Scott Schaefer's River Journal

Marsh Creek and Middle Fork Salmon at 7.8 feet, 5/97

Submitted by Scott Schaefer

It was quite a trip, we were all fairly experienced- 3 WWIIs (15.5ft), 2 WWI-stretched, 1 14 ft cat, 1 16ft cat, and 3 Kayakers. Had some 14 ft boats wanting to go but did not let go, as we felt too small a boat for that water. We also required helmets and wet/dry suits.

Just days before we launched, the trip was questionable as the river was 9 ft and rising - projected to be over 11 ft. We kept our plans on schedule but prepared to cancel, even at the put in, if either above 9 ft or 8 ft and rising. We put in at Marsh (actually Cape Horn) on May 21st as the road to Boundary was closed. The flow was 8.04 and dropped from high 8s the day before. The forecast called for high 7s to low 8s throughout the remainder of our trip. Marsh, as expected, was wild and fast (only four eddy spots, five if you have a cat). None of us in the party did this section before. Safety always being first, we:

  • chartered a plane and flew over it a few days prior and scouted Marsh from air
  • had topo maps of Marsh area
  • made many calls to gather as much info as possible on Marsh

Marsh was full of fast water, blind corners and surprise holes. We had to line our boats under the first bridge (500 feet from road)...just barely fit. The second pack bridge was ok but was around a fast corner and had to duck (one guy nicked his head - thank God for helmets! Once on middle fork but above Dagger (about 6 miles), the river makes a hard right turn. Third boat started a wrap then flipped at the top point of the island just as river cut right - tight pull turn. One guy stuck on island, one guy swam. Second to last boat also got stuck same place but able to push off but had to go left of island through a mine field. Sweep boat (cat) was behind stuck boat. Between keeping eye on stuck boat, trying to find eddy, read river, and kayaker without a paddle telling him he had a swimmer down stream; he didn't observe previous stranded passenger stuck on island from previous flip. Sweep did capture swimmer about an hour later and a mile down stream (first catchable eddy) from island and shortly after caught up with first half of group - they already had swimmer's boat righted in fairly weak eddy (i.e. strong current)!

We ended up with half of party at Dagger and half camped 2 miles above Dagger too late and tired to make Dagger that evening) and a guy stuck on an island (no boat and he already paid). For the first three to four hours, we thought there was a good chance we lost him! Then, at Dagger camp, once we pieced all the information together between groups (sweep guy and kayaker talked to both parties that day...we brought radios for just such an emergency but could not get reception), we were confident that the lost guy was stuck on the island 5 miles back. Now the confidence that he was on the island varied from "done-deal" to " more than likely guy is dead" within the group.

While at Dagger, that first half of the party was also concerned about the second half as they were to have been to Dagger that evening as well. However, they were confident they pulled over and did not run into problems as they were well seasoned boaters. The Dagger party had three very experienced and able hikers head upstream with rescue gear. They first came across our other half of the party bedded down on a camp trail 2 miles above Dagger, welcomed news for all. The rescue team then proceeded on. They shared with the rest of us the feeling of despair and fear of losing a comrade while hiking up the 5 miles. Some of these hikers were ones on the side of having less confidence that he was safe on the island. Now, who's to say which state of mind is correct between the two. This is where groups are at their best! The confident ones (maybe just hope at times) keeping the worriers from losing hope and the worriers kept the non-worriers from being too complacent. We respected each person's mindset on this and as a team pulled together. As the rescue team got closer, the stranded islander suddenly heard a faint whistle in the back ground...what a relief and a burst of hope as the sun was settling down for bed. Soon, the rescue party shared the same joy when they heard the return voice acknowledge the whistle (each party should have a whistle, not just the captains). What was then like an eternity, shortly thereafter they found our guy on the island as hoped and prayed for. He was calm (as reasonably can be expected), had dried his clothes, set up a "small camp" with pine needle mattress and all the other comforts of the outdoors found on a remote Island....No, we did not give him the nickname Gilligan. The rescue team set up a line, pulled him off and had him back to camp around 3 AM! What a day!

We made the judgment to spend an extra day at Dagger. By the time we had the rest of the party portaged, it would be late, we would be tired and still a little "nerved" from the previous day, so we made the call to stay over. Although the whole river deserves respect, the section from Boundary to Pistol deserves more respect than one gives the god-father! So, with safety first, we spent the day playing horse shoes, cards, and making the load lighter (beer is not light...). The first night at Boundary we "bumped into" and visited with a group of Cater's as well as shared some dinner with some kayakers (a separate group). These two put-in the day we stayed over. Here is a story on the web about these two groups:

Dan Wagner, 45, a cat-a-raft passenger from Pocatello died on the Middle Fork of the Salmon on May 22nd. The following information has been gathered from e-mail and rbp posts. Actual events may have varied.

The flow was 7.7' as the group put on at Marsh creek. Apparently a cat-a-raft with a single oarsman flipped in Murph's Hole 1.2 miles below Boundary Creek. (This is where a sweep boat flipped in 1995) The oarsman was rescued and two boats headed down stream to recover the gear. The lead cataraft with 2 people on board flipped just above Velvet, both swimming Velvet in life jackets. The oarsman swam to shore while the passenger floated on. The body was spotted by an individual on their deck at Pistol who then radioed the Ranger at Indian Creek. The Ranger and a pilot were able to pull the body out just at the end of the Air strip. The flipped cataraft was found around Dolly Lake (a huge eddy) at mile 19 in very bad shape. This is where the group spent the night not knowing the fate of their friend. Four kayakers joined the group that night at Dolly Lake.

The victim had all of the correct clothing for a cold water trip, but was in the extremely cold water for 2-3 hours floating to Indian Creek.

If we could have changed one thing: we agreed we went down Marsh too heavy. We were fore-warned to go in light and fly some stuff in to Indian creek. We had the flights budgeted and planned for, but we were a little exuberant when loading the boats. Even once loaded, we considered unloading some and flying in but, at the flip of a mental coin, we choose to go on. Fortunately for us, all turned out well.

The trip from Boundary was as expected - wild. Careful reading of the river and proper oaring would seem to make the difference here. It was almost non-stop and fast. We actually went left of the rock at Velvet, save one boat went just right and did OK. Rest of the way was fast, big waves with nothing jumping out as critical - but that is usually the case when you either luck out or read and run correctly...or both. Pistol was washed out but was a big wavey-whirpool.

I recall seeing a camped group at I believe Dolly Lake and was surprised they had not budged yet (must have been shortly before noon). The camp seemed quite somber, could sense something was not right. After hearing what happened, was surprised they did not flag us down to send word down and see if we found anything...However, I can feel for them and the state they were in - having a missing guy and not knowing where he is.

We reached the ranger station at Indian Creek for lunch with Ranger Rick(one of the better rangers on the river). There we learned of the fate of the party before us. We had the 16ft cat and its driver fly-in and meet us there, but we were supposed to be there a day earlier...so we were late as far as he knew. Well, he helped Ranger Rick pull the body in. Imagine the ordeal he had when the Ranger pulled him over and asked him "is this any of your friends you've been waiting for?" Our guy told us the victim was a big/tall guy, maybe around 200-240lbs, 6ft-plus. He was in "perfect shape", even his sunglasses were on and unbroken.

We headed off from the station after getting checked out and camp sights assigned. Being the early season, we were surprised we did not get the camps we wanted (the other parties were willing to share the good ones with us - true generosity). Again, the rest of the river moved fast as expected. Most of the named rapids were in hibernation and could not be found. On the other hand, there were lots of big and huge waves where still waters lie at lower flows. As expected, the two rapids which deserve the utmost respect at high flows were hay-stack and lower-cliffside. Haystack was wild with huge holes. I just kissed the edge of one - it didn't have my name on it but it did have my initials. We had one boat lose a guy but got him back in shortly. Haystack at 6.8ft last year was a lot more frothy than this time. We ran left and worked towards center. If my memory serves me correctly, we should have started out a little more left. I heard the right is not bad at 8ft but without scouting, I went with what was tried and true. Just below haystack, we hit Jack Creek. This section was wild! huge roller coasters, mile after mile. Some of them had to have been over 25 feet from trough to peak. Felt like being on the ocean in high waves! Lets see 6-flags come close to this one!

Redside had some interesting waves and Webber was asleep. Lower Cliff-side was also less frothy than last year and the holes were well defined...and huge! Well, found the hole with my name on it. I was running sweep, last day, rest of the boats hugged the left wall as planned, so I had to venture next to the hole for some action...and revenge for flipping my friend last year. Well, the hole grabbed me, spanked me and it put me upside down under the cat still in my seat...or next to it before I had a chance to get scared. Got on the bottom, eddied, flipped back over with a little help from friends and off we went...not much dead time.

Shortly after that we came to Rubber. After our kayakers set up, with there not being a decent scouting point, and seeing it last year at 6.8ft, as well as not wanting to sit around after just flipping, I jumped on to rubber right down the middle and the rest followed (if I was driving a boat rather than a cat, I would have scouted first). We all did fine and got some big air. Compared to last year, the middle was more run-able this time. Last year at 6.8ft, the left had a nice shoot with 10-15ft rollers and the center was over 25ft with poppers! This time, the left seemed not to be there and the center was a big roller coaster without any poppers. Rest of the way down was washed out. Again last year, there were quite a few holes to watch for. This time it was just float on through.

All on all, we enjoyed ourselves and had one of those trips you're glad you did, can talk about, but hope not to experience again (...The Marsh experience and death in front of you...). In short, if you do the Middle Fork at high water; make sure you have a big boat (nothing less than 15ft, and more so, big tubes), read the river well (spot holes early on), respect the river, and be in a group that knows its limits.

After successfully running what we did, part of you, at least me, wants to believe you can all but walk on water. But, when you see things like what happened both just before our trip and afterwards as well as the potential for what almost could have happened to us, it brings you down to earth and sobers you quickly. It re-enforces in me that although you might be greatly skilled, the river always deserves respect, and good fortune goes to those who sow it.

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