From: Julie Hall
Dear Paddling Pals & Adventure Lovers,
I've returned from another great river adventure & thought you might enjoy hearing the tale (a 5 day & 4 page saga). The cast of characters includes "Canoe Ken" Wiesmore, Ted Thomason (Cat Skinner & Pirouette Portager), Kurt Bouman (Gear Jammer), & Yak (kayak) Surfing Masters Jon Wheeler, Travis Bailer & Steve Vacendak. (Travis & Steve were -- luckily! -- fellow students with me in Les Bechdel's white water rescue class last March.) Our snow launch on Marsh Creek was noon last Thursday, May 21, with the Middle Fork Lodge gauge at 4.2, a couple feet of snow on the ground, & a warming trend on its way: Ken had timed his permit application to try to catch the high water & hit it just right.
Marsh Creek started out docile enough but rapidly picked up to be a very fast stream with a 54 fpm gradient & a fair amount of down timber. I quickly recognized my limits & gratefully hopped aboard the gear raft with Kurt, where I was put to good use pushing & pulling the loaded raft off the rocks it frequently hung up on. Meantime the yakers didn't waste a moment but got in some nice long sledding seal launches from along the canyon-side avalanche chutes.
We arrived at Dagger Falls about 5 p.m. & decided to portage the rafts & take advantage of the outhouse equipped campground. & the Yak Masters decided it was a great opportunity to run the falls twice -- once in the evening & again the next morning (everyone who's seen the photos, says "Wow! Those kayaks sure look small".
After a cold, rainy night (brightened by a distant haunting melody from Jon's penny whistle), Friday dawned clear & started the warming trend that was with us for the rest of the trip. Knowing that the day held Sulfur Slide, Velvet Falls, The Chutes, & Powerhouse, I happily served as raft navigator & occasional oarsman since Kurt had injured his eye during the portage (& he inspired my rowing with harmonica blues).
One of the great benefits of an early season trip is not having to compete for campsites & hot springs. We started our hot springs tour of the River of No Return Wilderness with lunch at Trail Flats, where the pool on the rocky river bank is just deep enough to submerge those sore shoulders. A nap after lunch would have been very nice, but thoughts of Powerhouse & Pistol Creek ahead and the by now obviously rising river kept me alert. The tight S turn on Pistol Creek Rapid -- barreling toward the wall -- was a real thrill on the raft. The strong eddy currents kept Ken busy as he tried to photograph us coming through ... but not as busy as Steve who we later learned decided to make a swimming descent (the yakers had been lagging way behind, in Surf Heaven).
We made it to Indian Creek Guard Station by beer thirty & enjoyed another outhouse equipped camp -- this one with a $2000 Clivus Multrum composting toilet. Ranger Rick (yes, really!) welcomed us while we filled our water containers & the next morning we were thoroughly inspected for the required fire pan, dishwater strainer, port-a-potty, shovel & (be sure to note this, David) bucket. Our morning camp also included a demonstration by Jon of the twirling bucket method of coffee grounds settling, quite an impressive feat (though threatening to the feet!) The outhouse was very nice, but Indian Creek has (during summer season) the 2nd busiest airport in the state next to Boise so I wouldn't recommend it as a camp of choice.
Saturday offered several miles of "flat water" paddling, but with the river up to 5.2 I got some excellent experience with strong eddy lines & choppy waves. Ken taught me lots about reading the water, spotting holes & sneaking inside corners which also helped my confidence. At our Marble Creek Rapid scout, I enjoyed a visit with 6 women who'd flown in to backpack from Indian Creek to Loon Creek, & the guys had a Surfing Safari. We savored another hot springs lunch at Sunflower Flat with its series of pools thick with Johnny jump-ups & hot shower cascade into the river; then hopped on down river to Whitie Cox Camp where we left on dry suits to protect us from the hot spring's mites (hot springs in dry suits?), & admired the pile of antlers & flag on the infantry-stone marked grave site.
Saturday night landed us at Big Loon Camp, justly famous for its hot spring. While everyone else focused on dinner, I snuck off for a hike to the springs & a solitary soak. The mile trail up Loon Creek was thick with wildflowers: balsam root, violets, phlox, woodland star, & wild clematis (a blue mystery flower suggesting a shooting star). & the massively planked spring on the banks of the creek, overhung with blooming service berry & with snow covered mountains in the distance, was one of the most beautiful I've ever visited. Walking back along the adjoining Simplot Ranch pastures I was treated to a large herd of elk as well as having to wind my way through grazing draft & riding horses. The springs were so wonderful that we all took several warming soaks before heading out the next morning.
Sunday we skipped the last of the Middle Fork hot springs at Hospital Bar (it was under water), but stopped to admire the Tappan cabin at Grouse Creek (graciously left open by the Bob Simplot family for river travelers to visit). Huge lilacs overhung the cabin, thick with swallowtail butterflies & blossoms perfuming the air, & Grouse Creek happily tumbled down a rocky wooded glen behind it. The homestead radiated the beauty & solitude that must have drawn many pioneers to this river & it was hard to pull myself away from such a magical place. But Tappan Falls called & our river adventure flowed on.
After an exciting but uneventful run of the four Tappan Rapids, we were ready for a lunch break at Camas Creek Camp. This steep creek sorely tempted Ken, our Class V canoeist, but he settled for a hiking scout on this trip. A climb up the steep hillside rewarded us with spectacular views & lots more desert wildflowers including hot red fire cracker penstemens as well as lovely blue ones, & fragrant sagebrush. We also stumbled on the interesting remains of a horse with a bullet hole through its forehead; the hoofs were collected as souvenirs & their odor discretely moved from raft to cat as the trip progressed.
The river was now up to about 5.7 on the gauge (5,740 cfs & graded as hazardous) & that was before the added volume of all the creeks below MF Lodge: class II rapids had substantial waves & we were finding whitewater where none is described in the books. Haystack, the first of the really significant lower rapids still lay ahead of us so we rousted out Travis, who had turned into Rip Van Winkle worn out by too much surfing (is there such a thing as too much?), & headed on down the river. After a brief stop at the Flying B Ranch for sodas & a phone call (civilization!), we scouted Haystack which has gone up in class since a slide several years ago. We found a good line & got views into its raft eating holes from a fairly comfortable distance.
Survey Creek Camp was our last night on the river & our first night to use "The Groover," named for the marks it leaves behind (on yours). The camp lies below a sweeping sagebrush plateau with views back up into the high country & deer grazing unconcerned with my attempts to get close-up photos. We got a good night's sleep in preparation for the final day's challenges with nightcaps of Ken's Hot Peppermint Patties (hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps) & more blues harmonica from Kurt.
Monday started with a great pancake breakfast & search for our river markers which were buried by the rapidly rising water -- the river gained about .7 ft overnight! Our first stop was Waterfall Creek shaking the ground with the force of it's tumbling water & creating rainbows across its bridge. Ken's canoe had developed a stress fracture so he did some boat repair & we continued on. Veil Falls, our next stop, is one of those places where you can enter the heart of the world: a large cavern behind the falls is marked with pictographs by earlier river travelers & graced with forget-me-nots, junipers, & a perfect bonsai tree. Swallows dance against the sky, & the water weaves patterns of lace as it falls. Another place hard for me to leave.
The river continued very busy with time for only a glimpse of bighorn sheep high on the cliffs above us. Our lunch at the scout for Redside Rapid didn't lend itself to large appetites. Redside looked nasty & was. Ken & Ted chose the left side & had good runs. Kurt & I made it through the main drop on the tongue, but then met a wave that munched the fully loaded gear raft as a light after lunch snack. Ted got to us really quickly & we were out of the water in less than 2 minutes, but Captain Kurt jumped back onto the overturned raft with hopes of landing it before Weber. Meanwhile, the cat is getting surfed on another big wave & I'm wondering if I've gone out of the frying pan & into the fire. Things settled down for a moment & I got a throw line to Kurt (a bit short & I'll be working on my throw). We hit Weber, though, before he could do anything with it & he had to turn loose facing the next nasty rapid on an overturned raft & with only a paddle for navigation. Somehow we all made it through ... all I remember is a blur ... but it took us almost another 2 miles to get the overturned raft eddied out, with Kurt paddling like crazy in the fast water, & everyone else pushing the raft with their boats. All that z-drag practice was put to good use, & we got the raft flipped back over surprisingly easily (easy for me to say -- with 6 guys, my job was getting photos). & we were really lucky -- besides a chewed up oar, the only losses were tools in the ammo cans (which had their lids ripped off) & my "boutique" throw rope, not designed to be used as a serious tool.
The rest of the run out we approached with caution -- it was continuously fast & busy, with the size & complexity of the waves only increasing at the named rapids: the two Cliffsides, Ouzel, Rubber, Hancock, Devil's Tooth, House Rocks, Jump-off, & Goat Creek. About 5:30 we made it to the confluence & were surprised (& maybe a little relieved) to see our rig waiting there instead of at Cache Bar, another 4 miles down the Main. The drive out allowed that gradual transition from the continuous present of being on the river, through lowering adrenaline levels, and into beer & fresh green food in Salmon. The Twin Falls boaters pushed on home & to work the next morning; the unemployed of us (all the kayakers, of course) camped under a no camping sign on the road to Stanley Lake & continued on home the next day.
This was my first high water trip & I've gained a lot of respect for the magnitude of change that can occur on spring rivers. It was a treat to be on the Middle Fork before the busy tourist season (we saw only 2 other small groups), to be there during the gorgeous unfolding of the spring wildflowers, and a privilege to learn from & be inspired by the skill of excellent boaters & to enjoy the company of people who love the wilderness. It was the perfect start to my 2nd year of boating, and I send special thanks to Ken and my fellow adventurers for helping me get to dance with this magnificent river.