Arts & Culture » Lit

Salmon River Country

Beyond the coffee table


As a rule, I am not a fan of "coffee table books." Their pretty pictures and soft prose are more suited to a dentist's office than a living room, and they seldom capture the essence of landscapes, objects or people (with the exception of Madonna's Sex, for obvious reasons). Salmon River Country changed my mind. The newly released collection of Mark Lisk's photographs and Stephen Stuebner's essays about the Frank Church Wilderness pairs staggeringly beautiful images with charming, conversational writing from bona fide outdoorsmen. The effect left me haunted and hungry.

The authors spent years gathering material for the book, and the finished version sat for three years before being snapped up and published by Caxton Press in Caldwell. But Salmon River Country will only become outdated when progress soaks up the last of the wilderness. Until then, this remarkable collection will provide a useful and graceful glimpse into Idaho culture and the River of No Return Wilderness Area, a rugged expanse that follows the Salmon River through the central part of the state.

Exploring this remote area's terrain is no easy feat, but there are few corners of the Idaho outdoors Stuebner has yet to conquer. His journey as an environmental writer began when he got into a selective program at the University of Montana called "Wilderness and Civilization." The course began with a two-week backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Stuebner has been hooked on the wilds ever since.

"That was when I started to get my wilderness ethic," he said. "That year put me in the groove. I read a lot of literature-Moby Dick, Huck Finn, everything by Edward Abbey and Gary Schneider-and writing was really easy for me. I have a good lifeline between my brain and my hand."

When Stuebner graduated in 1978, the field of environmental writing didn't exist.

"The time hadn't come yet that every western daily had an environmental beat and an environmental writer. It was all from an industry point of view," Stuebner said.

So he joined other progressive journalists on the ground floor of the movement, starting at the La Grande Observer and moving on to the Colorado Springs Sun and finally the Idaho Statesman, where he worked for six years until 1991, when he "dove into freelancing with both feet."

Stuebner started writing and self-publishing books, many of them guides to various natural playgrounds. Not only did these projects put him on the map as a reputable outdoor writer, they also established his relationships with publishers and other artists like Lisk. The pair's mutual love of the outdoors and successful working relationship led to a solid friendship, and a book like Salmon River Country was the next logical step.

"No one had done a full-color book on the Salmon River country, and it seemed like such an obvious business opportunity," Stuebner said. But beyond its financial potential, the project offered Lisk and Stuebner a chance to immerse themselves in a part of Idaho already dear to their hearts. So, they traveled it together, with Stuebner sampling the local culture and scribbling in his journal while Lisk scouted for shots and waited for perfect light.

From the feathered headdress of a Shoshoni-Bannock warrior to a gnarled sapling perched above an alpine lake in the Sawtooths, Lisk's images demonstrate why Mother Nature is the ultimate artist. He adds a heightened sense of color, texture and dimension to the already gorgeous scenery, blurring the line between reality and fantasy with an expert's eye (and no help from Photoshop).

"Mark has a real talent for knowing where to take the picture, and he has the patience to wait for the right moment," Stuebner said.

Now busy with a full-time job at Tamarack, Stuebner still reflects on his exploration of the River of No Return.

"This journey was the essence of feeling small and incredibly humbled. This place is so pure-unlike any other place-and I had so much trouble describing the bigness of it," he said. "Then Jerry Myers (a veteran fishing and boating guide from Salmon) put it together for me. He said, 'This place is so big, it's almost like looking up at the stars and thinking about the land on that kind of infinite scale.'" Salmon River Country is artfully finite, but it reaches far beyond the coffee table.