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.

 

Comments

The River of No Return — 72 Comments

  1. What an amazing experience you had, Erica! How exciting to be able to spend time with these extraordinary people! I just was in awe when I read the story of your journey. The jump was courageous – so yourself! You are the most courageous person I know!

    • Well, I’m in awe of you, Traude. I love the way you live your life, constantly exploring and wandering throughout the world—on foot!! We are both doing what we love. xxox

  2. Wow, Erica! What a great adventure… and your descriptions and photos made me feel like I was right there with you all. And Wow, Deborah, what a magnificent purpose in life! We so appreciate having you both in our lives!

  3. Thanks for the vicarious thrill of another vacation! Looks like it was a wonderful trip. I just got back from a trip in No NM where I also saw a bald eagle (who did not pose for me), and 6 wild turkeys as well as elk and deer. Nature is very healing!

    • What a blessing to see all those wild animals, Patrice. Nature is indeed healing. During my brain damage crisis, being in nature was one of the only times I felt some peace in my troubled soul. Love, Erica

  4. Ahh, wonderful. You are such a generous traveler with your stories, heart, pictures. Thanks for taking us along. And introducing us to amazing talented impassioned people that are making difference in our world.
    It’s good to get a shot of optimism and vision

    • How nice to hear from you, Michael. I love your feedback. Thank you. Yes, it is so heartening to know that such people are out there making a difference. We all need some optimism and hope in these challenging times. I think of you fondly. Love, Erica

  5. What a wonderful journey and journal for all of us! The stories of each fellow are inspiring and hopeful in this crazy world. So happy you had a wonderful time and shared it with us. Love to you ERica!

    • Thank you, Cathy. I’m glad you enjoyed the journal. I certainly enjoyed reading about your trip to Japan. Love, Erica

  6. Your Spirit ran free! So glad you were able to participate in this life-changing river run! You always find such incredible people to go on adventures with. Love the bear in the tree and that the smoke finally cleared! And the jump! Hooray!!!
    Welcome home!
    Love,
    Patty

    • Thanks, as always, for all your support and encouragement—and the map updates with the status of the fires and smoke. It sure looked daunting from those maps. Much love, Erica

  7. Wow! What an incredible trip. I think I live vicariously through your travels.

    it is the largest area in the country without any roads and has some of the most pristine and untouched terrain in the US? How spectacular is that? This area is on my ‘bucket list’.

    Your trip and discussion of the Wild Gift Program has inspired me to give them a donation. What a worthwhile organization.

    • That’s fantastic that you’re considering donating to Wild Gift, Kurt. It’s an incredible program. Yes, definitely put the Salmon River on your bucket list. Don’t wait too long to go. The guiding company, Middle Fork Rafting Expeditions, is an excellent company. They are well-organized, highly competent and knowledgeable, kind, and serve healthy food. It was great seeing you last night. Love, Erica

  8. Dear Erica – yet another amazing trip you have made the most of – I think you’re living many lifetimes in this one. Not only are these younger entrepreneurs contributing so wonderfully to our troubled world, but you do it so gracefully also. You inspire me all the time, your sense of adventure and fearlessness are truly awesome. I know we all have such different Paths in our lives to fulfill and accomplish “whatever”, yours seems especially challenging to me. You took the challenges and opportunities from your accident and turned them into pure gold, making the most of all the gifts you’ve been given. We all benefit from your Being in so many ways – thank you!

    • You comment touched me and brought tears to my eyes, Mariel. It makes me so happy thinking that what I’ve been through in my life can serve others. In fact, that was my prayer after the bog accident: “God, if I have to suffer like this, may it serve a higher good. May it somehow help others on their path toward wholeness and healing.” My prayers were answered. With love, Erica

  9. Just so beautiful and inspiring Erica! You are such a wonder in so many ways including your fabulous expression of who you are, a gift to us all. I love that jump off the bridge, it lifted me to the heavens!
    Always thinking of you along the way.
    Love,
    Magda

    • Thank you so much, Magda. That jump off the bridge was very symbolic for me. It reminded me that I don’t have to let fear run my life. With much love, Erica

  10. So inspiring- both the wonderful work these young people are gifting our earth and its people and you as a role model for overcoming adversity with wisdom and elegance. Thanks for all that you offer through these posts.

    • Thank you for your beautiful words, Lisa. I’m so happy that you’re finding the blog posts useful. With love, Erica

  11. How wonderful Erica! I went along happily, happily. I wonder if one of the homesteads you stopped at was Campbells Ferry? My first girlfriend, Phillis, and her husband Doug Tims care take it, living there six months of the year… it’s history is a wonderful story, and their book, Merciless Eden. In one of your photos, I almost see him receiving folks walking up to place. Love, Pattie

    • OMG!!! YES! We were at Campbell’s Ferry and met the owner, a man from Mississippi. He showed us around and told us all about the colorful history of the place. It’s a beautiful place. Have you ever been there? What an amazing coincidence, Pattie!!! I think of you with love and tenderness. Erica

      • Yes! It was Doug Tims who we met at Campbell’s Ferry. Phillis was also there when we visited but stayed at the house getting ready for their trip the next morning. Small world!

        • Small world indeed!! I so enjoyed out time together, Heather. You are doing such good work. Love, Erica

  12. What a fine re-creation of your experience for us all. I felt like I was there. I liked the way you introduced your fellow & fella
    Kayakers.
    Good Job!

  13. Wow, Erica, what a journey! You were so courageous to brave the smoke, in spite of the health risk, to be part of this incredibly beautiful experience. And what a wonderful group of travel mates you were with. I salute these talented and dedicated young women and men for the important work they are doing in the world.

    • Thanks, Kenn. I was so fortunate to be part of this inspiring trip. It meant so much to me. See you soon!! Love, E

  14. Yey Erica, great you jumped. I always imagine water, in any form, dissolving fear, imagining it (or actually feeling, as the case may be) letting it wash over me. So how perfect to plunge into it. So glad you were able to deal with the smoke without many adverse consequences.

    I’m very inspired to hear about these young people. especially amidst all the horror and devastation on the planet. It gives me hope. I often check out ‘goodnewsnetwork.org’ environmental stories (I find it’s a much healthier & saner thing to do than reading too many other news media stories!). Some of the young people coming out of this organization have probably been in those stories.
    love,
    Linda

    • That’s a good suggestion about checking out the goodnewsnetwork.org. I devour good news like a starving wanderer in the desert. I never tire of hearing stories about overcoming adversity. With much love to you, Linda. Erica

  15. Your trips are such an inspiration….I learn so much. Thank your for sharing. Love to you. LORIEN

    • You’re an inspiration, too, Lorien. You are still standing after all that you’ve been through. I’m very impressed. With love, Erica

    • Thank you so much, Susan. You have been so supportive of me all these years we’ve known each other. With gratitude, Erica

  16. Erica, you continue to inspire courage in us, all of your patients. This was an amazing trip. So glad you are back safely.

    • Thank you, dear Susan. You are an inspiration yourself!!!! You always manage to land with your feet on the ground, even after some very serious health challenges. With admiration, Erica

  17. Thanks for this vicarious Idaho trip–what a great way to make friends, discover what millennials are doing, and interact with nature.

    • Thanks, Benette. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Today is Feast Day at The Commons. We’ll miss you. Love, Erica

  18. Amazing, remarkable, delightful, inspirational, informational. Thank you for this . I learned much through your experience which you so delightfully shared with us. I am now more hopeful for our world due to knowing these progressive ventures exist.

    • Thanks, Patricia. I left more hopeful as well. These millennials are really amazing. They know exactly how bad things are, but they don’t focus all their energy on it. Instead, their focus is on what they will do about specific problems. It’s so inspiring, it actually brought tears to my eyes listening to them talk. Love, Erica

  19. What a fine and interesting and fun trip Erica! I swear you are getting younger every year. I think I did recognize that lady jumping off the bridge–mum’s the word. Thanks for the window into this meaningful adventure and the hope-bringers who were part of it.

    • I always love your comments, John—-especially the part about getting younger every year. Haha. Much love, Erica

  20. As soon as I saw the photo of the two guys jumping off the bridge I thought, oh no–I bet Erica jumped too! Then I continued scrolling and sure enough, there you are in mid-air. Looks like an amazing trip Erica. (though I’m glad you are safely home)

    • Haha. You know me really well, Margaret, and knew that I would jump. The only reason I jumped was for its symbolic significance related to overcoming fear. You’ve had to overcome a lot of fear yourself, so I imagine you understand. Much love, Erica

  21. How incredible for you and the world to be part of such a venture.The pics are beautiful, and I actually have a friend living along the Salmon.
    Yes, you were having SO much fun, I smiled even. Inspired by the beauty of the land and the “young” folks that bring hope. Gud on ya for going :-).

    • Thanks, Nina. Hearing that you smiled made me smile. Thank you for your kind words. Love you, Erica

  22. What a wonderful journey for you and all of the other participants! It’s incredibly refreshing to have renewed faith in humanity knowing there are such amazing people out there with hope, inspiration and fortitude to create a better world. I’m inspired!! So happy you were able to slog through the smoke and enjoy the ride~ Welcome home! Love to you, Paddy

    • I left the trip feeling that these inspiring millennials give us tremendous hope and offer an antidote to these dire times. I hope your transition back home after your adventures up north went smoothly. With love, Erica

  23. Dearest Erica, You are so, so brave! What a wonderful adventure. You inspire me to broaden my world instead of letting it get smaller!
    Ox Satya

    • Thank you for those words, Satya. I am determined not to let my fears crush me into a little ball. After the accident, one of the hardest things of my life was to make a commitment to move forward in spite my condition. It makes me so happy to hear that you are inspired. With love, Erica

  24. Oh my dear Erica, thank God for human beings who are moving human evolution forward, as you describe this group, you included!
    The Middle Fork of the Salmon River was my first ever river trip with my brother as guide, my small son Tai on board also. Your pictures brought back precious memories of that trip which took me into a timeless adventure of a lifetime.
    I am so glad you got to enjoy!
    I love you, you rare flower!
    Dana B

    • Thanks for sharing those memories, Dana. Does Tai remember that trip? Your brother must be very competent as a river guide because the Middle Fork is quite challenging. Love you, Erica

  25. You are one of the least impaired people I know!!! I have tried to indicate that to you many times over the years in our conversations. Not only that but you are an inspiration to a whole lot of your patients including myself.

    • Thank you for those kind words, Terry. I sure appreciate your feedback and will take it to heart. With love, Erica

  26. What? You did what? You jumped from that bridge? OMG!!!! I am so glad you made it through all that smoke, haze, bears, and rapids…. Welcome back.

    • It was miraculous that I wasn’t affected by that smoke. I can’t understand why I had no major reactions. It might have had something to do with the fact that my adrenaline and cortisol was so high most of the trip that the cortisol might have dampened my immune system, making it less reactive. That’s just a guess. Love, E

  27. This looks like a trip that definitely nourished your soul and gives hope to us bystanders for the future. What amazing people!

    • Yes, the trip did indeed nourish my soul and these young millennials filled me with hope and inspiration. Love, E

    • Midway through the trip the smoke suddenly lifted and we had clear skies. It was really beautiful. Love you, Rickie

  28. Wow, that jump! How did it feel?
    Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s the next best thing to being there with these amazing folks. One doesn’t hear about all the good people are doing in the news these days. love you

    • Thanks for your comment, Susan. The jump was scary but I knew that it was safe because some of the men had already jumped without a problem, and I knew that the water was deep and without any menacing rocks below the surface of the water. The jump had symbolic significance for me for overcoming fear. After the jump, the group advised me to stop thinking of myself as “impaired,” a term I’ve used when referring to myself since the big accident changed my life. Love and hugs, Erica