Rafting: All the fun of wilderness backpacking without having to carry anything. It also allows us to visit remote areas that would be a considerable challenge to reach, much less traverse, on foot. We were hooked the moment we tried it! So after we finished our second raft trip through the Grand Canyon in 2014 (post) and a float through Hell’s Canyon in 2016 (post), we looked around for another long river to raft in the U.S. Our O.A.R.S. guides on the Colorado had spoken well of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, so we signed-on to an O.A.R.S. guided trip on the Middle Fork, followed immediately by one (post) on the Main Salmon River (a “combo” trip). The Middle Fork runs south to north for 104 miles through the 2.5 million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho; the largest roadless area left in the lower 48 United States. The entire Middle Fork is designated as a Wild and Scenic River and is one of the last free-flowing tributaries of the Salmon River system. Only a few trails, landing strips, private ranches, and U.S. Forest Service stations are evidence of man’s intrusion in this area.
Day 1 (Stanley, Idaho to State Land Left Camp)
Our trip started in Stanley, Idaho and we drove up there – through varying thicknesses of smoke from numerous wildfires – with our friends Wayne and Diane, who would be joining us for this adventure.
It’s possible to start the trip at Boundary Creek (River Mile (RM) 0) if water levels are high enough. But at this time of year they usually aren’t, so we rode in a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander (operated by Gem Air) from Stanley to our put-in at Indian Creek Beach (RM 25).
The wildfire smoke was heavy and we could barely make-out the Middle Fork as we turned on final after the short flight from Stanley.
After a safe landing, a round of introductions, and several safety lectures by the guides,
we got on the water,
endured a cold splash or two in some Class II and III rapids,
had lunch at Anderson Camp (RM 27.8), and pressed on through the smokey gloom to our first night’s camp at State Land Left Camp (RM 35.2), a large site scattered amongst a grove of Ponderosa Pines.
Day 2 (State Land Left Camp to Big Loon Camp)
Our first day had been shrouded in smoke and we were worried that it might be this way for the whole trip. But when we got up the next morning, the winds had shifted and there was much less smoke in the air.
So, after breakfast and a talk from “Mr. H” about the Salmon and Snake River watersheds,
we hit the water again under considerably less smokey skies. After running some Class III rapids,
we had lunch near the Mahoney Ranch (RM 42.2), then continued on through a few Class II rapids, then under the White Creek Pack Bridge (RM 48.5), to our second night’s camp at Big Loon (RM 49.8), right next to Loon Creek.
From the campsite, we hiked 0.75 miles up along Loon Creek,
to very warm – but nonetheless delightful – Loon Creek Hot Spring, where we soaked off both dirt and muscle aches.
After a good soak, we made our way back to camp, stopping only to spend some time with one of the horses pastured on the private land between our camp and the hot springs.
One of the major upsides of guided rafting is not having to cook your own meals or clean up afterwards. This is sweetness itself after enduring decades of DIY variations on ramen and tuna, ramen and veggies, ramen and whatever, tortillas and cheese, and freeze dried mysteries that stuck to our pot like epoxy resin.
Day 3 (Big Loon Camp to Camas Creek Camp)
Our third day on the river dawned remarkably bright and clear, with nary a hint of smoke in the crisp blue skies.
After packing-up our camp,
we boated down,
to the old Tappan Ranch near Lower Grouse Camp (RM 56.7). The cabin dates to 1917 (if not earlier) and was named for Fred and Daisey Tappan, who lived in it with their two small sons from 1927 to 1933.
Going past the cabin, we hiked 800 feet up the ridge behind it for a hoped for big view of the river valley. It was at this point, however, that it started raining (weakly) which somewhat dimmed the view and encouraged a return to Lower Grouse for lunch.
After that it was back on the river,
and almost immediately into a series of Class II, III, and IV rapids,
that were bounded by steep cliffs,
but all of which were much fun!
After that, the river (and the rafters) calmed down a lot,
and we glided into camp at Camas Creek (RM 60) ready for a sit and dinner. It was here that we encountered the aftermath of one of the wildfires (officially out only a few days before) that had been pouring smoke into the river valley.
Fortunately, thanks to some expert wildland firefighting, the heart of the camp had been spared the fire, and we were able to enjoy sitting under a few only slightly scorched Ponderosa pines along the river.
Day 4 (Camas Creek Camp to Survey Creek Camp)
The next morning we were greeted by essentially smoke-free skies with white, puffy clouds as accents, not rain threats. Wonderful!
After breakfasting and packing-up, we did a short hike up the ridge behind the camp,
and this time got the big view of the river valley that we’d missed back at Lower Grouse.
After that, it was back in the rafts for a steady downstream float interspersed with a few rapids, most notably Bernard and Haystack, both Class III. The surrounding terrain varied between forested slopes and open grasslands, cliffs and rolling hills.
Just after the rapids, we pulled in at Short Creek Camp (RM 68.2) for lunch,
and then continued on the river, now back among cliffs and trees.
Along the way, we passed a pack train coming up the river trail, bringing mounts and pack animals in ahead of the start of the hunting season. This trail makes it possible to backpack along the river from Boundary Springs (RM 0) to Big Creek Camp (RM 77), at the start of Impassable Canyon. It was visible from the rafts most of the time but it did look like there were sections where you’d have to be good at routefinding.
After a few more fun rapids,
and yet more amazing scenery,
we pulled into camp at Survey Creek for the night. A point of archeological interest here are the pithouse depressions on a bench behind the camp. These depressions were roofed over with branches to provide somewhat thermally insulated housing for the original inhabitants of this area.
The guide’s usual strict dress code was relaxed during preparation of yet another great dinner,
which was followed by Steve’s recitation of some of his excellent original poetry.
Day 5 (Survey Creek Camp to Cliffside Camp)
This was to be our last full day on the Middle Fork and it was planned as a busy one. After another blue, clear, and smoke-free start to the day (we were getting used to this clarity but shouldn’t have),
we sent the sweep boat on its way to our next camp. You can’t really row a sweep boat and they work well here because the Middle Fork has a steady down gradient with very little slack water. But getting one of these safely through the rapids requires considerable skill.
After departing camp, we banged through some more rapids,
before pulling up at Big Creek (RM 78.6),
where we crossed the river and hiked 350 feet up the Waterfall Trail,
to a point where we could gaze directly down on the falls along Waterfall Creek,
after which we returned to the rafts, getting a good view down the Middle Fork along the way.
After that it was more scenery,
more startlingly clear water,
and more rapids,
before we stopped at the Tombstone pictograph site (RM 83.0). These paintings were done with a hematite-based paint and, while some of the depictions are hauntingly familiar, exactly what they meant to their makers remains shrouded in mystery.
After the pictographs, we continued on downstream,
through more rapids,
before stopping for the night at sandy Cliffside Camp (RM 89.1).
Dinner was again great, presided over by guides who were once again hewing to the dress code of the river.
Day 6 (Cliffside Camp to Corn Creek)
Today we would be saying good-bye to the other 19 guests and six guides who had been with us on the Middle Fork and would continue on (“turning the corner” as they say) to join another group going down the main Salmon River. To this end, we were up and away a little earlier then usual,
ran a couple of tricky rapids (Hancock and Devils Tooth), and then stopped at Goat Creek (RM 94.3) to switch rafts and say a final good-bye.
After that, “Mr. H”, who would be continuing with us to help guide on the main Salmon River trip, rafted us down to the confluence, where we turned the corner into the main Salmon River,
went under the remains of the Stoddard Pack Bridge (which sadly had been destroyed by rock fall shortly after having been completely restored),
continued along the now wider and deeper Salmon,
to Cache Bar (RM 98.3), where we swaped our raft for a dory (while it’s been done, it’s really too rocky to run dories on the Middle Fork),
and then “Mr. H” rowed us down to Corn Creek (RM 103.4) where we would meet our group for the trip on the main Salmon.
What to say? Another wonderful river and another great performance by O.A.R.S. guides, whose technical skills made going through all those rapids look easy (it’s not). The interesting guests, excellent meals, comfortable campsites, hikes, and pictographs only made the trip that much better. Not to mention the petting zoo. The Middle Fork impressed us with how clear (and cold) it is. And, unlike other rivers we’ve rafted, it has an almost continuous gradient – very little slack water – so you’re always moving downstream, whether you row or not. It’s also fairly shallow in many places and that, combined with the strikingly clear water, gave us the unique feeling of flying over the rocks that line the bottom. An amazing experience, but we still had five more rafting days on the Salmon River ahead of us! So, onward!