Middle Fork of the Salmon River
The middle fork of the Salmon River, through the Frank Church Wilderness area in Idaho, is the longest wild river in the lower 48. It is a stunning, beautiful and untamed river, through some of the most fabulous scenery left in this country. Rafting this river is extremely popular, and is strictly regulated by a lottery permit system. This year we were fortunate enough to be offered a few spots on permit won in the lottery system by a good friend of ours, Pat. He and several of his rafting/kayaking buddies put in for a permit every year, and if anyone gets one, they all get to go. Whoever actually gets the permit then gets to fill out any remaining spots with their friends, up to the maximum party size of 24. The only down side to this was that no one in our group had ever done any white water rafting without having a guide in the boat with us. Pat assured us, however, that it really wasn't any big deal, and there would be two other very experienced rafters we could follow through the rapids. After talking with Pat several times, I even became convinced that rafting the river would be somewhat tame, so, in a moment of lesser sanity, I decided to quickly take a single lesson in running white water in an inflatable kayak, and do the trip in an IK instead of a raft. Fortunately, there was room in our "novice" raft for me, as the river proved far more powerful than I (or anyone else in our group) was anticipating. Pat and his buddies used up 18 of his permitted slots, and he turned over the remaining 6 to us. We filled them with myself, my wife Maren (4 months pregnant at the time), my brother Byron and his daughter Melissa, and a buddy of mine, Mike, and his little sister Kelsie.
June 26-July 4, 1996
I started watching the river levels well in advance of our trip dates, and started to become concerned when were hovering around 6 feet shortly before we were to leave. Further reassured by several people who had run the river before, we headed off to Idaho. The plan was to have me in an IK, and Byron and Mike rowing a raft. Maren, Melissa and Kelsie would ride in the raft, but they weren't planning on actually paddling. The raft would also carry all of my gear. The other two rafts only had one or two people in them - this difference in the weight of the loads would teach us a lot about running white water!
What follows is my journal of the trip - not always as much detail as in some of my other trip reports, but since this one covers so many days, maybe that's for the better!
Left home around 4:00 pm, drove out to pick up Mike in Fall City. Stopped for dinner in Yakima at a great Mexican restaurant. Got to Byron's around 8:30. Joel and Kelsie were there, everyone else had gone out to dinner. Visited and talked about the trip for a bit, then crashed in Byron's camper around 10:30.
Up at 7:00, out at 8:00 to meet everyone in Umatilla at 9:00. By 9:30 no one else had shown up, so we went looking for them. Returned at 9:45 just as everyone else was pulling into parking lot. Headed east, with lots of stops to regroup. Stopped at a beautiful park (Last Chance Crossing Park) just before crossing the Oregon/Idaho border. Headed north just before Boise and stopped at a kayak business run out of a garage. Continued north along the Payette river, and on to Stanley. Beautiful scenery, spectacular views of the Sawtooths. Drove on to Sunbeam (great view of the Sunbeam dam just before Sunbeam), and picked up rafting equipment from White Otter. Hit a grocery store in Lower Stanley for final food supplies, and grabbed a burger at the "Knotty Pine" across the street. Drove back through Stanley, and found the road to the put in just after dark in a horrendous rain storm. After a long drive we found Pat and Nori parked by Dagger Falls, but no room for us to camp. We headed over by the put in at Boundary Creek and set up camp for the night, just after the rain storms died down..
Helped set up rafts, loaded gear, slid stuff down the ramp to the river's edge, and assembled my inflatable kayak. We launched about 4:00 and I swam 3 times in first hour - this river (still really a creek) is running much higher (6+ feet) and much faster (about 7 mph) than I was anywhere close to being prepared for. The first two swims were caused by holes I didn't have the skill or strength to avoid but I was able to self-rescue. The third time was at the top of Sulphur Slide (class III+), and I swam the whole thing. Pretty beat up and very shook up after that. Spent a lot of time sitting on the bank where I was able to pull out before hiking 1/4 mile downstream. Lost the IK and paddle, but other folks recovered them for me. Caught a ride with Bill on a catamaran, and went over Velvet Falls sideways - almost flipped. Bill did some very fancy footwork, jumping from one pontoon to the other as we were going over the falls to keep us from going over - he said he was extra motivated having me as a passenger, because he wasn't sure I could swim another rapid at that point - I think he was right! Lots of folks had trouble here - Tony lost his canoe, Manabu swam Velvet, Barb lost a paddle - tough day. Stopped at a hot springs river left, and joined up with Byron's raft. Still some big water left - The Chute (class III). Spent the night just below at Elkhorn. Had seafood gumbo, green salad and potato salad for dinner. Lots of wet and damp gear - got most things dried out that evening. Wasn't walking very well - banged up my right knee pretty badly in the rapids.
Fairly mellow water to start the day - Bob agrees to carry the IK while packing (which goes much faster than the previous day). First big water is Powerhouse, which we scout. Rapid looks big, but there's an obvious path through it. We see the old powerhouse remains and the cabin while scouting. I walked down a little further to look at Lower Powerhouse - unbelievable! HUGE class III, very confused, plenty big to flip a raft - really scary looking. Powerhouse went real well, and we made it through lower Powerhouse, but by luck, not skill. Hit the rock wall right at the end pretty hard, and bounced instead of dipped - could have easily been a flip. Narrowly avoided a log on river left on the way to Sheepeater hot springs. Tony (the canoeist) went right under it. After a quick lunch we walked to the hot springs - in the middle of a mud field, not particularly nice. Artillery and Canon Creek are both class III, and there's bunches of unnamed class II stuff that makes us work and causes some adrenaline to flow. We stop at Dolly Lake, really just a wide spot and a bend in the river, and tag the rock wall just after the lake pretty good on the entrance to Cannon Creek rapids. Finish the day with Pistol Creek rapids (class IV), and barely manage to catch the eddy for Pistol Creek camp. A tough day, again. The camp site is beautiful, and we have a dinner of Szechwan chicken (which was too spicy for Melissa and Kelsie, but everyone else loved it). Maren and I took a walk after dinner up river to an old cabin with a beautiful stone chimney (still completely intact), a pie cupboard, a washing machine (circa 1920? 1940?) and a rototiller (same era). A large shallow pond/lake was close to the cabin, and the shores were covered with tracks from deer, elk, horses, dogs. We heard what we think was an elk across the lake from us, but we were never sure - sounded like high quick donkey braying. Walked back to the river over Pistol Creek, then back to camp. A little more gear got wet, but was mostly dry before we went to bed.
Had fresh donuts and omelets for breakfast - what incredible food! It sure takes a lot of the camp time to prepare, though. After packing (getting faster each day), Mike takes the helm from Byron for a bit, and rows us through Marble Creek Rapids (class III-). Maren decides to video us instead of riding with us, a smart move on her part - we came very close to flipping on the left - way too close to a rock shelf. Pretty scary. We stopped at Sunflower flats - what a spectacular hot springs! There's a log that been carved out and run out over the river to provide a hot shower, and there are several pools for the hot water to collect in above, the cooler ones being closer to the river. The top pools are almost too hot to sit in - probably 120 degrees? The lower pools are 102-110. Pat brings up some buckets and we set up a spot for hair washing and showers back a ways from the springs. We ferry across the river to our camp at Lost Oak, and have to haul gear up a pretty steep hill to the camping area. A bunch of the kayakers head over to the hot springs, and spend some time soaking and mooning the rest of us across the river. Shortly after they get back, Barb spots a black bear on the hot springs side of the river. It wanders right thought the hot springs eventually - what a hoot if it would have been 30 minutes earlier! Kelsie and Melissa come back to camp after a walk and tell us about some pictographs they found, so we take a quick trail run out to them before dinner. A sun, a lightening bolt, some people, some tally marks. Pretty cool! Dinner is ready when we get back - barbecued chicken and baked potatoes with raspberry or blueberry cheesecake for desert! I sit up late around the campfire listening to Larry tell stories, and we hear two very strange sounding birds fly thought the trees, moving from one tree to another, rather than just flying through. Their call sounded almost like a high pitched monkey. Never identified them, and it was well after dark (around 11:30) when they flew through. It was blue moon that night, and the moon reflecting off of the river as I went to bed was incredible - all silver ripples as far as I could see, and so bright. Larry's best story was about falling in on the Wenatchee, and not having his PFD fastened, or his shorts tied. He spent lots of time trying to keep both on. When he finally was rescued, he was given a bad time about being so modest, and trying to hold on to his shorts. He said he wasn't being modest - he didn't usually care if people saw him naked, but if they saw him after he'd been immersed in 40 degree water for 20 minutes, it was the size of what they would see that would embarrass him!
Today starts with a 5 mile easy stretch. We float by the Middle Fork Ranch, which is where they take the water level readings. It looks pretty plush. We plow through Jackass Rapids (III-) and stop at the Whitey Cox grave and hot springs. The grave site is decorated with antlers and skulls, and the hot springs are barely warm, and kind of muddy. There's nothing else of interest until we get to our camp site at Big Loon Creek. The landing is difficult, having to land immediately after Big Loon Creek enters the Middle Fork. The current is strong, but we manage to beach all right. It's our turn to cook - chicken casserole, and biscuits cooked in Dutch Ovens, and a green salad. Maren and Pat donate a head of lettuce each, and that spruces up the mixed greens that have been living in a cooler for four days. The food preparation goes well, with Melissa dicing up onions and potatoes, me opening cans of soup and chicken and tubs of sour cream, and Maren overseeing the addition of all the ingredients. Byron is in charge of the charcoal and the arrangement of the Dutch Ovens. The meal takes longer to cook than we had anticipated, and we can only turn out 8 biscuits at a time, so we end up feeding folks in shifts. Still, everything goes well, and the meal is well received. We don't finish the cleanup until after 10:00 - 5 hours in the kitchen for prep, eating and cleanup. Ugh! Maren is a trooper, and after we're all done she takes off with me in the dark to try and find the hot springs. We walk along the trail and over the bridge, but don't know which way to go then. We head downstream for 5 minutes or so, then decide to bag it for the night. We get back to camp and everyone has gone to bed, so there's no one to ask directions of anyway. During the afternoon, Melissa and Kelsie had cornered a horse that was part of a herd on the Simplot ranch. They rode it up a hill for a while, then got yelled at by one of the ranch hands. Later in the evening, he came down to camp to find out if anyone wanted to do a trail ride the next morning. Instead of getting into trouble, the girls rounded up 4 other folks and they went for a two hour trail ride. Since they wouldn't be back until 9:00, Maren and I agreed that we'd try and find the hot springs in the morning.
We got up around 7:00, got directions to the hot springs (up stream after the bridge, not down stream), and headed up there. We had the place all to ourselves - it was wonderful! The "tub" was about 6'x20' and 3-4 feet deep. There was no smell of sulphur, and no algae in the water. The bottom was small gravel, with a few larger boulders to sit on if you wanted to be a bit out of the water. Barb and Nori joined us about 30 minutes later, Barb asking if we were "naked as jay birds", and seeming not sure if she wanted to come down. We assured her we didn't mind, and the four of us sat around for another 15 minutes or so. After walking back to camp we got things packed up, and Mike decided we should inflate the floor of the raft some. He borrowed Barb's pump, and with two or three strokes, blew a hole in the floor of the raft! To be fair, it looked like the floor was starting to delaminate already, but Barb's pump put air into the floor much faster than the pump we had been using, and I think that aggravated the situation. We had to pull everything out of the raft, unlace the floor, and cut into where the leak was. After some patch work and repair, we got things back together, and left the floor of the raft somewhat underinflated for the day. We ended up getting a pretty late start because of all this. Our first stop of the day was Hospital Bar, a hot springs that was mostly washed out by the high water. As we approached, there was a bighorn sheep family grazing around the hot springs - a ram, a ewe, and 7-9 other sheep. Pretty cool. We missed our eddy and tried to beach a little further down shore. In doing so, we got the raft hung up on a flooded tree, and came close to flipping again. It took some very hard rowing to get us free of the tree. We landed a few hundred yards further down shore, and walked back towards the hot springs. The sheep had moved up the rocks a little, but were still very visible, and were climbing from spire to spire. They gave us some great views, standing against the blue skies, the kids hopping like they had pogo sticks for legs. After a quick bite for lunch we continued down river, pulling out next to scout Tappan Falls. The water was huge, but there was an obvious tongue on river right that should get us through safely. We waited at the scouting point while Pat went through with his dory - looked pretty exciting. We headed down and watched from upriver as Larry took himself and Scott right through the middle of the rapid - huge waves and a huge hole. We launched next, and chose the conservative route down river right. It was still an exciting ride, with huge fast water, and a giant hole on the right edge. Plenty of excitement for me. We missed the first eddy and eddied out at the next one to wait for Bob. Aperajo Point rapids were next (III-), then our camp for the night, Sheep Creek. There were lots of deer "parts" around here, and Byron found some coyote dens as he was wandering the hills (we heard them the next morning as they howled when a plane flew low over the river). We pulled out our new water purifier and pumped a few bottle with it - worked great. Dinner was barbecued beef and chicken over rice with peas, and brownies for desert. Melissa helped Kelsie with the brownies, and they came out great. This was the only night when there didn't really seem to be quite enough food to go around - I was third in line for seconds, and there wasn't enough for much of a second helping. Didn't go to bed hungry, but didn't get quite as much as I would have liked, either.
Started out pretty easy this morning - barely got on the water before we pulled out at the Flying B Ranch - a small general store with beer, pop, ice cream and other supplies. They had a couple of neat turnstiles made out of horse shoes, picnic tables out of doors, hoses hooked up for fresh water, etc. Neat place. A 6-pack of Coke cost $5.00, but boy did it taste good! Very soon after putting back on the river came Haystack rapids (III) with some giant waves - some of them were breaking so big that they were going right over my head in the front of the raft, and hitting Byron in the chest where he was sitting in the middle of the raft! The next stop on the trip was Rattlesnake Cave. We followed a little trail down to a cavern in the rock next to the river where there are lots of pictographs on the rock. Actually, we first tried following a trail up into the canyon, thinking that was the side trail to the cave, then finally came back down to the cave itself. Easy to see why the Indians would use a place like this to get out of the weather. We passed by Waterfall Creek, which was beautiful - the water was really running, and it was just huge streaks of white crashing over rocks down to the river. We stopped for lunch at Veil Falls, another spectacular place. After a short scramble/hike, you're in this natural amphitheater with a thin waterfall wavering around in the air in front of you (from the wind pushing it around). This place just felt magical. More pictographs here as well. Porcupine Rapids (III-) was right after this and was a thrill - the water was really feeling huge this day (turns out it had been rising). Redside (IV) and Weber (IV) were next on the menu. We ended up not scouting them, and just following Larry - he didn't take the easiest path through the rapids, and we ended up blasting through a huge hole. Lots of adrenaline on these two. The day finished with Upper and Lower Cliffside Rapids (both III), running really fast. Larry almost flipped in Lower Cliffside. Immediately after the Cliffside pair, we had to eddy out at our camp site - it came up fast, and we had to cross the river, since we ended up river left after the rapids and the camp was on river right. This (Tumble Creek) turned out to be my least favorite camp. The landing wasn't pleasant, there was no place to pull the rafts up to (they just hung out in the river, lashed to some trees, bobbing and churning all night), Pat had to tie his dory off to the rafts so it wouldn't get too close to the rocks (he ended up wearing a hole in Larry's raft from rubbing it all night). The camp site itself was up a 15' bank, and was dry and dusty. Maren and I saw our first rattlesnake when we tried to take a walk before dinner. We were walking toward Tumble Creek down a path when I heard a noise that sounded like cicadas, but didn't sound like cicadas. Maren and I both stopped, and she said she thought it was a rattle snake. I wasn't so sure - didn't rattlers sound more like rattles? This sounded more like high fast chirping. Maren decided to back up a little, just in case, then Byron showed up. He immediately identified the sound as a rattler, and we started looking in the brush for it, so we could back away rather than approach it. Byron was the first to see it, not two inches from the trail. I had walked right by it, then Maren, and then Maren had backed up right past it! It was a good 1.5 to 2 inches thick, and coiled, so I couldn't tell how long it was. We just slowly backed away and went back to camp to warn everyone else. Several people really wanted to see the snake, so Maren volunteered to try and lead them back to it. It was a funny sight - 7 people taking one or two steps, then stopping to listen for a rattle, taking 2 more steps, all stopping, for many, many iterations! They never did see (or hear) the snake again, but I had no desire to explore the brushy areas just outside of camp. Pat and Nori cooked dinner - Mexican fare, with soft and hard shelled tacos, refried beans, and sopitas for desert! The quality of the food just never stopped! After dinner was a horse shoe game, with Melissa and Kelsie providing some entertainment as they tried to learn how to throw the shoes (without hitting anyone!). We hit the sack early that night, because we wanted to get an early start the next day. We were only a few miles from the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon now, and we figured if we got up and on the river early, we could get to the takeout before it got really crowded. This was the first night it never really cooled down - we were dropping in elevation each day, and it probably stayed in the 70's all night. Some time during the night I heard something crashing about in the brush - it sounded pretty large. Mike told me he heard it as well, but didn't see anything from his bivy bag. We were both guessing that it was probably a bear - good thing it didn't smell anything it wanted in our camp.
Although we tried to get an early start, we still didn't get onto the water until after 9:00, but there was only 11 miles to go to our take out at Cache Bar. There were still some big rapids to come, and with the water level as high as it was, these puppies were huge! Fortunately by now there was so much water in the river that there was almost no maneuvering left to do, and all we had to do was ride out the roller coaster like waves and hang on! Rubber Rapids (IV-) was the largest of the morning, but it was followed by Hancock, Devil's Tooth, House Rocks and Jump Off - all strong class III's. One class II followed (Goat Creek) and then we could see the chocolate waters of the Main Salmon up ahead. We actually turned around for a final look down the Middle Fork to say goodbye - every morning had been terrifying, knowing we had to get back out on water we weren't qualified to raft, but it had been stunningly beautiful, and, now that it was almost over, we were already starting to let the good memories overlay the bad. At the confluence we pulled into the Main Salmon river, and then floated the 3 miles down to Cache Bar. We had gotten an early enough start that the landing area was not crowded, so we had an easy time pulling all the boats out, unloading everyone's gear, deflating the inflatables, and loading people, gear and water craft into the waiting vehicles (we had paid a shuttle company to drive our cars and trucks from the put in to Cache Creek so they'd be waiting for us). One minor accident (Nori slipped and gashed her leg badly enough to need to go to the hospital and get several stitches), and one flat tire on a gear trailer were the only incidents left for this trip. Mike, Maren and I headed back to western Washington and home, while Byron, Melissa and Kelsie headed for the Tri-Cities. It was still a long drive, and we didn't drop Mike off until after 11:00 that night. We got home around 11:30, happy to have done the trip, and happy to be safely home.
Last updated: January 27, 2004