by Julie Trevelyan

“The Scow”

Captain Henry “Cap” Guleke was a gentle bear of a man. Idaho’s Salmon River was his one true love, and he rowed it as many as 200 times, ferrying passengers, gear, and supplies through both whitewater rapids and placid sections. Twisting its way through the deepest canyon in North America, the Salmon River brought no end of challenges and delights to boatman Guleke. A government trapper near the Snake River, he began to learn river craft when he made his way to the Salmon in the 1890s. From his first trip in 1896 to his last in 1939, Guleke’s presence became entwined with the Salmon River in a way that would guarantee him a place in its history.

His initial claim to fame was making the first documented passage of the Salmon between the towns of Salmon and Riggins, a journey of about 165 miles, in a scow, a 30-foot long wooden boat with long wooden sweepers used to navigate passage through the water. Successful negotiation of the wild Salmon demanded alertness and good familiarity with every current and surge of the water. In 1911, novelist Caroline Lockhart wrote about a trip she took down the Salmon River with Guleke. In this passage, she recalls the preparations as they approached Pine Creek Rapids:

“There was something creepy, ominous, in the very quietness with which we glided from the stiller water of the eddy into the channel. Nobody spoke; it was silent as a graveyard, save for the occasional lap of a ripple against the boat. The big pilot [Guleke], half-crouching over his sweep, made me think of a huge cat, a cougar waiting to grapple with an enemy as wily and formidable as himself, and, for a space, we crept forward with something of a cougar’s stealth.

 

Photo Credit: Clyde & Don Smith on the Salmon River, Idaho – The River of No Return

 

Then the current caught us like some live thing. Faster and faster we moved. The rocks and bushes at the water’s edge began to fly by. I thought I heard something. It sounded like the rumble of thunder far back in the hills. It grew louder with every beat of my heart…

As far as I could see there was a stretch of spray and foam, short intervals of wild, racing water, then more spray and foam where it churned itself to whiteness against a mass of rocks. And from it all came a steady boom! boom!…

Sometimes the water shot over the top of partially submerged granite boulders, again it struck them with a force which made it boil and seethe. We sat, the bailer and I, in tense, strained silence and during that seven miles Guleke never lifted his eyes or relaxed the muscles of his set jaw, but steered with the grim sureness of knowledge and determination. The praises I had heard [of him] no longer seemed extravagant.”

Stories like this one about Guleke made their way into the national press, including a 1921 trip recounted by author Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson that later appeared in the pages of Field and Stream magazine. A legend in his own time, Guleke apparently remained first and foremost a boatman, always ready and willing to introduce people to “his” river so they, too, could experience its wild presence. He helped create and shape Idaho river rafting into the commercially-guided fun it exists as today.

Married late in life to a widow whose husband had been lost to the river, Guleke remained a boatman until he was nearly 80 years old. His gravestone in Salmon, Idaho, is inscribed with the words “River of No Return,” in fitting tribute to the man who made the Salmon River his quiet and abiding passion.

 

Written by Julie Trevelyan.

Julie is a freelance writer and wilderness guide in southern Utah. She especially enjoys books, coffee, yoga, wild country, horses, and dark chocolate.

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