Plan B - An Epic Journey
The Idaho Four Rivers Lottery, for the Middle Fork and Main Salmon, Snake River Hells Canyon and Selway, is an annual ritual for many boaters, especially for those of us who live in the Whitewater State. Odds for drawing a permit are something like 3:1 for Hells Canyon, 11:1 Main Salmon and 27-28:1 for the Middle Fork and Selway.
Meetings were held, lists were made and others were invited to fill the 16-person trip limit. I got to invite one person and my buddy Arthur (who went with me on last year’s Grand Canyon trip) jumped at the chance.
As the time drew near, our spirits rose and fell with the USGS gauge readings we checked daily. The Selway is not a river to be taken lightly. It drops an average of 28 feet per mile and the five-mile stretch of continuous whitewater below Moose Creek averages some 80 feet per mile. Several boaters have died on the river, often in high water.
Our launch was on a Wednesday. On the preceding Sunday, the gauge was still yo-yoing up around the danger zone. Brian served as the link between the trip members and we reached a consensus to make the final call Monday morning. When we talked on Sunday, he suggested an alternative: “If we don’t go on the Selway, how about a combination Middle Fork/Main Salmon trip? We’d have to get a Middle Fork cancellation, but it’s pre-lottery season on the Main. It would be epic!”
So, I called the Middle Fork Ranger District; their recorded message said that as of Friday they had a Wednesday launch open! Brian and I agreed we’d both call first thing Monday morning to secure a just-in-case permit. Arthur called, he’d flown in from Albuquerque and was spending the night with his sister.
The minutes ticked down to the 6:45 a.m. Pacific (7:45 Mountain) office opening and I started calling. On the second try, I got through. They had a Wednesday launch date and Brian hadn’t gotten through yet, so I grabbed it.
Arthur showed up at my place and we made the final packing of our gear and cooler. We loaded my pickup, stopped by Tyler’s house to pick up some of his gear and headed out of town for Moscow, before noon. When we got to NRS, the agreement reached was that for our group, the Selway, at present flows and with predicted weather, was too risky. Combo it was to be!
On our way to get them we made our final stop at a supermarket. There we saw a bumper sticker that set the tone for this crazy, spur of the moment adventure. It said, “Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?” (For those of you not familiar with the saying this references, try putting the phrase “in a handbasket” into an Internet search engine.)
TJ’s brother, Rett, worked at NRS in the past, had left to work at Coldwater Creek and is now at Backcountry.com. Rett was driving up from Utah and would meet us at the put-in. We joined up with Brian in Lewiston, 30-miles south of Moscow. I dropped off my truck; we grabbed fast food and the five of us finally got on the road about 6 p.m.
Miles and miles of miles and miles ahead of us. Down Hwy 95 to New Meadows, Hwy 55 through McCall and Cascade to Forest Service 24. TJ entertained us with tales of bike racing, playing hockey and other craziness. The truck’s CD player ate a disc, much to Brian’s disgruntlement. Intermittent rain dogged us through the darkness. We ran out of steam near Lowman and pulled into the Forest Service’s Pine Flats Campground, at about 3,700 feet elevation. During a break in the rain, we fumbled for headlamps and set up tents (buried under frames, of course) on the wet ground. No sooner than heads hit the Paco Pads, the rain recommenced.
Breakfast at The Bakery was sumptuous, huge breakfast burritos and sandwiches and lots of coffee and tea. Soon we were joined by more trip members – Telly and Jim, Middle Fork guides for Rocky Mountain River Tours and Collin, a guide with White Cloud Rafting Adventures. Introductions all around, more coffee, a stop for gas, ice and last minute supplies, then off to the put-in. We saw many bands of elk in the flats as we drove to Boundary Creek. After turning off the highway onto the Forest Service road, we followed two tracks through the snow down to the river. “Where are we going and why am…”
At Boundary, one group was ahead of us, almost finished rigging. We checked in with the Forest Service lady and lo-and-behold, there was an open permit for the day! We wouldn’t have to wait for tomorrow to use my permit, allowing us a jump start. We went back and vigorously tackled rigging boats. As we got our boats pretty well put together, the rest of our party arrived – Virginia, her father Shane, Matt, Tyler and his friend Ali, and Ryan, a guide with Hughes River Expeditions. They’d gotten a late start and had spent the night in McCall, at a friend’s home (inside, out of the weather… the nerve of them).
Things went fast; booming through First Bend, Murph’s and Gardell’s Holes, “Was that Sulphur Slide?”, then Velvet Falls. No sneak around Velvet on the left at this flow; take as little of the river-wide hole as you can. Find an eddy, pull in, regroup. By the time we got to Big Bend Camp, it was 6:00 and we decided to grab it.
Tie up the boats, unload, set up the kitchen and put out the groover – part of every river camp. Rett and TJ had dinner duty (our food plan was each boat on their own for breakfast and lunch, community dinners divvied up in two-three person groups). They laid on a big feast of spaghetti, spring-mix lettuce salad, garlic bread, a huge caramel apple pie from Mother Costco and bottles of wine. Mighty good stuff.
The night’s campfire was a good one. With all the guides on the trip (in addition to Telly, Jim, Collin and Ryan, Brian C. and Tyler were guides on several rivers before coming to NRS), the stories were bound to be good. Jim’s story was the best of the evening. With a bit of help from Telly, he recounted how on his third day as a river guide a group of them was sent to rescue a group of private boaters on Marsh Creek, a major tributary of the Middle Fork.
We didn’t make a late night of it. The hustle bustle of getting ready for the trip, long drives, etc left most of us tired and ready to hit the sleeping pads.
We were a draggy bunch on Wednesday morning, slow to leave the tents and sleeping bags. Arthur and I broke out the Coleman Folding Oven, a great rafting kitchen addition. I’d made up a bunch of breakfast burritos (egg, sausage, onion, peppers and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla) and Arthur had brought up some delicious New Mexico tamales. Wrapped in foil, they made great hot breakfasts, with no clean up. Tyler and Ali also brought items to heat up and others warmed bagels.
Finally on the water, Arthur rowing. He’s a great boating companion, a hard worker and a good boatman. It didn’t take us long to get to Powerhouse Rapid, good whitewater. The guides on the trip bring another excellent dimension; they run this river so often, at all flows, that mostly we don’t have to stop and scout.
An exception is Lake Creek Rapid at Mile 21. A blowout at Lake Creek had totally changed the course of the river, pushing its waters into the trees along the bank. This had eroded the bank and dumped huge trees into the river. We knew about the problem and approached the site cautiously. There were lots of boats pulled in and lots of head scratching going on. There was a crew of commercial outfitters and guides working on removing some of the wood, using steel cables, hand winches and comealongs.
The rapid is in an S-curve, right above Pistol Rapid. Water was pouring through the trees on river right, probably soon to bring more wood into the water. There was a large tree, with its root ball facing upstream on the upper end, then two huge trees in mid-river, with water flowing to the right, over them and to the left. A death trap if you were in the wrong place. Various options were discussed, including a nasty portage.
Finally, someone ran it and it looked doable. Telly ran it and did fine. I was concerned about my ability to make the pull. I asked Jim if he would run my boat through it. It felt weird asking someone else to take that chance for me, but it seemed like the best choice for me. He did it fine and I was grateful for his help. Everyone got through safely and we were on our way again.
Only 3.5 miles down to Indian Creek, where there were lots of boats. Many people were flying into Indian to avoid the mess at Lake Creek. We were on a push to make lots of miles, to keep on schedule, so we blew past Indian. Down through Marble Creek, Ski Jump and Jackass Rapids. Even with our good current, we had to keep on the sticks to make the good time we needed. Great to have Arthur to help spell on the oars. Some of the boats spotted a black bear along this stretch.
Loon is a great campsite, big and open, lots of room. Tyler, Ali and Brian H whipped up a delicious meal of tortellini and meatballs, salad, bread (including some homemade by Ali) and a delightful assortment of Pepperidge Farms cookies. They also supplied wine and there was leftover vino from last night – no one went away hungry and a good time was had by all.
Some folks elected to hike up to the hot springs, one-mile up the creek. Some hit the bag early, after our long day. Those of us that stayed up for the campfire had a great time, as the stories flowed. Telly told this outrageously funny story about a medical emergency. Even with the fire away from the tents and the noise of the river and creek, I still figured that my laughter was keeping camp awake. Jim told a couple of dandies also, but he made me promise not to repeat them, so it’ll just have to be our dirty little secret. I’d set up my tent right by Loon Creek and the rushing water was a great sleep aid.
Some made an early visit to the hot springs. We got a good, early start, ~9:30. We are seeing quite a few Canada geese, mostly in pairs. Saw a band of big horn sheep, with a tiny lamb, only a few days old. Lots of mergansers. It was a big water day – the Tappens, Aparejo, Haystack, Jack Creek, Porcupine, Redside and Weber. Wow! A 35-mile day and we still got to Ship Island Camp by 3:30.
The landing was swift, so we staged one at a time to help catch boats. After unloading, we pulled boats up on the rocks to prevent rocking and rubbing in the current. Ship Island is a large camp, running quite a ways along a low bench. Camp was set up and a ferocious card game got started. Arthur and I pulled out a jug of Toad Juice to celebrate the great day. Matt actually fumbled his pass and spilled some – no gold star for Matt.
It was a good night around the campfire; I got some good visits with several folks. The group had really melded. That’s usually the case on a river trip. You can be strangers when you start, then as the days unfold and you share adventures, camp duties and evening conversation, a bonding takes place.
Friday morning I woke to a Canyon Wren serenade. Little guy was singing his heart out; I do love their song. I’m an early riser on the river, often the first one up. I get to make the coffee, listen to the river sounds. A favorite time.
We got away at our customary 9:30 departure time. A great day of rapids – Upper and Lower Cliffside, Ouzel, Rubber, Hancock, Devil’s Tooth, House Rock, Jump Off and Goat Creek. Before too long, we were looking back at the confluence and the Middle Fork Canyon. This is often a time of mixed feelings – satisfaction for a fun, safe trip, and some sadness that it’s over. But today, there’s a whole new river to look forward to – here comes the Main Salmon and a rapid I’ve never run before – Cramer Creek is just ahead!
Note: We’ll finish the trip in the next issue of the e-News – stay tuned!