(Editor’s Note: Sales Manager, Josh Davis and I were on the Middle Fork in early June, 2010, chronicled in Middle Fork Mayhem. e-News reader, David Schwantes and friends were there at the same time and he’s written this account of their experiences on that wild last day when the river level peaked. They started out 10 miles upstream from our camp and were behind us, so Josh and I didn’t witness their drama.)
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|We put on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon at the end of May, the 30th I believe. It rained all day and all night the first four days of our trip and then it really started pouring. We had a layover day at Funston Camp just above the Flying B Ranch. While we were there, the river rose over four feet in 36 hours. I had done the Middle Fork at 8 feet before and was not too concerned about it. The water was far up into the trees and there were many, many trees floating down the river. Impassable Canyon is roughly the lower 25-mile stretch of the river. The canyon walls get almost vertical here and there’s no trail along the river.|Group photo, at the Funston layover camp, before the wild last day on the river. © David Schwantes
We put on the river for our last day, Saturday, June 5th and everything was fine. It was up to 8.7 feet when we stopped at Flying B, but that is on the gauge far upriver at the Middle Fork Lodge. Loon Creek was at full flood when we stopped there and most of the creeks down from there were far above flood. It seemed as if most of the water in the Middle Fork was coming in downriver from the gauge, so that 8.7 foot gauge reading did not really represent the river we were on.
The river is out of its banks and surging through the trees. © David Schwantes |Our first raft flipped at Redside Rapid, due to some miscommunication within the group. Eric, Franklin and the dog, Yampa, were in the water. Yampa, a great river dog, got out immediately and Franklin shortly thereafter. Eric went for a hell of a swim as everyone was still tied up on the banks when he went over. It is at that point when I fully realized the river was FAR above anything I had ever seen there before. Yampa and Franklin were picked up and we got down to where others were warming up Eric on the shore. |
We put back on the river and as we approached Cliffside Rapid, we saw another group camped there. Their rafts were at least 50 yards into the forest from the tree nearest where the river usually is. They were all yelling and pointing for us to stay far left. Cliffside was washed out; however, Lower Cliffside was not, at all. Anything but extreme left was near impossible to make it through. Lower Cliffside is now the wildest, craziest thing I have ever seen on a river, 20-30' standing waves and laterals slamming into each other from all directions, spraying water up to the tops of the trees it seemed. I would have taken a picture, but my hands were full. I had remembered the sneak left from the year before, which is what the group camped out was urgently pointing out.
We chased Eric’s raft down but did not catch up to it until it had washed up in a four-foot surging log jam/eddy. There was nothing we could do to get it and eventually more full-sized trees coming down the river piled up, then broke the log jam free. There were 60-80 foot long trees coming down the river at a rate of at least one every five seconds.
|We pulled out to chase the raft down again, which was our second mistake - the first being getting on the water in the first place that morning. We did not go more than an eighth of a mile downriver and Amy’s raft got punctured by a huge porcupine log. The raft was still floating, but one chamber had a huge gash in it. We all somehow pulled into an eddy at which point we figured we should stop and make camp at the first place we could find. Mike got off his raft and took the oars of the injured raft with Amy paddle assisting. Eric and Yampa climbed onto the raft with Collin, Tony and me. The eddy we were in was cliffed out so camping there was not an option. We knew we were not going to get the upside down raft at that point and gave up on trying to reach it. I led out and just around the corner was a camp, but the water was ripping right by and I doubted we could all make the stop so I kept going.|The first flipped raft, washed up in a log jam. After about 20 minutes a big surge came down, dislodging most of the log jam and carrying the raft downriver. © David Schwantes
I was riding whatever eddy lines I could find to slow down some and analyze what was ahead when a couple rafts passed me up. The one in the lead flipped out of nowhere with Jeff, a seasoned guide, at the oars. Now we had Jeff, Nechole and Ashley in the water with the logs. Nechole and Ashley swam out. Jeff made it to shore, but then jumped back in to stay with the raft. He got up on top of the flipped raft and waited for help. Mike and Amy, in the partially deflated raft went after Jeff while I picked up Nechole and then Eric and Yampa. I had to pass on Ashley as I was in the current and there were people still in the water.
Collin Shields and Tony Peres in front, paddle assisting, before things got crazy. The rugged walls of Impassable Canyon are looming ahead. © David Schwantes |I had kayaked the river until this last day when I took the oars of a 15' Star raft with a non-inflatable rubber floor. It was a small raft full of gear that now had five people and a dog on it. I did have Collin and Tony paddle assisting in the front which helped immensely. Jeff was out front riding the flipped raft when Mike and Amy caught up to him. They were on the raft with the punctured tube. They tried to pull him into an eddy, but there was no chance of that happening.|
They soon came upon Son of Rubber Rapid, now the biggest hole I have ever seen. The Ledge Hole at Lava Rapid in the Grand Canyon has nothing on that hole. We could see that it was huge and we were still quite a ways upriver. Jeff told Mike and Amy to let him go, get away and save themselves. They kept trying and both went directly into the hole. Jeff was going to attempt to flip the raft in the hole, but when he went over the edge he knew there was no chance of that. Survival was the only thing on his mind. It was river wide, dropped 20 feet down into the bottom of the hole and was complete chaos after that. He went under, got tangled up in lines and had to cut himself out again. Mike and Amy also flipped. Jeff swam back up and grabbed the side of the raft and saw Mike and especially Amy go down under for a long, long time. He thought Amy was gone, he never saw her come back up. She disappeared and he did not know she was okay until later when I told him I saw her on the bank.
Mike got caught up under his raft and had to wiggle out of his life jacket to get free. We then saw Amy crawling out of the river. She screamed frantically for us to go help Mike and Jeff; she did not know where they were. Son of Rubber was so huge that I believe all three of them lost their sense of direction and figured the others were done for. I can only imagine what their swim was like, underwater in that hole.
We were chasing after Jeff and Mike, but could hardly gain on them. We were doing all we could just to keep our raft, with its five people and a dog, upright. Many times we should have gone over, but somehow managed to avoid a flip. There were monster holes everywhere, no eddies and people in the water. There was no chance to stop and scout anything, even if there had been an eddy.
|We finally caught up with Jeff hanging on to one of the flipped rafts. He was exhausted and couldn’t get up on the raft without assistance. We pulled him in. We were already seriously overloaded and didn’t have any room for others in the front or back, but somehow we all squeezed on. I was already beyond exhaustion an hour before and running on nothing but adrenaline. Every stroke I took with the oars was as hard as I could push or pull, there was no easing off the oars. |
Mike, without his life jacket, which we did not know at the time, was still in the water far in front of us. He was not moving, no longer fighting for life, too exhausted to do anything. We kept trying to get closer and closer to him, but at the same time HAD to keep the raft upright while trying to maneuver that pig around and through all the monster holes. Many times we went through holes and the entire raft was underwater, tubes and all, and would stay fully underwater for a minute or more, all the way to the top of the pins. We had so much weight on the raft that it would not self-bail. My seat was underwater.
David Schwantes at the oars, before the action started. © David Schwantes
We finally got close to Mike, almost had him and then the river blasted us by him. He was like a log, dead in the water, at the surface at times, and under half the time, no fight left in him. We yelled and kept trying to get close, but he was unresponsive. We finally got the raft to him and those up front pulled him in. He was breathing, but not moving. There was nothing we could do to help him as we were still in the gnar and just had to leave him be while we dealt with the river.
Jay Windell, 80 years young, and David Schwantes. © David Schwantes |At that point, we were probably three to five miles from the confluence. We were looking for anywhere to eddy out and wait for the two rafts still upriver. There was no place to stop, standing waves and holes everywhere. We came around the last corner and far, far down the river I could see a trail or road on the far bank. It was then that I realized it was the Main Salmon we were looking at, still a mile or more away. I figured on getting to the road then as there still was no place to stop and there were still monster holes, porcupine logs and craziness all the way to the Main. I knew if we at least got to the road that we could find help. So we continued to the Main, went directly across the river and grabbed the first eddy we found.|
I could still see two of our flipped rafts just downriver from us and I jumped out, took off some of my river gear and started running down the road along the river. I was running both to possibly catch the rafts and also to get help at the Corn Creek Ranger Station. I ran a couple miles before I realized there was no way I could keep up with the flipped rafts in the river and then started walking. Jeff caught up with me and we walked together. Soon a truck came along; we jumped into the back and got a ride downriver. I got out when I saw my truck at the take-out and Jeff kept riding in the truck to the ranger station. Turns out, the Forest Service personnel had already called search and rescue when they saw one of our flipped rafts float by Corn Creek. Search and rescue, the Sheriff's Department and the rangers were already in action, as a man had died in the lower section of the Middle Fork the day before, at a much lower water level.
I drove back up to the confluence and saw that another of our rafts had made it down, with 80-year-old Jay Windell at the oars. Jay and Franklin were okay. Charlie and Crystal were still upriver on the cat, along with Amy and Ashley on the banks somewhere. We still had four people missing. Soon there were two other river groups, a sheriff and rangers all at the confluence waiting on our last raft. Some kayakers in the river groups got in their kayaks and waited as safety across the river at the confluence. Finally, we saw them round the final bend and with binoculars saw that everyone was on the cat. They had made it down and everyone was okay.
|Three of our rafts were going for the long float down the Main on their own. One raft was saved by Jeff; he saw it close to shore while riding in the truck to Corn Creek. He jumped out and tied it off to a rock. We later got that raft and gear up to the road with help from some other groups who were there. They were supposed to put on the Middle Fork the day before but decided not to when it popped over 8 feet. They were at the take-out deciding whether or not to run the Main instead. |Rescuing the flipped and torn raft that Jeff caught, down on the Main. © David Schwantes
That was June 5th and the rangers told us that the Middle Fork was running 26,000 cfs and the Main over 50,000 cfs at the confluence. The rangers and search and rescue had never heard of anyone running Impassable Canyon at that level. It was insane. I would compare it to putting the Top 10 in the Grand back to back with no eddies in between, doubling that intensity, and then running that over and over again for 25 miles, with logs everywhere. We were all beyond being scared, way beyond, there was no being scared, it was full-on do or die and deal with it.
I hope to get lucky enough to run it at that level again someday...
Steamboat Springs, Colorado