Going Places: Floating the Middle Fork

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Floating the Middle Fork

A line of smiling faces were lined up to greet us along the edge of the tarmac. Kitty and her husband Gary Shelton were there, along with Eric Rector, co-owners of Middle Fork Adventure Outfitters, a family run operation with a sole focus on the Middle Fork. The flight was quickly forgotten and the charms of the river took us in hand. Beyond a small fleet of boats, including one odd looking unit, called a sweep, that resembled a floating corral, was the river. From the air the river had seemed thin and pallid; standing beside it was a different story. The water was icy cold as I kneeled down to touch it, and it was a looker too; although it was largely gin clear there were patches and sleeves of a mysterious deep green color. It ran probably half the size of the Deschutes and came bowling down the canyon like a gang of roller-skaters on a Venice Beach boardwalk.

It was a good 75 miles overall to our take-out on the main stem Salmon four days hence. Because of our delays that day we would have to hustle to make our first night's camp. Pamela and I picked the furthermost boat on the beach where Eric Lieberman, or Lieb as he's called, introduced himself as our guide and pushed us off. Pamela took the front seat and I got in the back where I hoped to be out of everyone's way while I wet a line. The back seat of a raft in rough water is like riding the fluke of a whale. It was a roller coaster through the rapids and I had to hang on to keep from getting bucked overboard. So much for solid ground, I thought.

Meanwhile, I began to fish. Lieb helped out whenever he could and swung the boat near the best looking water. We were not in so much of a rush we couldn't do justice to some choice spots. I fished some fine looking boulder pockets, eddies and undercut banks in the first few miles and got some half-hearted takes and the occasional trout, but it seemed the fish just weren't inclined to surface that afternoon. We could see trout though, suspended in the upper water column.

We were rowing to make up time, meanwhile, I did my best to adjust to everything at once. I tried to keep my balance, a conversation with Lieb and 15 feet of line in motion simultaneously. I tied on a favorite hopper pattern, something the river's famous for, and would touch it down for a quick float behind a rock here, or send it chattering quickly through a fishy looking riffle there, or shoot it out tight against a bank with a bit of overhanging sedge. At one point I hung up on something and snapped my tip trying to free it, a stupid mistake. Thinking maybe my blood sugars were dropping, I dug out a PowerBar and gnawed on it while I cased my broken rod and carefully extracted two segments of a little #3 wt. Hexagraph.

There was little sign of insects, an occasional golden stone buzzing around, the token hopper drifting past. It was cool still and Lieb thought the low pressure had put the fish off. I knew I should probably tie on a nymph but there was just so much going on I said to hell with it. At least my big dry was easy to keep track of.

I noticed Lieb had been pushing the boat along through the flat stretches; that made sense. But this particular stretch of canyon held a pocketful of Class 2 and 3 rapids and we had taken everyone like Picabo Street, Idaho's own enfant terrible. It was Toad's wild ride to be sure, especially from the rear of the bus. I asked Lieb about this down-river rowing business; where I came from we all back-rowed through rapids.

The Portagee method, he called over his shoulder. Trick is to use the momentum of the river to your advantage, become one with the flow. "Instead of fighting it by back rowing," he tells me, "you use the currents to your advantage."

I had to admit if it was me in the center seat we might still be half a mile back upriver, and I had to admire the way we had shushed through the rock gardens that afternoon. Although this was most definitely a preferred method for these experienced oarsmen, I found it hard to relax.

We were close to camp when I had enough of a handle on things to bother with a nymph. Even then, a nymph dropper tied below my Stimulator was a compromise. Sure enough though, soon thereafter I set on a pair of heavy fish in succession, landing one and losing the other. By the time we reached camp at Marsh Creek the sun had left the canyon and the air was chilling fast. We were all looking forward to moving around and getting the blood circulating.

Reports from the other boats that afternoon were mostly similar to our own, moderate and subsurface. Ken (later voted Fisherman of the Year in the company newsletter) and Mia did well, running a little bead head nymph below a parachute hopper and taking a dozen fish up to 14 inches between them. Mia is no stranger to big fish; you may have seen her on the Oct. '96 cover of California Fly Fisher cradling a rainbow the size of a Dachshund.

The temperature plummeted quickly in the deep shadows of the canyon as we set up our tents and changed into warm clothing. It felt good to finally anchor on the firmament. At the upriver end of the flat was a small hot spring which many folk pilgrimaged to over the course of the evening. Following a cocktail or two and a briefing on safety and procedural issues, we dove into plates of hot pizza from Kitty's fleet of Dutch ovens.

Kitty Shelton is one energetic woman. Part owner of the company, she is also mother to two girls (one of whom, Holly, is along as a guide in training). She is a certified guide herself and the author of Recipes From the Middle Fork. With the aid of her iron ovens (cleverly stacked three or four high between beds of coals) we devoured an astounding array of pastries, pies and steaming entrees over the course of the week. Fishing aside, a guy could do this trip for the food alone.

Awake quite early the next morning, there was ice in our water bottles outside the tent. There was also blue sky above a towering canyon of iron shadow. Before we got up Pat comes along with huge mugs of coffee, knocks on our tent flap and with a big smile hands them down. The first touch of sunlight rimmed the canyon like lip gloss half a mile overhead as I made my own pilgrimage to the springs, hiking the long ponderosa flat through dewy grass and a feathering mist. Leaning against black rock I swirled hot water around my legs and sipped my second coffee.

Kenny showed up before long, looking for a shot of the springs. He decided we need something with less body hair than me in the tub though and went looking for the girls. Mia was not an option, she explained to Kenny with a don't waste your breath look on her pretty face, and he went off in search of her mother, whom he finally pester ... persuaded to pose.

We climbed aboard with Lieb again that morning and Burt Cayson joined us. Burt had come out from Texas with two long-term fishing buddies, Bill Hayden and Howard Guess. They were great folks on something like this and set a tone of easy companionship for the group. In this age of high tech equipment, it was a relief to watch someone like Burt. Using his favorite old South Bend fiberglass fly rod and automatic fly reel the man flat out caught fish; with a quiet jodevrie Burt went about fishing. Nothing rushed, or deliberated about it, he just sat at ease catching fish, conducting a kind of trout darshan in the front of the boat.

Our boats were staggered half-a-mile along the river to allow undisturbed fishing. Occasionally we would leap frog each other if one of the boats were fishing a back eddy or pulled ashore for something. We saw few other boats or outfitters along the river. We drifted alternately in and out of deep shadow and bright sunlight, the effect like an accordion on our susceptible bodies — swooning into warmth with a deep sigh one moment, sporting goose pimples the next.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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