Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Middle Fork

Most of the crew assembled in Portland ready for the long drive to The Middle Fork.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon river in Idaho is considered by many to be one of the premier wilderness rafting trips in the lower 48. Cutting a path strait through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the MFS flows for 100 miles from the heart of the Saw Tooth Mountains to the confluence with the Main Salmon near Salmon, ID. This would be the setting for our annual multi-day rafting trip. In addition to the Into the Outside Crew, for this mission we had an eclectic mix of paddlers, rafters, friends, and family. List of paddlers participants at the end of this report. Although the river isn't known so much for intense white water, it still demands respect from boaters of all skill levels and this fact was only amplified by the sky high river level we were facing leading up to our launch date. Given the record snow pack in the area and below average temps this spring, the water level on the middle fork was still well above 6 feet by the time we arrived at the Put-In and would reach levels up to 6.8 feet while we were on the river. The fact that 5 feet is considered the cut-off for recommended flows on the mfs convinced one of our party to fly in to Indian Creek and skip out of the continuous and difficult, upper 25 miles.

The boat launch @ Boundary Creek
Day 1: Boundary Creek Boat Launch to Big Bend Camp After a long morning of rigging and a nice meeting with Maggie the ranger, we put-on the river around 1oclock on June 26th. The night before we had discovered that Matt's frame for his 14ft gear raft was missing some key components. With the aid, of some near by branches, pvc piping, and some ingenuity, we had his rig up and going with time to spare.
Creative and Effective
The boat lower @ Boundary Creek

We had scouted the boat eating hole at river mile 0.9 known as Murph's the night before. However, that didn't prevent some apprehension leading up to this drop. A lot of trips run into trouble right off the bat at high water at Murph's. The problem is that with the river moving at 8-9 miles per hour, gear rafts have only a few minutes to shake the rust off and get used to their heavy boats. We made it through with only one raft surf and a couple hoots and hollers.

Skip, Matt, and Carey taking a right line at Murph's

Anna and Claire: Going for a ride
However, our luck did not last. 3 miles later at the bottom of Hell's Half Mile rapid, the high water caught up with us and one of our gear rafts went upside down. As the boat floated down stream towards Velvet Falls (the biggest hole on the river) we had to scramble to arrest the upturned raft before it washed through this class IV drop. Not an easy task with no eddies to speak of. Alas, the upturned boat (with the captain on top) ran through Velvet followed by everyone else with suprising success. Another mile down stream and we were finally able to get the boat clipped with a line and tugged to shore. Props to all those who kept a cool head and were able remedy the situation. Sledge and the Omni Wolf came up big for us on this particular day. Still, the MFS wasn't quite done with us for the day. Upon inspection of the now righted raft, we were dismayed to find that somewhere along the line, a rock had torn a nice gash in the floor. With 10 miles till our intended camp, we opted to take an emergency camp at Big Bend (mile 6). All in all, a lot of adventure for one six mile section of river. The camp turned out to be a pleasant experience. Claire and I cooked up Pizza Frita's and Pasta, we passed a bottle of Johnny, and we all enjoyed the high alpine forest environment.
Nursing Anna's Raft back to Health
Day 2: Big Bend to Pungo Creek Camp The next day we got an early start with the intention of meeting our 15th member at Indian (mile 25) Creek around noon. The morning started off with the Chutes, followed by Power House rapid (class IV). I think everyone was pretty tense through this section. With no eddies separating long, pushy rapids, a flip anywhere along here would make for a long swim. Everyone pulled through and we all agreed that the big water waves of the Chutes were some of the best we'd ever seen. An hour later we were dropping into Pistol Creek Rapid (scouting was pretty impossible everywhere on this river). I think Pistol Creek was the hardest drop on the river for the kayak contigent. I personally got worked in two boils cracking of several rolls before finally flushing down stream and another boater joined the swim team. After recovering his boat and eddying out at Indian Creek, we were happy to see a plane come motoring across the landing strip with our last com padre in tow. Another 2 miles of class II and we had arrived at our intended camp. Pungo Creek was something special. Ponderosa's lined the perimeter of our river kitchen and a short hike led to an old abandon mine. Fish taco's, sangria, and hula hoops punctuated night II.

Cavers (Skip, Chris, Robbie, and Jacob)
Day 3: Pungo Creek to Shelf Camp Day 3 was fairly uneventful from a white water perspective. We got a lazy start but were still able to cover 18 miles down to our hot springs camp by lunch time. (Each trip is allowed to spend one night a hot springs). It was a bit of a hike from Shelf camp up to Loon Creek hot springs, but everyone was game for a beautiful walk. After scarfing down Fajitas, Pineapple Upside down cake, and dinner mints, the crew descended upon the springs for some late night soaking. Upon arrival at the pool, we all got in a starring contest with a bear across the creek. He hung around for a little while before climbing a tree as darkness descended upon the scene. The stars were out and in all their glory and good times were had by all.
The Good Life
Day 4: Shelf to Camas Creek We awoke on the morning of day 4 all feeling a little worked. After a long night of soaking and hanging around the camp fire, people were pretty slow to get up in the morning. Jacob and I took advantage of the slow start and shouldered our boat up Loon Creek to the hot springs. We had heard word of a class V gorge above the springs, but given the extremely high water in Loon, we opted to put-in below the really tough stuff. Instead, we were treated to some fast moving class IV waves and the occasional hole dodge. Really fun stuff. Jacob was feeling motivated and ended up running a side trib to Loon Creek on river right just down stream from the hot springs. The drop leading into Loon was manky and chaotic to say the least, but it actually went pretty well.
Loon Creek Trib

(Matt Servia photo) Nate (author) charging Loon Creek
After our side mission, we quickly hiked back upstream to camp and helped everyone finish up with their boat rigging. Only having ten miles before Camas camp, our day on the MFS went by pretty fast. Again, we were at camp before lunch and sipping Bloody Mary's by happy hour. Camas creek was another trib we had been told to hike in search of more class V goodness. Upon our scout, it became immedately apparent that the gorge section of Camas was far too high to run. Serious class VI rapids that were made even more scary by the fact that lines did exist. We made a plan to hike back up the creek the following morening and run the last drop of the gorge and paddle the class IV boogie water back down to the MFS. The rest of the evening turned out to be a blast with sunset hikes and Hobo dinners for all. Day 5: Camas Creek to Little Pine. Again, we were facing a mere 10 mile day on the Middle Fork so things were moving pretty slow in the morning. After a breakfast of pancakes and melon, the whole group headed up Camas creek to watch the kayakers navigate the lower gorge. Not having the proper boat for such a rapid, I opted to put-in directly below the class V drop at the bottom of the gorge proper. Chris 'the omni wolf' Harman joined me while Steve, Jacob, and Matt styled the pushy rapid. Steve had to throw a last minute boof over a nasty hole but pulled the alteration to his line off with style and we all boogied down through the super fun run out. My ride seemed especially fun as I was dodging holes and attempting to keep the slicey stern of my boat from squirting all the way down the river.

Steve about to throw an emergency boof on Camas Creek
The crew blasting down Camas Creek

Back on the MFS, we quickly arrived at Flying B ranch, filled up our water jugs, and all marveled at the concept of a $30 12-pack. Back on the water, we were greeted by the beginning of the lower 'tough' section of the middle fork. Haystack rapid saw one person eject from a gear raft and Jack Creek canyon took everyone by surprise. Apparently our camp took one of our boat captains by surprise as well. As he nearly floated by the last chance eddie, we had to throw bag his loaded raft over to the side of the river before he got swept into the next drop. (Even in lower section with a lower gradient, eddies were still in short supply and rather hard to catch with over loaded rafts.) That evening, Matt and Caitlin treated everyone to Chili Colorado and roasted Bell Peppers before we all drifted off to sleep.
Evening at Little Pine Camp
Day 6: Little Pine to Ship Island Weber Rapid is about the only thing I remember about this particular day on the water. Everything was moving very fast and most of the drops blended into each other. I really felt like we had finally entered impassable canyon about mid way through our 12 mile float on Day 6. The walls began to tower over head and all the creeks pouring into the river had serious gradient to them. Waterfall creek in particular looked mighty impressive as in cascaded down into the MFS. The sheer power of the 100+ foot cataract was entirely impressive. I believe Jacob got some footage of the this scene, look for it in the video soon to come. At camp, I felt like we all had a sense of urgency knowing that this was our last night on the river. I certainly wanted to make the most of this beautiful campsite nestled in the heart of impassable canyon. After eating a quick lunch and de-rigging the boats, most of the group headed up Papoose Creek with the intent of finding an adventure. An adventure we did find. Papoose creek is less of a hike and more of a climb. With the flow the way that it was, we were restricted from moving up the creek at river level and instead had to scramble and claw our way up the rug id canyon falls towering over the tiny drainage. After attaining a large 'patio'esque rock about 400 yards up the creek, most of the group had had enough and hung out on the giant boulder and took in the crazy class V rapid directly below. Again, this cataract definitely had a line....
Papoose Creek Class V
Back at camp, we sang songs around the fire and ate another excellent meal (Chile relianos) cooked up by Anna and Robbie while we tried to kill off the last of our beer and liquor supply. Some folks ended up crashing out early as the exhaustion of the past 6 days finally caught up. Some folks stayed up late and performed a spirited rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (one lick everyone new the words to) as the stars came out over impassable canyon.
Ladies of the MFS mixing up some Witch's Brew
Ship Island
Day 7: Ship Island to Cache Bar Boat Ramp (takeout) Our last day on the river started early. After a quick breakfast of leftovers, we were on the water by 8:15 AM. We had about 19 miles to cover before we were supposed to meet our shuttle driver at noon. This particular stretch was supposed to encompass the biggest rapids of the trip and had been described to me by a friend as 'pretty rowdy'. Given the events of day 1, we left ourselves lots of time to make our way down to the confluence with the main salmon. As we pulled out from Ship Island, everyone was in good spirits and as we floated down towards the big stuff, the excitement of the group was definitely palpable. All I can really say about the last ten miles of the trip is that it came on fast and didn't rellent. After lower cliff side rapid, everything really began to blend together. I remember dropping into Rubber rapid and thinking that the waves I was about to crash were bigger than anything I had ever seen before, which includes everything in the grand canyon. After that, it was a full on race to the finish. No eddies (for rafts) and very few places to even slow down. The kayakers all adopted a routine of running a rapid, eddying out just long enough for the first two rafts to enter the drop, then two kaykers would peel out and try to get back out in front to set 'safety' below the next drop. At one point I yelled to Matt (who had a guide book) "is this devil's tooth?" to which he replied. "I have no idea anymore, I have not gotten a chance to change the page on my book for almost 3 miles!" Seriously fun stuff. I did roll over on some drop in the middle but was back upright immediately. It's definitely worth commending all the raft captains for a job well done navigating the lower ten miles of the MFS. Everyone was solid when they had to be and we ended up busting out the 19 mile stretch of river in under 2 hours! When we finally hit the confluence with the main, I looked back upstream from where I had come and marveled at the intimidating view of impassable canyon. Just as my feelings or sorrow and longing to remain in the wilderness couldn't have been any stronger, a jet boat flew by and amplified my reluctance to re-enter 'the real world'. A quick mile down the main salmon found us at the takeout where we quickly de-rigged and rolled all the rafts. By the time the shuttle driver did show up, around 11:30, we were all ready to go. (we had booked a 15 passenger van and utl. trailer to pick us up and drive us back to our cars at boundary creek). The loading process went fast! The drive to boundary creek did not. After 5 hours in the cramped van, I think we were all pretty happy to see our cars at boundary creek (even if it signified another 9 hours of driving and more shuffling of gear).
Confluence of the Main and Middle with Impassable Canyon in the Background
I'll try and keep the corny stuff to a minimum, but I do believe that everyone was a little reluctant to leave each others company and the fantastic scene nestled in the saw tooth mountains. Thanks guys, for making it a truly amazing trip. The players: Nate Merrill (author), Jacob 'Cruise Control' Cruser, Matt King, Claire Rothstein, Stephen Cameron, Chris Merrill, Gary Merrill. Scott 'Skip' Rasmussen, Chris 'the omni-wolf' Harman, Robbie Herring, Anna Herring, Will Benet, Caitlin Ecklund, Matt Servia, and Carey Moran.
 Until Next Time.

The Trip video

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