Tale of Two Trips, Part 1 - It's a Family Affair
While the river is a large part of any trip, the people are at least an equal part of the experience. They add color and energy to the ever-changing natural background. You can compare a river trip to a good jambalaya: the river and its surroundings are like the meat and rice – great stuff that can be made into just about any good dish. The people are the spices and other ingredients that make the dish unique.
That’s why this tale is told in two parts. While it all takes place on the same river, the people change and the river keeps running downstream.
When Brian and Jenni Chaffin invited me on their August Main Salmon trip, I was both pleased and excited. They’re two of my favorite people and I would be spending time with them on one of my favorite river stretches – double win-win.
Brian left NRS to pursue his PhD in Geography, now at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He’s guided on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon for years, before he came to NRS and even now in his spare time. If I had to pick one word to describe him, it would be “big”. When he enters a room, you know he’s there – brash, boisterous, full of bonhomie and comebacks. Fun to boat with, fun to hang with.
Jenni is one of our purchasers, doing the telecommute thing. Bright, beautiful, great sense of humor (good thing, living with Brian) and super organized. She’s spent a lot of time with us dirtbags, so not much surprises or offends her.
Got on the road Friday morning with Kurtis Perkins and the lovely Erin Clancey. Kurt manages our West Wholesale Region and is an amazing kayaker, with over 10 years of guiding and kayak instruction before joining NRS. In addition to her PhD work on sex ratio bias in Pronghorn Antelope (ask her about poop collection) at the University of Idaho, Erin, a Team NRS member, carved out the practice time to win a spot on the USA Freestyle Kayaking Team, competing in the Worlds in Germany this summer.
Middle Row: Kurt, Erin, Zeke, Shauna, Jordon, Karen and Sue
Front Row: Brian, Jenni, Clyde and John
We were pulling a trailer with a lot of the group’s gear – an NRS E-140 that Kurt and Erin would captain, an NRS Otter 142 paddle boat, a MaverIK II IK and my E-150. It’s a long 9+ hour haul from Moscow to the Corn Creek put-in. We’d planned on using a jetboat to shuttle us up from the takeout, a much nicer option, but the new Black Creek Rapid had stopped larger boats from traversing the river.
When we got to Corn Creek, the rest of the crew was on the ramp. And what a crew it ‘twas. Brian’s parents, Ernie and Sue, from Cincinnati; Jenni’s parents, Zeke and Shauna, from Twin Falls, Idaho. Also there were three of Brian’s high school buddies: Ryan and Jim from Cincinnati and Nate from Austin, along with their ladies, Amanda, Jordon and Karen, respectively. Rounding out the gang was John, a friend from Oregon. He works for the Forest Service, so he quickly became “Ranger John”.
Back in January, Nate, Jim and Ryan, along with a couple of other high school chums went with Brian on a Grand Canyon trip. This was a chance for the women to join up, for a shorter, less intense trip.
We passed out NRS Coozies to others on the ramp and dove into getting four rafts (including Brian and Jenni’s NRS E-162D Nez Perce) and the MaverIK ready for action. Darkness fell before we finished rigging. We stumbled up to camp for some tasty burgers and brats, courtesy of Zeke, then kept on stumbling toward bed.
After final rigging and a good Forest Service orientation, we were on the water by 10:30. The first of the two new rapids for this year came at about river mile 9. Most new rapids form when a side stream floods so severely that debris washing out into the river creates new features and obstacles. Here it was Alder Creek. We did a quick scout, the run was straightforward and we were quickly on our way.
Zeke and Clyde entering the meat of the new Alder Creek Rapid.
Nate and Karen started out in the IK, promptly dubbed the “therapy boat”. Jim volunteered to captain the paddle boat and he had a good crew of Ryan, Amanda and Jordon.
The Main has a voluntary partial camp reservation system. You don’t have to reserve, but certain camps are reservable and it can be comforting to know where you’re staying each night. Brian had done a good job of lobbying for camps; the only night we didn’t have a reserved spot was this first night. So the hunt was on.
We stopped at Lantz Bar so Brian could hike down and see if Lower Lantz was open. While we were waiting for the report, my friend Jim O’Conner pulled up in one of his jet boats. Jim owns Arctic Creek Lodge & Tours and we used his services for a jet-up to Corn Creek on the Running the River Both Ways trip back in 2008. Great guy and great pilot; if you ever need jet boat service on the Main, look up Jim.
Jim had clients, so after a brief visit I cruised down to camp at Lower Lantz. Only 11 miles the first day, but camping early on the first day is good; it gives you a chance to shake out all the “where the hell did we put that-s” and get everyone on the same page with camp duties.
Before dinner we had time to walk up to Lantz Bar and look over Frank Lantz’s home, outbuildings and orchard. Frank was a legendary Forest Service employee, working for them for 27 years, doing fire lookout and building over 200 miles of trails. He died in 1971 and the Forest Service has maintained the buildings as part of the river’s history.
Brian and Jenni put together all the menus and did the shopping, a major undertaking! Dinner was thick pork chops grilled over the fire, garlic mashed potatoes and a mixed greens/blue cheese/apple salad. Dessert was a sumptuous DO peach cobbler. No one went away hungry!
That night as we sat around the fire, a mule deer doe came down into camp and licked the firepan grate, set up in the rocks not 20 feet from where I sat. Amazingly human acclimated. I rolled out my Paco Pad near the kitchen, tucked back in the willows. That night the doe and her fawn came back into camp, scrounging and investigating. At some point she walked into a pile of pop and beer cans, got totally spooked and went crashing through the brush toward Brian and Jenni and Kurt and Erin’s sleeping sites. They woke up thinking a bear was charging them. The can pile was right near my bed, but I was so sound asleep I didn’t hear a thing.
Good grief, the next morning the doe was back and also a young buck. I’ve been in camps before where chipmunks and raccoons were pests, but never one where it was deer.
Sunday saw a new “vessel” come out, the NRS Whip Body Board. Ranger John donned helmet and NRS Swim Fins and dived in. He maneuvered it down through Devil’s Tooth, Little Devil’s Tooth and other rapids during the day and did a fine job.
I had Ernie and Sue in my boat; I enjoyed getting to know them better as we cruised down through some beautiful country. Down to Salmon Falls Rapid – but the rapid was no longer there! The new Black Creek Rapid, only a few hundred yards downstream, had partially dammed the Salmon and covered Salmon Falls. It was eerie to float over the swirls in the water that I knew ebbed around the huge boulders that have made Salmon Falls a rapid to be taken seriously.
We pulled in on the left to scout. It was a Class III scramble over big boulders to get a look. Black Creek comes in from river-right, so there was more debris on the right and center of the river. There was a chute down the left, a no-go center and a tricky looking possible run on the right.
There was much discussion from the others about right or left, left or right. I looked at it and thought “Yes, there’s a nasty lateral on the left but it’s a straight shot. And if I get into trouble, there’s nothing downstream that I’ve got to worry about. Left is where I’m going.” The others were really debating the merits of the two routes. Me, I can only look at a rapid so long without getting really nervous and starting to second guess myself. As I’ve said before in these trip tales, I’m a “river camper”. I don’t go for the rapids; I run the rapids to be able to enjoy the river and the camps. I have no desire to bag the trickiest route through a rapid. Did that in the early days, no longer have the desire.
So, I headed back, told Ernie and Sue to jump in and let’s run this thing. As we floated past Brian as he walked back to his boat, he said “So you’re not going to wait?!” In the moment I was too intent on hitting my line for his words and tone to really register. We hit the slot, got sideswiped by the lateral, and we were through. It wasn’t until I was in the eddy below that I thought, “Oh boy, I bet I’ve really pissed Brian off. Not only did I run it without us all going together… I had his folks in the boat!”
Later, I really connected with what made the chain of events. I’m used to running with folks that are certainly a group and we may have a trip leader, but we’re pretty autonomous by boat. Brian has not only been guiding for years, where there is a defined command structure, but on this trip he had some pretty inexperienced folks along, plus, the parents. There was a lot resting on his naturally take-charge shoulders. So, I’d definitely stepped outside what he was comfortable with.
It was only about a mile to “Bathtub” Hot Springs, or what is called “Improved” Hot Springs on some maps. A concrete and rock wall has been built to hold a pool that is fed by both hot and cold water piped in from springs up above. There once was an actual metal bathtub that had been lugged up the steep slope, but this pool is indeed an improvement.
After a good soak, we floated on down to camp at Bruin Bar. It’s a good campsite but it has a swift approach; you have to be on your A-game to catch the small beach. After we got the gear unloaded and kitchen set up, I went looking for Brian. We sat on his boat, shared some beers and talked over what had happened earlier. For me it was essential to heal any riffs that had occurred. His friendship is really important to me and I wanted no lessening of it. We talked it out; I know I learned from the experience and I think we’re good now.
Dinner was another Brian masterpiece, but I got to help. The evening before we left for the river, my sons Ben and Matt’s mom, Nora, had dropped off a big mess of fresh green beans and summer squash. I knew they wouldn’t last in the refrigerator so I brought them along. We snapped the beans and I flavored them with some bacon grease I also brought. I sautéed the minced squash with onion and butter.
Appetizers broke out – cream cheese flavored with capers and lemon, on crackers. Brian had brought individual salmon filets. We got to season our own with everything from lemon, garlic, bacon, maple syrup, brown sugar to dill. We wrapped our offering in foil, put our names on the packet, and over the coals it went. A wilted spinach salad rich in bacon, and toasted garlic bread topped ‘er off. And the fresh veggies were a big hit. Oh, hurt me one more time! Then, that night Erin showed another one of her many accomplishments – fire dancing! Chains with flaming balls on the ends that she wove in mesmerizing patterns. Truly spectacular!
Monday brought another beautiful, hot day with some significant rapids – Bailey, Five Mile, Split Rock, all Class III - III+. Fun stuff. Then a stop at Yellowpine Bar to visit my good friends, Greg and Sue, caretakers of this private in-holding. What can I say to describe these wonderful people? They’re truly modern day pioneer stock. For years they’ve lived along the Salmon River, deep within the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48. They love this backcountry life and probably only venture out 2-4 times a year. Sue is wonderfully talkative, great at painting vivid word pictures. Greg’s quieter demeanor in no way conceals his intelligence and hardy good nature.
And Brian had made me a great gift. He’d scheduled this night’s camp at Lower Yellowpine, just a mile below Greg and Sue’s home. Brian spent last summer as a river ranger here on the Main and he’s gotten to know them too. We cajoled them into coming down and spending some of the evening with us. Brian and Jenni made up a big jug of margaritas and folks got in the party swing.
Sue and I reminisced and we back-figured to how long we’d known each other. I was amazed to realize that it had been 17 years! In 1994 the Forest Service was revising the management plan for the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, this huge 2.4 million acre chunk of central Idaho. They had set up a citizen’s advisory group to help with the revision. There were representatives from all the interest groups – horse packers, pilots, historical preservationist, backpackers, etc, etc. And, both commercial and private boaters for the Middle Fork and Main Salmon.
There was a vacancy for the Main Salmon private boater rep and I got myself elected. One of the activities we were invited on was a float trip on the Main. The Forest Service and members of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association provided the boats and we stayed at outfitter camps. Our last night’s camp was at Shepp Ranch, directly across the river from the Polly Bemis. Greg and Sue were helping with the evening meal. We chatted and hit it off right away. They invited me to stop by and visit the next time I was on the river. Dutch Oven Beer Bread, one of the things served that night, is still something I occasionally make.
At that time they were caretaking the Indian Creek Ranch, some four miles upstream from Shepp. The Indian Creek acreage is a fairly steep three-mile hike from the river. Of course, the next time I was on the river I made the hike, and we’ve been friends ever since. About four years ago they left their beloved Indian Creek and moved to Yellowpine. They gave up the seclusion of that three mile buffer (Sue says, “We have to be more careful now to keep our clothes on.”), but they have another beautiful piece of Idaho to watch over.
We couldn’t talk Greg and Sue into staying for supper, but we had a great visit before they left. Dinner was a delicious enchilada casserole. The crew was definitely in a festive mood. Amanda brought out a game called “Battle of the Sexes” that produced gales of laughter. A game of Cans captured the competitive types and the evening swirled with fun.
On Tuesday morning we pushed to get on the water early. We’d been doing some pretty leisurely 11-14 mile days and it was time to make some miles. Sue showed up before we shoved off. She’d promised Sue some info on a solar oven that she uses. We started the day off with a bang; one of the major rapids, Big Mallard, is right below Lower Yellowpine. When run correctly, you can avoid getting your hair wet; however, missing your line has major consequences. Everyone styled it, and we were off to the races.
It’s three miles down to Elkhorn Rapid, another of the Main’s biggies. I always stop to scout it, but with all the runs Brian made on the river last summer, the line was still fresh in his mind, so with his able guidance we all safely ran it. With no more major rapids in this stretch we were able to keep up a good pace. And with the great winter snowpack still melting off, even this late in the summer we had good flows.
some of the bigger rapids. Here she’s
got a fine, hard charging crew.
Of course we had to stop at Fivemile Bar, the home of one of the Salmon’s most famous residents, Buckskin Bill. Born Sylvan Hart, he came to the river in 1931 and stayed there until his death in 1980. He lived a very self-sufficient lifestyle: hunting, fishing, gardening and making many of his own tools and weapons. He even rifled the barrels of some of his guns. He died shortly before I started running the Salmon, but I did meet him once, when he came out to participate in a local folk arts fair. He was quite an interesting and complex character. Heinz and Barbara maintain a great little museum of Buckskin’s artifacts and a nice little store that dishes out treats like root beer floats, marvelous on such a hot day.
At the mouth of the South Fork of the Salmon, I tucked into the little side branch stream that comes out around the upstream cliff face. I tried to row up it to the main flow, so we could say we’d been on both the Main and South Fork, but the current was too strong. When the flow is just right, you can slip up the side branch and row across the South Fork to a very nice campsite. It’s a great layover spot that I’ve been able to enjoy several times.
On down to Warren Creek, a 26-mile day! It’s a big, beautiful camp, with lots of shade. It’s only drawback, in lower water, is a wide boulder beach separating the river and campsite. We solved it by setting up a long bucket line to pass the gear up.
Even after this long day, we had time to relax before Brian whipped up his 40-Mile Stew, the recipe for which he credits Jerry Hughes, of Hughes River Expeditions. Jerry is one fine human being; you may remember him as our gracious host on our way to the Snake River in Cold Days in Hells.
Some people napped, others read, played cards and visited. Sue and Shauna took turns playing in the eddy, in the IK and on the body board. Then dinner, with big chunks of warm cornbread accompanying the stew and pineapple upside-down cake for dessert. Brian, you’re amazing!
mandolin, while Jim, Jordon, John, Karen
and Nate visit. Erin and Kurt enjoy some
cuddle time in the ENO Hammock.
Early the next morning, Brian, Jenni, Shauna, Sue, Ernie, Kurt, Erin and John ate a continental breakfast and set out on a hike up Warren Creek. The rest of us got to sleep in. Then we rebuilt our energy stockpile, with Jordon flipping huckleberry pancakes and Zeke frying up sausages.
The hikers returned with tales of beautiful vistas and the sighting of a bear. Everyone got what they wanted and we called it “a half-layover day.” We got on the water at 1:30 for a lazy eight-mile float. There was a lot of changing of places in boats. Jordon and Amanda boarded the E-150 to give a hand at raft rowing. They both did fine, though Jordon said it was harder than the rowing machine at her gym.
We stopped at the Polly Bemis Ranch. Polly was another famous Salmon resident. She was born in China, but famine forced her parents to sell her into indentured servitude. She was brought to an Idaho mining camp and married a gambler named Charlie Bemis. They moved to the Salmon in the 1890s and she lived on the river until her death in 1933. She was a tiny lady; one of her dresses is on display at the St. Gertrude Monastery Museum, near Cottonwood, Idaho (if you’re in the area, check out the museum; it’s a goodun, plus the nuns will feed you!). She was well shy of five feet tall. A biographical novel, A Thousand Pieces of Gold, was written about her life and a fictionalized movie version, with the same name, was released in 1991.
Night – Brian doing the bright sarong
and Nate sporting the Eurotrash look.
On down to Upper Bull Creek Camp, a nice sandy “tailgater”. There are always mixed feelings at the last night’s camp. You’ve had fun, the people have been great, and you don’t want it to end. So what do you do? Why, have a darn good time that last night!
Brian declared this was “dress up night” (he’d warned us ahead of time). Shauna and Sue organized an awards ceremony, where everyone got a kudo for some of their good behavior, or lack thereof, during the trip. Brian and Jenni whooped up another mighty fine meal – DO Lasagna, a killer salad and DO Brownies. Fat and happy, we partied into the night. Brian finally pulled out his guitar and he and Ernie took turns pickin’ and singin’. Ah, and Erin once again pulled out all the stops and gave us a bravura fire dancing performance. She’s so multi-talented she was able to wave these blazing balls-of-fire around in intricate patterns without burning the hair off her head… well, maybe she singed it.
Man, did we win the weather lottery. Warm sunny days, real pleasant nights. One morning a half dozen rain drops startled me out of that “I’m not quite ready to get up” daze, and I did set up my tent one night when the sky threatened. Otherwise I just went to sleep out in the open, gazing at the gaudy canopy of stars. The moon however was full and as bright as a policeman’s flashlight. “Sorry, Officer, I’m going to turn my back so I can get some sleep. No disrespect intended.”
On the water Thursday morning, no one was in a hurry to make miles; we just floated along. An Osprey put on a fishing show and a small band of Bighorn Sheep paid little heed as we drifted by. Some more Sheep greeted us at Sheep Creek, a most fitting place for them to hang out.
Chittam Rapid, right at the end of the upriver road, was pretty mellow but Vinegar Creek Rapid, less than a mile further down was Big… a great adrenaline boost for the end of a great trip. Couple more miles down to the Carey Creek Boat Ramp where the vehicles awaited us. End of the trip for everybody, everybody except for me.
When Brian and Jenni invited me, they also invited our buddy Tyler Harris. He’s appeared in many of my Trip Tales; he used to work at NRS, now doing a great job for AIRE, down near Boise. He couldn’t get the time off for the longer trip but I made him an offer he just couldn’t refuse: a three-day Lower Salmon trip.
I volunteered to strap on a motor at Carey Creek here on Thursday and charge on down to meet Tyler and Dustin Friday evening at Hammer Creek, what’s considered the upper boat launch for the Lower Salmon River stretch.
As the rest of the crew derigged and loaded gear in vehicles and the trailer, I reconfigured my load and attached a custom motor mount and an old 6.0 hp Mercury outboard to Lady Godiva. I didn’t waste any time; I had about 130 miles to make, and only four days to do it in!
At 4:30 I shoved off for the second half of this most excellent adventure. Stay tuned for Tale of Two Trips, Part II, Four for Heller!
Boat Often, Boat Safe, Enjoy the Heck Out of Life
Editor, NRS e-News