Rugged granite walls towered above us as we floated silently through the Impassable Canyon on the lower stretch of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho. Our necks bent uncomfortably as our eyes followed the ridgeline impossibly high above our heads. The Middle Fork plows through the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, known locally as “The Frank,” which encompasses over 2.3 million acres of wilderness and was established in 1980. It is the largest stretch of contiguous wilderness in the United States outside of Alaska. Our group of seventeen – eight fathers with nine sons – set out to float the turbulent Middle Fork on our way to Cache Bar, 99.7 miles downstream of our put-in at Boundary Creek. Along the way we startled bears, caught countless trout, and observed the stars in awe at night as we nursed our cramped hands back to health only to do it all over again the next day. In short, we experienced the very best this wilderness had to offer. But beyond the superficial, the wilderness endowed us with something far greater and much more meaningful.
Our trip was planned for the middle of August, and with a water level of 1.92 feet, this meant we had to be ever vigilant to low water hazards, like rocks and deadfalls. Our shins were rubbed raw by the river rocks as we walked our rafts through some of the shallow sections while our hands blistered from working the oars. Despite these hardships, few complained, recognizing the rarity of such an adventure in a pristine wilderness.
We spent most of the first day navigating through multiple rock gardens. Our group traveled over 12 miles in 6 hours, which felt excruciatingly slow but was to be expected. In June or July, we could have floated over the tops of the rocks and made exceptional time, covering the same distance in half the time or better. However, low water conditions in August require much more patience. Over 10,000 people float the Middle Fork every year, and in order to take a private trip like ours, someone must pay a nominal fee and enter a raffle to draw the permit. For about ten years, men in our group had been applying for a permit without ever drawing one. I was the lucky one who defied the 2% odds and drew the permit, though the week I drew meant we would be floating after the prime season.
After much needed sleep, we started our second day with the goal of floating a little over 19 miles. This stretch of the river was calmer, with Pistol Creek as our only gnarly rapid. The ranger recommended we get out and walk the rafts through a shallow section on river right to avoid the left channel of the rapid as there lies a large sharp rock in the center, known for tearing up rafts and causing major problems. The rapid was impressive, and when my raft arrived with the last raft of our group, we saw that the other three rafts were waiting for us at the bottom in some slack water. Obediently, we walked our rafts through the shallows and floated the short section until it met up with the main channel where the rest of our group was waiting, assuming they had done the same.
“Why did you go right?” asked Ken, our group leader.
“That was Pistol Creek,” I said. “The ranger said we should walk it down.”
“Oh, really, that was Pistol Creek? That was the best rapid we’ve had so far!”
That night we pitched camp on a high bluff, which required us to pack everything up the mountainside and then back down in the morning. No one wanted to carry anything extra or unessential. An interesting byproduct of wilderness travel is that it makes you keenly aware of the amount of trash you create, since you have to always carry it with you. As we prepared to leave on our trip, the ranger at Boundary Creek was very explicit in her instructions. Any trash not burned must be carried out, which included fire ashes and human waste. This forced us to be deliberate in how we consumed food and prepared fires. I pondered on how much trash I am personally responsible for throughout the trip, and even spoke with my wife about it when I returned home, committing myself to reducing my own personal consumption.
On the third day of our trip, Chantry, the cowboy of the group and an experienced oarsman, offered to work the oars while I flyfished for a few miles. August in Idaho means hopper season, so I tied on a grasshopper imitation and began casting to eddies and drop-offs. The fly rod felt like a natural extension to my arm as I double-hauled my cast into the slack water of an eddy. Almost immediately I had a strike. The fishing regulations in the Frank are very straightforward – catch and release only with a single, barbless hook. It took nearly half a dozen misses before I finally landed my first trout, a beautiful cutthroat. The fish were not too picky, and with absolutely transparent water I watched the fish rise and strike, or occasionally turn away. These trout were large, healthy and brightly colored. Ken caught an 18-inch bull trout, the largest fish of the trip, made even more impressive because of how rare it is to catch a bull trout. After landing numerous fish and satiating my flyfishing appetite, I returned to the oars, stroking to the rhythm of the rushing water.
The current was running faster and we covered over twenty miles on our third day. It was obvious that the landscape had changed as we dropped in elevation. Where the upper section was characterized by pine covered mountain slopes, the middle and lower sections were more open, with scattered stands of pines surrounded by sage covered mountainsides. This created ideal habitat for bighorn sheep, which we soon began spotting in the evenings as they would come down to the river for water. That evening, we counted roughly 30 sheep, divided into three or four groups all within about two miles of each other. The sheep paid us little attention as we passed them by, with all of us feeling grateful to see such an iconic wilderness animal.
As we entered the Impassable Canyon on our fourth day, a deep pool welcomed us with steep cliffs crowding our group of five rafts together. Looking down into the water, I saw a school of chinook salmon slowly making their way upstream along their 900 mile journey to spawn. When salmon enter the freshwater, they stop eating, though they will strike at flies and eggs in anger as they defend their redds. Due to a low salmon count over the Bonneville Dam that particular year, the chinook season was closed. I have always wanted to catch an anadromous salmon in Idaho, but it was not to be that year. Perhaps environmental conditions will allow more salmon to survive and thrive in the Middle Fork. I long to see the day when wild salmon have a consistent, sustainable population in central Idaho.
That afternoon, my oldest son, William, sat in the bow of the six-man paddle boat while I captained from the stern. Normally, we have 4 to 6 people in this boat, but with several men and boys enjoying the rapids in inflatable kayaks, it was left to the both of us to take this boat down the river. Up to this point, it had been easy. The boat was light and very maneuverable. We paddled in sync, keeping a straight line as we headed towards a class III rapid. We were the last boat in our flotilla to pass through this rapid and our job had been to help anyone stuck on a domer become unstuck, which hadn’t been an issue so far. I watched the sunlight reflect off the water droplets falling from Will’s paddle as the knot in my gut tightened and I felt the familiar flood of adrenaline surge into my blood. The whoops and hollers of our group as they rode the rapids promised this would be an exciting ride. I stood and took a quick glance into the rapid ahead and from what I could see, we should enter left of center, drop, take a quick right to avoid a boulder, and from there the rest of the path was obscured from view. The oar boats were all through, waiting below to watch us.
Will’s gaze was fixed ahead as he sank his paddle deep into the frothing water. I took one more deep stroke, then swung the paddle into a slight J-stroke to line us up perfectly for the rapid. The current caught us, propelling us forward. I dug deep with the guide paddle, leaning heavily upon it to make the quick turn to the right. The current whipped us right, narrowly missing the boulder in front of Will. In a fraction of a second, we headed straight to the cliffside on river right. I dug deep again, this time with a J-stroke on my left side to make a hairpin turn to the left. The current jetted us towards another boulder where we nearly highsided as we completed the left-hand turn. We entered the main current which dropped us down into the splash pool. My throat was raw from yelling, not out of fear, but from exhilaration. Will turned around and flashed a large smile while lifting his paddle above his head.
The slow stretches offer time for contemplation. About sixty miles into the float, we passed the Flying B Ranch, which is an old homestead that was grandfathered in after the Frank became a designated wilderness. The only way to access the ranch is by river or bush plane. After taking a break and paying $4 for a Fat Boy ice cream sandwich, we began the float down and enjoyed the slower pace. As we floated past cliff walls pock marked by caves and hidden pictographs, my mind wandered. Would my grandchildren be able to float this river and have the same experience? What about their grandchildren? I thought about the schools of salmon we had seen throughout the trip. What would it take to bring back the wild salmon which fed the Shoshone tribe so many generations ago? And what of the sheep, the bears and the wolves? Would this wilderness remain protected for generations to come?
For many of the visitors who float the Middle Fork, the trip represents a once in a lifetime event. It is not easy to get to. One young man I met drove 60 hours from Delaware to float the river. I only had to drive 5 hours. Wilderness, which is an exclusive designation for public lands, is even extremely fragile in a political sense. Wilderness cannot exist without the protection of man, and man is never the same after a wilderness experience. Today, many public land advocates want to open up protected wilderness to offroad vehicles and snowmachines. This action would destroy the very place we love. The wilderness, with its unspoiled mountains, rivers, and wildlife, can provide the healing balm needed to recover from the ills of civilization.
Dane, a local judge and one of my neighbors, joined me in the paddle raft near the end of our trip and we talked about the wilderness and how rare it is to experience it. As we talked, Dane paused, gazed up a narrow canyon ringed by ancient ponderosa pines and said something which I will always remember.
“A place like this needs to be protected and preserved.”
The reverence with which he uttered those words was inspiring. I nodded in silent agreement, watching the cliffs and pines pass by as they maintained their silent sentinel over the expansive wilderness.