For the past 4 ½ years, I’ve been applying for a permit for Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I got my rejection letter for the fourth time this February. I was bumming that for another year I wouldn’t get to experience one of the prettiest sections on the Salmon when - almost miraculously - I received an e-mail from Mikey, a skiing buddy, with a subject line “Middle Fork Launch date May 30th 2010!” I didn’t even read the rest of the e-mail, I just hit reply and said I’M IN! Here’s our adventure:
Friday, May 28th, 2010
- I frantically finished packing my gear for my eight-day adventure down both the Middle Fork and Main stretches of the Salmon. We had a group of seven going, five of whom I had never met before. We were planning to do 182 miles, putting in at Boundary Creek on the Middle Fork and taking out at Vinegar Creek on the Main. With excitement bubbling out of me, I headed south to meet up with the rest of the crew in Boise, Idaho.
Sunday May 30th
|Click the images for a larger view!|
|Saturday, May 29th - The crew finally meets. We all gathered together, filling our coolers and dry boxes with way too much food and beverages. No way were we going to go hungry or thirsty. We packed up our trailers, piled in the two trucks and off we went to Boundary Creek. We checked in with the rangers on duty, got our campsites and unloaded our boats and gear. Three Maravia rafts and my 15' NRS Revolution Cool Cat Cataraft. We got all the boats down the ramp and tied up for the night. Tomorrow we’d start our adventure down the Salmon River!|
Ashley's NRS 15' Revolution Cool Cat, with Universal Frame. © Ashley Niles
- Woke up to a beautiful crisp sunny morning at Boundary Creek. River was flowing about 4 feet on the gauge that morning. We packed up and headed to our boats to get them loaded and head the 19 miles downriver to our first camp, Big Snag. It was a busy morning at Boundary Creek with five other groups also pushing off that day. Before loading our boats we worked on getting Mikey’s floor pumped up. In spite of all our efforts, it wasn’t inflating. Well hmmmm, I guess we’ll have to take a look at it when we get to camp tonight. So we packed our boats, got our safety talk from the ranger and pushed off for an exciting ride.
Since I’ve only been rowing for four years on what I would consider Class II and III water with some Class IV thrown in every now and then, the excitement of the first 12 miles was a bit unexpected for me. As you push off and round the first bend, get ready for continuous class III-IV rapids for the next 12 miles with very limited to pretty much nonexistent eddies to stop and take a break in. Before I pushed off, I read over what rapids I had coming up in the first five miles. And I knew Velvet Falls was at mile five with a sneak route on river left. Well, at some point along one of the other four miles, I lost track of where I was and I watched Mikey’s raft disappear over a horizon line ahead of me. I’m thinking to myself, huh I wonder where I should be for this rapid. With only about 20 seconds to make up my mind, I got the hand signal from Mikey to take the left sneak route. This was about 10 seconds too late as my boat got knocked sideways by a wave above the falls giving me just enough time to turn my boat to go down the middle of the rapid backwards. Not exactly what I was planning, but then again things don’t always go as you’d expect them to.
First night's emergency camp on cobble and driftwood strewn beach below Powerhouse Rapid. © Ashley Niles |Down the river we came to Powerhouse Rapid, which has three distinct sections. Since Mikey was the only one of us who had been down the Middle Fork before, we volunteered him to lead the crew. Well, his route through the top section got him hung up on some rocks so I quickly skirted to his left, thinking I’d just pull into an eddy and wait until he got off the rock. Once again things didn’t go as planned. The river was flowing fast and I couldn’t find an eddy anywhere, so off I jetted. Let me stop for a second to explain the massive adrenaline rush I got when I knew I was on my own through this very long Class IV rapid. I’m pretty sure a few words slipped out and I’m pretty sure my eyes were the size of dinner plates. Especially when I came around the corner to the last section of the rapid to the sight of a huge boulder and a 40-50 foot tree on river left that stretched halfway into the middle of the river. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man crouched down on the river left bank. I’m pretty sure he saw my dinner plate sized eyes and heard some words I shall not repeat here and quickly told me to pull hard to river right to avoid the tree. With a little bit of a shake to my voice I said “ok, thank you”. As I passed the boulder and tree, I saw a large eddy on river left so I quickly rowed into it and watched the rest of my crew come around the corner.|
Now let me remind you that at the put-in we couldn’t get Mikey’s floor inflated and decided to take care of it when we got to our first camp. Here’s a little advice… don’t push off when something is wrong with your boat and you think you’ll just take care of it later. It will likely lead to more problems. Just take the time to make sure everything is safe and secure.
|That being said, Mikey’s self-bailing raft quickly became like a standard floor with water up to their knees. As I’m sure you know, water sure does weigh a lot when you have gallons upon gallons. As I was working to keep myself in the eddy and trying to watch what was going on upstream, I realized Mikey was heading straight for the boulder with the tree. Yep that’s not good. Scotty looks back at Mikey and calmly says, “Mikey you see that boulder don’t you?” Mikey says, “Yep.” “Are you planning to hit that boulder Mikey?” says Scotty. Mikey shrugs his shoulders and says, “Not much else I can do. Just get ready to high side.” Sure enough his boat hits the boulder and starts to wrap but because it was so full of water it couldn’t flip. They got up on the boulder and eventually the boat peeled off the rock and they continued down river until we found a long calm eddy and a sandy shoreline to drag his boat onto. Mikey had enough of trying to row a 3,000 pound raft so we decided to make camp on that beach. |Patching up the floor on Mikey's raft. Many hands to do the work and eyes to read the instructions! © Ashley Niles
We all quickly got to work unloading Mikey’s boat and flipped it over to find an 8” x 5” L-shaped rip in his floor. No wonder it wasn’t holding air. Out came the repair kit and the patch job began. After we patched up the floor we had dinner and then ferried over to Sheepeater Hot Spring for a nice relaxing soak.
Tuesday, June 1st
Loon Hot Spring, on the bank of Loon Creek, is one of the nicest ones along the river. © Ashley Niles |Monday, May 31st - After a delightful breakfast we tested out Mikey’s floor… YAY it holds air once again! So we loaded up our boats and pushed off. We didn’t get very far, maybe two miles, when Mikey pulled to shore with a popped front tube. Needless to say Mikey was having a rough first two days. To make things harder, it was raining so we quickly patched up his boat, waited around for about an hour to let it cure then inflated the front tube to hold shape and told Mikey jokingly to avoid rocks for the rest of the trip! We pushed on to the scout point for Lake and Pistol Creek rapids, picked our lines and watched the group in front of us have a clean run. Our group headed down next and all did great. No more popped boats! So off we floated to Indian Creek, filled up our water jug and ate lunch. We met a couple who were doing a self support kayak trip and were heading down to Sunflower Hot Spring for a soak. This happened to be our second campsite and since it was getting late we convinced them to stay and share the campsite with us. We all enjoyed an amazing dinner and long soaks in the pools.|
- As we pushed off from our wonderful hot springs campsite, we passed by the Middle Fork Lodge where the river’s gauge resides and it read 4.5 feet. It was a mellow 16 ½ mile float to our next campsite at Cow Creek. This mellow time was much appreciated by all. Once again hot springs were on our agenda! We got camp set up and then made the 20-minute walk to Loon Hot Spring. The beautiful surroundings and relaxation made the hike worthwhile. After our soak we headed back for another delicious dinner and good conversation, huddled under the NRS River Wing
as it started to drizzle.
|Wednesday, June 2nd - The next morning I woke up to find I was the only one up. I quietly got out of bed, grabbed my swimsuit and hiked to the hot springs. To my surprise and delight no one else was there. I quickly slipped into relaxation as I sat there enjoying the hot water and my surroundings. Not hard to do when you’re in that setting. When I got back to camp breakfast was being made, strawberry pancakes, oh yummy! We slowly packed up camp, loaded our boats and headed downriver where we had Tappan I, Tappan Falls and Tappan II and III to run. Tappan I was just a small wave train which allowed us to pull over to scout Tappan Falls. Of course scouting does no good if you’re not looking at the correct rapid. We were a corner off from Tappan Falls so as we came around the next bend we were a little surprised to see the rapid. We had thought it was washed out from what we scouted. Oops! We ran Tappan II and we stopped to scout Tappan III and decided to take some pictures. So I ran through first and got set up for pictures while the rest of the group one by one plowed through the left slot.|Brock and Pat going deep in Tappan III Rapid. © Ashley Niles
We then proceeded on to Shark Fin Rock where we had lunch and then on to the Flying B. We filled our water jugs and I decided to leave a little note on the corkboard for my co-workers, Clyde and Josh, who put on the river today. We also checked the flow and the forecast. The water level was just under 5 feet and the forecast was for screaming rain storms. We soaked up as much sun as we could for the rest of the day as we floated to Driftwood Flat campsite.
Thursday June 3rd
Shark Fin Rock… not hard to see how it got the name. © Ashley Niles |The wave trains we hit through the first section of the Impassable Canyon were super fun. It was a great way to end the day on the river. We set up camp, got dinner going, sat around talking about whatever came to mind and then after dinner we all played a wild game of Bocce Ball. I’ve come to realize throwing a larger ball at a smaller ball is not one of my strong suits, especially when there are rocks, trees, bushes and driftwood in my way. My apology to my partner Mikey; I tried as hard as I could! Shortly after we finished our game, the sprinkle of rain we had been getting quickly turned into a torrential downpour. Lucky for us we had the River Wing to huddle under. We could only take so much of staring at each other before we decided it was time to go to bed. It poured all night.|
- When we woke up it was still a torrential downpour… those of us that slept under the NRS River Wing were thrilled we were still dry. Our attention quickly turned to the river as we looked at our boats and looked at the water level. Holy mackerel… the water rose all the way to our kitchen area, a good 10-15 feet from our boats. We sat around contemplating the plan for the day and trying to predict what the water level was. We still had one more planned night on the Middle Fork but looking at conditions of weather and river we decided we’d be willing to push the 30 miles we had left to Cache Bar, the Middle Fork take out. These last 30 miles wind through the Impassable Canyon section that is chocked full of Class III and IV rapids. Three rapids in particular we planned to scout were Redside, Weber and Rubber.
But first, right around the bend was Rattlesnake Cave. The water was moving so fast the landing was a bounce, jump off the boat and hold tightly to your bowline, trying to not get dragged back into the current. The cave had some pictographs which were cool to see. We didn’t stay long because we were all pretty anxious about the upcoming section through the canyon. Correction - I was quite anxious about the upcoming section of whitewater.
Our next stop was Veil Falls. A few of the group members made the short hike up to check them out… I unfortunately did not so I can’t tell you much about them… but I’ve heard some things! I spent the time trying to relax my nerves; right around the corner was Redside Rapid. The book says to run right of center and then to pull left. We pulled over on river left because that was the only place that had an eddy and hiked down to check out our line. Of course, as the book had noted, we should be on river right. Oh goodie, we have to ferry across the river when it’s moving 10 miles-per-hour, while dodging logs at the same time. Let’s see how that works out for all of us.
|Well it’s hard to hold the suspense in a story for all the readers unless I start talking about something else and then later come back to telling you how we all did through that rapid. Ok, we all made it through just fine and immediately after ran Weber Rapid on the far left because we couldn’t get to shore due to the accelerated current. These rapids were unbelievably powerful… it was so loud in the middle of the rapids there was nothing else I could hear but my heart beating. As I skimmed by the school bus-sized hole at the top of Weber, on river right, I felt a scared relief… I know that sounds a bit contradictory, but I was scared of what would have happened if I had ended up in that hole and relieved at the same time that two of the three biggest rapids were now behind me. As I finished out Weber Rapid, I looked up to the right on the canyon wall and saw Mist Falls streaming down. That was a beautiful sight after peering into the hole in Weber.|Pictographs in Rattlesnake Cave. Pat and Brock are enacting some sort of drama while Ashley looks on patiently as Mikey manages to use her camera to cut Scotty's head off. © Ashley Niles
So the next rapid we planned to scout was Rubber. The book says the normal run is right down the center then pull left to avoid boulders at the bottom. Well, at this level, there were some very impressive lateral waves crashing into the center… you definitely had to be on your game to get your boat turned in the correct direction to meet those lateral waves; otherwise it’d be a sure boat flipping. So looking at that line and then looking at the far left bank where there were just a few little holes I could punch through, I decided I didn’t want to even try the center line. Far left looked like enough action for me at this level. So Mikey and I both ran the left bank and Brock and Dan headed straight down the center. We all made it through once again with no problems. Have I mentioned yet how grateful I am thus far? After Rubber Rapid everything else was a blur… the water was moving so fast I had no clue the confluence with the Main Salmon was even close until I merged into it. At that point, I knew we had one more rapid to tackle… Cramer Creek Rapid! I was expecting a very turbulent rapid but as we came around the corner it was huge smooth rolling waves with a skirt on the right. As we pulled up to Cache Bar, we found a good portion of the ramp underwater. We floated just around the corner to the sandy beach to set up camp!
It was actually sunny now! We got camp set up and enjoyed the reminiscing stories of what was going through our heads during that last section on the Middle Fork. We had an amazing dinner and continued our night around the camp fire. At some point in the middle of the night it started to rain… and it didn’t stop for 24 hours.
Friday, June 4th -
Waking up to rain was nothing new to us. Neither was waking up to our boats floating out in the current because the water rose again. We took our time getting camp packed, ate pancakes for breakfast and watched enormous trees float by our camp as we waited, hoping that maybe we’d get a break from the rain. That sure didn’t happen, I think it actually rained even harder the longer we waited. So, we decided we’d stop stalling and head down the five miles to the Corn Creek put in for the Main Salmon River.
We pushed off with the expectation of a mellow five miles. The first rapid we came to crushed those dreams. Maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit, but the wave trains we were hitting were 15-20 feet high. Our boats were hidden from each other as we dropped into each wave trough. It took 20 minutes to cover those miles. That’s like driving the speed limit in a school zone. That’s just not right when you’re on a manually powered water craft. Just take a second and think about that… ok it might feel slow in a car but when you’re on a raft going that fast it’s like you’re at the amusement park on the squealing river of doom roller coaster. Except the amusement park doesn’t have trees floating next to you and there’s not a possibility of flipping your coaster car. Ok back to my drawn out story.
We got to the rangers office to get our permits and check on the flow. The ranger on duty told us the river was flowing at about 26,000 cfs. Looking at the water level comparison chart it said that 26,000 was in the EXTREME zone for this river. Since Mikey and I were the only two that have done this section of the Salmon, we talked about some of the rapids down below that we should probably be pretty cautious of and stop to scout. I did this trip two years earlier and the water was around 16,000-18,000 cfs. So 26,000 is a bit more but we both figured we would still be safe continuing on. In the pouring rain our group pushed off and headed down for the next portion of our eight day float!
It was raining so hard and so much, we might as well have been swimming we were so wet. I couldn’t help but just laugh. And I don’t mean just a quiet chuckle to myself; I mean I was laughing so hard I had tears rolling down my face. At least I think they were tears, of course it could have been rain. The rapids we were hitting were huge rolling waves making it imperative that you continue rowing even up the wave so you could pull over the crest of it and not get surfed back down into the trough. We were also hitting rapids where there usually weren’t rapids. Not to mention we were floating so fast that we were 32 miles downriver in just under two hours, trying to find a campsite. Oh how grateful we were when we came around the corner and saw Magpie Creek camp wasn’t underwater. We pulled in and immediately put up the Wing so we had a place to get out of the rain. Then we unpacked our boats and set up the rest of camp. We cooked up spaghetti, sausages and ribs. And yes I know some of you reading this are thinking, whoa that’s a lot of food. After the feast I decided to heat up water and do dishes, mostly so I could warm up. At this point the rain had backed off a little. No, I didn’t say it stopped, I said it backed off… meaning when we would walk out from under the River Wing we’d just get a little wet instead of drenched.
And in other breaking news… the 30 feet of sandy beach we had when we arrived was quickly shrinking. As we sat and watched, the river rose as if it had just been undammed. We ended up losing half our beach in about four hours. I believe we all just sat under the River Wing staring at each other and then looking back out at the river and then looking back at each other wondering what the heck was going on. Then questions on whether we should move all our stuff to higher ground began to circulate, but it was still raining and who wants to move everything when it’s raining. So luckily for us the questions quickly shifted to denial… and we all started believing that there was no way the water could raise up to where we were.
Yeah, well so much for denial being our friend. I’d say about midnight or maybe 1:00 a.m. I woke up to chatter… oh and no more rain! YAY! But back to the real reason I was woken up. Yes, I’m sure most of you already figured it out. The river was now about five feet from my bed and the group was moving gear to higher ground. At least it wasn’t raining. As I was trying to untangle myself from my warm sleeping bag I heard a yell, ok really it was a scream, and then I heard the two words you don’t want to hear, if you’re me, and sleeping out in the wilderness… “Mountain Lion”. WHAT?!!!! Sure enough we were graced with the presents of a hungry Mountain Lion. As if we didn’t have enough on our plates dealing with the river taking over our camp and pushing us even further into the woods where the Mountain Lion was patiently waiting for one of us to stray from the camp. Yes I’m very dramatic about hungry wild animals that stalk you. I wasn’t sure what I should be more scared of - the lion or the river. Both were way more powerful than me.
Now even though I wanted to run the other direction that was impossible unless I wanted to take a swim. So we had no choice but to continue moving our stuff up towards the lion. One of the guys on the trip, Pat, brought out his .22 pistol which we knew probably wouldn’t do anything, but he fired it into the air and tried to scare the cat off with it anyways. I think it made the lion even hungrier. Either way it didn’t scare it off. It just stayed crouched in the bushes about 10-15 feet away staring at us with its green hungry eyes. Oh yeah, we had a dog on the trip, which may have been what the cat wanted… but he was so tired he didn’t smell anything, We woke him up and moved him into Dan and Amber’s tent so the lion couldn’t go after him.
Saturday, June 5th -
Magpie Camp, taken five weeks after Ashley camped there. The Whitebird Gauge reading was 14,000 cfs when the photo was taken. When Ashley camped there, the river had six-times more water and looks like it was 10-12 feet higher. © Pam Rogers |We took down the River Wing and just packed everything up. Mikey, Scotty and I piled into Mikey’s tent because there was no way we were going to sleep out with a big cat lurking around. Excuse me, let me rephrase that, a big hungry cat. Sleep wasn’t exactly an option anymore for me. Every time I would dose off I’d start dreaming about Mountain Lions chasing me. Like I said before, I’m very dramatic about hungry wild animals.|
Eventually, it started to get light and when I finally decided it was safe to get out of the tent I found myself staring out at beautiful blue skies. The river did end up coming up even more, and where we had our camp before was under water. At least it was sunny! Mikey and I chatted about what we should do. We had about 48 miles left to float to Vinegar Creek and since we floated over 30 miles in less than two hours yesterday, we decided we’d push to the take-out today. Our group was ready to be off the river. But first we were going to stop at the Allison Ranch inholding to see if the caretaker had anything to say about a few of the rapids we were planning to scout. We figured that since the river was flowing at about 26,000 cfs when we started on the Main, it had to be somewhere around 29,000-30,000 cfs with how much it had rained and how high the water came up in about eight hours.
As we looked on our maps to see how far we were from the first major rapid we planned to scout, we also noticed that the highest level the book talks about is 30,000 cfs and Whiplash at the Extreme level turns from a Class II into a Class V. On top of that exciting news, the river was bountifully full of trees this beautiful morning. Well we had a choice, take on the river for at least five miles to Allison Ranch or hang out with the Mountain Lion until the river dropped back down. By now you know how I feel about hungry wild animals. The five miles would take less than 20 minutes and looking at the map there were no major rapids from Magpie to Allison. So we packed up and pushed off saying sayonara to the hungry kitty!
The eddy for Allison Ranch was an enormous boiling mess. I remembered how it was two years earlier when there was the small rapid you had to go through and at the end of it you pulled into the nice calm eddy. There was no such thing today. After about 10 minutes of trying to pull through the boil lines we all made it to shore. We saw a jet boat tied up and headed up the long dirt road to find the caretakers. We met Jim as he was mowing his beautiful green lawn. Once we finally got his attention he stopped his mower and came over to us. We exchanged handshakes and hellos and proceeded to ask Jim if he knew of any jet boat services that might be willing to run down to Vinegar Creek today. Jim just looked at us and with a chuckle said, “No way at this level. The river is at about 86,000 cfs on the Whitebird gauge (downriver from Vinegar Creek).” From our vantage point up in Moscow, we’re used to thinking of the Main and Lower Salmon in terms of the Whitebird gauge and had assumed that the ranger at Corn Creek was using that gauge when she reported the 26,000 cfs. She hadn’t been; she was referring to the estimate you get from the markings on the Corn Creek ramp. Oops!
|Once I was able to pick my jaw up off the ground, I turned to Mikey, and told him, I’m done! With that we went to see if any backcountry pilots were flying that day. Worst case we’d have to hang out on the Allison airstrip until Monday. We had enough food left that waiting until Monday would be no problem. So with Jim’s help we got all our gear up to the air field, about a mile up a steep dirt road. Jim had a small Gator ATV with a trailer so we didn’t have to carry all our gear. I think it would have taken us until Monday to get all of our gear up there if we had to carry it by hand. About half way through hauling our gear we got a call from Arnold Aviation saying they’d be heading our way in a couple hours.
|Even for a small group, there’s lots of gear to cram on the planes. © Ashley Niles
It was like one of those movies where the group is lost in the woods for days with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the rescue team finally spots them and the group jumps for joy! Oh yes I know you’ve all seen a movie with an ending like that. Well our group was similar but instead of just having the clothes on our back we had 12 coolers/dry boxes, all our personal gear, three rafts, one cataraft, four frames and seven people, plus a dog! Yeah I think the pilots would have been happier if we were a group with just the clothes on our backs. We would have only had to have one plane come get us not four. Hmmm, Mikey I’m helping you do the grocery shopping next time.
The intrepid crew, left-to-right: Mikey, Ashley, Pat, Brock, Scotty, Amber, Dan and Titan. © Ashley Niles
|It was amazing to see the pilots pack these small planes. It was like a game of Tetris. But even more amazing was to be in one of the planes, fully loaded, taking off on a grass air strip in the middle of the wilderness heading straight for the mountain side in front of us and then banking down the river. I can’t say much more than it was an amazing trip from start to finish. One that I’ll never forget.|
Once we got back to civilization, we all called our families to let them know we were safe. I also looked up the river flows for the Main and Middle Fork. Knowing that the group Clyde and Josh were with would be taking off the Middle Fork either today or tomorrow, I called to make sure they were safe as well. Don’t’ worry, I’m not going to tell you Clyde’s story. You’ll just have to wait for the next newsletter!
My condolences to family and friends of Michael Fitzpatrick, who died on the Middle Fork during this high water event.
To all our readers, have a safe and adventurous boating season.