Powered By Water Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Powered By Water Story and Photos by Chad Case
Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Our guide Brook chanted out the “All-forward” command from the back of the raft.  The adrenaline started to surge through my muscles as I leaned forward and plunged my paddle into the frothy white water and pulled in unison with the other five people in the raft.  In seconds we would drop into Tappan Falls, a Class III rapid, and just one of over 100 rapids along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

As the raft launched off the edge of the falls I couldn’t help hollering “WOOHOO” as my body became weightless for a moment before our raft dove into the bottom of the wave. The white water rushed over the bow of the boat engulfing my body and the cool refreshing water quickened my senses.  Again I heard Brook commanding from the back of the raft “All-forward!”,  as I tried to keep my paddle in the undulating churn around us and focused on getting through the rest of the rapid while containing my ear to ear smile.

Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River has to be one of the best smile producers on the planet.  This 100 mile long stretch of river serpentines through the largest Wilderness area in the lower 48 states and its fame second to only the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.  Starting at nearly 1,800 meters elevation and descending through the rugged and remote Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area that spans 2.3 million acres, there is a continuous variety of eye-popping landscapes.  Densely forested mountains with spruce and fir trees open up to wide valley views with  huge, towering ponderosa pines and then the river disappears into the chasm of the Impassible Canyon with granite cliffs towering thousands of feet upward into the Big Horn Crag Mountains.

Impassible Canyon Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

I started this adventure in Stanley, Idaho where the year round population is one hundred people.   Considering the record low temperature during the winter in Stanley is -34 celsius, I would say 100 people is a considerable population.  I met our lead guide Jimmy, a stout, well-tanned, young chap short in stature but tall in character.  Jimmy gave us an overview of our next six days and handed each of us one large dry bag to place all or our personal gear we would need.  Tents, sleeping bags, pillows, sleeping pads, food, drink plus the guides invaluable experience would be provided.  We were embarking on 100 miles of river through the middle of remote wilderness making safety paramount, and Jimmy impressed that upon us.  A life jacket is called a personal flotation device, or PFD, and we were informed that the jacket alone would not save our life so we all listened intently as he enlightened us on things like river rescue position, how to grab a throw bag while in the water and how to pull someone back in the raft.

After the group meeting and a glass of wine I walked across town (185 meters) with the guides and another lady from Germany who was kayaking the river with us.  We strolled off the main road and onto the dirt lanes that criss-crossed downtown Stanley.  We stepped up onto an old west wood boardwalk and into a popular watering hole called the Casino Club.  It was restaurant/ bar/ stage that looked like it was one addition of rough cut timber upon another.  The local band had two members sporting river scandals and t-shirts and two wearing cowboy boots and button down shirts.  We went belly up to the bar and sipped some beers while enjoying rock-a-billy music and one last night in the metropolis of Stanley before we ventured into the wilderness the next day.

The next morning we launched amid a small crowd of rafters at Boundary Creek put-in.  Just as soon as the raft left the rocky shore the chaos of the crowd, and life, melted away to the music of the river water lapping over rocks.  At this point the river was not very wide and the forest was dense offering a very intimate experience as we weaved through the terrain.

Traveling by raft on a river is possibly as green as you can get using only gravity, instead fossil fuels as the means of transportation.  Not to mention a microcosm of people living off the grid for a week.  Many outfitters on the Middle Fork of the Salmon are incorporating green practices and teaching conservation throughout their trips.

Recycling and reducing the need to recycle have both helped to keep the Middle Fork of the Salmon River a pristine experience.  There is no bottled water at all, even for purchase.  Water is either filtered from the mainstream or taken directly from fresh springs along the way.  Some outfitters even recycle their food to local pig farms.  Whatever the pigs can’t eat is composted or used in worm bins.

Raft guide on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

One outfitter is using waste vegetable oil from a local restaurant in Stanley for their diesel truck used to transport gear to and from the river.  All outfitters have a “leave no trace” policy, which means they pack out everything including human waste and ashes from the fire. The guides on our trip kept the campsites impeccable and made certain there was no dropped food left at lunch stops.  Most guides and outfitters understand the special jewel the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and do everything they can to project that.

Idaho Rivers United (IRU) is a conservation organization that has a major presence on the river.  Outfitter ROW Adventures collects one dollar a day from each guest to donate to IRU.  Outfitter Middle Fork River Expeditions purchases an IRU membership for their guests.  Many of the outfitters support the education and conservation work of IRU in one way or another.  IRU provides guide training on conservation and endangered salmon that the guides share with all of their guests.

Sustainable tourism is at the core of a Middle Fork Salmon trip.  Apart from the obvious resources that guests consume getting to and from the destination, once they are on the river their footprint upon the earth is greatly reduced.  Almost like taking a step back in time, using the pull of the river for the ride with an upstream breeze for air conditioning.

The guides with Mountain Travel Sobek treated us like royalty.  At the end of each day we drifted into camp with an assortment of beverages and appetizers waiting.  Our tents were already set up, all we had to do was relax.  Many outfitters on the river serve local food and the meals were a culinary delight.  Grilled tenderloin and vegetables with a delectable cake cooked in the traditional Dutch Oven.

As the sun disappeared behind the mountains the glow of the fire started.  I found the constant rushing of the river to be very soothing to my ears.  At the end of the trip I missed it.  The evenings were a magical part of the day, stars blazing through a crystal clear sky with conversations and laughter around the fire until, one by one, people quietly headed for their tents.

There were six hot springs that lined the river corridor.  My favorite was Sunflower Hot Springs that we hit mid day.  The hot springs spilled over a 7 meter high cliff and was deemed the Sunflower Shower.  The temperature was perfect and I took my time letting the water beat down on my shoulders and massage my back.  Just above, there were about five pools filled with varying temperatures of water that our group lounged in.

Bridal Veil Falls Middle Fork Salmon River.

The Middle Fork Trail runs along the river and sometimes we would run into some backpackers.  I love backpacking but when I saw them trudging along the trail and I was reclined in the raft, getting ready to stop and have a beverage with a wonderful dinner cooked for me, I just smiled.  Each day we had time to hike along various trails either with the guides and group or by ourselves.  It was easy to go find a quiet place by the river and ponder life.

We had three choices of watercraft for our river time:  The paddle boat, oar boat and inflatable kayak or ducky.  With and average temperature of 29 degrees celsius, I wanted to get wet and the best way to do that was in the ducky.  Our last day we dropped into the abyss of the Impassible Canyon.  I studied the granite walls with a craned neck and marveled at the awe-inspiring view.  I felt like a tiny speck floating through the massive gorge.

My gazing was interrupted by the roar of Hancock Rapid, a long Class III stretch of waves and white froth.  I scooted back in the inflatable kayak and started paddling hard.  I rode up and down, wave after wave, like a roller coaster.  At points I was completely surrounded by water, almost becoming one with the river and flowed with it in a fluid rhythm.  It was a fitting end to a river wilderness experience.