I had learned my lesson once, missing out on a memorable river trip due to sticker shock a few years back. This time, when a good friend extended an invitation to join on another, I knew the opportunity was not to be missed. I was to learn that this trip, a six-day float down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho, was a river trip highly sought after in the world of whitewater and multi-day river trips. Running through the heart of the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, the largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states, the Middle Fork is known for its seclusion and scenery. My friend Kranzley and I had been planning to spend the month of June in Idaho kayaking whitewater and now it seemed that we would kick off our adventure in grand style.
Because of the Middle Fork’s popularity, the National Forest Service issues trip permits through a lottery system. A friend of Kranzley’s was fortunate enough to pull a permit and slowly I began to realize what a treat I was in for. A group of 16 came together through networks of friends and paddlers, many if not most of them former or current professional whitewater guides. As we headed into Idaho to rendezvous at the put-in I began to get a taste for the scale and flavor of a state I previously knew little about. My ignorance was hardly shared across the group; some members of the group had been applying for a Middle Fork permit for as much as fifteen years unsuccessfully!
Unlike kayaking day stretches of whitewater, multi-day travel with rafts allows for comforts and luxuries of all sorts and, it seemed, complex logistics to match. With food, equipment and boat rentals, shuttles and transportation all secured we set about rigging five rafts with all our supplies waterproofed and strapped down for action. Kranzley had a raft of his own that he had been outfitting for trips like these and while I was planning to bring my kayak, it had been a full year since I had been paddling whitewater and I was thinking I would ease my way back into the rapids, spending some time as crew on the raft to get my sea-legs back under me, so to speak. Four experienced kayakers were among the group and it didn’t take long for them to convince me to jump back in my boat from the top of the river with them.
As we put in on the river on day one already it was clear that the group’s anticipation was more than warranted, with huge, forested and rocky canyon walls rising above a clear and swiftly rushing river an hour’s drive down dirt roads from any cellphone service or signs of the rest of the world. My excitement was not without a clear element of nervousness for the rapids that lay just around the corner, but we would be underway before long. The rapids were challenging but very forgiving, although I did spent ample time upside down rolling my kayak back up. More than the intensity of the rapids we were taken by how consistent the gradient of the river was, constantly turning a new corner with mellow but fun Class II and III features and the occasional Class IV rapid that could be run without too much preparation.
The length of our days on the river would vary depending on the distance of the assigned campsite we drew, and with the sky only darkening around ten we were left with plenty of time to explore and relax. It seemed silly and unfortunate at first that we should have to be assigned campsites due to the volume of boating parties on the river but we only occasionally saw other parties afloat and our campsites were each a treat of their own. Many with hot springs on-site or within an enjoyable hike, others with downed Ponderosa Pines that would have towered high above the riverbank but instead made mossy tree forts by the river’s edge. Meals and festivities were attended with no expense spared and the group’s dynamics were soon of a party of old friends, albeit a ragtag crew of wild, drunken river friends.
Six days went by far too quickly, with each day an adventure on the river with excitement quite literally around every turn. The scale of the canyon and its massive unspoiled hillsides lent credence to our feeling of isolation and self-reliance and I quickly came to see the appeal of multi-day river trips that had clearly come long ago to captivate my fellow floaters. I made notes that it would be best if this weren’t my last trip of this type and after six exhaustingly fun days on the river we vowed as our new friends went on their way that we would immediately set aside multiple days during which our priorities would be restricted to eating and sleeping in an effort to recuperate.
Recuperate we did but before long, in fact before we really intended, we were back on the path for adventure. While the Middle Fork’s grandness rested on its luxury and scenery, its community and the safety of its predictable whitewater, our coming adventures we found would come to test our wits and determination to persevere in the outdoors.
Without a waterproof camera/case I took far too few pictures unfortunately. My bad.
Eddying out for the evening at a campsite. This was not one of the larger sections of canyon.
Camp and festivities were held in style. Note costumes (where's Waldo?) .
There was a hot spring just above water level among the rocks on the right.
The root ball of a massive downed Ponderosa Pine on the river's edge.
Kranzley fashioned himself a swing from a broken paddle blade as I looked on from my hammock.
Product testing: success.
The hallway to and from our improvised quarters.
I hadn't realized how beautiful Idaho is.