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sweep scow river of no return main salmon river idaho

Why is it called ‘The River of NO Return’?

And what is a sweep scow or sweep boat?

Here is a brief history of BOTH.

The story begins in the mid-1800s when the gold rush flooded Idaho and the banks of the Salmon River. As miners infiltrated what’s now known as the Frank Church Wilderness, communities developed, towns grew and the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston flourished. With the growing demand for lumber, entrepreneurial men capitalized on the use of the Mighty Main Salmon to transport lumber. Due to the wild nature of the river strewn with rapids, boulders and hundreds of miles of twists and turns, simply floating logs from one location to another was out of the question. Having migrated west from the banks of the Mississippi, men with the familiarity of flatboats and their ability to transport huge loads, gave birth to the creation of the sweep scow. A large wooden boat with a flat bottom, ranging in length from 26′ to 38′. Built with a double hull these boats could carry up to 3 or 4 tons and only draw 14 inches of water. The sweep scow was driven by 2 men, one man on each scow, which protruSweep boat middle fork salmonded off of the bow and stern. Each scow averaged in length of about 22′.

Each boat was hand-built out of green lumber, then loaded with logs and driven downstream from Salmon City to Shoup, Riggins or Lewiston (hopefully, if no carnage prevailed along the way). Upon arrival, the load of lumber was sold, the sweep scow was dismantled and then also sold as lumber. Then the hardiest of men would voyage back to Salmon City and start the whole process again. Thus naming the Salmon ‘The River of no Return’, for the boats would never return.

Modern Day

Today, companies use sweep boats to transport big loads down the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The Middle Fork is a low volume tributary to the much larger Main Salmon. In an effort to disperse the heavy loads of a 30 person, 6-day trip, it is necessary to use sweep boats as cargo rafts. The heavier they are the better they track and drive, thus lightening the loads of the passenger crafts. Today’s sweeps are driven by one river guide, average in length of about 22′ and are inflatable rafts. Typically the sweep will leave camp before the group and go straight to camp. The Middle Fork, the Main Salmon and the Rogue River in Oregon are the few rivers that still have sweep boats in operation.

About Greg McFadden

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