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NATURE: River Of No Return

Airs Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Sunset on Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Credit: Courtesy of Isaac Babcock

Above: Sunset on Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Deep in the untamed heart of Idaho lies the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, part of the largest roadless area left in the lower 48 States. Named in honor of Idaho Senator Frank Church, and for the rugged Salmon River that flows through it, the vast 2.5 million-acre wilderness is larger than Yellowstone, yet most people have never even heard of it.

Defined by deep canyons, and mountain forests, it is a perfect habitat for abundant animal life, including wolves that are being restored to the area after an absence of 50 years.

This is the place where a young couple, Isaac and Bjornen Babcock, choose to spend a year-long honeymoon. But what begins as a romantic adventure becomes something of much greater consequence for both of them – a story that will change their lives.

Working with the Nez Perce Tribe in Central Idaho, wolf biologist Isaac Babcock was part of the wolf reintroduction program organized in the area. His 13-year experience with the wolves there led to his desire to share the raw beauty of the untamed wilderness and the wolves with his new wife, Bjornen. It was unquestionably a wild idea for a honeymoon.

Once occupied by miners and homesteaders, the River of No Return Wilderness was reclaimed by nature after it was designated a federally-protected wilderness in 1980. Otters and elk, deer and coyotes, blue birds, bighorn sheep and the newly-restored wolves thrive here. Nine packs of wolves roam freely through the wilderness, each pack dependent on family cooperatively raising young and hunting together to survive.

Isaac and Bjornen spend days waiting and watching for their chance to observe the wolves and are rewarded by glimpses of parents and their pups, by deer intently and gracefully avoiding wolves in a golden meadow, and by a young wolf curious to know more about these two human interlopers, coming within 30 feet before circling and passing by.

The river presents its own stories of strength and determination. In the middle of the roaring river, small birds called dippers thrive where the river is roughest, slipping in and out of the current to feed on aquatic insects. They build their moss nests directly above the rapids, so food for their young is never far away – a fortunate circumstance, given the tantrums displayed by their fledglings demanding to be fed.

Chinook salmon making their way up the river to spawn must also be determined. In the course of their epic migration from the Pacific, these powerful fish use all their energy to leap mighty falls and struggle upstream in order to spawn and then perish in their natal streams.

The year in the wild is transformative for the couple; they took on the wilderness and all its challenges and in the end have come to treasure their experience in this wild and untamed place they once called home.

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Preview: Nature: River Of No Return

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Nature: River Of No Return: Pups Right Off The Trail

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Watch Wolf Pups Right Off the Trail on PBS. See more from Nature.

In this video, Isaac and Bjornen Babcock come across a group of wolf pups exploring their home, right off a trail in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Nature: River Of No Return: This Unexplained Companion

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Watch This Unexplained Companion on PBS. See more from Nature.

A pack of wolves isolates an injured elk on a ridge in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness. Then, something remarkable happens. A companion appears and puts herself between the wolves and the injured elk.

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