fellowship. The fellows receive 16 months of support that includes two wilderness programs that teach leadership, business skills, and build lifelong connections.  On the home page of their website, it says that, “Wild Gift ignites positive change by providing unconventional support to outstanding young individuals with wild ideas.”

There are seven “fellows” on the trip who have been beneficiaries of the Wild Gift program. Check out Wild Gift’s inspiring website and read about the “fellows” and their unusual projects. Wild Gift

Here’s a fascinating description of The Wild Gift program, taken verbatim off of their website:

THE WILD GIFT PROGRAM

Each Fellowship begins with a 20-day team expedition in the Idaho wilderness. The expedition challenges each Fellow physically and emotionally and connects them to the natural world on a very personal level. Fellows are able to unplug, incubate ideas, and envision the true scope of their work and lives while building lifelong bonds with peers and mentors tackling similar challenges. After a year of funding, monthly video calls, and mentoring, Fellows return to Idaho to reconnect and float the Salmon River. At the conclusion of the Fellowship, Fellows are welcomed into an active group of alumni and supporters.

Fellows receive:

  • A seed grant of $10,000
  • Technical assistance and dedicated mentors
  • A tight-knit cadre of alumni working all over the world, including sponsorship to attend annual Fellowship retreats
  • Exposure to a growing pool of potential angel investors interested in socially impactful businesses
  • Support beyond the official term of their Fellowship through ongoing networking opportunities, knowledge sharing, speaking invitations, and continued inclusion in Wild Gift’s national and international outreach

Since its founding 15 years ago, Wild Gift has supported 52 social entrepreneurs working around the world in education, sustainable agriculture, affordable housing, energy efficiency and innovation, community development, public policy, wetland conservation, and stewardship. Wild Gift ventures currently enhance local economies as well as the natural environment in 8 countries on 4 continents (including Haiti, Canada, Nigeria, Kenya, Chile, India, Samoa, Nepal) and in 15 states including Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and California. Many of our Fellows go on to receive national and international recognition for their innovative ideas and work and many return to Wild Gift as mentors, board members, and supporters.

Launching

After hearing about these amazing millennial entrepreneurs, are you wondering why I am part of this wilderness trip? Deborah Knapp, the soon-to-retire executive director extraordinaire of Wild Gift, is the partner of a close friend and colleague of mine, Bruce Gollub. They invited me to join them on the trip, even though I’m not a millennial and don’t have a startup company that addresses environmental problems. I am extremely fortunate.

The smoke is thick but miraculously we are not experiencing any significant respiratory symptoms.

We are on the Main Stem of the Salmon that cuts through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.  The early river runners called the Salmon River the “River of No Return” because the wooden craft run in the early 20th century were unusable at the end of their journey. They used the wood to build their cabins in the canyon.

The smoke creates an eerie, mystical mood.

Sunrise

The river included Class III + rapids.

We had a choice of traveling down the river on the oar boat, in a paddle raft, in an inflatable kayak, or on the stand-up paddle board.

Bryce Andrews showed incredible balance in staying upright on the stand-up paddle board while riding the rapids. But, this time, he capsized.

Bryce upright in calmer waters.

Bryce Andrews is a writer and conservationist, author of Badluck Way-A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. He lives in Montana. Here’s a link to a 4 minute YouTube video that gives an example of Bryce’s conservation efforts that allow wild animals and farmers and ranchers to live together: Corn Bears. 

During the first three days of smoke, before it cleared, the sky looked like perpetual dusk, making it hard to know the time of day.

As the smoke began to lift, the landscaped looked like paintings of the Old West with a misty overlay.

The Main Stem of the Salmon River runs through a 2.3 million acre wild area called the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. We were told that it is the largest area in the country without any roads and has some of the most pristine and untouched terrain in the US.

Hallelujah! Clear skies. The wind seems to have blown the smoke in another direction for the rest of our magical trip.

As the skies clear, we start to see wildlife. Quite a few mountain sheep are foraging on the edge of the river.

Bald eagles perched on high branches kept an eye on us.

We saw plenty of bear poop when we took walks above the river. One bear (or more) came into our camp and knocked over the poop box with the toilet seat on top. Our guide saw lick marks around the box, perhaps reflecting the nutritious nature of human excrement.

We visited several homesteads along the river. The first homestead had a big vegetable garden that obviously interested this bear. The caretaker’s dog sent the bear up a tree where he stayed during our visit.

The caretakers at some of the homesteads we visited maintained lush gardens, surely a big temptation for the local bears.

Another homestead we visited, well-maintained by a German couple who visited 30 years ago and stayed on as caretakers.

On a hike to visit another homestead.

We saw several rocky areas along the river with pictographs, left by the Shoshone and Nez Pierce People.

Kathy Dice, a close friend of Deborah Knapp, was also a guest on the trip like me. Kathy was one of the first female park rangers in the US. She worked at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California.

Tsechu Dolma, the youngest member of our group and possibly the most courageous.

Tsechu is an extraordinary person. She is Tibetan. Her family left Nepal where they lived as refugees and came to America when she was ten years old at the time of the Nepalese civil war. She got her college degree and post graduate training at Columbia in environmental sciences. She moved back to Nepal to use her knowledge, skills, and entrepreneurial spirit to help the Tibetan Refugees living high in the Himalayas, especially the women. Her project is called Mountain Resiliency. You can look on the Wild Gift website to learn more about this remarkable woman. https://www.mountainresiliency.org

The many white, sandy beaches along the river made perfect campsites and soft ground for doing qigong and yoga. Raj Vable demonstrates his balance and flexibility with this particular asana. Raj is the co-founder of Young Mountain Tea which is working to build partnerships with remote Himalayan communities where tea is grown. https://youngmountaintea.com

We hiked up the canyon to this hot spring and soaked in the delightfully warm water.

Hmm. Let’s see. What was I worried about?

Can you tell how much fun I’m having?

Sam Teicher, water lover and paddler extraordinaire.

Sam has had a love affair with the ocean since he was a boy. He is co-founder of Coral Vita, a startup that works to restore our world’s dying reefs. Using methods developed in a lab, coral can be grown up to 50 times faster than the natural rate and can be bred to be more resilient to climate change.His goal is to start coral restoration projects in the Caribbean. http://www.coralvita.co

Joe St. Onge is Wild Gift’s wilderness leader for the monthlong trekking expedition in Rockies. The time in the mountains marks the beginning of each year’s fellowship program. The river trip is the concluding wilderness experience for the fellows. When Joe is not working for Wild Gift, he leads treks all over the world. Soon he will lead a group to Antarctica.

Heather Lukacs, is a fellow from 2003.  Her family owned a rafting company in West Virginia where she grew up. Heather’s love for rivers and sharing this with others has spurred her to guide whitewater rivers and to volunteer on the river on the Wild Gift annual raft trips. Her extensive rafting skills added immeasurably to our safety.

Heather works with local communities to secure access to safe, affordable drinking water in the Salinas Valley of California. She is part of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. In 2014, she received her PhD from Stanford University for a dissertation focused on grassroots community groups working to restore and protect rivers and streams in Appalachia.

Alexander Wankel from Lima, Peru, founder of Pachakuti Foods.

Alex grew up in the US with Peruvian roots from his mother.  For the past few years, he has been working with micro-entrepreneurs in the Andes to connect them with markets. Farmers have developed thousands of local varieties of quinoa that have the ability to adapt to climate change. Alex’s goal is to protect quinoa diversity by supporting the farmers who cultivate it. His startup is working to produce the first biodiversity-friendly quinoa milk made with multiple local quinoa varieties that have been carefully selected for their delicious milky flavor. http://www.pachakutifoods.com/

Seated on the right is Arun Gupta, from Dallas, recent winner of one million dollars for his solar thermal startup company, Skyven

Arun developed a technique using optics (mirrors) to enhance the thermal energy produced by solar panels. His goal is to have his inventions installed in large industrial buildings throughout the country.

Every evening we gathered in a circle and focused on one of the fellows to listen to his or her concerns and offer our insights, suggestions and support.

Bruce Gollub tries out his new fishing pole at the end of the day.

Kayaking in Class III + rapids

Bryce and Raj jump off a bridge 36 feet above the water.

This person shall remain nameless for fear of frightening her patients, friends, and family.

 

Sarah was one of the excellent guides provided by the Middle Fork River Expeditions. There were two other women guides, Bobbi and Sandy. All the guides, including the male guides, Patrick and Hooper, were highly competent, good-humored, patient and kind.

The Middle Fork River Expedition was chosen as one of the top 3 river outfitters in the world by National Geographic Adventure magazine in 2008 and 2009. They certainly deserve their reputation. They actually managed to accommodate all the various dietary needs and preferences—no small feat! Their prices are very reasonable. Check out their website http://www.idahorivers.com

Deborah Knapp and Heather Lukacs. Deborah was the photographer on the trip, one of many roles she filled.

Given the limitations of my iPhone, Deborah Knapp kindly shared her photos with me for this blog post.

Heading home

​Eventually the trip came to an end after six magical days on the Salmon River. I still feel the kayak rocking me as I lie in bed at night. And I still feel the inspiration and admiration well up inside me as I think about the time I spent with these incredible visionary and entrepreneurial change makers, each helping the world to be a better place in his or her own way. I am filled with love and gratitude.

With palms pressed together, I bow to all of you.