From a snow-covered ridgeline on Galena Summit, 18-year-old Riley Berman began his senior project in April 2009, taking the first steps in a 425-mile odyssey that ended on the banks of the Snake River in Oregon.
Each year, seniors at The Community School in Ketchum select an independent project to pursue, generally following a personal passion. For Berman, that passion was his love of water—whether it’s in the frozen form and he is on skis or the liquid variety when he’s paddling or fishing. But unlike most senior projects, Riley’s quest required a fair share of logistical and technical support, and a boat load of gumption.
After snowmobiling to the top of Galena Pass, Berman skied toward the Stanley Basin below and the headwaters of the Salmon, the infamous “River of No Return.” On his second day he made it as far as the Blaine County line, where he had an inflatable kayak stashed under the Salmon River Bridge. He then traded in his skis for the kayak, and paddled through Lower Stanley on to Elk Creek, where the third leg of the voyage was to begin.
I proved something to myself.”
Scooter Carling, a veteran river guide and long-time friend of the Berman family, was standing by to help crew a 15-foot raft which he and Riley would attempt to navigate the entire length of the Salmon River during the height of spring runoff.
“The boat was preposterously heavy at the start. You could barely steer it,” Riley said. “We had everything we would need for 17 days.”
So, like a latter-day Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Berman and Carling headed down the Salmon River with the goal of reaching the confluence of the Snake River at the Grand Ronde in Oregon. Yet, unlike Huck and Tom’s leisurely float down the Mississippi River, the runoff forecast for the Salmon that spring was predicted to spike at a whopping 30,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) during their voyage.
“My experience level as a boater wasn’t huge and one of the goals was to become more accomplished with the raft,” said Berman. “It was a great learning experience to watch and learn from Scooter. He is a Class V rower and just makes it look so easy.”
After the Middle Fork joins the Main Salmon, river levels leap accordingly. And it’s at this point, where the road stops and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness begins, that a difficult decision needed to be made.
“We stopped at Corn Creek. That was our check point and we had to commit. I remember standing at the boat ramp. We had established that 20,000 cfs was our cutoff. It was running at 22,000 cfs and dropping, so we figured by the time we got to Slide Rapid it would be flowing about 17,500,” said Berman. “I was the trip leader. The ball was in my court. I guess we figured, yeah, it’s going to be big, but it’s manageable.”
The pair was traveling 35 to 40 miles per day. Carling would row the Class V rapids, while mentoring Berman through the lower rated rapids and with scouting reports and observations. Meanwhile, Riley’s dad, Andy Berman, was available by satellite phone providing support, weather forecasts and river flow projections.
“My dad was totally on board. We called him a bunch in the ‘war room,’” said Berman. Riley’s mom, Kate, was more apprehensive about the trip, but he convinced her of its merits after adding a GPS spot tracking device to their list of essential equipment.
“I feel like I did something very unique. It has been a huge building block for me. I was the trip leader. I planned the menu. I was in charge of safety. It’s a real sense of accomplishment,” said Berman. “I now plan all the whitewater trips for my college and I am now working with White Otter Adventures in Stanley during the summers where I began offering fly fishing float trips.”
Berman wrote in his journal each night during the 21-day trip. He also shared his story and photos with staff, faculty and community members as part of the conclusion of his senior project.
“I feel like I’ve gained a lot as a person because of the trip. I proved something to myself,” he said.
When Berman arrived at the boat ramp at Grand Ronde, he had traveled more than 400 miles and descended from the 8,990-foot-high Galena Summit to the 840-foot elevation of the Snake River. Andy Berman was waiting for his son at the take-out.
“That was a funny site to see,” said Berman. “My dad is waving and yelling and I’m like, wow, the trip is over. It was definitely a bittersweet feeling.”
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