Outside magazine, June 1996
The middle fork's swashbuckling rapids, virgin landscapes, and superior camping areas put it at the top of the U.S. river heap. Its whitewater stands out even in Idaho, whose mountains spawn 10 percent of the nation's navigable river miles. You'll drop 3,000 feet out of the Sawtooth Mountains, through Class III-IV rapids such as Velvet Falls, Powerhouse, and The Tappens, and then shoot through Impassable Canyon to the confluence with the Main Salmon.
Outfitters. A river with more than 100 rapids is bound to attract a commercial outfitter or, in the case of the Middle Fork, 27. Perhaps the best known is ECHO: The Wilderness Company (800-652-3246), a 25-year-old outfit whose four- to six-day Middle Fork trips run June through September for $825-$1,200 per person, including tents, sleeping bags, and meals. Idaho-based ROW (800-451-6034) has ushered guests down the Middle Fork since 1979 and offers a similar schedule for $850-$1,395. For a complete list of outfitters, call the Idaho Outfitters Guide Association at 208-342-1919.
Do It Yourself. Only seven parties-commercial or private-are allowed to launch the Middle Fork each day. During the June 1 to September 3 control period, you must have a private launch permit awarded by lottery. Call the Middle Fork District Ranger (208-879-5204) after October 1 to request a 1997 river float launch packet. Your application, with a $6 processing fee, must arrive in the ranger's office between December 1 and January 31. Alas, there were 6,000 applications last year for only 372 spots, so be sure to list a second-choice river (Snake or Lower Salmon). Rent 14- to 18-foot self-bailing rafts, with all boat equipment, coolers, and straps, in Stanley at Sawtooth Rentals ($375 per week; 800-284-3185) or White Otter Outdoor Adventures ($550-$625 for eight days; 800-438-4331). The early-season run is 100 miles long: Put in at Boundary Creek, two hours northwest of Stanley, and take out at Cache Bar, three hours west of Salmon. Mid- and late-season, put in at Indian Creek, 25 miles downstream from Boundary Creek. Rangers will meet you at either put-in for an obligatory chat about wilderness ethics, fire safety, and proper equipment. Allow four to eight days for the trip, depending on water level.
How To Get There. Fly to Boise via United, Delta, or Southwest Airlines, and then drive 130 miles northeast on Idaho 21 or take Salmon Air's shuttle flight ($60; 800-448-3413) to Stanley.
Where To Bunk. In Stanley, bunk at the Mountain Village Lodge (doubles, $79; 800-843-5475) or Creek Side Lodge (doubles, $89-$104; 800-523-0733). Or pitch canvas at Redfish Lake or at other Forest Service campgrounds, mostly along Idaho 21 ($9-$11; 800-280-2267 or 208-774-3000). After a week of sprawling out on beaches and sandbars, reunite with a mattress at Salmon's rustic Stagecoach Inn ($55-$59; 208-756-4251).
Guidebooks. Handbook to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River ($24.95, from Frank Amato Publications, 503-653-8108) is an accurate, waterproof, rapid-by-rapid river bible. Cort Conley's The Middle Fork: A Guide ($22.50, from Backeddy Books, 208-257-3810) offers a lively history of Idaho