There’s something magical about river towns.
It may have something to do with the calming sound and positive ions given off by rushing water. Perhaps it has something to do with the way a river teaches patience and how to truly understand the natural ebb and flow of life. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that—for at least a few months each year—most river towns like to let their hair down, put floppy hats, swimsuits and sandals on and party like a bunch of college kids on spring break. Riggins, Idaho, is just such a town.
The “River of No Return” returns to the rest of the world in Riggins—a cozy hamlet nestled along Idaho’s western edge.
Those who’ve been happily floating by raft or kayak, dory or jet boat along the Salmon River and through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness reconnect with society in the steep canyon, peppered with yellow pines, where Riggins is tucked.
The first signs of man are the massive jet boats and pickup trucks packed around the boat launch at Vinegar Creek—nearly 30 single-lane, unpaved miles and a few rusty old bridges from the town itself.
The Big Salmon River Road, as it’s known, follows the Salmon River, which eventually rounds a big bend and heads north, just as it welcomes the cascading Little Salmon River. Nestled above its banks, somewhere around the time gold was first discovered in Idaho in the mid-1800s, a community sprung up.
(Clockwise) Buck Lemmeran stands outside a shed in his backyard. Now retired, Buckhas lived in Riggins for 14 years and loves to collect antiques and old signs. “I just love graphics and folk art. It’s important our future generations see the past. It needs to be preserved,” he said; Richelle Barger and son change the CFS chart for the Salmon River outside the office of the The Current News; Riggins local “Har-V” hugs friend Jill Wexler during a dance at the Seven Devils Saloon and Bar;
While the Salmon carves its way past the eastern edge of Riggins (elevation 1,801’), on the other side of town the canyon works its way up towards the spectacular Seven Devils Mountains (peak elevation 9,393’). On the other side of the Seven Devils, the Snake River makes its way through the infamous Hells Canyon National Recreation Area towards its destiny with the River of No Return.
The two mighty rivers meet at the Oregon border and then soon join the Clearwater near Lewiston, Idaho, before turning towards Clarkston, Washington, and following the Columbia to the sea. Steelhead (sea-run trout), Chinook salmon, rainbow trout and smallmouth bass all swim through the Salmon and past Riggins at some point during the year, making it a year-round freshwater fishing Mecca.
In the warmer months, whitewater rafting trips for both the Salmon and Snake pack the town with sunburned families and twenty-somethings rocking impressive sandal and life jacket tans—both of which help Riggins earn its title as “Idaho’s Whitewater Capital.”
“People call up from overseas and all over the country saying they want to float the ‘River of No Return.’ Maybe they’ve seen a documentary about the area or read about it or heard about it from a friend. But they just love the wilderness areas we have around here,” explained Amy Sinclair, the vice president of the Salmon River Chamber of Commerce and the owner of Exodus Wilderness Adventures.
Left: Cowboys line up to pay their entry fees outside the office at the 63rd Annual Riggins Rodeo. Right: Reggie Crow waits at a bridge over the Salmon River for the annual Salmon River Jet Boat Races.
“This is a pretty neat area with an incredible backyard,” Amy said, as we sat inside the rocking Seven Devils Saloon and Steakhouse, smack dab in the heart of Riggins. Fishermen, rugby players, retirees and at least one journalist keep the saloon’s healthy draft selection in steady use. Past the front door, Highway 95 runs from one end of town to the other (3.2 miles). The Salmon River ripples not too far behind the back door.
“And the really amazing thing is that an incredible river goes right through the middle of it all,” Amy said, adding with a gentle smile, “there’s just something about this place. Riggins just sort of bites you. I’m never leaving.”
River towns used to be rowdy places, especially back in the old mountain West days when the men were men and the bighorn sheep were nervous. And Riggins is certainly no exception. Heck, the town was first known as “Gouge Eye.”
The story goes that a couple of burly locals got into a brawl over the fair hand of a Miss Daisy Trumbull. After tumbling all over town beating the snot out of each other, the fight came to an end because of a nasty eye gouge—which is now illegal in most (respectable) mixed martial arts contests. Nonetheless, Daisy got the winner, bighorns were wary of the loser, and the place became known as “Gouge Eye.”
Eventually, somewhere around the time Teddy Roosevelt was in office at the turn of the 20th century, a postmaster named John Riggins gave his name to the town.
(Clockwise) Jesse Olsen bursts out of the chute during his bareback ride at the 63rd Annual Riggins Rodeo;Kate MacEachern runs food during the breakfast rush at Cattleman’s Restaurant on Main Street. Riggins local and handyman “Har-V” blows his horn at the Seven Devils Saloon;
For the next 80-odd years, Riggins subsisted primarily on gold and gem mining (there are still active mines around the town), farming and ranching, and an active lumberyard. But many of the mines went dry and, in 1982, the mill burned down. Lots of folks disappeared like fading smoke after that. But those hardy enough to stay—and those who loved the place too much to leave—decided to turn to their backyard to survive.
As Amy, who’s called Riggins home for more than a decade, put it, “The people around here just realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got some great places to play. Maybe other people would like to come enjoy it all with us.’” Riggins has been a booming town, with a visitor-based economy and a solid population of retirees from colder climes, ever since.
“This isn’t just an incredible place to play, there’s a great sense of community here, too,” Amy explained. “My fellow outfitters are also my neighbors, and we all want each other to do well.”
Riggins, population roughly 440 (which doubles during the summer months), is a picturesque, year-round tourist destination. But it doesn’t just get your average tourist.
Riggins hosts the types of vacationers who like adventure. Folks of any age who want to run world-class rapids or run around the nation’s second largest wilderness area. People who want to angle for big fish or chase after game birds like chukars. Or those who like to hunt for monstrous racks—either still attached to deer and elk during the autumn or already fallen off in the spring.
Jet boating up to a remote river ranch like Mackay Bar for an overnight excursion is also becoming more and more popular, especially for those in the corporate set who want to literally get away from it all for a while.
“You have to admit,” Kate MacEachern said, while holding a Charlie Russell omelet in one hand and a side of thick, buttered toast in the other, “this is a pretty great place. And there ain’t even no stinkin’ McDonalds!”
Kate and her business partner/cook Bert Tumelson opened Bert & Kate’s Cattleman’s Restaurant on the southwest side of town just a few years ago, and business has been bustling ever since.
“I wanted to own a restaurant, I just wasn’t so hot about working in one,” Kate joked, while dropping a jar of locally made huckleberry jam on our table during a typical Saturday morning in March. The morning sun takes a while to make its way over the deep canyon walls, especially in the winter months. In any season, the small log cabin is usually packed full of locals sipping coffee, talking about the weather and enjoying the homemade fare.
Kate raised five kids from “grade school through grad school,” as she puts it, in Riggins. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the town—or anyone anywhere with as much energy and zest for life.
“Sure, this place can get a little hot in the summertime. But it’s no big deal. If it gets too hot, you can just go down to the river and jump in,” said Kate, a fisherman who likes to come over to Ketchum occasionally and cast flies for trout.
As a couple of other tables joined the conversation about the nice, cool winter mornings in Riggins, Kate piped back in, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about. 104 is my favorite temperature. This 50-degree stuff is for the birds!”
Mild winters and sweltering summers alongside a river certainly make an ideal climate for many. Richelle Barger, publisher of the Riggins-based newspaper, The Current News, is one such person.
“Obviously, we have the best weather for gardening, a natural riverbed with secret fishing holes, white sandy beaches and kayaking play spots, dirt roads to walk our dogs and incredible scenery in every direction. Yeah, we’ve got all that going for us,” she explained. “And, we run on river time. We encourage everyone to slow down, especially down Main Street … our cops will nail you.”
Richelle is a Montana native, but rivers run through her fiery heart. She moved to Riggins a decade ago, shortly after giving birth to a son and, as she explains, “it only made sense to raise our son on the river. It was the best thing we have done for him so far.”
You don’t have to spend too much time in Riggins before it becomes obvious that the sense of community in this small Gem State town is as strong as the current of the mighty Salmon River during the spring runoff.
We chattthe wonders of Riggins in between sets of the local favorite, the River Rock Band, rocking out at the Seven Devils Saloon. “We are a bunch of rogues with a bunch of crazy ideas that don’t necessarily match anyone else’s and we like to have fun and encourage everyone who visits to have fun. We enjoy peace and quiet but know how to cut a rug any chance we get. Even the city council meetings are a hoot because the characters are so very funny,” Richelle stated proudly.
“Riggins is a place where cell phone reception is spotty and a few times each year we lose power for at least three hours. We are a bunch of hippies, cowboys, Republicans (of course), a few (closet) Democrats, teachers, river guides and hunting outfitters, loggers, veterans, rafters, jet-boaters and gear-heads, who are all just trying to be neighbors—a diverse community,” as Richelle describes it, adding, “it’s a funky little town, population 440. But 440 of the most interesting people you will ever meet.”
There is a magic about Riggins—the kind all great river towns have. As to exactly what that magic is, it’s hard to say. But those lucky enough to know it also know a passion for the place that runs as deep as the famous river that flows past it. The type of love for a classic river town best summed up by Dorian Clay.
Born and raised in Riggins, Dorian recently returned to town after spending three decades chasing his engineering career all around the globe. Along with his wife, Marie, he now happily owns the Two Rivers Coffee House and Creamery on the south side of town. As Dorian put it, “It’s pretty simple. Riggins is just a wonderful place to be.”
So be careful if you go to Riggins. It just might sink its teeth into you.