Pete Zimowsky's River Journal

A month after the wildfires of 2000, Pete Zimowsky of The Idaho Statesman toured the Middle Fork of the Salmon ina kayak. This is his journal of the fire damage he saw.

Day one, Oct. 2, 2000 10 a.m. Joe Corlette banked the Cesna 206 so that my window was facing right down at the mountainside opposite Pistol Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I almost lost my cookies. No, make that my hashbrowns and eggs from breakfast. What was worst than the slight nausea in the pit of my stomach, was the piercing pain in my heart when I got the first glimpse of what forest fires had done to my beloved Middle Fork. The mountainside opposite Pistol Creek was charred. The soil was black and gray. A sooty dust was being whirled around by a breeze. The once green pine and fir trees looked like licorce sticks sticking up from a mountainside that looked like it was covered with tar paper. My beloved Middle Fork. What had happened? A bluish, gray smoke smoldered from a few of the snags. Pistol Creek is one of the most popular campsites along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Oh, how I remember it from past river trips. River runners vie for the campsite, which has a great beach and giant, shady pines. But even though the eastside of the river was nuked by fire, the campsite on the westside was still intact. The huge pines and beach weren't in that bad of shape. Thank the river gods.

My first visit to this central Idaho wilderness was in 1977 when I floated the Main Salmon River with outfitter Dave Mills. Mills turned me on to a life of river running. I was a greenhorn kid just barely in my 30s. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness wasn't a designated wilderness yet. It was still called a Primitive Area without the full-bore protection of wilderness. It has always looked the same since that day when I was born into a life of river running. I've been floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon since the mid-‘80s and have grown accustomed to it being the same every float season.

Katherine, Rocky Barker, the Statesman's environmental reporter, and I were on a mission. It was a five-day trip on the Middle Fork in early October to see just what the heck the fires had done to the Middle Fork, a stream loved by wilderness travelers worldwide. We were lucky. Three river experts with the U.S. Forest Service were going with us. Ken Stauffer, Norm Ando and Dave Sabo, all avid river runners, flew in to the backcountry airstrip at the Indian Creek Guard Station the night before. Here we were just about to land. It was going to be a quick float trip, pushing about 70 miles in five days at a very slow, low flow. Normally, the run on the Middle Fork is about 100 miles. That's if you start at Boundary Creek, where the only road comes in. But we had to cut about 24 miles off the trip because the upper part of the river was too shallow. Anyway, the big fire damage started at Pistol Creek, just upstream from Indian Creek.

We Arrive at Indian Creek
Joe banked the plane and headed for Indian Creek. Indian Creek is only a few miles from Pistol Creek. We were there in minutes. "We can land," Joe says, banking his Cessna and approaching Indian Creek from downriver. The plane drops. We all are relieved. The Forest Service rafts on rigged and ready to go. The Cessna's wheels bounce along the dirt strip. There it is. The Indian Guard Station. It survived the fire. In fact, much of Indian Creek survived. There was some sagebrush burned in front of the Forest Service guard station but it looked pretty good. Six deer browse through the area, only about 10 to 20 feet from the guard station. They are taking advantage of something in the burned areas, maybe the salt or something.

It's 11 a.m. and I still can't take my eyes off the opposite bank from Indian Creek. The east side of the river is black with black sticks poking up against a blue autumn sky. Ponderosa pines with brown needles portray a story to come. Soon the pines will die, fall over and possibly slide into the river and be washed away into a logjam, someplace downstream. It's all part of the wilderness cleansing and rebirth. On our side of the river, fire burned fingerly throughout the Indian Creek launch site. The launch ramp was saved but a few black stumps decorate the beach below. The black ground will turn to green next spring as new shoots will emerge toward the sun in the spring. A rebirth will take place, ever so slowly. OK, it's time to launch. Indian Creek is at River Mile 24.7. We make our way downstream and I immediately learn what to expect. Low water. Rocks. Bumpy and grinding for the next five days. Golden-brown pines, black sticks and black stumps, all remnants of the summer's fires, can be seen for several miles downstream. But this area below Indian Creek has burned before. There is evidences of old fires and rebirth.

The day goes on and we pass under the Indian Creek Pack Bridge and things are starting to look a little more green. There isn't much evidence of fire. I'm worried. The river is low and all I'm doing is dodging rocks in my kayak. The rafts simply slip over some of the rocks or bounce off others. If I hit a rock, I might get broached and cause a delay if everybody has to get me off. So, I continue to watch for every hidden obstacle in the river. There's no time for fun, like surfing small waves.

The Forest Service rangers didn't like having one kayaker along. Kayakers should travel in pairs for backup It's difficult for a raft to get to a kayaker that's in trouble. But I wanted the flexibility to move all over the river with my waterproof camera and get the shots I wanted for my slide show. So far it's working.

Sunflower Flat Unchanged
Mile after mile, my favorite Middle Fork remains unchanged. The fire hadn't reached this part of the river. At River Mile 32.6, we hit Sunflower Flat, a very popular hot springs on the river. It's a good place for lunch and a chance to head up to the upper hot springs and see if it is the same as when I ran the river in 1998. It's a magnificent hot springs that cascades over a rock ledge to the river's edge. You can take a hot shower if you want. The hot springs sits on a bluff overlooking the river. There's a backdrop of the cliffs on the other side of the river with granite rocks and interspersed pine trees. White rocks are piled around the hot spring in a giant circle. Nearby is the grave of Whitie Cox, a Middle Fork icon. On his grave are piled weathered, bleached deer and elk antlers and skulls. It must be some tribute to the Middle Fork pioneer. We continue downstream. It's the old Middle Fork I remember.

Hunting Unaffected by Fires
That afternoon, we meet elk hunter Jeff Hull as he crosses the Middle Fork on a pack bridge at Thomas Creek, below the Middle Fork Lodge. By the way, the Middle Fork Lodge is as beautiful as it ever has been. Hull's packstring is a classic picture. The rack of a five-point bull elk sticks up from the mule at the back of the string. Hull says there's a lot of game. The fire hasn't affected hunting back here. Just below the Middle Fork Lodge, fly anglers try their luck on cutthroats. It's the old Middle Fork. The fires are still smoldering upstream but Jeff proves life goes on along the Middle Fork. It's 4:45 p.m. and we're just getting to Upper Jackass campsite. The temperature has dropped to 56 degrees as the sun hides behind a mountain ridge. I remember Upper Jackass campsite from the early ‘90s. It's the same and that is reassuring. What a great campsite. The tent's up and it's time to relax with a Guinness. Just sipping a brew and watching the river go by. Life is simple on the Middle Fork.

Day Two Oct. 3. 7:30 a.m.
I am not going to get out of this sleeping bag. I never dreamed it would be this cold on the Middle Fork in October. We're only at about 4,000 feet in elevation, but still, it's so cold. I crawl back into the sleeping bag and wait until someone else gets up to put on the coffee. Squirrels are chattering. Suddenly I hear the hiss of the gas stove. Good, coffee's brewing. I peek out the tent flap. A faint light is illuminating the eastern sky. The ridgelines are still dark. Darn October sun, it won't be up for hours, especially with these tall canyons. Heck, might as well get up and do some yoga to loosen up for another full day of kayaking. Yoga feels better on the river. What a place to meditate. I pile on the poly pro long johns, fleece jacket, wool hat and gloves and fleece pants. It's almost tolerable to get out the the tent. Shoot man, there's frost on my life jacket. Yeah, FROST!. You mean I've got to crawl in my wet, frozen neoprene shorts and dry top? My wool socks are frozen solid like boards. Here I thought I was getting this plush assignment from the Statesman to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon. It has already turned into a survival mission. Got to get to the gas stove and brew some espresso. We eat breakfast quickly and in no time it's one the river. The heck with the frost. No matter how cold it is, it's time to launch and keep going. Remember, the mission. Remember our Middle Fork. Despite frozen socks and river shoes, it is turning out to be a good day on the river. We are trying to get to Hospital Bar, a campsite with a hot springs. Hot springs. Soothing hot springs. What a thing to look forward to. We push downriver. Lower Jackass Flat, Pine Flat, Whitey Cox Hot Springs, Shelf Camp and Loon Creek. They all remain as they have for years and years. There is no recent fire damage. But the fire at Indian Creek and Pistol Creek have us looking more closely at the mountain ridges. Fire has always been a part of the Middle Fork. There is evidence of past fires, but you don't really notice it unless you are really looking for it. Vegetation grows back, even though it takes decades. It makes you appreciate fire in the wilderness and the renewal that comes.

Hospital Bar Hot Springs
Big Loon Camp, Cow Creek Camp, and Cave Camp. It all looks good. The hours pass quickly and we are pulling into Hospital Bar. Boy, it's good to see Hospital Bar. I love this campsite. It's huge. Large pines are scattered throughout the area. The hot springs is steaming and just the right temperature. There are a few burned trees that have fallen to the ground. A fire came through last summer but the grass came back. The ridge and plateau above the camp burned but it doesn't look like anything had happened. . A year later, the area has been reborn. I pitch my tent next to a huge downed ponderosa pine and settle down with a Guinness. It is black. Several other trees are down in the campsite but the campground on the whole looks just like I remember it years ago. It's a time to remember the trips on the Middle Fork. Hospital Bar is beat to hell. Not from fires but from constant use by river campers. Its grass is trampled. The river bar has been a popular place ever since it was used by the U.S. Army in the 1800s. The Middle Fork has a long history.

The hot springs feels good after a six hours of paddling and rock dodging on the Middle Fork. The water is about 100 to 102 degrees (about the same as my hot tub back home). It's nature's remedy for sore muscles. I just stare at the massive black sky. The hot water soothes the muscles and the black sky soothes the soul. Stars go from one horizon to the other. The world looks minute when you look at a night sky. Life goes on along the Middle Fork.

Day Three Oct. 4 8 a.m.
There's frost on the dry boxes on the rafts this morning. The temperature had dropped into the 30s again. We cook up some sausage and eggs for breakfast. I manage to climb the bluff and find a good place to face east and greet the sun with yoga. Espresso is next. What would the soldiers who passed through here in the late 1800s think about yoga and espresso. Ah, well. We finally hit the river at about 11 a.m. We waited for the sun to hit the river but the canyon walls are steep. It's still cold and you can see your breath. My life vest is still frozen. The first splash of the day is hard to take. But it doesn't matter. I'm glad to see the Middle Fork is the same old Middle Fork. No fire damage for miles as we pass Horsetail Camp, Cub Creek Camp, Upper Grouse Creek Camp and Lower Grouse Creek Camp. I remember having lunch at Upper Grouse Creek a few years back. It was a wonderful time. My gut gets a little jumpy as we near dreaded Tappan Falls. What the heck is it going to look like?

Tappen Falls at Low Water
It's River Mile 57.9 and there it is. What a mess. At this flow it's nothing but a four-foot drop over a cliff. I can't do it in the kayak. We all stop to scout. The raft guides look at it and try to find a route on the right side. It's narrow but they can do it. They will hit rocks but the rafts should slide over. They do. Now it's my turn. I yell downstream that I'm not going to run the main drop. It would take my kayak and flush it as if I was swirling in a toilet. There's also a good chance I can get stuck in the churning mess and pushed up against the bottom of the falls. I don't want to spent that much time in the water, especially on a cool fall day. I push off and take my kayak down a little slot on the left side of the falls. I can't see the drop until I get around some rocks and take the chute. ROCK. The chute is blocked by a rock and I start back paddling. There's no way through! I eddy out and get out of my kayak, walking the rest of the way downstream. Sometimes you walk. It's better than a swim.

We Hit the Fire Zone
We stop at Camas Creek Camp for lunch and start to notice some murky water. It's erosion from the fire damage up Camas Creek. It's getting late in the day and we have to make time if we will get to the Flying B Ranch and talk to the staff and take pictures. That is the crucial part of the trip. The landscape still looks good. Then, below Funston Camp, we see black here and there and it gets worse. As soon as we round the bend in Aparejo Point Rapids we hit the fire zone. Slopes are blackened but some of the pines are still green. As we push downriver more and more fire damage is evident. Trail Camp's pines are still green and blowing in the wind but the mountain above it is black.

My biggest shock came when we saw Sheep Camp. Oh how I remember the volleyball games at this campsite. The pines along the river bank are blackened part way up the trunks. Hopefully they will live. The giant grassy bowl behind the campsite is nuked. There is still live vegetation in the creek bed. I remember the green, wide open hillsides above Sheep Camp. Sheep Camp is still useable. It will probably green up by next spring. I can't believe that the fire went all the way from the river to the tops of the tree-lined mountain ridges. It looks about seven miles away. We walk Sheep Camp and ponder what the blaze looked like. It's hard to imagine being back here. It's time to shove off and see what we were all anticipating - the Flying B Ranch. The B as it is affectionately known. It's just around the bend. The river takes us around the bend and there is the shoreline of Mormon Ranch. Black. The vegetation fried to a crisp. The ranch, which is located on the east side of the river is OK but the mountainsides and canyons were singed. It's the same story for the hillsides on the west side of the river. Black. I'm really getting tired of black. It's heartbreaking, although you know it's nature's way.

The Flying B Ranch
It's late afternoon and we approach The B. It was the place of the stories of a fire hurricane. A fire ball ripped down the canyon and day became night. The stories that flowed across the Internet were riveting. I was well ahead of the group as my kayak hit the riffle just above the beach at The B. It looks bad. The vegetation along the shoreline was nuked. I had to see The B. Was the lodge still there? I walk up the trail with an ache in my gut. There it is. The familiar brown log lodge is just the way it had been all the years I've visited it. I remember spending hours here waiting for a plane to take me out of the backcountry after a cutthroat trout fishing trip. The lawn in front of the place is still green. The weathered deer and elk antlers are still there. What I notice immediately is that the canyon above the lodge looks like it was hit by napalm. The hillsides have no vegetation.

Brush Creek is nuked. I can't use another word to describe it. The black carcass of a coyote remains in the creek bed where the animal had sought shelter from the firestorm. The animal was flash-dried in a state like hardened molten lava. The coyote apparently had crouched down to let the fire go over it. The fire didn't. and the animal now looks like something out of Pompei. It was bad. The staff at the Flying B show us around. They lost 90 tons of hay, one cabin and the roof off another building. How they saved the place is beyond believe. They have photos of the remains of dead bear, deer and grouse. They were flash frozen in time by an intense blaze.

Fire Buckles a Bridge
A walk down to the river reveals the fury of the firestorm. The packbridge at The B was blown off its foundation by the windstorm in front of the fire. The bridge is buckled in one spot and it suddenly dawns on you. The magnitude of the hurricane force winds that precede a fire. The Flying B was at the eye of the fire hurricane but it has survived. "It was a war zone," George Fattig said, "I thought I was dead." Fattig is one of the workers at the ranch. River runners who come down the Middle Fork next season will be able to stop in for ice cream or souvenior t-shirts. They will be able to sit on the green lawn and take a break. They'll find the lodge intact. Inside are the varnished log walls and a stone fireplace. Across the main room is a player piano with a stuffed cougar sitting on it. Elk, antelope and deer heads adorn the walls. Yes, the famous B is still there.

Day Four - Oct. 4 7:30 a.m.
Darn squirrel. I want to sleep in. Shoot! Shut up! I'm a wreck from yesterday's long day. Goll, my bones are sore and my muscles feel like they're been stomped by a mule.

We pack up so fast that my kayak still has ice in it. Another day of putting on frozen kayak clothing. The things I do for the Statesman. As we get ready to shove off, my heart sinks. There it is. A black sludge curls around the rocks and shoreline. I put my white paddle in the river and it becomes wrapped in what looks like an oil slick. Well, there wasn't an oil spill on the river. It was the ash, silt and speckles of granite. The river is running gray from the silt coming down Brush Creek at the Flying B. Remember, Brush Creek's vegetation was totally nuked. There is nothing to hold back the silt and mud. It is now making its way down the Middle Fork. The river is cloudy. We meet up with a Forest Service trail crew at Driftwood Camp. They are fixing the trail from Camas Creek to the mouth of Big Creek. All their equipment is on a pack string. As we shove off after talking with them, I notice a scum of ash that has settled on the beaches in the area. It is like a black bath tub ring. It will probably get cleaned out by high water next spring but you never know. Brush Creek wasn't going to become stable until new vegetation takes over the creek bed. There was more fire damage in this area. Wilson Creek Camp is burned to the beach. The underbrush is gone, but luckily, the big ponderosa pines remain. One is black 20 feet up its trunk. Downriver, Grassy Flat Camps 1 and 2 are black. But already, Oregon grape shoots are poking through the blackened ground. The grassy camps will be green again by spring. We stop at Rattlesnake Creek and Rattlesnake Cave to look at the pictographs. The area is intact and has been spared by the fire. The historical evidence of past peoples survived for the future. I love the pictograph of a caribou with hunters. We head downriver. Survey Creek Camp, partially burned. We blast through Waterfall Rapids. It was bony. I barely made it over a couple of boulders.

Waterfall Creek Untouched by Fires
I had to see Waterfall Creek. It's so beautiful. Did the fire get it? Luckily, no. Waterfall Creek gushes its velvety flow as usual. Thank the river gods it was untouched. We stop at Big Creek for lunch. I remember a pack trip down Big Creek in the early ‘80s. We camped about 7 miles down from the trailhead and the canyon was thick with green pines and underbrush. I put on a grasshopper fly and crawled through the brush dropping it in swirling pools. Cutthroats would hammer it. Half the time a cutt would take it make a run over a log and break off. Those cutts were big. Wonder what it looks like where I fished? The mouth of the Big Creek was not touched by fire. The scene downriver looks like the old Middle Fork. No fire damage. But if you look up Big Creek, you can see where fire burned the ridgelines. A brackish water flowed down Big Creek into the Middle Fork. It's a sign of runoff to come. The dark water is a sure sign that something had gone on upstream on Big Creek. You could see it.

We float along in gentle waters. Suddenly, I look up and there it is. Veil Falls. The falls is a favorite among floaters. It's a landmark. It's on a high cliff overlooking the river. The whole rock cliff looks like a giant amphitheater. It, too, was untouched by fire. Lots a times in past trips we would hike up to the falls and stand under its mist. Not today, we had to make time. I'm glad Veil Falls is as beautiful as ever.

Time flies and Porcupine Rapids appears on the horizon. Here we go. Watch the big rock ledge. Yikes, look at it. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. Whew! Jeez, that rock wall is coming up too fast, where the heck do I go? A cushion of water pushes me somewhere and within seconds I'm in quiet water watching two rafts splash through. It's non-stop. In less than two miles we approach the head of Redside Rapids. It's a short, steep drop with huge boulders. I go for it. Success by the skin of my teeth again. It's not a place to relax. In about three-tenths of a mile Weber Rapids greets us. My forearms are aching. Workman's comp? I was getting cold because of being doused with icy water in waves and holes. My kayak had hit so many rocks, I didn't think it had much life left. My backup paddle is taking a beating on the rocks. Weber scares the heck out of me. It's one of the meanest rapids on the river. It's a rocky mess. All I did was slip over boulders and fall into big holes. Blip. Bam. Blip. Bam. It's like taking punches from a heavyweight champion. Weber is a heavyweight. I find myself in quiet water again, wondering what the heck had happened. I'm still upright. Good sign. The Forest Service guys still think I'm a good boater. Ha! We float another couple of miles and come up on Parrot Cabin. Did it burn? An old Middle Fork character Earl Parrott mined this stretch of river. He was a hermit and had an elaborate ladder system going from his river cabin to another cabin up in a mountain valley 2,000 feet above the river. The river cabin was there - another historical site that was not touched by fire.

We couldn't stay long at Parrot Cabin. Had to blast downstream. It's getting late in the day and we want to make Cliffside Camp, which is about two miles away.

It's late, around 5:30 p.m. and we are at Cliffside camp setting up tents and getting the cooking area ready. A can of Guinness sounds good at this point as I write in my journal and record a packed day of events. As daylight disappears, moonlight starts to brighten, casting shadows on the cliff opposite the camp. It's beautiful. What a place to be.

Day five, Oct. 6, 8 a.m.
I'm awakened by the clank of dishes. Someone's brewing coffee. It's 37 degrees in the tent. Got to be well below freezing outside. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and put on fleece from head to toe. Wool gloves. Wool hat. It's time to peek out of the tent. This morning I'm greeted by a pair of ouzels as I go through my yoga routine on the beach. Great place for yoga. They are so limber as they dance from rock to rock. Ouzels have such a cheery spirit. They are truly a whitewater bird. Love they way they dive, dip and bounce all over the place. Life goes on along the Middle Fork. Back to yoga. Got to loosen up or this 53-year-old paddler will pull some muscles he never knew existed. We've got to blast out of here and it's too cold to get on the river. There's a puddle of ice in my kayak. I can't get it out. I'll just have to sit in it. Cold butt. I finally see some tracks around my tent. Bighorn tracks. Can't believe they came into camp. Enough of the wildlife lesson. The first splash comes in Ouzel Rapids. I didn't need it right in the face. Ouzels are following me down river. That's good. They are good luck. "Are we going to stop and scout Rubber Rapids," I yelled to Ken. No, we're just going to blast through, he says. It's a Class IV rapids and known for flipping rafts and kayaks. You can hear it around the bend. Norm's raft goes through bouncing over rocks. I follow close behind getting bounced over rocks and launched into holes. I'm not awake yet and almost go over. "That was wild," I yell. "That's not Rubber," Norm yells back. It was a no name rapids above Rubber. I'm in deep, deep trouble. Rubber comes fast. The horizon line looks foreboding. This is it. Rubber is one of the biggest rapids on the river. Did I say that already. We all slip through it with ease and without thinking. Rubber is a puppy at low water. The rapids above it were more difficult. This is the last day on the river. We are hoofing it to get to the take out on the Main Salmon at Cache Bar. There no stopping for Hancock Rapids. It's another rocky mess that has rafts scraping over rocks and me getting banged and bounced like a pool ball. Devils Tooth drops me, spins me and shoots me downstream. House Rock and Jump Off rapids try to flip me. After all that I'm still upright. We near the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon. Civilization. There's a car. A truck. Steelhead anglers line the banks of the Main. We have completed five days on the Middle Fork. Yes, parts of it had burned. Parts of it will burn in future years.

No matter what: Life goes on along the Middle Fork and I want to be part of that life.

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