Middle Fork Salmon, Idaho: June 25-30th

The sun rises over a meadow near Stanley Idaho.

I’ve written before about how I look forward to our trips.  It’s not just about the paddling, it’s also about where the paddling takes place. In this case it starts in Idaho at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains just outside of Stanley.  Stanley is a small town that sits in a stunning valley made up of mountains, rivers and meadows.  It sits at a crossroad between Boise, Ketchum and Salmon in a mostly roadless area of Idaho.  Only the two-lane highway is paved, the rest of the streets are dirt. There is a small dirt airstrip on top of the hill behind town where the airplanes take off and land when shuttling folks from Boise or into the Middle Fork for low- water trips later in the season. It’s mountain flying, so early morning and late afternoon are the only times you usually hear the engines.  A dirt lot across from the small hotel where we stay is full of cars waiting to be shuttled to the take out.  Hang around the gas station for an hour and you’ll see rigs loaded with rafts, kayaks and other gear on their way to the put in at Boundary Creek.

Mary kicking up her heels at a view of sunset over the Sawtooths. Stanley, Idaho

It’s in Stanley where we meet our groups the night before the trip.  Final questions are answered, drybags handed out, and plans for getting everyone to the put-in the next morning are gone over.

The first day of this trip folks were up early, excited about getting to the river.  We loaded the bus and trailer with all of our gear and began the hour and a half drive into Boundary Creek.  The ECHO crew, our support team for this journey, had gone in the day before to rig their rafts and were there eagerly awaiting folks and set about the process of rigging drybags to rafts.  We had a great mix of folks; Middle Fork veterans, first-timers, many kayakers and a few rafters.  Because Boundary Creek is not far from the source of the river, flows at the put-in are usually low volume.  The river picks up water from the multitude of streams that flow in throughout the length of the Middle Fork.  Day one we moved along at a good pace and were able to make it to the riverside hot springs at Trail Flat for lunch.  Folks took advantage of the opportunity to follow up their lunch break with a nice, relaxing soak. More hot springs were enjoyed once in the evening as we were lucky enough to get assigned Sheepeater camp.

Paddlers enjoy a relaxing soak after lunch on day one.
Paddlers prepare to leave Sheepeater camp the morning of Day Two.

Day two included a nice warm-up before getting to the rapids at Lake and Pistol Creeks.  Lake Creek is the site of a new rapid as a few years back the creek blew out due to late summer thunderstorms.  The first season it was a nasty blend of live tress still standing in the flow, dead snags and an unstable alluvial fan- we portaged that year.  Each year it has gotten progressively cleaner.  Now, the trees are gone, the fan has been cut back and the only real obstacle is a crashing hole that needs to be skirted at the base of the rapid- or not!  Pistol Creek, a fast moving constriction is a bit squirrely at this flow. Lunch awaited us at the bottom. The afternoon float was very social as the rapids mellowed out to allow us to enjoy each others company and look around at the scenery. Our camp was only 75 yards upstream of one of the best waves on the river and folks were able to enjoy both an evening and morning surf session.  The wave is big and fast, yet forgiving, and a lot of good learning that takes place here.

The smile on Steve H.'s face says it all about the ride and the wave.
Henry L. shreds the wave at camp on the end of day two.
Nick B. shows this waves not just for little boats.
The view looking upstream toward camp at the end of a good surf session .

Day three’s rapids are straight forward and mostly relaxing, giving folks a chance to rest a bit as they float.  It’s also a chance to see some of interesting sites off the water too, like the pictographs at Cameron Creek. Our camp at the end of the day at White Creek put us withing walking distance of Loon Creek hot springs, the largest spring on the river and the last one accessable from the river.

If you know where to look you can find great examples of pictographs left by the mountain Shoshone, who called themselves the Tukedeka, or Sheepeaters.

Things pick up again on day four with the Tappan series; #1, Tappan Falls and what used to be Tappan #2 and #3.  We had heard of a new rapid- created by yet another sidestream blow-out, this time at Cove Creek.  All of the gradient of Tappan #2 and #3 were now stored up under the new rapid.  There ended up being a very straight forward, yet thrilling line on the left that both the kayaks and rafts ran. This rapid will get more interesting as the water drops over the course of the season. This was also the day we had to travel the most miles, making camp a welcomed sight.

With some major tributaries like Loon, Camas and Big creeks adding to the flow, the look and feel of the river changes dramatically from our little beginnings on day one. We’re now paddling about 5000 cfs.  The canyon takes on a different look as well, transitioning from high Alpine, to a much more rugged and arid feel.  Up to this point there has been a hiker’s trail along the river from the put-in to Big Creek.  It is at Big Creek where the canyon becomes too rugged for the trail to continue alongside and detours up Big Creek, giving the remainder of the canyon the imposing name of The Impassable Canyon- by foot.  Good thing we’re in boats!

Arn S. in one of the rapids approaching the beginning of the Impassable Canyon.
Lani H. somewhere in the Impassable Canyon.

Day five took us past Waterfall Creek followed shortly by Big Creek. Some of us carried a mile up Big Creek to the Bighorn bridge for a taste of lower volume, technical water. Each time I pass by this confluence I think of the multi-day, self-contained run I have heard about, yet haven’t had the chance to do, from the top of Big Creek to the confluence with the Main. Just downstream after confluencing with the Middle Fork, we scored an awesome surf wave at Cutthroat Cove with easy eddy access.  This high speed wave had a sweet spot that shifted from side to side, requiring us surfers to do the same.  With lunch set up just downstream, folks could peel-off to eat when they were ready.

Waterfall Creek tumbles into the Middle Fork just upstream of Big Creek.
A kayaker moves out toward the wave at Cutthroat Cove.

After a stop at Veil Falls we continued downstream and encountered some of the larger named rapids, Redside and Weber.  Camp that night was at Parrot Placer.

Day six is always bittersweet. It has the highest concentration of rapids per mile, making it really fun, but it is also our last day.  Upper and Lower Cliffside, Rubber, Hancock, Devil’s Tooth and House Rock make the miles fly by.  The river at this point is many times larger than when we first put in on day one (5000 cfs vs 500 cfs!) yet everyone was home with these larger flows since the growth was gradual.  As we approached the confluence with the Main Salmon the gradient eased off.  Unlike many rivers, the surrounding terrain remains steep and rugged.

Once on the Main the feel is completely different.  It is big, open water consisting of friendly, rolling wave trains. Even the water is much warmer than that of the Middle Fork.  It’s a three mile paddle from the confluence to the take out at Cache Creek.  A mile before the boat ramp there is Cramer Creek rapid, another creation of a side stream blow out.  When this was first formed in 2002 it was a formidable rapid with a Grand Canyon type feel.  Each year, due to the cutting action of the river, this rapid becomes more and more straightforward.  This day it was a straight-up tongue down the middle into a big, rolling wave train of 9000cfs.

The Group at our last nights camp.

We heard much talk at the take out about doing it again next year.

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