It's not easy to run the Selway. Be one of the happy few who do.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Women Outside, Fall 1998

Adeventure Classics: Rafting
Wild Enough for You?
It's not easy to run the Selway. Be one of the happy few who do.
By Christina Opdahl


TRAVEL: Fly-Fishing | RAFTING | Skiing | Trekking | Diving

What every 1,239,840-acre wilderness needs is a main artery, a watery route through bear grass and virgin red-cedar forest where gray wolves hide from ranchers and loggers gaze covetously. The way to Idaho's Selway River Basin, U.S. 93 to Magruder Road, drops on a narrowing dirt track about 3,500 feet from the Bitterroot Range, finally spitting you out at the riverbank. This is the Selway, arguably America's most seductive and pristine river, and it invites you to plant yourself on a raft's rubber tube and watch for flashes of west-slope cutthroat trout as you float through the heart of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

To the northeast, on Lolo Pass, is the spot where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark almost starved, a Forest Service ranger says. Nearly halfway into the float, he's one of very few humans to be seen, mowing the Moose Creek Airstrip with the help of a team of mules. The Selway-Bitterroot was one of the first areas to be declared under the federal Wilderness Act of 1964, which sealed it off from the road-building initiatives that in the last 30 years have made other western parklands a little too accessible. It sits next to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and is further shielded from humans by the abutting Gospel Hump Wilderness. These Selway trout aren't stocked. And the moose nosing moss on the banks are real and occasionally dangerous.

On the River

Because relatively few rafters even get on the Selway (more on that later), its seldom-seen cascades are reputed dragons. You will hear about monster holes where rafts, one after the other, flip end to end, dumping their yelping human contents into the water. Though exaggerated, these stories stem from truth. From mid-May to late June, Washerwoman and Galloping Gertie rapids are swollen with snowmelt; 1998, in particular, has been a humdinger of a year because of heavy rains throughout May and June. Grand Canyon-gauge flows (at its height over the last 60 years, the Selway ran at 15,000 cubic feet of water per second) pummel a riverbed half the size of the mighty Colorado, creating very serious Class V runs. What your guides don't talk about — they're pretty busy trying to keep your butt in the boat — are the gentler details, like clarkia, diansa, and pearly everlasting wildflowers that faithfully sprout waterside. With planning, you can avoid the dragons. July on the Selway offers cutthroat fishing and milder, though rocky, river running.

The first half of the five-day, 47-mile trip contains more than ten sizable drops. Cast for trout (and put them back) in the slow pools between. Take a day to dry out and lounge at camp; look for a stopping point at one of the many white sand beaches along the float and make camp under rotund cedars. Pick huckleberries on the riverbank. Hike up any number of creeks to alpine meadows. If you're eager to get back to business, walk the riverside trail and gawk at the rapids. Just past the spot where Moose Creek joins in and nearly doubles the Selway's flow, you'll find Moose Juice, a series of the most mammoth rapids you'll encounter — infamous boulder-choked sieves called Double Drop, Ladle, and Little Niagara. Granite shoulders squeeze the river, upping the pressure as the water squirts through.


A Selway run is as tough to arrange as it is worthwhile. The Forest Service allows one trip per day, with a maximum of 16 rafters per trip, from May 15 to July 31. This is good. It accounts for a river where the wildlife and wild water take center stage. The flip side is that it's virtually impossible to mount your own trip on this river, only four companies have permits to run four trips each per year, and you must book with them at least a year in advance. Whitewater Adventures (208-939-4324) and Three Rivers Rafting (888-926-4430) are currently taking reservations for the summer of 1999. ARTA River Trips (800-323-2782) is filling slots for 2000, and Northwest River Company (208-344-7119) is booked until 2001. Each outfitter offers a five-day trip; cost ranges from $1,300 to $1,500. Included are guides, meals, equipment, and land travel expenses (most people fly to Missoula, Montana, or Salmon, Idaho, where the trips originate). If you're not the planning-ahead type, it's worth it to try calling for cancellations.

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