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. Others had spoken well of the Salmon River in Idaho, so we signed-on to an O.A.R.S. guided trip on the Middle Fork (post), followed immediately by one on the Main Salmon River (a “combo” trip). The Salmon is one of the largest rivers in the continental United States without a single dam on its mainstem. While both the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon run through the 2.5 million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, the Main continues west to skirt the south side of the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Both have been designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers. 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 (Corn Creek to Alder Creek Camp)
We spent half of this day making our way from the Middle Fork down to Corn Creek (River Mile (RM) 0) on the Salmon River. We managed to arrive at the put-in by dory about 30 minutes before the rest of the guests arrived by bus from Salmon, Idaho. We had lunch at Corn Creek and then pushed off through a few rapids to our camp at Alder Creek (RM 8.9), a large sandy beach along the river. For whatever reason, it took longer than usual to get dinner out and we weren’t able to turn-in until well after 10:00pm (fortunately, this proved to be a one-off problem).
Day 2 (Alder Creek Camp to Magpie Creek Camp)
Over the last few days, we had gotten used to awakening under clear blue skies, perhaps adorned only with harmlessly puffy white clouds. Today, sadly, we awoke to a miasma of smoke bearing down on us from both up- and downstream. Fortunately, this smoke would be with us for only part of the day but would reappear from time to time to remind us to cherish those blue skies! After a few rapids, we stopped at the Devil’s Toe Pictographs (RM 13.2) for another look at these ancient, enigmatic symbols. By the time we pulled-in for lunch at Big Squaw Camp (RM 18.0), the smoke had largely retreated somewhere and the skies were, once again, mostly sunny. After lunch, we continued on to scout Class III-IV Black Creek Rapid at RM 20.9, one created by a debris flow in 2011. Most of the rapids on the Salmon are simply fun but some, like Black Creek, are fun and sphincter-tightening. So, after the scout, we simply plunged into it and (thankfully) out the other side. After that, we passed by the still active Rattlesnake Bar Fire, which was spouting flames and pouring smoke in to the canyon (unless they threaten something or someone, fires in wilderness areas are now usually managed rather than actively suppressed). Happily, the fire front was behind us as be pulled-in to our camp at Magpie Creek (RM 29.6), a sandy beach backed by an unburned forest.
Day 3 (Magpie Creek Camp to Groundhog Bar Camp)
In what was becoming a recurring theme, we went to bed under mostly clear skies only to awaken to find that the smoke had snuck back during the night. So another day starting with a rosy glow and the distinct odor of an old campfire. Fortunately there were several rapids to divert our attention from the smoke with hearty splashes of really cold water. And, happily, by the time lunch rolled around below the Whitewater Ranch (~RM 39.5), the smoke had largely dissipated and almost sunny skies had returned. The big event of the day (other than the rapids) was passing under the Francis Zaunmiller Wisner Pack Bridge (RM 42.7) and stopping to visit the Jim Moore Place – a collection of hand-hewn log structures built by Moore starting in the 1890s and spared from destruction by the Forest Service. Amazing what you can do with just an axe, adz, a saw, and skill. After that, it was only a short float to our camp at Groundhog Bar (RM 44.0) where, sadly, the smoke decided to make a reappearance. We were beginning to empathize with beef jerky…
Day 4 (Groundhog Bar Camp to Rabbit Creek Camp)
My very first rafting trip was on the Main Salmon way back in 1986 and I’m almost sure that Groundhog Bar was one of our camps. I am certain that back then there was a lot more forest along the river. Looking at fire overlays on CalTopo, it appears that almost half of the wilderness has been consumed by wildfires over the last 30 years. Yes, it’s a natural (the suppression issue aside) process of renewal, but I still miss the trees. Today, rather than sneak in during the night, the smoke had snuck out, leaving blue skies behind. Climbing out on the point to get a shot of the camp, I came upon some abandoned eggs. Apparently the point is safely isolated during high water but once that receeds you’re scrambled eggs for predators. Why they didn’t get all the eggs is a mystery. We started with an easy float down to Fivemile Bar (RM 52.5), former home of the late Buckskin Bill (Sylvan Hart), the Salmon River’s best known and most gregarious hermit. The big attraction here is the small gift shop that sells ice cream! We had lunch on Bill’s beach and then did a mellow float down, past the confluence with the South Fork (RM 56.4), to our camp at Rabbit Creek.
Day 5 (Rabbit Creek Camp to Robbins Creek Camp)
Continuing its perverse behavior, the smoke had disappeared overnight, allowing us to start the day with the illusion of clear skies ahead. And, to be fair, that illusion did persist through the morning and on into our lunch stop at Sheep Creek Bar (RM 73.9). By then we had passed out of the Frank Church Wilderness and were skirting the Gospel Hump Wilderness. The smoke soon returned with a vengence as we passed the smoky Hanover Fire, still burning in the wilderness along the north side of the river. But soon Vinegar Rapid (III-IV, RM 78.4) appeared to take our minds off the smoke – at least for a bit. After Vinegar, we continued on past Cary Creek (RM 80.7), the usual take-out for the Main Salmon, to an informal campsite at Robbins Creek (~RM 85.5). We were now out of the wilderness and starting to think about the end of the trip and the solar eclipse. We were just hoping that this big solar moment wasn’t obscured by smoke!
Day 6 (Robbins Creek Camp to Spring Bar)
This, our last day (on the river), greeted us with smoke and ominous portent in the heavens. By the time we’d packed camp and started our short float to Gasper Creek – where we would go ashore to view the eclipse – the smoke had relented to where we no longer feared it obscuring the celestial light show. Once at Gasper Creek, most of the folks headed upslope to view the show from a high ridge, while the less ambitious of us stayed on the beach to watch the guides offer sacrifices to the Sun God (or whatever – these were crazy times). We weren’t at totality but it was still fun to watch the moon almost swallow most of the sun. The best part was the multitude of little crescent images formed when the sunlight filtered through the trees. After the moment had passed, the guides returned to normal (well, almost…), fixed lunch, and then we floated anticlimactically to our take-out at Spring Bar (~RM 94.0). Again, what to say? We got to do the whole enchilada – starting on the Middle Fork and “turning the corner” to the Main Salmon. A highly recommended combo! Wonderful rivers 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, and pictographs only made the trip that much better. Not to mention the eclipse. On our way into McCall, we passed a 15-mile full-stop traffic jam of eclipsers trying to get home. Fifteen miles of traffic! So much better to have seen what we could of it from the river!