June 22-25, 2010
The Salmon River is one of my all-time favorite rivers – especially for family river trips. Kim was lucky enough to snag another permit for this year. This document summarizes our trip.
- 16’ raft: Barry and Karla Lloyd.
- 14’ raft: Dee Gardiner and Kim Gardiner.
- 16’ raft: Kevin Gardiner.
- Inflatable kayak: Jamie Gardiner and Hannah Lloyd (most of the time).
- Passengers: Jason Gardiner, Nick Foust, Isaac Lloyd and Marcy Lloyd.
The timing for this trip was chosen to support Isaac’s brief summer break from medical school. Mid-June is often peak water level on the Salmon River, so there was a known risk that the water may be too high for a family style trip. My artificial threshold was 6.0’ on the Corn Creek ramp, which equates to about 20,600 cfs. The river flow risk rankings are as follows:
- Below 2.0’ = low
- 2.0’ – 4.0’ = moderate
- 4.0’ – 6.5’ = high
- Above 6.5’ = extreme
At extreme flows Elkhorn Rapid, Whiplash Rapid, and Chittam Rapid become very dangerous, Whiplash being the most dangerous with nasty Eddy lines and huge whirlpools. Most other rapids get washed out. At high flows the river has many large waves, including many rapids that don’t even exist at lower flows.
This was a mild winter with moderate snow pack, so we figured we would be safe this year. But then Central Idaho had a very wet spring. Two weeks prior to the trip the flow at Corn Creek went from around 12,000 cfs to 25,000 cfs in one day! The following day it shot up to 35,000 cfs! It peaked at about 9.7’ on the Corn Creek ramp – well above my safety threshold.
Many groups that were on the Main or Middle Fork during this unusually fast rise in flow became endangered. Many got flown out or rescued by Jet Boat. Some groups on the Middle Fork met with disaster – losing rafts and gear and one loss of life.
Needless to say, this made me very nervous. I closely watched the river levels over the coming days and called the rangers a few times to get their assessment. The river dropped below 6.0’ but then another rain storm came and the river rose again. Just a few days prior to the trip we considered canceling and going to the Snake instead. But with a warm weather forecast we decided to stick with our plan for the Main Salmon.
As a backup plan we determined that if the water seemed too high, once we got to Corn Creek we could run the upper Salmon through the Pine Creek section. We drove along this stretch of river on the way to Corn Creek and the rapids were large and long – far more intense than I have ever seen them. It looked like a fun ride for paddle rafts, but didn’t appeal to me with oaring frames and gear. In fact it made me rather nervous so I didn’t sleep very well at the Corn Creek campground.
But in the morning after looking at the river at the ramp and discussing things with the rangers we felt confident and began rigging our boats. What seemed to be almost “too high” turned out to be absolutely PERFECT! In fact, this is by far the most enjoyable river experience of my life. There were huge roller waves most of the way down the river. The “big” rapids were not too technical but had 15+ foot waves while numerous unnamed rapids had 10+ foot waves. It was an absolute blast! Furthermore, there was no crowd. We only saw a few other groups for brief periods during our five day adventure.
The water level at Corn Creek can be obtained by calling the North Fork Ranger District. It can also be estimated from Internet data by adding the Main Salmon flow near Shoup with the Middle Fork flow near Shoup. The flow remained fairly constant during our time on the river. We launched on Tuesday June 22 with a flow of about 5.3’ on the ramp, or about 18,100 cfs. It dropped slightly on Wednesday (~17,400) and Thursday (~17,500) and came back up Friday (~18,100) and Saturday (~19,000) due to rain.
The weather in June is very unpredictable. Luckily, we had mostly nice weather. Highs were in the 70s most days, and it even got into the 80s on Wednesday. A storm moved in Thursday afternoon which dropped the temperature and brought rain on and off through Friday. We also had thunder and lightning around lunch time on Friday, so we had to pull off the river until it passed.
The drive to Corn Creek was uneventful (which is good). We picked up some of Barry’s gear in Ogden and then caravanned to Brigham City where we picked up Kevin’s friend Nick. The dirt road to Corn Creek was in pretty good condition this year. It took about 10 hours from Salt Lake to Corn Creek, including stops. We arrived at Corn Creek pretty much on schedule around 6:00 PM so we could sign up for desired camp locations.
The drive home from Carey Creek was better than usual. It took around 11 hours, but it wasn’t in the middle of the night. The drive along the Payette was enjoyable since the river was running fairly high. We left Carey Creek after lunch around 2:00 PM and arrived home (in SLC) at around 1:00 AM.
Shuttle service was provided by River Shuttles out of Salmon, Idaho. They did an excellent job.
Day 1 – Tuesday June 22:
Marcy and Isaac provided dinner on Monday evening and breakfast on Tuesday morning. After breakfast we broke camp and started rigging the boats. Of 8 possible launches this day, only 5 committed and one group had yet to show up. Most of the other groups rigged the day before, so there were only two groups using the ramp. This was the least congested I have ever seen the Corn Creek ramp.
Since our group was small we were not able to select any of the large camp sites until after 9:00 AM. With so few groups on the river we were able to reserve fairly nice camps. I didn’t get all that I wanted, but only had to make two alternate choices.
After our lecture from the ranger we launched just before noon with cool temperatures but clear skies. Over the prior weeks I had been collecting information from the Mountain Buzz river forum and other Internet postings. I read reports of groups flipping in the first rapid – Killum – just 1.6 miles from the put-in. This made me nervous. I knew they flipped in a hole, but didn’t know where the hole was or how easy it would be to miss. When we arrived at Killum it became very clear. There was a monster hole on river left. You would have to be nuts to enter that hole! The run down the tongue was clean and very fun, with some of the largest waves on the river. Our fears quickly turned to adrenalin-filled excitement!
The current flowed at about 6 mph with frequent stretches of large rolling waves. Rowing was just a matter of keeping the boat straight through the waves. We made good time but stopped for lunch just 3 miles from the put-in.
At or near Rainier rapid (mile 8) Barry fell out when hit with a cross wave. I just happened to catch it on the video camera even though I didn’t know he fell out until later. Isaac was rowing at the time. Marcy pulled Barry back in the boat, making that the third time she has saved his life 😉
Shortly after that Kim spotted a bear cub climbing a tree.
For our first camp I wanted Lower Devil’s Teeth, but a larger group selected it. I almost signed up for Upper Devil’s Teeth but changed my mind at the last minute. It was a good choice as the landing at Upper Devil’s Teeth would have been extremely difficult to make and it would have caused us to miss the fun waves in the Devil’s Teeth Rapid. The rocks forming the “teeth” were all under water, so the rapid was an easy run down the middle with a large wave train.
Our first camp was at Blackadar. I had hoped to try something new, but many of the camps are under water at this level and this seemed like a safe bet. Blackadar was in good shape this year, with ample room for tents, the kitchen, and a nice beach where the kids played baseball with a stick and pine cones.
Day 2 – Wednesday June 23:
At slightly higher water Salmon Falls gets completely washed out. At this flow the first wave was a nice smooth glassy wave followed by a large wave that was starting to form into a hole. The backwash was not strong enough to stall our boats, but it thoroughly soaked everyone on board. It was a fun ride.
The weather was sunny and warm, so we didn’t fully appreciate the hot tub hot spring (which used to be called bathtub hot springs, but the bathtub has been replaced with a large rock/cement hot tub). The previous occupants failed to insert the drain plug, so we had to wait about 20 minutes for the tub to fill up. Nevertheless it was nice to soak and rinse off the sweat and sunscreen for a time.
We stopped for lunch at one of our favorite camps – Magpie Creek. The rangers have almost closed this camp due to abuse.
After lunch we stopped to scout and film Bailey Rapid. At some flows Bailey has the largest waves on the river, but at this flow it is “just another rapid with large waves”. The rafts had rather uneventful runs, while Jamie and Hannah had a wild ride in the inflatable kayak. They got bucked around as if riding a wild bucking bronco.
Just beyond Allison Ranch you come to Five Mile Rapid and Split Rock Rapid. At some flows these both have enormous holes with corkscrew waves that can really launch people and boats alike. At this flow the rocks were covered and the waves were enormous. It was a very fun section. Issac and Nick were in the IK through this section and the helmet camera video records Isaac’s hooting and hollering through the fun waves.
Camp was at Lower Yellowpine Bar, just above Big Mallard Rapid. This is an excellent camp (as is Upper Yellowpine). From camp we hiked the river trail to scout Big Mallard. We could see large waves but no sign of the usual monster rock/hole near the bottom.
Day 3 – Thursday June 24:
With the rock completely buried, Big Mallard was an easy and clean run this year.
At lower flows Elkhorn rapid is a long and rocky stretch that really keeps you on your toes. It requires several quick maneuvers to avoid all of the rocks and holes. At higher water Elkhorn is one of the more notorious “raft flippers” on the river. So we decided to scout the rapid.
An old elk horn is tied to a tree on river left just above the rapid, but the easier scout is from river right. We pulled in well above the rapid and hiked up to the river trail. Elkhorn rapid consists of three sections that blend together in really high flows. Section one contains a large hole near the top center. Section two is just a clean wave train which sets you up for disaster in section three. At low flows section three contains “elephant rock” which is hidden in the middle of the wave train. At higher flows this turns in to a monster hole capable of flipping 18’ rafts end over end.
It is a long hike down the river trail to elephant rock, but it is pleasant hike. It is somewhat of a jungle-like hike with thick vegetation. Unfortunately there were no good photo spots along the way so we didn’t take time to film the rapid.
At this flow, section one was easy with a small hole near the top that is easily missed. Section two was clean, but we skirted the right edge to be sure of missing the monstrous elephant hole – which is one of the largest holes I have ever seen. By sneaking right it was an easy and safe run.
We then stopped to visit Jim Moore Ranch. On our 2006 trip we camped at Jim Moore camp directly across the river from a massive forest fire. Fire fighters were on duty protecting the historic Jim Moore cabins and I wanted to take a look at them. It was a nice stop with beautiful meadows and numerous old cabins. We also walked across the Francis Zaunmiller Wisner Pack Bridge.
We stopped for lunch at Groundhog camp directly above Whiplash Rapid. At flows above 7’ Whiplash becomes the most dangerous rapid on the river. At such flows it would be unadvisable to stop at this camp since it would be difficult to properly enter the rapid. At this flow it made a nice lunch stop and the rapid was pretty tame.
After lunch we stopped at Five Mile Bar to visit the Buckskin Bill museum. Watching the old video of Buckskin Bill is always good for a few laughs. We were the only visitors of the day and I felt bad not buying their $4 ice cream bars since it was getting colder and starting to rain.
After a short visit we pushed on to our camp at Dead Man – so named because of a pilot that crashed into the river and drowned. This camp is directly below the end of the Mackay Bar air strip.
Day 4 – Friday June 25:
During breakfast we were entertained by numerous small planes taking off directly over us. In spite of the aircraft entertainment and nice walk to Mackay Bar, Dead Man was my least favorite camp. First of all it rained on us. But the biggest issue was the poor landing. It was challenging to get three rafts secured to shore. In the morning I noticed that a sharp rock had worn four holes in the side of my raft, so while Kim and Jamie cooked breakfast, the boys helped me unload the raft and patch the holes. Luckily my glue had not gone dry.
After reloading the raft we shoved off with temperatures much cooler than prior days. Ludwig Rapid was pretty much washed out, and there were no large rapids until T-Bone much later in the day. But we still got wet because it started to rain.
As a storm front moved in we had thunder and lightning. We decided to pull over and eat lunch while we waited out the storm. Just as we got lunch out of the rafts it started to rain fairly hard, so we all tried to huddle under Barry’s single umbrella while we ate. After eating, some sought shelter under the trees while others crawled into a small cave.
The lightning passed and the rain decreased to a light trickle, so we pressed on. Things were pretty calm until we reached T-Bone Rapid, which had some really fun roller waves. Dried Meat (which we nick-named Wet Meat due to the rain) was also quite fun.
Our final camp was at Johnson Beach. The guide book states:
“Watch out for the enormous sleeper hole on river right, just above camp.”
I mentioned this to all of the boat captains except Jamie. Jamie and Hannah were in the IK trying to get the helmet camera turned on. By the time they realized the first wave was in fact a hole about 30 feet wide, it was too late to avoid it. They flipped and immediately got washed down stream. Unfortunately they were unable to climb back in soon enough to catch the Eddy at our camp. They got washed down river behind some large boulders so we could not see them. Kim and Karla immediately engaged their mother’s instinct of concern for their lost daughters.
Isaac and Barry climbed up the cliff to try and locate them. I rowed my raft down the Eddy around the first rock outcropping but could not see them. It looked to me like they must have gone down around the next bend about ¼ mile away, so I figured they didn’t know they missed camp. It turns out they had pulled over behind the second rock outcropping, just beyond my view.
They began hiking up the steep mountainside trying to work their way back to camp. Eventually they were spotted by Isaac. Isaac and Barry were able to help them find safe passage back to camp, but it was a treacherous undertaking that led them about 200 feet
When they finally returned to camp they were hot and tired, but welcomed by two concerned mothers. By this time the sun had come out and they were both dressed in wet suits and splash pants and jackets – so they were very hot. A quick dip in the river cooled them off.
We hung up a close line to dry out our wet gear, but then another storm moved in. We set up the rain fly just as it started to rain again. Karla’s homemade chicken noodle soup tasted especially good as we all huddled under the small rain fly.
Day 5 – Saturday June 26:
Johnson beach camp is the last decent camp before the take-out. We selected this camp in order to arrive home at a decent hour since Marcy and Isaac had a plane to catch. It worked out really well.
After a quick breakfast on a bright sunny morning we packed up and headed out. We recovered the IK and headed downstream with the intent on scouting and filming Chittam Rapid. Somehow I misread the map and didn’t realize we were at Chittam until it was too late to pull over. At this flow there is a clean line just right of center that avoids all of the nasty holes but still catches the edge of the large wave train. Everyone made it through fine, although Kevin went a little further left than I would have chosen. He got a wilder ride than the rest of us.
We also elected to run Vinegar Creek without scouting. It was a clean wave train down the middle. Not scouting saved us at least an hour, but we were unable to get good video and pictures.
We arrived at the Carey Creek take-out about 11:00 AM. We had the ramp all to ourselves, which made de-rigging less stressful. After loading the trailer we had lunch at the Carey Creek picnic area and then headed for home about 2:00 PM. The drive out to Riggins was a little slower than usual due to road construction, but the traffic was fairly light all the way home.
In summary, this was the most enjoyable run I have had on the Salmon River. Flows around 5.4’ at Corn Creek (~18,000 cfs) and 34,000 cfs at Whitebird gave miles and miles of fun roller waves. None of the rapids were excessively technical, but almost all were very fun. The weather was also quite reasonable for this time of year. I look forward to running the Salmon again at a similar flow.
 “Idaho’s Salmon River – A River Runner’s Guide to the River of No Return – Corn Creek to Carey Creek”, by Eric J. Newell with Allison J. Newell.