How to run The Salmon River Rapids
THE SALMON RIVER DRAINAGE
The Salmon River drainage can be divided into five distinct whitewater segments,
each with its own personality and level of difficulty. The Main Salmon River
has three segments that are often referred to as the Upper Salmon, the Main
Salmon (the middle portion of the river), and the Lower Salmon. The South
Fork of the Salmon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon are the fourth and fifth
whitewater runs in the Salmon River drainage.
THE UPPER AND MAIN SALMON
The Upper Salmon begins in the headwater area of the Sawtooth Mountains. This
stretch of the river near Stanley, Idaho, provides the river runner with beautiful
mountain scenery and moderately challenging rapids along a well-traveled Idaho
highway. The middle section of the Main Salmon River runs through a deep and remote
canyon in the heart of Idaho's backcountry. Here you'll find over 80 miles of
river classified as Wild and Scenic. Because of the high demand to float this
portion of the river, private rafters and kayakers enter an annual February lottery
to try to secure a summer permit for this segment of the river. The inexperienced
whitewater thrill seeker can always join a commercial outfitter for a catered
outdoor experience on any of Idaho's popular rivers.
THE LOWER SALMON
The Lower Salmon segment begins around the Idaho town of Riggins. The river
canyon on this stretch of river is more arid and open. The rock and pine tree
canyon walls of the Main Salmon give way to broad expanses of canyon vegetated
with sage and grasses. Where the canyon of the Lower Salmon narrows, rapids
of moderate difficulty develop in three distinct canyon stretches. Permits
for this segment of the Salmon River are available on request.
THE SOUTH FORK OF THE SALMON
Wild, remote and challenging, the South Fork of the Salmon dares the experienced
river runner to test his or her skills. Kayaks and catarafts are the usual
whitewater crafts chosen for this narrow, steep, and boulder-filled river
that empties into the middle segment of the Main Salmon River near Mackay
THE MIDDLE FORK OF THE SALMON
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River has been called the Disneyland of Whitewater.
The waters here twist and churn for over a hundred miles in the mountain wilderness
of Idaho. The rapids are fairly continuous and can be some of the most challenging
of all the western rivers. Permits are applied for through the lottery in
February. Private boaters have about a one in thirty chance to secure a permit
and a whitewater trip of a lifetime.
RIVER DIFFICULTY RATINGS
As with all rivers, the difficulty of the rapids often depends on the water
flow. Springtime often brings high and fast water flow that can make rivers
much more dangerous than they are at normal flows. Low water can make rapids
more difficult to navigate, increasing the danger of pinning a raft or kayak
on a rock.
The difficulty of rivers in Idaho is rated on a scale of class one to five (I, II, III, IV, V). Class five (V) water is often life threatening, four (IV) is very difficult and often risks injury or loss of equipment, three (III) is moderately challenging to the experience boater, two (II) usually indicates safe fun waves and easy maneuvering to avoid obstacles, and one (I) is fairly flat moving water.
The Upper Salmon is generally class II-III, the Main Salmon segment is usually class III-IV, the Lower Salmon is mostly class II-III (but has a class V rapid at very high water flows), the South Fork and the Middle Fork have a boat load of class II, III, and IV whitewater. In fact, the South Fork has several Class V rapids, too!
RUNNING RAPIDS--GATHERING INFORMATION
There are several ways to prepare
for running the rapids in a particular river segment. Government agencies
and private publishers have created maps, books, and packets of information
that locate and describe the major rapids of most whitewater rivers. Much
of this information is available from libraries near the whitewater river.
Word of mouth information is also valuable and can be the most current source
of information. Sources include the river ranger of the administrating government
agency, local whitewater retail stores, other river runners, and vehicle shuttle
companies. Commercial videos of whitewater rivers and their rapids are also
available for purchase or for rent from river-oriented outdoor stores.
RUNNING RAPIDS--KNOW WHAT'S AROUND THE BEND
Velvet falls, a class IV rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon has capsized
many an inattentive boater. Its smooth as velvet at times with a three-foot
drop that hides its sound and visual presence. Experienced boaters always know
where they are and what rapids are ahead. One way of knowing what's around the
bend is by constantly monitoring your progress down the river with the aid of
a river map. Staying oriented is the key. Once you lose your position it is
much harder to determine where you are.
Identify major drainages coming into the river and easily identifiable landmarks
like historic buildings, trails, bridges and general land features. If you are
technologically oriented, you could even use a GPS position locator. More practically,
use you watch to determine your position. Time your first half hour and hour
of travel. Note where you are and how far you have traveled each time. If you
went 1.5 miles the first one half hour and another 1.5 the second half hour,
you have a good estimate that your progress in similar water flow for the next
hour will be 3 miles per hour. At a rate of three miles per hour, you'll be
real close to Velvet falls (around mile five) in an hour and forty minutes from
the start of your Middle Fork trip.
Unless you are an experienced river guide, all class IV and V rapids should be scouted for the best route and for potential dangerous obstacles. Even class III rapids should be scouted if you are not real familiar with them. Pull out well above the head of the rapid on the side of the river that gives the best view of the rapid. Hillsides are great for seeing the whole rapid, but a walk down along the river gives you a real life view of what to expect at water level.
Plan your route through the rapid. One useful technique is to determine where
you want to be at the end of the rapid and then back plan your route to the
top and where you want to enter the rapid. Where you enter a rapid and how you
position you craft at that point is often the critical moment in a successful
run. If you start out poorly, things generally don't get any better for the
rest of the run. Have your route through the rapid memorized. Visualize yourself
going through the rapid making all the required moves to follow your planned
route. Use landmarks that are readily identifiable from water level to note
your progress through the rapid, or to identify when you have to make critical
moves. If you can't quite figure out a safe route, odds are that if you wait
a while someone else will come along and run the rapid before you and show you
an acceptable route.
RUNNING RAPIDS--READY, AIM, FIRE
Running a scouted rapid is 90% preparation and 10% duration. If you've done
the scout well and the rapid isn't outrageously difficult, you merely follow
your plan to a successful run. River runners often scout for a half hour and
then run the rapid in a minute. Of course the boater has to have the skills
to make the craft do what is necessary to get through the rapid. Here again
preparation is the key. Whenever you can, practice doing difficult maneuvers
in easy rapids to build your skills. Know how to avoid obstacles, and what to
do if you are about to hit one. Learn how to spin off rocks, high side, punch
through holes, ferry, and catch eddies. And if you are a beginner, always follow
the route of the boat in front of you if they make a clean run.
May the force be with you and may the river gods bless you with good luck and safe boating.
(Idaho river runner Jim Acee prepared this report on how to scout a rapid.)