A Float Through The Big Unblemished
Like the sheep-eaters before us, basking in the smudge-free, high-country luxury of the nation's longest free-flowing river
“If someone asked you to sit down and design the perfect river,” says Doug Tims in what's left of his Mississippi accent,” you'd probably want to run it a hundred miles through territory that had no roads, over terrain that varied from high alpine to big-rock canyon, with clear water, lots of rapids, great fishing, and hot springs where you can sit and steam as the moon comes up over the peaks. Of course, what you'd have would be the Middle Fork of the Salmon.”
They call it The River of No Return, and whatever the old-timers who gave it that nickname meant by it, for Tims it meant that after his first float down the Middle Fork, there was no going back to his workaday life. Within two years he sold his business, bought a commercial rafting operation, and moved his family to Idaho.
“I knew from our first run that I'd never get tired of it,” he says, and suddenly we're harking back to the August morning when he and I and five other friends dipped our nervous paddles into the current at the Boundary Creek put-in.
The water's relatively low, but it feels like we're pushing out into the throat of a beast that is going to have us for lunch somewhere along the way. None of us has much whitewater experience, and we have no guide–just maps that mark the rapids and the campsites, supplies for ten days, and the wonderful buzz that gets on you as you point your boat downstream into the deepest wilderness in the Lower 48, on the longest undammed river system, with no idea what's around the next bend. Probably wild tides, we imagine. Deep holes and thrashing waves that might well dump and drown us and then flush us 100 miles to the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon, where rangers will haul our broken bodies ashore and stack us like cordwood at the take-out.
Instead we find ourselves on a rattly little flow, barely deep enough to float us through the pretty streambed rock gardens, past thick forest that spills to the water's edge down steep mountain slopes that hunker over us. The challenge of navigating the low water gradually sharpens our river eyes and ears, and the deep peace of the place evaporates our dreams of peril. We spend our second night in almost embarrassing high-country luxury at Sunflower Flat, wallowing in naturally terraced hot springs that overflow down the bank, one to another, until they plunge as warm waterfall into the cold stream.
We've seen only a couple of other rafts on the river, and indeed for the entire ten days we will spot only the occasional party floating by. Amazingly, 10,000 people run the Middle Fork each summer without ever robbing it of its solitude. Groups set off by permit–seven per day, no more than 30 people per flotilla–toward assigned campsites that are isolated from one another and governed by rules that require you to leave them looking as if the last people to camp there traded tobacco with Lewis and Clark. In fact, the Middle Fork was among the first American rivers to be designated Wild and Scenic, and in midsummer you get the best of both descriptions, in a combination unrivaled by any stretch of froth in the nation. The rapids are exciting but still doable for families. The weather's warm. The water's clear. And the pace is just slow enough to let you dry off between splashings, lie back, and melt into the mountains.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that 2.3 million surrounding acres were designated as wilderness a decade and a half ago, making the river's environs off-limits to any development that would tame the wild loneliness of the place. But then there's never been much human smudge in this landscape–a few mines along the river, a few ranches, a couple of pictographs left by the small bands of Indians, called Sheepeaters, who hunted here. Crossing these massive granite mountains has always been a forbidding enterprise. Lewis and Clark had to go north for 150 miles to skirt this barrier of high peaks, severe canyons, and thrashing rivers. And 200 years later, if you want to get east-to-west across Idaho, you still have to go the way they went, around the daunting geology that saved this territory from road-building long enough for it to be saved again by enlightened environmental policy.
Thirty miles into our trip, we scud out of the alpine shadows into open, grassy hillscape scattered with huge ponderosa pines. The river widens and flattens into a counterpoint of pooling calms that gather and then roil into rapids that grow longer and spunkier. By day four we've been through a dozen whitewater patches–good wet fun without terror–and are gearing up for what may be our first boat-eater, Tappen Falls.
We scout it with the kind of reverence you bring to anything that has the word falls in its name: a four-foot drop at this water level, not as fearsome as we'd expected, but enough for us to station a couple of guys with ropes at the bottom. As it is, we ride both the drop and the powerful outflow in a high-whooping style that makes every last novice of us feel like we've broken our first wild horse and are now ready to get on a big ugly bull.
By August, though, all the Class IV wild water on the Middle Fork has long since emptied into the sea. To ride the river while it's really raging, you have to be here in early June, under funky spring skies and on the full tide of the snowmelt. Then, Tims assures me, you can run the entire hundred miles, through huge standing waves, deep holes, and roller-coaster chutes, in a shade under 12 hours.
At our leisurely late-summer pace, by contrast, day six brings us only halfway. So far we've seen enough eagles, otters, ducks, deer, and elk to make it seem that they've been hired to entertain the customers. And by about mile 60, as the canyon walls turn sheer and the ridges grow ragged, mountain sheep begin striking poses above us with the confidence that nobody without hooves is going to bother them. (Later I will see a young goat take what should be a death plunge: 30 feet of free fall onto an almost sheer rock face, where he'll somehow get his legs under him for a sliding, headlong run to a small ledge, on which he will bounce, shake himself off, and look up at his herd as if to say, “Found a shortcut.”)
The trail along the bank ends as the river squeezes through a narrowing slash called Impassable Canyon for the last 30 miles. The ride gets faster and wetter as the rapids ricochet off the walls, drop hard between massive boulders, and follow one after another with little breathing room between. The campsites huddle in the shadow of the gorge, which from mountain peak to water's edge is deeper than the Grand Canyon.
On our tenth day, we take out at Cache Bar, about four miles downriver from the confluence of the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon. If we had the time and the permit, we could continue on another 120 miles, west to Riggins. But we've already had about all the perfect river peace and mountain beauty we can stand.
Craig Vetter, a contributing editor of Outside, is the author of Striking It Rich (William Morrow).