Central Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return is a wilderness of steep, rugged mountains, deep canyons, and wild, whitewater rivers. The Salmon River Mountains, located south of the Main Salmon and west of the Middle Fork, are the most massive range, and dominate the Wilderness. North of the Main Salmon River are the Clearwater Mountains, east of the Middle Fork are the Bighorn Crags. The Salmon River Canyon is one of the deepest gorges in North America, deeper even than the famous Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona. But in contrast to the Grand Canyon, the Salmon River Canyon is not noted for sheer walls and towering heights, but instead for the variety of landscapes visible from the river; wooded ridges rising to the sky, huge eroded monuments and bluffs and slides, picturesque castles and towers, and solitary crags.
It is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 States. This land is home to numerous species of wildlife, including wolves, who have just returned after 50 years of near absence. A young couple, Isaac and Bjornen Babcock, chose this wilderness for their year-long honeymoon. But what begins as a romantic adventure becomes something much greater for the couple — and a tale of hope and celebration for every life trying to make it in the unforgiving heart of the wilderness.
Isaac has been a wildlife biologist studying wolves for more than a decade. He and his new bride Bjornen planned to use their year in the wilderness as a working honeymoon of sorts, making this documentary film and examining up close the lives of the wolf packs that inhabit the wild land. River of No Return, available in the Nature on PBS series is their finished package. In the film’s introduction Isaac talks about how this wilderness is appropriately named, “There’s no coming back from the River of No Return unchanged.”
The film follows the Babcocks through each of the four seasons as they follow the Salmon River, climb tall and rugged peaks, and camp in lush mountain meadows all the while filming adorable creatures at play and survival. This area is home to crazy birds like the dippers who comically dip up and down, and dip in the river for insects. Besides the wolves, the Babcocks captured otters, bighorn sheep, elk, deer and coyotes all on film.
Bjornen, unfortunately, in addition to experiencing the unforgiving wilderness was also having to deal with a new rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis that she learned about just before the undertaking. She had some very tough days with excruciating pain. But she soldiered on, once saying, “I’d choose an adventure with hardship over no adventure at all, anytime.”
Unlike the rough and tumble early days of the United States, modern society and culture and population have made it so that we have to create places that are called wilderness. For a homesteader in Idaho in the early 19th century, anytime they stepped outside their front door they were stepping into the backcountry. Humans shared the land with wolves, and bears, and wildcats. It was understood. Many species have since been hunted nearly out of existence.
That is one of the primary reasons why the Wilderness Act of 1964 was so important to the survival of many of the predatory species that are native to North America. As Isaac so succinctly put it, “Wolves need a place to live by their rules, not ours.” If you, your children, and your grandchildren wish to continue enjoying wild places and wild things, it is incumbent upon us all to continue the principles of those who crafted the Wilderness Act. Don’t be fooled by those who wish to sell our public lands to the highest bidder. Those bidders will be the mining, oil and gas, and timber industries who want only to rape the land for their bottom line.
It was hard on Isaac and Bjornen to live that year in the wilderness. Isaac was constantly toting around extremely heavy camera equipment. Bjornen was in near-constant pain. It was cold. It was humid. They were attacked by unrelenting mosquitos. But when all was said and done, they hated to see their adventure end. As Isaac concluded, “I found something I didn’t even know was lost
— a way of life so simple and so complete.”
River of No Return is 53 minutes in length and is available for streaming on the PBS website, or for purchase in DVD or Blueray format. While you’re there, be sure to also check out many of the other outstanding documentary films of the Nature on PBS series.
Here is a brief sample: