Middle Fork of the Salmon

Rivers are magical places that embody freedom and adventure, the fine line between chaos and control. They resist our efforts to control them and remind us that not everything is regulated, sanitized and certified safe for our consumption. You might damn well get hurt on a river.

They say that some river trips are for testing yourself and some are for having fun. An early season run down the Middle Fork of the Salmon river is one of those trips about testing yourself. The Middle Fork slices a 100 mile path through the Salmon Challis National Forest of central Idaho. It begins as a tiny high alpine creek, but during its run, 100’s of feeder creeks join with it. By the time it reaches the confluence with the Main Salmon near North Fork, Idaho it’s big and burly.

High water and blustery weather go hand in hand on the Middle Fork. Rain, snow, sleet, microbursts. In May, the Middle Fork is in your face. Be prepared to be cold and wet and spend nights trying to convince yourself that synthetic fill sleeping bags really do insulate when they’re wet. Whiskey helps.

Extensive forest fires in 2007 have dramatically altered the river. Tributary streams that once tumbled down lushly forested side canyons now run unimpeded dumping untold numbers of charred ponderosas into the river, in turn creating big debris fans, new rapids, and floating hazards in every eddy. The Middle Fork is alive.

Paddling rivers with good friends is a moment of living in the hive mind. You can let your guard down knowing that anything that gives your friends trouble is a spot to be aware. Memory gaps of rapids and safe lines are collectively filled. Epic surf waves and play spots are communally annotated with near pinpoint precision. Collective memories are are the best river guide ever.

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Location

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Elevation Profile

As recorded by kayak from the put-in at Marsh Creek to the takeout at Cache Bar on the Main Salmon.

The Middle Fork is ON (hopefully!)

After years with no luck, one year where I had to cancel, and one year where I was blacklisted for cancelling, I’ve finally gotten a Middle Fork of the Salmon permit!

This is an early season trip, right when the river should be peaking and at its very best.

The Middle Fork is by far and away my favortie river. At high water, the surfing can’t be beat and the setting is pristine.

I first did the Middle Fork about 10 years ago [photos].

That was an early season trip, too. The first few days were pretty miserable — on shore that is. The river was awesome. Our group had decided to forego group meals in favor of individual autonomy. Being kayakers we had things like uncooked ramen, oatmeal cookies, coffee nips, and tequila. The rafters were having exquisite four course meals. The tequila was lost early on when somebody decided to put it in an eddy to “cool it down”.

I thought we had it bad until we reached Sunflower hotsprings. A group of self-support kayakers were in the Sunflower campsite and we were camped across the river. They looked miserable huddled under tarps eating uncooked ramen and oatmeal cookies. Hell, at least we had TENTS, the heathens!

2006 permit status

Okay, so the permit status for 2006 is NOT off to a good start. Unfortunately, we were on the White Rim on the call-in date for preseason permits on the Middle Fork.

The plan now is to shoot for a summer permit during the regular permit lottery. A summer trip could be good – still have some water, warm weather, hot springs…

Middle Fork pics posted

Photos from our recent trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon river in Idaho have been posted.

The Middle Fork is a protected “Wild and Scenic’ river, with headwaters near Stanley, Idaho. It begins in a high alpine forest, and in a desert canyon with its confluence with the Main Salmon. We took 8 days and 7 nights to paddle the 115 miles from Marsh Creek (an early season put-in required to circumvent the typical snow-bound put-in road).

During the course of its run, the Middle Fork continually gains in volume, with feeder “creeks” dumping water into the flow. Weather can be notoriously bad, especially the first few days. But the camping is awesome, with hot springs almost strategically placed along the river. Each passing day on the river brings changes in scenery, and the promise of warmth and dryness of lower elevations.

This trip, we were extremely fortunate and had great weather all the way down!

Following the course of a river for 8 days is an amazing experience. The Middle Fork is a free flowing river: no dams, channels, jet boats, pollution. The flows were amazing, ranging from 5 to 5.83 ft on the gauge (which was the peak for the year). Sitting on the bank, it’s mesmerizing to watch that much water flow past. At high water, the river exudes a sense of violence, urgency, and power. Oh yeah, it also creates some amazing surf waves!

This trip I really tried to keep a more detailed journal. I got in about four days, then just lost interest. Why write about something when it’s happening right in front of you? Too many things to see and watch. I’ll save the nostalgia until I’m home.