Hey, Let's Go Boating In January!

Damn, gonna’ be late. No time for breakfast - just a quick shower, remember to feed Fiddle and let her out before leaving. It’s Monday morning, running almost fifteen minutes late to work. Now I’m finally at my desk, staring at a computer screen, trying to recap an amazing weekend; an overnight trip on the Salmon River from Vinegar Creek to Spring Bar. Oh yeah, and it’s the last weekend in January.

After a late night and more than a few rounds with one of my best friends and lifelong boating partner Josh Wright, a former NRS Customer Service Rep, we thought it sounded like a damn good idea to try and bag an overnighter the last weekend in January. And why not? It may be the middle of January, but here in Moscow you can hardly tell. While most of the country is buried under relentless winter storms, we’re having a break in the weather. Must be that global warming they talk about.

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The usual suspects, left-to-right: Tyler, Zach, Chris, Josh and Ty “Tito” Harris. © Chris Ohms

Josh was looking for a chance to get out of town for a few days and I’m always down to get on the water. Who else should we invite? ”Dude, let’s call Tito Lebowitz!”  Absolutely! “Tito” is actually Ty Harris, former NRS Mountain West Wholesale Rep, now living in Boise and working for AIRE. The last time I boated with him was Hells Canyon in March of last year, and before that he was part of my February Grand Canyon trip.  We’ve boated together a fair bit over the last few years; he is just a great boatman and always a positive group member. Josh was going to invite his roommates: Tyler, a former river guide, and Chris, an old rugby teammate of ours who returned last summer from a five-year stay in New Zealand.

Logistics? Pretty loose this trip, a few text messages, an email or two and a couple of phone calls. Josh and I banged out the menu for the weekend during a commercial break one evening. Everybody will just meet at the end of the road and we’ll figure it out.

Our fleet for the trip was small but it sure was ugly! I was going to paddle one of my stable of hard shell kayaks and Josh was all about the NRS GigBob for this trip. Tyler had agreed to row an NRS E-140 raft with most of the gear and Chris was going to tag along in the raft with Tyler and the two dogs, Fiddle and Bocephus. Tito hadn’t quite decided on a craft, but he told us not to worry - he would have a boat for him and his gear. I picked up Josh around 2:30 on Friday and we did the grocery shopping.  Back to my house, pack the coolers and dry boxes, load my truck and head over to Josh’s to load his gear. Tyler and Chris had just started loading their rig when we pulled into the driveway. By the time the trucks were loaded and everybody was ready to go it was after 4 p.m.

The drive down to Riggins was familiar and largely uneventful, at least until we turned off the highway to cross the bridge over the Little Salmon River and head up the Big Salmon Road and were confronted with a road block. Huh? They moved the bridge? After blankly looking at Josh and him back at me, we both realized that with all the road construction along the river they must have built a new bridge, which of course they had; barely one hundred yards from the old one. Why didn’t we just see that to begin with?

Rapping and reminiscing about all manner of previous adventures together, especially on the Salmon, Josh and I headed up the ol’ familiar river road. We had Skynyrd on the stereo playing some of that “swamp, swamp, swamp, swamp music.” Josh doesn’t have a car, not since his ’77 Dodge Aspen ate it. He bought a van once but it didn’t even make a whole trip to the river and back before it died. He rides shotgun a lot.

Anyways, the canyon was fully dark as we made our way past Island Bar and crossed the bridge over Lake Creek Rapid. As we neared the Spring Bar campground and boat launch, we started noticing small patches of snow on the ground but didn’t think much of it. Crossing the last bridge heading up-river we were back on the south side of the canyon. Lots more snow on the north-facing slopes as we continued to make our way up river - and the snow kept getting deeper. It’s 9:30 on a Friday night and we have been driving for over four hours. At the very least it looks like we are camping in the snow tonight.

Just before Carey Creek I notice headlights in my rearview. Who in the hell else would be driving up this road tonight? “Has to be Chris and Tyler.” I find a wide spot in the road and pull over to wait for them. They realize it’s me only after they fly past us and have to back up. Tyler is leaning out the passenger window of Chris’s Explorer all wide eyed and shaking his head.

“You all want to go boating?” I ask. All I get in return are more head shakes and nervous smiles, maybe a chuckle or two. “Well, alright,” I say and we caravan the last little bit up to the Vinegar Creek put-in… which… is… totally covered in snow….

We stop in the middle of the put-in, because, well, whose way are we going to be in anyways? I let the dogs out; they’ve been quietly sleeping during the drive. Once the door is open they spring to life and get to playing and romping around. I’m not sure they noticed the snow at first, or just didn’t care. It’s been a long winter for them as well, no more watching SportsCenter on the couch, it’s time to get out and run around. Those of us on two legs don more clothes and survey the surroundings to come up with a plan while Josh changes out of his Chacos. Chacos, really? We quickly decide to “circle the wagons”, wagons being our two rigs and two enormous jet boats that are being stored over the winter.

With the wagons circled it was time to start thinking about a fire and getting dinner started. On the menu tonight was Stouffers finest 5-meat lasagna, party size, to be cooked in the Dutch oven (many thanks to Canyon REO, the Flagstaff company that did food prep for my Grand Canyon trip, for the inspiration). If you have never seen somebody try and cut a frozen lasagna to fit in a Dutch oven, with a pocket knife, well it goes about as smooth as you’d imagine. But after a while it all fits and with the coals ready, into the fire it went.

Nothing left to do on a Friday night but sit in a circle, stare at the fire, drink beers, spit bull and wait for dinner. It was probably one of the best looking frozen lasagnas in the history of time. Only one problem, we forgot to cook the garlic bread. Maybe we shouldn’t have had so many beers, maybe. The package says that lasagna feeds 11 people. Me and the boys took it down in one go. Of course, it was after 11 p.m. and nobody had eaten since lunch.

Big wooly Bocephus on the Paco, with his buddy, big wooly Josh. © Chris Ohms

As the post-meal food coma started to take hold, we stoked the fire and enjoyed the last bit of the evening until thoughts turned to bed.  The dogs had given in a while ago and were curled up in the snow by the fire. I felt bad, so I pulled out my El Grande Paco Pad and laid it by the fire for the dogs to sleep on until bedtime. We set about cleaning up the camp and making sure the food was put away. I decided to set my tent up, some thought it was easier to just sleep in their car, and somebody may or may not have slept in a jet boat. It didn’t sound like anybody really slept too well that night. I was warm in my sleeping bag but just couldn’t stay asleep. Once I woke and thought I heard some crazy intense techno music. No way in hell I was getting out of my sleeping bag to go investigate… I must have been dreaming.

At around 7 a.m. it became impossible to stay asleep, but I wasn’t ready to get up for the day so I tossed and turned until about 7:30. When I finally emerged from my tent, I noticed that Tito had made the drive in the middle of the night and closed up the opening in our wagon circle with his Subaru. Well, that explains the music, I thought to myself. No tent so he must have slept in his car. It’s a good thing Tito isn’t a tall man. I also noticed there was a small rowing frame on the roof of his Subby. About that time everybody else started to come to life. After a few quick introductions Tito informed us he was rowing an AIRE Traveler Canoe. This was the newer style Traveler with the transom, to which he was going to attach a small electric motor.

It was time for some more bull, another warm fire, and a little breakfast while we discussed the shuttle options. We also had to make an inconvenient trip back into town to pick up some staples somebody had forgotten in the rush to leave: coffee, hot cocoa and everything needed to cook the salmon (salt, pepper, garlic and butter, that sort of thing). So much for logistics. Chris didn’t need to rig a boat, so he was quickly nominated and it was agreed that Tito and I would meet him at Spring Bar on his way back up river. After our bagels it was time to get organized and ready to run our shuttle.

As we were packing, a fella driving a red truck, with his black lab hanging out the passenger window, pulled up next to the wagon circle. I just knew it! If someone slept in a jet boat the owner would be here in the morning. But, the guy didn’t care about some dirt-bag boater, who was just trying to get off the ground, sleeping in the cabin of his jet boat for the night. And, the dogs were happy to have a third in the pack. At around 11 Chris headed into town while the rest of us continued rigging the boats. I forgot to mention, we never bothered with rigging the boats anywhere near the boat ramp. We just rigged in the wagon circle and planned to push the loaded boats across the snow and down to the water.

A lone silver sedan was parked at Spring Bar. Tito was sitting in his car, facing the river, with the stereo on. He mentioned that his boss Alan Hamilton had just pulled into the campground at Spring Bar and was up for a weekend Chukar hunt with some of his friends. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to say hello to Alan, he’s always a nice guy. I remember the first time I ran into him on the river it was at the Corn Creek put-in on the Main Salmon.

Fiddle had to ride on the raft, but Zach dropped by for a visit and an ear scratch. © Chris Ohms

Tito and I barely had a chance to take advantage of facilities at Spring Bar before Chris arrived. It was a nice afternoon as we headed up-river. A vehicle was parked at French Creek and an IK was on the far beach, so at least one other person thought it was a good idea to take advantage of the weather and the hot springs. We stopped to look at Vinegar Creek Rapid, one of the only “biggies” we would have on our trip. It looked pretty straight forward from high up on the road – not too much drop and the water didn’t seem to be moving real fast through the rapid, but it would require a move in the middle. We jumped back into the car and once again made our way to the end of the road. Josh and Tyler were ready to go when we returned so we all grabbed a corner and pushed the raft down the boat ramp, “crashing” it into Josh’s GigBob at the bottom. No harm, no foul. So I think we are almost ready to go.

By that time it was 2 p.m.! Logistics… not so much on this trip. But it was all good. With Tito and I in the lead, we quickly ran Vinegar and then Carey Creek Rapid, without incident. After that it’s a pretty mellow float. We made a quick stop at Fall Creek and looked around a little bit. The creek was running, but large parts of it were iced over, making it a little sketchy to walk around, so we didn’t stay long. We finally pulled into camp at French Creek ‘round about 4:30 or so. It sure was nice being able to get all of the gear unloaded and camp set up before it got really dark. Did I mention, no snow? The sand was sort of frozen but at least it wasn’t snow. Everybody was feeling a little hungry. For whatever reason we didn’t eat lunch before getting on the river. A spread of bagels, deli meats, cheese, pita with hummus and cheese crackers was set out and we all gathered around and quietly went about the deed just as a horde of locusts would.

The crew floating past the snowy banks on a calm stretch of the river. Zach’s on the left in the kayak, Tito’s at the helm of the AIRE Traveler and Josh’s on the oars in the GigBob. © Chris Ohms

It was fully dark now and we were getting our Firepan put together. Chris had chopped some firewood and kindling at home and brought it on the trip. The thing was, we had used pretty much all of it the night before, but we got a fire going with the last of what we had. Once the fire was going, Josh, Tito and I went off to find some driftwood. We found a sweet cache of good dry wood and grabbed up some hefty armfuls before heading back to camp. We made one more firewood run, this time with the whole group. It took a bit longer the second time – more joke cracking and ribbing than actual firewood collecting – but we came back with a good haul.

Maybe too much wood but better safe than sorry and Tito sure tried to make a dent with a good ol’ fashioned bonfire. Pushing that firepan right to its limits! The bonfire lasted about an hour until we realized at some point we would need to use this firepan to cook dinner. We sat around another hour waiting for the fire to die down into an amazing bed of coals. Which happened, while nobody was looking. More wood on the fire and another wait. Good thing too. Chris had donated some really nice big salmon filets from a summer Alaska fishing trip with his dad. The salmon was still frozen solid so a pot of water was set next to the fire with the fish still in freezer bags to thaw. The second round of coals was starting to look pretty good so Josh set about prepping the salmon.

“Damn Chris, you forgot lemon juice,” Josh chided.

“Was it on the list?” countered Chris.

 “Eh, uhhhhh… no. My bad, you’re right,” Josh admitted.

And from his camp chair Tyler mumbles, “We have orange juice, just use that.”

“Done!” sez Josh. 

And that’s how men cook at home, or in the wild.

Josh made foil boats for the salmon and a nice little sauce of melted butter, salt, pepper, garlic and orange juice. I made sure we had warm, toasted garlic bread, diligently rotating that lovely little foil pouch of carby goodness until dinner was ready (not even one little burned spot). We also had a few pouches of insta-taters: two pouches of “loaded” and one of roasted garlic. Yep, mixed all three together… and… it…was… Awesome! Josh’s fish turned out great and it was a really nice meal to enjoy around the campfire. Even the dogs got a taste of that fine meal. Now, back to the bonfire… it is January after all.

Remember the snow at the put-in? Well, that was the warm night. I was the first up the next morning. During the night the frost had come in pretty heavy, it was thick and on everything that was left out. Really wish I had a) remembered to turn my kayak over so my seat was not now covered in ice; and b) remembered to put the rest of my gear away. Including my Mission Drysuit, which I forgot was lying over my tent and was now a frozen board of eVent material. Can’t wait to put that back on!

Everyone else was still asleep and we had some firewood left. I took advantage of my early rising, got the fire going and started the long process of defrosting my gear. This whole thing was easily avoidable and I know better. I could be on my way to the hot springs but nope, here I am in the early morning defrosting my gear that I neglected to take care of last night. At least the hot chocolate is good. Slowly people started to emerge from their tents. Once they noticed what I was doing, they each lowered their head and trudged off to gather their gear and start getting it defrosted. All of our booties, gloves, pfds, helmets and helmet liners, dry suits and my sprayskirt, all neatly draped over the chairs circled around the fire and slowly defrosting, while the five of us stood drinking coffee, hot cocoa and laughing about our morning’s misfortune. This lasted, no lie, probably two hours.

We still hadn’t made it to the hot springs and we were starting to run a little behind whatever sort of timeline there was. The hot springs were a pretty major selling point for this whole trip so we couldn’t just skip them. We decided to eat a quick lunch before getting ready to head up the trail. It’s a nice hike and takes about a half hour or so, but be warned, it’s all uphill. Fiddle likes being out front, so I kept with her, while old man Bocephus set a more relaxed pace that the rest of the group followed to the top.

Soaking up the warmth in the Bat Cave – Josh in the back, Zach and Tyler up front. © Chris Ohms

The nice thing about getting there first was I had first rights to the bathhouse and its nice warm soaking tub, which is a giant hollowed-out log. The rest of the guys were taking a soak in the “Bat Cave”. I sat in the tub for about fifteen minutes before heading down to the cave and giving somebody else a turn in the bathhouse. The cave is pretty neat actually. It has a small wall at the mouth that forms a good-sized pool for a group of six or so, and if you bring a headlamp you can explore the cave, which extends maybe 100 yards back, at your own risk. The further back you go the warmer the water gets. It’s also a little deeper than the tub but the water isn’t as warm. The real downside about the Bat Cave is, no surprise, bats, not all the time but some times. I have been pretty lucky and have only had to share the cave with the bats once. But, no bats on this trip. We probably stayed for about an hour giving everybody a chance to use both the tub and the cave before heading back down to our camp and getting packed up and ready to go.

We shoved off from camp right about 3 p.m.! Trust me, I know we are slackers. But no more dilly doddle, we needed to stay in the current and keep on the sticks if we wanted to have any chance of making it to Spring Bar before dark. Long story short, that did not happen. I was out in front of the group paddling hard just because I could go the fastest and was able to make it to the take-out with just the last bit of light. I quickly jumped out of my kayak and ran up to get my truck. Pulling right up to the edge of the water with my brights on so the boys didn’t miss the boat ramp. At most, I was five minutes ahead of the group.

Everybody made it to shore safe and sound. Once again we had the boat ramp all to ourselves. Chris and I changed clothes before hopping in my truck and running back up the road to get his Explorer. I took Fiddle on the drive ‘cause I was guessing she was pretty tired, even though she wouldn’t lie down. Just like a kid, I suppose, although I know nothing about those little people. Not even a mile up the road from Spring Bar and Fiddle was out.

Over the weekend we were surprised at the amount of traffic going up and down the Big Salmon Road. Nearly every vehicle had to slow down and take a look at us. I can only imagine what they were thinking when they saw us having a nice little float. In actuality, the daytime temperature wasn’t too bad; I’ll say maybe low to mid 40s. However, the water temperature was hovering right around 35 degrees. But with the right gear we were all more than comfortable and prepared for the weekend. The bad news was that the combination of snow on the roads, the amount of traffic and the above freezing temps really did a number on Big Salmon Road. It was in much worse condition as Chris and I were retrieving his rig. I was honestly a little on edge having to drive the road twice in such bad shape, in the dark, while tired from the weekend. All I could do was switch in to four-wheel drive and take it slow. Chris and I returned in a little less than an hour and a half.

The boys had done a fine job breaking down the boats and getting everything ready to load when we returned. Once everything was loaded there was some discussion about trying to eat dinner in town, but most people were inclined to just head straight back home. So we said our goodbyes to Tito and headed north. Josh and I had a quiet drive, while the hounds slept in the back. When I pulled in the driveway I was relieved to be home. I stood in my driveway, exhausted and reflecting on the weekend, looking at my truck, bright red and covered in mud from bumper to bumper. With my kayak strapped on top and boating gear piled in the back it made me really, really happy. Good trip boys, it certainly was an “adventure”. I can’t wait to do it again! It’s midnight, so cheers and goodnight.

“I feel like a zombie. My hands hurt and I can hardly focus on anything. Stupid awesome river trip!” –  text message I received from Josh that next morning.

Zach Miller
NRS Customer Service