Reviewed by Christophe Dombrowski for Big Sky Journal
Thorough, Nuanced, Expansive, jaw-droppingly beautiful, Matt Leidecker's Impassable Canyon,
a photographic journey down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, gives us exactly what
most coffee table books about the West fail to: a sense of truly experiencing a landscape
as the book's pages are turned.
So original and varied are the photos in Impassable Canyon that, upon viewing them,
the reader thinks that the eyes behind this lens have lived there a long while, become
part of the watershed. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, these are photos that trees,
boulders, coyotes, and osprey might take if given loaded cameras and the desire to make
art: a tributary under a full moon, American Indian pictographs dating back 8,000 years,
rare sego lilies in early spring, stars swirling above a campsite, a morning fire
warming cinnamon rolls, and a child braving the canyon's cold waters.
Punctuating Leidecker's photography are essays, historical and narrative, by some of the
West's foremost "river-runner" writers: Cort Conley, William Studebaker, David Wagoner
and others. These bits of prose, about - among other things - the canyon's hermits,
kayaking "in the old days," the presence of American Indians, do not merely caption
the photos, but deepen our understanding of the Middle Fork's dense natural, mythic
and social history.
Not neglected by Leidecker is the Middle Fork's role as a tourist destination. He
has balanced his lyric, solitude-based photos with portrayals of the canyon at is
busiest, raft-laden times and included accounts from guides and clients alike.
One memorable quote from a client reads, "I would rather go down the Middle Fork
than go to Paris"
After perusing Impassable Canyon, the reader may feel the same way.
Reviewed by Scott Lowry for the Colorado Whitewater Association newsletter "Spray"
"Take a look at your collection of whitewater books. If you're like me, you've got a shelf full of guidebooks, some of them falling apart by now. You probably have a few instruction manuals, maybe a couple histories, possibly one or two of William Nealy's quirky takes on the sport. But do you have any coffee table books about river running? Matt Leidecker and the Sun Valley Press hope that you'll want to fill this hole in your library with his recently released Impassable Canyon.
Leidecker, who began working as a raft guide on the Middle Fork in 1991, took up photography during a climbing trip to Patagonia in 1997. When he returned to the river, he packed his camera. After accumulating hundreds of photos over the next couple years, he decided to put together a book that would capture the spirit of a week on the water. Essays and the occasional poem interspersed among the photographs try to convey aspects that pictures cannot: history, geology, anthropology, short quotes from a few dozen people who have made the run (including the CWWA's Christina King) and tales told around the evening campfire. At times, some passages start sounding like they'd be more at index in a guidebook, but for the most part they succeed in capturing the mood that takes over on a trip as the river's rhythms gradually displace the distractions of the 40-hour workweek. And Leidecker saves the best for last, a slam-bang account by Peter Gibbs of running from Indian Creek to the confluence with the Main Salmon during the big melt of 1982.
But if you buy this book, it will be for the photographs. Not the kind that make CRC2 such crazy fun, the kind that make you think, "I've gotta get me a smaller boat and push a lot harder." There are a few such shots, but that's not what Leidecker is after. He's trying instead to reawaken that feeling that can hit a couple hours into a trip, or maybe a couple days into it, when you lose yourself in the beauty around you. When your focus can index in on one tiny detail like the sound of water gurgling under your boat's bow, then suddenly expand to include the entire panorama of a dark canyon opening onto a sun-drenched valley. The photographs in Impassable Canyon include a similar range, from close-ups of flowers or river-polished pebbles to a fascinating bird's-eye view of a sprawling campsite.
While a few of the book's images are little more than snapshots, most transcend mere documentation of the fact that photographer and subjects were present at a given time and place. Leidecker has a fine eye for composition, color, light and contrast. His action photos and tight shots of people work well enough (the five children reacting to spray breaking over them should be part of some outfitter's advertising campaign), but Leidecker is at his best when he shoots for the abstract. The eroded boulders on Loon Creek become pure, sensuous form devoid of solidity. A slight graininess (perhaps a side effect of digitization or the printing process?) lends his landscapes a dreamy quality reminiscent of Camille Pissarro's masterpieces of impressionism.
The images and essays roughly follow a trip's downstream progress, but, like memory, are not restricted to exact chronology. And in a way, that's this book's real accomplishment. You don't feel as if you're right there on a trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon; instead, you're leafing through memories, savoring the trip that was. They may be other people's memories, but the book lets those of us who haven't been down the river yet remember it as if it were yesterday."
Reviewed by Daniel Berger for Paddler Magazine
Few rivers start and end like Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon, beginning as a reckless
high-mountain creek and terminating as a crusading journey almost entirely through federally
designated wilderness. In Impassable canyon - Journey Down the Middle Fork of the Salmon,
photographer Matt Leidecker documents the river from its source near Stanley, Idaho, to its
confluence with the main stem of the Salmon 100 miles away. It's the ultimate river trip playbill.
Leidecker has guided on the Middle Fork for the past 10 years; his contributors have done the same.
Leidecker's pictures capture what one sees on a guided trip as he lends a skilled perspective to
sunsets, camps, rapids, and moments of solitude. Included are crafty landscapes that play with
exposure, time and close-ups. "Just as a river system is more vast and expansive than its main
stem," Leidecker wirtes in his introduction, "the experience o the Middle Fork encompasses far
more than what can be shown through a camera lens." The book also has writings from eight
essayists, who cover subjects ranging from the river's cantankerous pioneering trappers and
miners of a century ago to self-supporting kayaking trips on the tributaries. The most engaging
essays are the first, a forward by Clarence Stilwill, which immortalizes river people, and the
last, by Peter Gibbs, who chronicles a trip during a flood. Gibbs and crew decide to take their
clients off the river at the Flying B Ranch and then run Impassable Canyon on their own. His
yarn is spun as expertly as it seemed he rowed that last stretch.
Leidecker's brother, Erik, wrote the book's most poignant essay on the Tukuduka people, the
river's earliest inhabitants who were ousted by European settlers. His words provide a bit of
redemption and remind us that we're not as privy to this wonderful place as the brochures suggest.
And so with the words of the essayists and the diverse photographs from Leidecker,Impassable
Canyon captures the spirit of the trip as well as that of the river. The book misses only
two things: a map of the entire river and a chapter on fishing. But you probably already know
where the Middle Fork is. Maybe I can write that fishing chapter.