Monday, September 20, 2010

Salmon River of No Return: An Idaho Raft Trip

Salmon River Rafting
July 2010

July of 2010 found us in Salmon, Idaho, ready to begin a five day, four night raft trip on the Main Salmon River. While the Lewis and Clark expedition found this section of the river impassable our guide service, Action Whitewater Adventures, was equipped to handle all the river could offer.
After a night in Salmon, on Monday morning we boarded a school bus for the two hour drive to our put-in spot at Corn Creek, a short distance down river from the junction of the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon River.

A word about Lewis and Clark: The Salmon River, which connects to the Snake and Columbia Rivers, would have been an ideal route for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But much of the river is in narrow, steep walled canyons that are unsuitable for travel by horse. The river itself, with its many rapids, would have destroyed any boats the expedition might have acquired. So a long detour was required that added many weels to their trip to the mouth of the Columbia River. Modern rafts and jet boats can pass up and down the river with ease most times of the year. Lewis and Clark would have envied today’s travelers. For those wishing to learn more about the history of the Salmon read “River of No Return” by Johnny Carrey and Cort Conley.

The launch point was busy with groups launching and others taking out after rafting the Middle Fork. But a cadre of our guides had spent the night at the launch putting the rafts together and getting them packed for a smooth and rapid departure. For river travel the guests were offered three choices:
1. Two, two person inflatable kayaks: This was the wettest and riskiest choice but also the most fun.
2. Two, six passenger paddle boats: Six guests, three per side, paddle these mid-sized rafts with a guide or two in the stern to steer and offer directions. The guests are expected to participate and can expect to get wet.
3. Three large inflatable rafts: These are the big cargo carriers in the group. A single guide, wielding large oars, controls the direction and speed of the raft. The guests are passengers. Four guests could comfortably fit in the bow area with two more perched in the stern atop the well stowed gear.

These large rafts carry an amazing amount of equipment and supplies. Tents, cooking gear, lawn chairs, personal gear for everyone and all the food finds a place on these well designed rafts. And everything needs to be secured in some way on the off chance that the river throws up a surprise and tosses the raft around.

The guests were free to switch from one type of boat to another depending on their mood and availability of space. During the course of the trip everyone seemed to enjoy as much adventure as they were seeking.

Working together at Corn Creek the guests quickly passed the personal gear down to the river where the guides could stow it and we could be on our way.

A word about the group: The guests came from all over the country. Several had done the river before but, since they enjoyed it so much, they had returned. The guest list included:
• Steve and Kathy from Washington State.
• Pam and her four kids (ages 11 to 17) from Arizona.
• Molly and son Cooper from New York.
• Kathy and Doug from Florida.
• Bob and Leslie from South Carolina.
• Laren and Michael from Washington State.
• Mike and Tanya from Ohio
• Joanne and Kyle from Nevada
• Dolly and daughter Sara from Texas.
Five guides and two trainees managed the needs of the guests. Ryan, Michelle, Zack, Vance and Allison were the veterans while Asia and Dustin were learning the ropes.
The first day we were introduced to some of the rivers rapids and developed a pattern that would continue most of the trip. Much of the river is a drift, interrupted by rapids that can get the adrenalin flowing. Late afternoon we arrived at a camp near Devils Teeth Rapid. After a quick tour of the site we formed a line to pass gear from the rafts up onto the beach. Then, while the guests were busy setting up their tents for the first time, the guides set up an elaborate kitchen and began work on dinner.

After a steak dinner Polly and Laren gave an informal talk on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Day two was surprisingly cool, despite the bright sun. A wet ride and steady head wind contributed to the chill. I started out in the second seat of a paddle boat, behind Pam’s young daughter Laurel. Laurel endured a series of wet rapids before wisely moving to a dryer rear seat and I moved up to the front. The guides like weight and muscle in the front seats. I met the weight standard!

At noon we arrived at Barth Hot Springs, a short hike above the river. Since most were cold from the morning paddle we eagerly climbed up and settled into the man made tub in the rocks above the river.

A series of rapids followed the hot springs and one, Bailey, claimed the other paddle boat dumping four of the six passengers into the river. Since everyone wore a lift jacket at all times the swimmers were cold but unharmed. They would not be the last to take an unintended swim in the Salmon!
Bailey Creek was the site of the Tuesday camp.

Since Monday night had been very comfortable several of us and all the guides slept outside under clear and star studded skies. It was cold; 45 degrees in the morning.

A word about campsites: With so many guides and private parties on the river an allocation system is in place to meter boats onto the river and allocate camping space. Before we launched at Corn Creek the river guides held a drawing for preferred campsites. Most of the large, group sites, are allocated in this manner. But there were some nights when we had no assigned camp site so had to move along until we found a suitable spot.

Wednesday we moved to one of the big rafts with Allison at the helm. Stopped at the site of the Campbell and Jim Moore ranches. On opposite sides of the river, they are connected by a suspension bridge which replaced a ferry some years ago. The river is rich with tales of early settlers who braved this wild country and lived there year around. Now with jet boats and an occasional air strip the ranches are not so isolated.

The trip pace, from sun up to sun down, was proving to be steady but never rushed. Each day was relaxing in its own way.

Made a beer and ice cream stop at the most civilized place we had seen to date, Buckskin Bills. After a brief break we were back on the river. Due to the luck of the campground draw Wednesday turned out to be a long day; we arrived at camp after 6:30 P.M.

A word about Jet Boats: I assumed the rafters and jet boaters would be from two different and conflicting worlds. I was wrong. The two modes of travel have a healthy respect for one another. I was told that our 90 mile drift five day trip can be made in a few hours by the jet boats. Rafters coast quietly down the river while the jet boats power up and down the river at a good speed. The jet boats help the rafters in emergencies and are very important as suppliers for the riverside residents. Some raft guests take a jet boat up to Corn Creek and then return by raft. The jet boat allows people who wouldn’t have the ability or desire to float the river a chance to see its natural beauty.

Thursday was a short day since we had traveled so far on Wednesday. We arrived at the Sheep Creek camp at lunch time and had a lazy afternoon by the river. Trails led back from the river for the hikers in the group. The air was 92 degrees and the river 62 so most of the group made it into the water at some time during the afternoon. The six young people in the group had a particularly good time.

Friday we broke camp and, by noon, were at the Riggin Hot Springs take out. A bus was waiting to take us on a two hour ride to McCall where most of us would spend the night.

Often, when I’m on a trip, the days pass too fast to reflect on the experience. Photos, my journal and questions from friends help me to walk backward in time to consider what we experienced.

Action Whitewater Adventures did a wonderful job putting the trip together. Food, equipment and commentary were all first rate. Good guides can make or break a group vacation and ours were knowledgeable, patient and customer focused.

The rivers rich history came as a surprise. I had heard about the Lewis and Clark visit to the area. But, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the river attracted a variety of other characters and adventures. Some were after gold. Some wanted solitude. Some were settlers. Access in 1900 was little better than access when Lewis and Clark passed by. One of the earliest and most successful means of transport were large flat bottom, square sided scows. Controlled by sweep oars fore and aft they survived the rapids most of the time and, when they arrived at their destination the scows were dismantled and the wood used for building. The next year a new scow would make the trip.

For most rafters the rapids are the highlight of an otherwise benign float trip. The rapids should be respected but not feared. Guests were barely splashed in the big boats. The churning, unpredictable rapids are more of a challenge for the paddle boats and little kayaks sending adrenalin coursing through the paddlers veins and, if they ended up in the river, a chill up their spines.

The trip, from launch to take out, offered a buffet for the senses. The scenery is ever changing. Tree covered slopes give way to narrow rock passages followed by rolling grassy pastures leaning against the base of the mountains. Even the fire blackened hills offer testimony to the untamed nature of the river.

The warm clean air stands in sharp contrast to the clear cold waters of the river. The steady sound of the river is constant even far from the rapids.

This trip is a “must do” for anyone with a love of the out of doors, western history and adventure.

How do you get there: We drove to Salmon and used a shuttle service that, for a fee, drives your car to your McCall hotel and leaves it in the lot waiting for you. That worked great. An air taxi service is also available to fly you from McCall back to Salmon if you prefer. Most of the guests flew into Boise and were transferred to Salmon via air taxi. After the trip a bus took them back to Boise where they could pick up their flights. Action Whitewater Adventures can assist the guests no matter what option they prefer.

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