“Midnight” Saved My Life! by Steven D. Kelley…

by | Feb 23, 2023


River of No Return
Steven D. Kelley & KaDee

Written by Steven D. Kelley, Buckeye, Arizona

Steven Kelley grew up in Eastern Washington State.  Served in The US Navy from 1969 – 1975 with four tours in Vietnam aboard the USS Truxtun CGN-35. Now a retired real estate broker Steve has turned his attention to writing fiction and non-fiction true life stories.

“River of No Return “

East of Riggins Idaho, the Salmon River, AKA the “River of No Return” winds its way through the steep narrow gorge. The entrance to the Gospel Hump Wilderness is at the end of a mountain road. From the trailhead, the scenery is awesome. A death-defying challenge lies ahead.

“Clomp, Clomp, Clomp,” the horses hove sound echoes off the rock walls of the canyon. While crossing the bridge, the trail takes off uphill immediately, winding up the canyon wall. It was uphill all the way until crossing over Green Valley Pass and dropping down into the stream below, feeding into the Salmon River.

As I climb out of the river bottom riding, Sunny, I recall the conversation with Brandon as we were saddling up. I was about to tie on my saddlebags to the back of the saddle.

“Don’t think I would do that. He is pretty young and may not tolerate the bags!” Brandon said intently.

Clearly, I’m not going to argue with the man who knows this horse.

“Just how many times has he been on the mountain trail?” I managed to ask.

“Oh, just a couple of times. He should be fine following the other horses. Therefore, you will be bringing up the rear! That way if he has a wreck it will be in the back of the line.” Brandon continued the conversation.

The words “have-a-wreck” ruminate in my mind as we walk along the 18 inch to 24 inch wide path. If you took a miss-step, it looks to be a thousand yards down the boulder-covered slope. I consciously slipped my outside foot out of the stirrup. Just to give me a fighting chance if Sunny decides to run a red light.

There is only one chance to clear the saddle and probably the only direction is straight back. The fact that I am leading a packhorse complicates my emergency jettison thoughts.

Our packhorse lead rope is loose except for a breakaway string attached to the saddle strings. In the event of a rodeo, I can drop the lead rope, it may not release, and the rider can recover the rope without dismounting. In addition, if Sunny goes over the side the packhorse lead rope will breakaway so we do not lose both animals over the cliff. I’ve learned that horses have a very strong survival instinct.

Black Bear!

Not long into the ride a young black bear flushed from brush along the trail. As the bears scent reaches the string of horses nostrils flare, ears perk up, and muscles flex toward the movement. It was then I felt with trepidation, the uneasiness building within my horse.

Spending enough time in the saddle, you can feel the emotions of the animal change turning muscles tight. The the animal becomes fully alert, ready to flee from the real, or perceived, threat. The problem is there is hardly a flat spot of land in this entire region. Even our base camp will be setup on a sloping beach.

Hours wear on as we climb further into the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Saddle sourness can be “walked out” if you dismount and walk a while. It gives your horse some relief, as well.

We are making good time along this mountain trail. A recent fire in the area has caused some damage to the trails after thunderstorms sweep through the area. Traveling along at the end of the string behind Dave and his horses, I see the trail suddenly give way and collapse behind the horse with rider and the packhorse.

“GO, GO! TRAIL CAVE IN GO, GO!” I shouted from the behind the falling horse.

As the packhorse flounders, the ground caves away beneath his hind legs, and down the slope the horse goes, crashing into, jumping around and over boulders the size of VW bugs. Finally, he comes to rest behind some rocks.

Sunny managed to maintain his composure throughout the ordeal.

“Steve!” Brandon called from the lead horse. “Can you go down and see the situation. If the horse is hurt bad you know what you have to do.”

There is nothing worse than having to put an animal down. A broken leg 15 miles into the wilderness is not something a horse can survive.

Descending to the horse, I could see it was standing. “Whew!” Sliding over the boulders the horse crashed around. Seeing this gave me great admiration for the athletic ability of the four-legged beast. Reaching the horse, I quickly examined and discovered no injuries.

“He’s alright! I’ll bring him up to the trail.” I reported.

Due to our late departure from the trailhead, we were behind schedule. Now with this incident we were not going to be able to make the Green Valley Pass before nightfall. We decided to bed down along the trail as opposed to trekking through this dangerous mountain trail at night.

If you have, a habit of walking in your sleep this is not the place for you. My horse blanket and leather chaps provided some protection from the ground and rocks. In any event, it was a day and a night to remember.

“Do not roll out of your bedroll.” I thought.

We were perched along a cliff side dropping down some 500 to 1,000 feet to the river bottom below to the rocks and river bottom below.

Traveling light we had little provisions. We broke camp early the next morning and headed uphill. Reaching the Green Valley Pass felt like a major accomplishment. We will take time to prepare lunch and rest before we descend into the river bottom.

Brandon, The Trail Boss, explained we had to options to get down. We can ride another five miles along the mountain trail or we can take the short cut, a mile down the mountainside. At this time, my body, saddle soar, was saying walk. I voted “short cut”. But, in retrospect, I regretted this decision

Here we are deep into the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Having just rode about 20 miles through some of the most dramatic, steep, rocky terrain…”What was I thinking?”

The descent started good with horses and handlers managing to navigate this “short cut trail”. The trail traveled often by wild game from the hoof prints and scat. Mostly elk sign was observed, lifting our hopes and spirits. As the hunting party continues, the descent stuff starts to happen. Horses get flighty; men stumble, slip, and trip, over roots or unstable rocks.

Suddenly Sunny decides he has had enough of this. In fact, I was feeling the same. My “downhill muscles” were screaming. Again, if you have been around horse long enough you can pre-determine what the animal might do.

Sunny’s legs began to gather under his body. When he dropped his head, I knew I had to act quickly. Grabbing my rifle I jerked it from the scabbard just at Sunny went down rolled over, and lay, on his side. His downhill muscles have failed just as mine. We were both hurting big time.

Our only hope to rest is standing sideways, perpendicular to the mountain slope. Slowing the horse and I regain our determination to get off this hillside. Heading back down hill which is certainly a 45-degree angle if not more. In addition, sometime this requires a large step down around rock or a root. By the time, we had made it to the bottom of the hillside I was ready to get back in the saddle. I just hoped Sunny was up for the additional weight.

At the bottom of the creek, we traversed along a narrow path that goes under a rock cliff jetting out just over our heads. We were dripping water in rhythm with our horses. The drop to the roaring stream is well over fifty feet onto rolled river rock. The opposite side of the stream is practically vertical for hundreds of feet above.

We encountered a very narrow ledge with the trail blocked by a lodge pole trees and some wire. The range hands use this to corral their horses in the event they get a hankering to run off. We will use this fencing as well. The trail soon opens up as we exit the mouth of the canyon. In that moment we stopped in silence to embrace the heavenly beauty of the “River of No Return.”

Finally, we arrived at the base campsite on river late morning on the second day. It was twenty-five miles by trail to the camp. The rest of the hunting party will arrive by a jet boat along with the gear and equipment necessary to support this group of men Camping equipment, hunting gear, horse feed, and food all arrive shortly after we arrived at the base camp sight.

Unloading the jet boat was difficult. The beach was very steep. Imagine, hauling gear up a sandy beach and then over rolled river boulders.  Tents, grain, sleeping bags, food, and gear for eight in the wilderness is quite a load.

When I discovered the damage done by “taking the shortcut,” thoughts of regret returned for a moment. My shins and thighs were so soar it was exceedingly painful to go downhill.

Three days later, after a good rest, my muscles were slowly recovering. I reflected on the previous days spent riding 5 miles on horseback, including hiking anqother 3-5 miles up to the top and down. There are only two directions in the Gospel Hump Wilderness, a torturous up and down. I thought, “why in God’s name would anyone dare do this life threatening trek?”

I was shaken by the intense muscle requirement going downhill. Being out of shape and hoping most of my hunting time would be spent on horseback was not realistic by a long-shot. Still, the adventure was wonderful, challenging, and gleefully painful. Would I do it again? I’ll have to think some about that.

Five miles up on the mountain we rode into a meadow from which Tim and I would spike out up higher on the mountain. Once we set up the tent at Five Mile Spike Camp, the adventure became real to me. We put on the backpacks and proceeded uphill. The plan was to backpack out from Spike Camp for at least two days. If an elk was harvested, it was customary that all hands would come to the kill sight to assist getting the meat off the mountain.

The Black Wolf Pack

Five Mile Spike Camp is located in a meadow with a mountain spring not far from the spike camp. The tent goes up quickly and the provisions carried up by horse are unloaded into the tent. Once unloaded, the wrangler takes the horse back to base camp. Tim and I unloaded and rigged the backpacks carried on horseback with1 sleeping bags, a tarp, “bevy sacks” for over our sleeping bags, and clothes in the packs.

Our goal is to make the ridge top and bivouac tonight in the saddle above the large basin in which our spike camp is located. Hopefully catching some bull elk in the meadow at daylight.

Leaving the spike camp, we were excited and ready to hike. A small hill is between spike camp and the large meadow. We quickly cross over the hill and enter the large meadow. Looking to my left, I see Tim with rifle raised to his shoulder. My gaze quickly follows his to see four wolves running ahead of Tim.

The Black Wolf was obviously the dominate male by all signs. Three wolves crossed in front of my path. My warning shot echoed off the hillside just after Tim’s.  The wolf season in the Gospel Hump had a protocol, which required the hunter to report the killing of the wolf within 24 hours, or something like that. From 25 miles in, that might be problematic. Except, we had a satellite phone, if necessary.

Reaching the top of the ridge, we found fairly flat place and laid out our sleeping gear. Tim felt uneasy having had a wolf encounter so he slept with his .357 magnum. I felt comfortable with my .44 Magnum that we could hold off anything that might come our way. We kept our loaded rifles nearby.

A single candle light illuminates the forest room surrounding the two hunters. One single candle lights up the room in the forest. I have carried that candle in my pack for over 40 years. It now illuminates aour night room in the Gospel Hump Wilderness. A cool glow emits from the candle. I was surprised at how much of the forest illuminated by this single 40 + year old candle light. We are trying to be stealthy so we have no fire. Our Jet Boil stove heats the water, which cooks our mountain freeze dried packs.

It makes me consider that Jesus has a light that shines on us. One candle strong!

Sometimes it is bright and sometime it appears very dim and may be even obscure. Nevertheless it shines on us.

The in-between days.

Hunting always seems to have those in between days. The weather is not good. We over sleep from too much night time fun in camp. However, when you are 25 plus miles into the wilderness your life revolves around daylight to dark. We get up before daylight to catch the prey before it heads to their bedding grounds.  Where is that place?  We never seem to be able to find it.

So, we climb higher on the mountain. We find another spike camp that our second 3 man team set up high on the mountain in a beautiful saddle. It was a very comfortable campsite except, for me it was in the middle of the natural crossing route from one valley into another. Human scent in this area could keep game away.

What game? Other than the wolves, we have not seen an elk or deer. We have heard the elk bugling but they have managed to evade as far as Tim and I are concerned.

Elk down!          

Our radio broke the news that they killed a bull. Everybody is to migrate to the spike camp if possible. From our position above on the ridgeline trail, we were closer to the kill site than to go rendezvous at the spike camp and then back up the mountain.

Traveling along the ridgeline trail suddenly a three point Mule Deer Buck jumped up not more than 20 feet in front of us. My shot rang out and the buck immediately dropped.

“Nice shot!” I heard as the buck jumped back up and literally flew down the mountain out of sight. The forensics at the scene indicated a very high grazing shot across the back, leaving a small amount of hair and tallow on the ground. I think, and hope, that boy will grow up to be a monster buck never seeing a human again.

Field dressing and boning out an animal is a manly experience. The goal is to leave as much bone on the mountain as possible and pack out meat. This bull elk was massive with a huge impressive rack. Probably weighing 1,100 pounds on the hoof it was now our job to get this meat off the mountain.

In this region, we were not terribly worried or harassed by a Grizzly Bear. We have seen several Black Bear in this area. It is, however, prudent to have one party member stay on guard at all times.

A very skilled hunting crew managed to field dress, quarter, and bone out the bull in a couple of hours. The horses brought up from base camp were lead to the kill sight. The day was getting late and we decided to go ahead and take this load to base camp. It will better to manage taking care of the meat at the river.

Four horses, lead by four handlers, will help take the trophy to the river. Midnight and I have the tail assignment bringing up the rear. I was the oldest and the slowest in the party, so got that job. Trail Boss Brandon decided I should ride Midnight after my last rodeo with Sunny a couple of days ago. (I didn’t lose my hat and made it 8 seconds+)

Descending the mountain

From the spot where they killed the elk, it was necessary to bushwhack across the mountainside until we found a game trail. Once on the trail it was easier to walk. Over the ridge and down into the large meadow to spike camp.

We stopped for a brief break at spike camp to leave excess supply of water and non-perishable food. We plan to be back in base camp tonight but anything we can use to supply spike camp will be left behind.

The sun was setting as the string of men and horses begin the five-mile, often dangerous, winding trail down to the river bottom.

My downhill muscles have finally regained civility and don’t scream at me anymore. Walking downhill leading a horse I almost fall into a rhythm that can hypnotize anyone who allows this to happen. Add in a total pitch black night with a full moon and stars and it is a surreal human experience. Literally. I could not see my hand in front of my face without a light.

Seeing the headlights of my partners getting further ahead of me was an anxious moment. I couldn’t travel any faster than I felt.comfortable and capable. My headlight is lighting up the trail ahead of me. However, the bill to my baseball cap is shading the three to five feet immediately ahead of me. I can see my guys way down the extreme slope almost at the bottom. Wow! This was a scary moment, even for my cowboy boots.

“Steve, you okay?” I shouted back, “NO boys!”

When I took a step, there was no earth beneath me. As I stepped off the switchback on the cliff face, holding on to the lead rope, I was able to kick my heels into the cliff face and turn around. Midnight snickered at me as if laughing at the stupid human stepping of the cliff.

While digging my toes into the cliff face and pulling on the lead rope, I managed to get toe, and hand, holds and pulled myself back up on the trail. Midnight stood absolutely still as if she was frozen in place. Without her solid stance and desire to protect humans I would have most likely fell the three or four hundred feet to my death.

This was the time Midnight saved the day, and my life, too! Would I ever venture into this wilderness again? I doubt that my wife and kids would let me go again. I would be hog tied!

Now, we know why the Upper Salmon River is named “The River of No Return.” I almost proved the legend…



About the author

Steve Sparks is a retired information technology sales and marketing executive with over 35 years of industry experience, including a Bachelors’ in Management from St. Mary’s College. His creative outlet is as a non-fiction author, writing about his roots as a post-WWII US Navy military child growing up in the 1950s-1960s.
View all posts by stevesparks →

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