13-16 June 2018
Hannah managed to pick up a canceled Middle Fork of the Salmon permit – just a few days after our San Juan trip. We had just enough time between trips to clean and dry the boats to pass the invasive species inspection.
We drove up to Boundary Creek on Tuesday, partially rigged our boats before hauling them down the steep wooden ramp, and then camped at the campground a few hundred yards from the put-in.
The Boundary Creek put-in can get really congested. There is often a line of boats waiting for their turn to use the ramp. Thus, once you get your raft on the ramp, you need to rig as quickly as possible and move down the ramp so the next in line can get ready.
The launch spot is also fairly small, so you often have rafts two deep along the shore. Each group is supposed to take no more than four parking spots on the bank.
We had 19 people in four rafts and two catarafts;
- Lloyd raft; Hannah (permit holder), Barry, Karla, and Jarem
- Lloyd raft #2; Layne, Nick, and friend Ed
- Gardiner raft; Dee, Jamie, and Jason
- Redd raft; Lee, Kathy, Lindsey, and Mitch
- McCandless cataraft; Russ, Leslie, and Christian
- Ashworth cataraft; Jim, and friend Todd.
The water level was perfect! We feared it would be too high, but it peaked and dropped just in time for our trip. We launched at about 3.74’ and it dropped to about 3.5’ during our four-day trip. Normally, we would take five days for this trip, but Hannah had to catch a flight out of Salt Lake City early Sunday morning.
We also had pretty decent weather. It was chilly in the mornings but warmed into the 70s the first two days. Friday was a little cooler as a storm moved in, and we got a few sprinkles at camp. Saturday was the coldest day – probably only in the 50s. We had a cold north wind blowing in our faces. Luckily, it didn’t start to rain hard until we had loaded up the cars and trailers and were driving out to Salmon, Idaho.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is one of the most popular rivers in the country, or perhaps in the world. It is very difficult to obtain a permit, so when Hannah snagged a canceled permit, people were lining up to go. My family has been applying for permits every year, without success. I hadn’t been on the river in about 20 years.
Here is a slideshow with some of the best photos from the trip.
Here is my highlights video, but in my opinion, my daily videos are more entertaining to watch. They give a better feel for the fun of the river and personalities of some of the boat crews.
Day 1: Boundary Creek (0.0) to Airplane Camp (24.8)
On Wednesday morning, we broke camp after breakfast and finished packing our boats. It was fairly chilly, so we weren’t too anxious to get on the river, but we knew we had to cover a lot of miles.
I was impressed with the ranger as she told us of the river regulations and offered safety tips. She was very easy going and wanted everyone to have an enjoyable time. I think we launched shortly after 11:00 AM.
The last time I floated this river, I tried to miss every rock and every hole. I was totally worn out within about the first mile. The river is fast and furious at first. It is also narrow and shallow. This time, my philosophy was to just miss the dangerous stuff – don’t worry about the small rocks and holes – just avoid the ones that could flip the boat or wrap on a rock.
Furthermore, I had been feeling ill the past few days, and was still not up to par. So, I volunteered Jason to take the first turn at the oars. He is pretty strong and in the best shape of the three of us. He did better than me – he lasted about two miles before he was wasted and asked to switch. The river really throws you around and gives you a workout.
The first major obstacle was Murphs Hole, just before river mile 1.0, after a left turn. I assumed that we could easily miss it at this level, but we hit it pretty much dead center. We also hit it somewhat sideways, which launched Jason from his seat. Luckily the hole didn’t have the punch to flip our 16’ raft.
We stopped just above Sulphur Slide (mile 3.0) to scout it. The guide book says to enter center and work left, but the center was full of rocks. The left side had a nice tongue with a hole at the bottom of the tongue.
Layne was our lead boat, and he decided to try the center run to avoid the hole. He immediately wrapped on a rock mid river. Barry and I were able to pull back in to shore, but everyone else was following Layne and had to continue on down the rapid. Barry and I started collecting ropes and Barry’s come-along to help get them off the rock.
Luckily, Layne and Ed were able to climb out of the boat and wiggle the boat free. It took about 30 minutes to get them free.
Meanwhile, another group came by and ran the left tongue, straight through the hole – for a very easy run. My plan was to run the tongue but ferry right to miss the hole but ended up following the others through the hole for a fun ride.
Velvet Falls was up next, at river mile 5.2. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos on how to safely run the rapid. I also saw numerous videos on the wrong way to run the rapid. I knew exactly what I had to do.
The Falls has a hole that extends from the right bank about ¾ of the way across the river. Just above the falls is a large rock on the left bank, with a large Eddy behind it. The idea is to back ferry into the Eddy, and ride the slot down just left of the deepest part of the hole.
Sounds easy. Well, it turns out that the Eddy is a lot smaller than it looked in the videos (thanks to wide angle lenses). I had time for about two strokes, which isn’t enough to get my boat moving. I soon realized we were going to hit the deepest part of the hole. I did manage to straighten out the boat, and luckily, we punched right through. I give myself a 3 out of 10 on that one since I did manage to hit it straight.
I then turned the oars over to Jamie. Jamie may not be as strong as Jason, but she is very skilled at reading the river and managing the boat. I don’t think we had any chaotic events while she was rowing.
She later turned the oars back over to Jason, just in time to run Powerhouse Rapid (mile 11.4). Powerhouse is a very long rapid with a lot of rocks and holes. Jason did a pretty good job through most of the rapid, but there was one large rock near the bottom that seemed to have a magnet in it. It was easy to see since it stood about 6’ out of the water. But it was hard to see which way the current would go. We ended up hitting it sideways dead center and pinned. Jamie climbed to the back of the boat, and I followed her part way. That put enough weight on river left to let the boat slide around and off the rock.
We also stopped to scout Lake Creek rapid (mile 21.5) (not to be confused with Lake Creek camp) since the ranger mentioned that it had been flipping boats the previous week. The hole had reduced in size with the reduced water level, so it turned out to be an easy run.
We also stopped to scout Pistol Creek, although I don’t really know why. It is not like you can actually execute a plan in that rapid. Actually, the entry to the rapid is worth scouting. Since my last time on the river, a large gravel bar has formed mid river above the rapid. If the water is high enough, the easy entry is down the right bank. The left side has a huge wave with a huge kicker that could probably flip boats. In lower water it also has a hidden rock that can eject boaters.
Although it is hard to tell in the above photo, Pistol Creek is basically an S-turn rapid. The goal was to avoid the rock/hole on the right, and then not slam into the cliff on the left. I am happy to give myself a 10 out of 10 on that rapid! I didn’t hit the rock, and I didn’t hit the cliff. I came within a few inches, and Jamie and Jason both reached out and touched the cliff – but my raft didn’t touch. I was pretty happy about that.
It was easy sailing from Pistol Creek down to Airplane Camp (24.8). Airplane camp had a lot of space. Everyone spread out to have their own private campsite. Some took an evening hike and came back covered in ticks (which the ranger warned us about).
Here are the videos for day one:
Day 2: Airplane Camp (24.8) to Hospital Bar (52.3)
Day 2 was pretty mellow. We had lots of class II rapids and a few class III, but nothing as intense as the day before. It was really a pretty relaxing day. It was also the day for stopping at hot springs.
We stopped for a warm soak at Sunflower Hot Springs (mile 33.3).
On my first trip down the Middle Fork in 1980, Hospital Hot Springs (mile 52.3) was a highlight of the trip because it rained hard all week. Everyone just sat in the hot water trying to warm up. No one wanted to get out to cook dinner or set up tents.
This time I was pretty disappointed with the hot spring. It was really pretty small. But the camping area was nice, and there were even good trees for a hammock party. Christian enjoyed catching giant toads near the hot spring.
Day 3: Hospital Bar (52.3) to Grassy Flat #1 (72.4)
Day 3 was also fairly mellow. It warmed up nicely during the late morning, but then cooled off in the afternoon as a stormfront moved in.
We stopped to scout Tappen Falls, which is a great photo spot. It is an easy run down the right side, but if you enter incorrectly, you could be in for a tough ride. I have seen videos of boats stuck in the center hole for many minutes, getting thrashed. The main wave is a lot bigger than it looks from the left shore – but it is a fun ride!
We stopped at the Flying B Ranch (mile 66.0) for an ice cream bar, which wasn’t as appealing as we had hoped since the temperature had dropped.
Haystack Rapid (mile 67.4) is very wide and rocky. The easiest run was down the right bank past the house-sized rock, then pull towards center to avoid some rocks around the bend. Russ decided to take the more challenging route down the center, which required a fair amount of maneuvering. As usual, he made it look easy in his slick cataraft.
Jack Creek Rapid (mile 70.0) was pretty fun with a lot of roller coaster type waves. Just good clean fun.
We drifted past Wilson Creek camp, which looked like a fantastic camp. Since we were only taking four days to run the river, we were now catching up with those that launched the day before us, so all of the best campsites were already reserved. We ended up in Grassy Flat #1 (mile 72.4), which was our least favorite camp.
We set up the rain flies to ward off the rain, and it mostly worked. We got a few sprinkles during dinner and during the night, but nothing too bad.
Day 4: Grassy Flat #1 (72.4) to Cache Bar (98.3)
The Middle Fork starts off as a small, rocky, and fast river. It grows and grows as side streams feed into the flow all along the canyon. There are even several beautiful waterfalls along the sides of the river.
By day four, the river is pretty large and deep. The river then narrows as you enter “Impassable Canyon”, making for some really big and wild rapids.
The big action starts at Redside Rapid (mile 81.8). This is perhaps the most dangerous rapid on the river, so be sure to scout it.
The left side is choked with rocks, there is a huge rock in the center, causing a monster hole that is probably at least 30’ wide. There is a narrow tongue on river right, which leads right into another large rock and hole.
The clean run is down the tongue on the right, but then swing towards center and thread the needle between the two huge holes. But this route leads you directly into “wrap rock”, so be ready to ferry left or right to avoid that.
Everyone made a clean run through this rapid except Russ. He entered a little too far left, causing his left cataraft tube to snag the backwash from the center hole. This spun him around and sucked him in like a vacuum cleaner. I was very impressed with the way Russ was able to keep his boat straight and row backwards out of the hole. Leslie and Christian had an ‘up close and personal’ view of that monster hole.
Shortly after Redside is Weber Rapid (mile 82.2) which has some really big waves. This rapid flips boats on occasion, but mostly it is just a fun ride.
Jamie spotted a brown bear sitting on its haunches just above Lightning Strike camp (mile 84.3) and a bald eagle somewhere along the river.
Rubber Rapid (mile 90.4) also has monster sized waves and can be really fun.
After you pass Hancock Rapid (mile 91.4) it is really hard to keep track of where you are. There are multiple “boulder chokes” which look a lot like the named rapids; Devils Tooth (mile 92.9), House Rock (mile 93.1), and Jump Off (mile 93.4). We were pretty confused through this section, so we didn’t know what rapid name to say in our video clips and we didn’t know which instructions to follow from the guide book.
One of the rapids was covered in holes and the current was hard to judge. I completely missed my planned line and ended up running a slalom course between rocks. In the videos Jamie and Jason commented that we hit every hole, but we actually took a pretty good line threading the needle between them.
You reach the confluence with the Main Salmon at river mile 95.5 and have one last large rapid to run – Cramer Creek at mile 97.4. I think Cramer Creek had a lot more kick when it was first formed back in 2003. Now it has a large drop down the tongue, but the waves are pretty smooth and long roller waves.
We arrived at the Cache Bar takeout (mile 98.3) at about 2:15 PM. We had the ramp to ourselves, so we were able to pack up the trailers fairly quickly and hit the road for home. Two other groups came by while we were derigging, but I suspect they were doing a Middle Fork-Main combination trip since they didn’t stop at Cache Bar.
The Middle Fork certainly lives up to its reputation. During the first day we weren’t sure if it was worth all of the work to get there and negotiate those non-stop rapids, but as the trip wore on, it became clear that this is a fabulous river. We all had a great time and generated many fond memories.