Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

by Bud Henderson

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho has been called the "Disneyland" of white water rafting. On our trip in 1995, my wife, Annie, and I learned that the term "Disneyland" doesn't come close to describing the experience.

The Middle Fork is the major tributary to the Salmon River. It begins in the high meadow country in central Idaho, near the town of Stanley. The portion that is normally floated is a 97 mile section from the "put-in" at the Boundary Creek Campground (elevation: 5700 feet) to the "take-out" at Cashe Bar, three miles below the confluence with the Main Salmon (elevation: 3015 feet). This 100 mile, seven day trip is all within the Frank Church – River Of No Return Wilderness. On the Middle Fork section, there is very little development, a few "fly-in" lodges are the only sign of human habitation. At the half way point of the trip, the closest road is 50 miles away.

The first step in making a trip down the Middle Fork is to secure a permit. Due to the popularity of this river and to preserve the wilderness character of the area, a very limited number of permits for private floaters are available each season. The most popular times to make the trip are during the first three weeks of July. This is after the dangerously high water flows of the spring run-off, but before low flows of summer make the trip impossible.

On our annual Spring float trip on the John Day River in 1995, a friend who we often raft with asked if we had any plans for the 4th of July. We said we didn't, but were open. He said, "Well, you do now. You're invited to my 4th of July river party on the Middle Fork!" We had seen pictures of the Middle Fork and read about it, but had never really thought we would be able to make the trip.

My wife and I began floating whitewater rivers as a hobby in 1983. We rented rafts and other gear and floated the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. We met other people who enjoyed the outdoors in general and river rafting in particular, and soon were part of a group that floated together. We bought our own raft in 1992, a bright yellow 16' self-bailing boat, with "dry boxes" to store and transport gear, and an aluminum rowing frame. We floated increasingly difficult rivers to gain experience. In a few years, we had floated all the major Northwest rivers (Rogue, John Day, Main Salmon, and others) but not the Middle Fork.

Most "wilderness" rivers have a limited entry permit system. Applications are submitted in the winter for the summer floating season. The drawings are much like a controlled deer or elk tag drawing. The group of friends we raft with decide on dates when we want to go, then all put in for the same date. This "loads up" the odds in our favor, as the party size is about 20 people on most rivers. If one draws a permit, we all get to go.

In most parts of the U. S., rapids are rated on a numerical scale from Class 1 (very easy, small, regular waves, little maneuvering required) to Class 6 (extremely difficult, life threatening, very large waves and hydraulics, extremely technical, difficult maneuvering in heavy water required). This seems like a simple enough system, but whether a particular rapid is a Class 3 or a Class 4 is a judgement by the person who rated it, and also varies greatly depending on water flow. A rapid that is a Class 3 at "normal" flow may be a Class 5 at higher flows.

The Middle Fork has rapids that are rated as Class 3's and 4's during normal flows of 1000 to 2500 cubic feet per second (cfs). The guide books recommend floating the Middle Fork at flows in this range. Flows of 2500 - 4400 cfs are considered "moderately hazardous". Flows of 4400 - 6500 cfs are ranked as "a significant threat to life", and flows of over 6500 cfs are ranked as "suicidal".

Our party, sixteen hardy souls ranging in age from 10 to 63, arrived at the Boundary Creek Campground and boat ramp on June 30th, the day before our scheduled launch date. The river was at 5.1 feet on the gage, which translates to a flow of 4590 cfs, just barely into the "life threatening" range. The water temperature was 44 Fahrenheit. Did we really want to do this? We had purchased wet suits at Stanley earlier in the day on the advice of some of the professional guides, who said they wouldn't consider running the river at that level and temperature without them. We soon found that it was money well spent. It was with a great deal of apprehension that we slid our boat down the 100-foot pine log launch ramp and into the water of the Middle Fork.

The first rapid is only about 50 yards below the launch ramp. At that flow, I only had a few seconds to decide which channel to take and get the boat lined up on the proper chute, as the river was moving at about 10 miles per hour. I managed to hit the slot exactly as I intended, and thought, "Maybe this won't be so bad, after all. Only 340 classified rapids to go!" The upper 20 miles of the Middle Fork has an average drop of 42 feet per mile, has 10 major (Class 3 or higher) rapids, and at this flow, can only be described as SCARY! We made it successfully through Hell's Half-Mile, Tepee Hole, Sulfur Slide, and Rams Horn with no problems, but with adrenaline levels off the scale. Then came Velvet Falls. Velvet is an 8 foot waterfall, a solid Class 4 drop at any flow above low water. On this day, it was at least a Class 5, and much worse than anything I had ever run. At normal levels, the route is to pull hard left, tuck in behind a large boulder, and drop over a 4 foot high ledge into a calm pool below. Even with the added adrenaline, I couldn't get pulled into the slot behind the huge boulder. I told Annie, "Honey, we're going to get wet!" and hit the very middle of the falls. The boat dropped into the hole at the bottom of the waterfall, completely submerged, and washed me, still holding onto the oars, out of the back of the raft. I can remember looking up through a mass of bubbles and thinking, "Hmmm. So this is what the bottom of the boat looks like to the fish". My life jacket popped me to the surface in a few seconds, which only seemed like an hour or two. Disneyland ride? I don't think so! I swam over to the bank of the river and got my feet on dry land in time to see my upside-down raft floating merrily down the stream. Sometime between the time I washed out of the boat and the boat flipping, Annie was also thrown out. She was picked up by another boat in our group about a mile down stream. The person who had the float permit and the leader of our group rescued me, and we took off down the river to try to catch our boat before the next big rapid. We caught up with it a couple miles below, none the worse for the experience except for a little water in the "dry" boxes, and missing a small bag of miscellaneous gear. With considerable help from the rest of the group, we got the raft upright and continued down to our first night's camp. At this point in the trip, two thoughts were in the front of my mind. First, I'm sure glad we bought these wet suits; second, we still have 20 major rapids to run.

The next day, we ran two more Class 4's, Powerhouse and Pistol Creek, with no problems, and slept a little better that night. Day three was mellower, with only Marble Creek and Jackass Rapids, both Class 3, to navigate. Camp that night was at Hospital Bar, a hot spring camp. The 100 water in the pool next to the river did much to soothe muscles and nerves. The only big rapid the next day was Tappan Falls, a Class 4 that was much easier than I anticipated.

The next day was a "layover" day. We stay in camp, go fishing or hiking, repair equipment, or just relax. We also have a theme party the first evening of the layover, and the theme this year was "Hippie Night". Everyone vies for the most realistic or outlandish costume, and that year, I won, hands down. (If you're ever in my office, the pictorial proof is hanging on my wall).

The last two days on the river were exciting with the same high adrenaline levels of the first, but no more unscheduled swims. We ran many more Class 3 and 4 rapids, including Rubber Rapids (one of the 10 biggest drops in the country) with no mishaps.

It is difficult to put the Middle Fork experience into words. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has excellent fly fishing, exciting whitewater rapids, hot springs, ancient Native American pictographs and camp sites, and solitude in the largest wilderness area in the continental United States. If you ever have the opportunity to take this trip, you will never forget or regret it.

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