Rafting the Middle Fork Salmon River 11/16-Aug-2017

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho

Rafting: All the fun of wilderness backpacking without having to carry anything.  It also allows us to visit remote areas that would be a considerable challenge to reach, much less traverse, on foot.  We were hooked the moment we tried it!  So after we finished our second raft trip through the Grand Canyon in 2014 (post) and a float through Hell’s Canyon in 2016 (post), we looked around for another long river to raft in the U.S.  Our O.A.R.S. guides on the Colorado had spoken well of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, so we signed-on to an O.A.R.S. guided trip on the Middle Fork, followed immediately by one (post) on the Main Salmon River (a “combo” trip).  The Middle Fork runs south to north for 104 miles through the 2.5 million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho; the largest roadless area left in the lower 48 United States.  The entire Middle Fork is designated as a Wild and Scenic River and is one of the last free-flowing tributaries of the Salmon River system. Only a few trails, landing strips, private ranches, and U.S. Forest Service stations are evidence of man’s intrusion in this area.

Day 1 (Stanley, Idaho to State Land Left Camp)

Our trip started in Stanley, Idaho and we drove up there – through varying thicknesses of smoke from numerous wildfires – with our friends Wayne and Diane, who would be joining us for this adventure.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The smoke-obscured Sawtooth Range from Stanley, Idaho

It’s possible to start the trip at Boundary Creek (River Mile (RM) 0) if water levels are high enough. But at this time of year they usually aren’t, so we rode in a Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander (operated by Gem Air) from Stanley to our put-in at Indian Creek Beach (RM 25).

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Our ride to Indian Creek Beach

The wildfire smoke was heavy and we could barely make-out the Middle Fork as we turned on final after the short flight from Stanley.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Our first dim glimpse of the Middle Fork

After a safe landing, a round of introductions, and several safety lectures by the guides,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Talking about dress codes and how to stay safe on the river

we got on the water,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Heading downstream from Indian Creek Beach

endured a cold splash or two in some Class II and III rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The water was COLD!

had lunch at Anderson Camp (RM 27.8), and pressed on through the smokey gloom to our first night’s camp at State Land Left Camp (RM 35.2), a large site scatter amongst a grove of Ponderosa Pines.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Camping amongst the Ponderosa pines at State Land Left
Day 2 (State Land Left Camp to Big Loon Camp)

Our first day had been shrouded in smoke and we were worried that it might be this way for the whole trip. But when we got up the next morning, the winds had shifted and there was much less smoke in the air.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Morning at State Land Left

So, after breakfast and a talk from “Mr. H” about the Salmon and Snake River watersheds,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
“Mr. H” explains the river systems to us

we hit the water again under considerably less smokey skies. After running some Class III rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Downstream of Jackass Rapid

we had lunch near the Mahoney Ranch (RM 42.2), then continued on through a few Class II rapids, then under the White Creek Pack Bridge (RM 48.5), to our second night’s camp at Big Loon (RM 49.8), right next to Loon Creek.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Our sandy campsite at Big Loon

From the campsite, we hiked 0.75 miles up along Loon Creek,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Loon Creek

to very warm – but nonetheless delightful – Loon Creek Hot Spring, where we soaked off both dirt and muscle aches.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Loon Creek Hot Springs

After a good soak, we made our way back to camp, stopping only to spend some time with one of the horses pastured on the private land between our camp and the hot springs.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The Loon Creek petting zoo…

One of the major upsides of guided rafting is not having to cook your own meals or clean up afterwards. This is sweetness itself after enduring decades of DIY variations on ramen and tuna, ramen and veggies, ramen and whatever, tortillas and cheese, and freeze dried mysteries that stuck to our pot like epoxy resin.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Dinner at Big Loon Camp
Day 3 (Big Loon Camp to Camas Creek Camp)

Our third day on the river dawned remarkably bright and clear, with nary a hint of smoke in the crisp blue skies.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Moon over Big Loon Camp

After packing-up our camp,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Getting the air out of a sleeping pad (or is this some kind of yoga?)

we boated down,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Downstream of Big Loon Camp

to the old Tappan Ranch near Lower Grouse Camp (RM 56.7).  The cabin dates to 1917 (if not earlier) and was named for Fred and Daisey Tappan, who lived in it with their two small sons from 1927 to 1933.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The cabin at Tappan Ranch

Going past the cabin, we hiked 800 feet up the ridge behind it for a hoped for big view of the river valley. It was at this point, however, that it started raining (weakly) which somewhat dimmed the view and encouraged a return to Lower Grouse for lunch.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Up the ridge
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Packing-up after lunch at Lower Grouse

After that it was back on the river,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Downstream of Lower Grouse

and almost immediately into a series of Class II, III, and IV rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Tappan Falls (III-IV)

that were bounded by steep cliffs,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Tall cliffs guarded these rapids

but all of which were much fun!

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Ya Hooooooooo……

After that, the river (and the rafters) calmed down a lot,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
After the rapids

and we glided into camp at Camas Creek (RM 60) ready for a sit and dinner. It was here that we encountered the aftermath of one of the wildfires (officially out only a few days before) that had been pouring smoke into the river valley.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Burned ground at Camas Creek Camp

Fortunately, thanks to some expert wildland firefighting, the heart of the camp had been spared the fire, and we were able to enjoy sitting under a few only slightly scorched Ponderosa pines along the river.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Dinner at Camas Creek Camp
Day 4 (Camas Creek Camp to Survey Creek Camp)

The next morning we were greeted by essentially smoke-free skies with white, puffy clouds as accents, not rain threats. Wonderful!

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Morning at Camas Creek Camp
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Early light on Camas Creek

After breakfasting and packing-up, we did a short hike up the ridge behind the camp,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Up yet another ridge

and this time got the big view of the river valley that we’d missed back at Lower Grouse.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Looking down on Camas Creek Camp and the remains of the wildfire

After that, it was back in the rafts for a steady downstream float interspersed with a few rapids, most notably Bernard and Haystack, both Class III. The surrounding terrain varied between forested slopes and open grasslands, cliffs and rolling hills.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Going downstream
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Passing the Flying B Ranch
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Near Bernard and Haystack Rapids
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Through Haystack Rapid

Just after the rapids, we pulled in at Short Creek Camp (RM 68.2) for lunch,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Beached for lunch at Short Creek Camp

and then continued on the river, now back among cliffs and trees.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Below Short Creek Camp

Along the way, we passed a pack train coming up the river trail, bringing mounts and pack animals in ahead of the start of the hunting season. This trail makes it possible to backpack along the river from Boundary Springs (RM 0) to Big Creek Camp (RM 77), at the start of Impassable Canyon. It was visible from the rafts most of the time but it did look like there were sections where you’d have to be good at routefinding.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
A pack train heads upriver

After a few more fun rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Jack Creek Rapid (II-III)

and yet more amazing scenery,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Downstream of Jack Creek Rapid

we pulled into camp at Survey Creek for the night. A point of archeological interest here are the pithouse depressions on a bench behind the camp. These depressions were roofed over with branches to provide somewhat thermally insulated housing for the original inhabitants of this area.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
A pithouse depression at Survey Creek Camp

The guide’s usual strict dress code was relaxed during preparation of yet another great dinner,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The guide from Planet X

which was followed by Steve’s recitation of some of his excellent original poetry.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Steve recites
Day 5 (Survey Creek Camp to Cliffside Camp)

This was to be our last full day on the Middle Fork and it was planned as a busy one. After another blue, clear, and smoke-free start to the day (we were getting used to this clarity but shouldn’t have),

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Morning at Survey Creek Camp

we sent the sweep boat on its way to our next camp. You can’t really row a sweep boat and they work well here because the Middle Fork has a steady down gradient with very little slack water. But getting one of these safely through the rapids requires considerable skill.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Our sweep boat departs camp with Ned at the helms

After departing camp, we banged through some more rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Through some Class II rapids below Survey Creek Camp

before pulling up at Big Creek (RM 78.6),

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Approaching the Big Creek Bridge

where we crossed the river and hiked 350 feet up the Waterfall Trail,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Hiking up the Waterfall Trail

to a point where we could gaze directly down on the falls along Waterfall Creek,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Waterfall Creek

after which we returned to the rafts, getting a good view down the Middle Fork along the way.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Looking north (downstream) along the Middle Fork

After that it was more scenery,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Downstream of Big Creek

more startlingly clear water,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The clear waters of the Middle Fork

and more rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Another soaking on the Middle Fork

before we stopped at the Tombstone pictograph site (RM 83.0). These paintings were done with a hematite-based paint and, while some of the depictions are hauntingly familiar, exactly what they meant to their makers remains shrouded in mystery.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
People?
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Lizard?
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Bighorn sheep?

After the pictographs, we continued on downstream,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Below Ship Island Camp (RM 83.7)

through more rapids,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Wet again!

before stopping for the night at sandy Cliffside Camp (RM 89.1).

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
The beach at Cliffside Camp

Dinner was again great, presided over by guides who were once again hewing to the dress code of the river.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Dressed for dinner
Day 6 (Cliffside Camp to Corn Creek)

Today we would be saying good-bye to the other 19 guests and six guides who had been with us on the Middle Fork and would continue on (“turning the corner” as they say) to join another group going down the main Salmon River. To this end, we were up and away a little earlier then usual,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Below Cliffside Camp

ran a couple of tricky rapids (Hancock and Devils Tooth), and then stopped at Goat Creek (RM 94.3) to switch rafts and say a final good-bye.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Stopping at Goat Creek
Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Our guides for the Middle Fork – top (L-R): “Mr. H”, Ned, Nick; bottom (L-R): Devon, Steve, Ashley (trip leader), Ryan

After that, “Mr. H”, who would be continuing with us to help guide on the main Salmon River trip, rafted us down to the confluence, where we turned the corner into the main Salmon River,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Turning the corner

went under the remains of the Stoddard Pack Bridge (which sadly had been destroyed by rock fall shortly after having been completely restored),

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Remains of the Stoddard Pack Bridge

continued along the now wider and deeper Salmon,

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Below the Stoddard Pack Bridge

to Cache Bar (RM 98.3), where we swaped our raft for a dory (while it’s been done, it’s really too rocky to run dories on the Middle Fork),

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Switching to a dory at Cache Bar

and then “Mr. H” rowed us down to Corn Creek (RM 103.4) where we would meet our group for the trip on the main Salmon.

Middle Fork Salmon River Idaho
Not the group we were planning to meet

What to say? Another wonderful river and another great performance by O.A.R.S. guides, whose technical skills made going through all those rapids look easy (it’s not). The interesting guests, excellent meals, comfortable campsites, hikes, and pictographs only made the trip that much better. Not to mention the petting zoo. The Middle Fork impressed us with how clear (and cold) it is.  And, unlike other rivers we’ve rafted, it has an almost continuous gradient – very little slack water – so you’re always moving downstream, whether you row or not. It’s also fairly shallow in many places and that, combined with the strikingly clear water, gave us the unique feeling of flying over the rocks that line the bottom. An amazing experience, but we still had five more rafting days on the Salmon River ahead of us! So, onward!

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2 thoughts on “Rafting the Middle Fork Salmon River 11/16-Aug-2017

  1. Really enjoyed vicariously traveling this section of the river with you. Thanks for posting these gorgeous photographs.

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    1. Thanks! Both were great trips on physically different rivers. And seeing sweep boats navigate through rapids was a treat.

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