Our trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho could best be described in one word: rowdy.
Our first flipped raft, 500 consumed beers, three submerged phones, and too many bumps, bruises, scrapes, and scratches to count. You could say we were in over our heads from day one when we bent two oars, lost a paddle and got caught in a logjam that could have easily taken a life. It sounds like a disaster, but it’s exactly these experiences that bring you closer to those around you more than anything ever will. Those ten-hour days on the raft when you chat about your least favorite animals and existential nonsense. The content, silent lunches before a class IV rapid. The collective chaos brought on by flipping a raft or dumping a passenger. The babbling booze-soaked evenings full of laughs around a fire. The proud, unwavering stance as a guided group floats by and our vestless chests puff up, our chins raise below our helmetless heads, arms extend to a toast with a beer in hand, and roots snake through our Chacos knowing we fifteen floaters are in it together and will finish strong.
The river always brings you closer to the people you’re with, forging new friendships and burgeoning old. While it wasn’t without its trials and misfortunes, we made it down The Middle with scars that share our stories and tan lines that tell our tales. Cheers to my fellow river rats – I raise a lukewarm beer in your direction, wherever you may be.
- Arrive at Boundary Creek Campground in the evening
- Rig up the boats this afternoon/evening or the next morning and leave boats in the eddy at the put-in
- Camp overnight at Boundary Creek
- Rig up the boats if you choose not to the evening before.
- CAREFULLY lower the rafts down the extremely steep boat ramp using the pulley system and as many hands as possible.
- Get debriefed by a ranger for things like choosing campsites, avoiding rattlesnakes and bear, and properly packing out waste.
- Start on the river by late morning.
- Velvet Falls is the first class IV rapid followed by Power House .
- Camp at designated site (ours was supposed to be Scout but we missed it so we camped at Fire Island at mile 13.8).
- Wake up, eat, drink coffee, and rig rafts to be on the river before 10 A.M.
- Pistol Creek Rapid was the only class IV this day.
- Pass Indian Creek Airstrip which you can pay to fly in on to avoid the low water, rock-plagued misery that is Day 1.
- Float to mile 32 and camp at Marble Right (we arrived around 5 P.M.)
- Flyfish and catch 20+ cutthroats in one hour.
- Repeat morning ritual of bagels, coffee, and electrolytes to be on river before 10 A.M.
- Pull off around 11:30 A.M. to hike to the pictographs on a rock above the river at Rattlesnake Creek.
- Float to Whitey Cox campsite (the grave of Whitey Cox sits atop the hill next to the hot spring and is adorned by antlers from passing travelers).
- We arrived at Whitey Cox around 4 P.M. after another relatively short day on the river making it to Mile 46.2.
- If water levels permit, swim across from the campsite and do some cliff jumping at the Whitey Cox campsite.
- Repeat morning ritual except wake up an hour earlier to be on the river by 9 A.M. due to the higher mileage day ahead.
- Pull off at Big Loon (mile 50.5) and do the mile-long hike to the Loon Hot Spring to take a dip in an old manmade pool that utilizes natural hot spring water.
- This day housed the class IV Tappan Falls as well as a number of class IIIs.
- Camp at mile 72.9 at Wilson Creek arriving around 7:00 P.M.
- Watch out for a wily black bear that scrounged the mountainside at this site.
- Repeat morning ritual and put in the water by 10 A.M.
- Today’s stretch is made up of many class III and III+ rapids as well as the class IV rapids Redside and Weber.
- This is a very technical day that requires constant attention and focus.
- Pull off at Stoddard Creek campsite at mile 90 around 5:00 P.M.
- Set up a tarp for protection from the sun since this campsite doesn’t have many shady spots to sit in until the sun sets.
- Hike the half-mile trail up the creek to find more pictographs.
- Repeat morning ritual for last time and savor the now-perfectly brewed coffee before rigging the boats to be on the river before 10 A.M.
- Scout the class III+ rapids Rubber (mile 91.1) and Hancock before running if desired.
- The Middle Fork connects to the Main Salmon at the confluence at mile 96.3.
- The last and arguably largest rapid on the river is at mile 99.5 called Cramer Creek Rapid. It is a class IV+ and can be scouted beforehand from the road above.
- At mile 100 arrive at Cache Bar, the take out for the Middle Fork, and break down all rafts, gear, trash, etc. before heading home.
Night 0: We ate before we reached the campground. We chose to stop at a taco truck in the tiny town of Stanley, Idaho that was DELICIOUS. 10/10 would highly recommend. General location on the map above.
Daily Breakfast: Bagels and cream cheese with Greek yogurt and granola. Oh, and coffee. Always lots of coffee.
Daily Lunch: We would pull off the river in an eddy somewhere around 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. to eat our consistent and modest lunch of salami/turkey wraps and peanut M&Ms. We usually drank our daytime calories anyway by maintaining a steady stream of river-beers throughout the day.
Daily Snacks: Usually around mid-afternoon we would break into the dry boxes on the rafts to scrape up some turkey jerky, apples, protein bars, and more peanut M&Ms.
Nightly Dinner: Besides our myriad of beer varieties, dinner is where we switched things up the most on a daily basis. We had rotini pasta with veggies, chicken, and pesto sauce one night and chicken curry bowls the next. We dabbled in fajita veggie burritos as well as brown rice with carrots, snap peas, bell peppers, and peanut sauce. It is safe to say that none of us went hungry for dinner and we all ended the day satiated and smiling. We even accommodated a couple of our compadres’ gluten/dairy free diets without sacrificing flavor or satisfaction.
Do This, NOT That
DO: Give plenty of space between rafts. The serious trouble we had when rafting usually came about when the boats were too bunched up to avoid other rafts. The one time we flipped, this was the case. Eddy out if possible before and after rapids to make sure everyone gets through fine. If they get broached on a rock, they have a chance to get unstuck or wave for help from those above and below the rapid. Maintaining proper spacing ensures you will style those rapids every time.
DON’T: Let your guard down. This is not to say that you have zero chances to relax while you’re on the river, but it does mean you always have to stay aware. Jumping off the raft to take a dunk in the water right before a rapid is not a smart idea. Stumbling around rocks with open toes and closed eyes is not a smart idea. Squatting to pee or setting up your groover next to a rattlesnake nest is NOT A GOOD IDEA. Keep your senses keen and use common sense and you’ll get by just fine!
DO: Show respect for your surroundings. This goes for the campsites, the river, cultural sites, wildlife, all of it. Be sure to clean up campsites to where they are left as natural as possible. Treat the many rattlers, black bear, bighorn sheep, river otters, and countless other inhabitants as you would a host – this is their home and you are lucky to be a guest in it. And of course, pack it in pack it out… and yes, that includes your entire group’s “number 2”s.
DON’T: Drink unfiltered river water or eat raw food from the river. You will get giardia or another water-borne bug and you will have a bad time.
DO: Research the river before going. What are the rapids like in the water level you’re floating? Do you need invasive species permits for each raft? What are the items the forest service requires you to bring? What do you do with waste at the end of the trip? All of these questions can be answered by prior research and/or going with more experienced river runners.
DON’T: Forget spares. You’re going to lose or break something; in fact, you will probably lose or break a LOT of things. Be prepared by bringing spares of everything you need from sunglasses and swimsuits to water filters and oars.
Mountain Standard ¼ Zip Fleece Shirt – The first thing that I would do once we had arrived at a campsite was locate my dry bag and snag my MS ¼ zip. This fleece was the absolute perfect companion for cool evenings by the fire and mornings waiting for the sun to hit the shore. Versatile, lightweight, and comfortable, it is never missing out on a future camping trip.
First Aid Kit – This essential is kind of obvious, but I figured I’d remind those of you that have Band-Aids and Neosporin and call that good enough that it is not. We had broken toenails, blistered hands, and severe dehydration that were all dealt with appropriately because of a well-stocked first aid kit.
Waterproof Case for Electronics – I learned this one the hard way. After leaving my camera and phone in the dry box that was on the flipped raft and realizing that “dry” is a generous term, I will never be bringing electronics on a river trip without a hard waterproof case like those made by Pelican or Otterbox.
Water Filter – You may be able to fill a few five gallon jugs of water at the put-in, but there is no way that’ll last six days on the river with fifteen people. Water pumps, filter bottles, and UV pens are all decent options but we stuck with a convenient 6L gravity filter that was easy to use and provided us with tasty, clean water in no time.
Mountain Standard Socks – While you probably ought to leave the socks in your dry bag when on the river, a nice warm pair of merino wool socks hugging your feet next to a warm campfire is the most comforting feeling in the world. Get some of the MS Socks and your feet will surely thank you.
Words & Photos: Evan West
Location: Middle Fork of the Salmon River, ID