Big Water, Big Wilderness: Rafting Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River
By Michael Lanza
Standing on the rocky bank of Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, deep within the second-largest U.S. wilderness outside Alaska, my 14-year-old son, Nate, and I look down at the foaming, frothing, spitting energy of Marble Rapid—the first big whitewater of our six-day rafting and kayaking trip down one of the world’s premier wilderness rivers. One of our guides, Matt Leidecker, points to the rapid’s entrance, where the river makes a hard, 90-degree right turn at a “hole,” a depression where the roaring current recirculates powerfully enough to toss a person in a kayak around like a bathtub toy. “I’ve seen that hole keep kayaks,” he warns us.
It’s our first afternoon on the river. Thunderheads have begun rumbling. Cautious by nature, I scrutinize Marble Rapid, making the paddling moves in my mind, then look at my son. Nate has been kayaking for a few summers, but his experience is limited. Still, he paddles his hard-shell boat with more confidence (the defining trait of all teenage boys, warranted or not) and skill than I manage in an inflatable kayak, which I’ve been sharing today with my wife, Penny. I glance back at Marble Rapid, where the first, kayak-eating hole is followed by a bigger, class III drop about 20 feet beyond.
I can’t help but visualize how it would feel to get dribbled like a basketball over Marble’s submerged rocks.
Still, those of us in hard-shell and inflatable kayaks all concur it looks safe enough—even if we do swim it. One by one, our flotilla of kayaks and rafts drifts toward Marble. Matt leads with his raft containing my 12-year-old daughter, Alex, and three other children of friends—Carl Bell, 14, Sarah Butruille, 13, and Annika Bell, 12—screeching with delight as big waves crash over them in the raft’s bow. Penny and I follow in our two-person inflatable kayak, or ducky. We drift up slowing, trying to line up the kayak perfectly so that when we hit Marble and start paddling hard, we’re moving in the right direction—away from the first hole and down the tongue of the rapid.
As it turns out, the entrance isn’t as tricky or powerful as I’d feared. We hit the line perfectly, blasting through Marble’s big drop into a trough, riding over the curling, several-foot-tall wave past the trough, and then bouncing through the wave train that follows. Below it, Penny says to me, “Wow, that was big! That scared me!”
We float in an eddy just below Marble to watch the rest of our group run it. Nate attacks the rapid, bracing, paddling, his expression a study in focus. He nails the line and throws his arms overhead in celebration. “Yea, buddy!” I call to him. “Yea, I got it,” he says, grinning.
It’s an auspicious start to what will be a lot of grinning, laughter, and children screaming with delight in big whitewater over the next six days—not to mention some gorgeous hiking and campsites, eating like every day is Thanksgiving, and new friendships forged.
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Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness
We have come as a party of 23 friends and family, plus our six guides from Idaho-based outfitter Middle Fork Rapid Transit, to take one of the most storied, thrilling, and scenic adventures in America: floating for six days down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Flowing like an artery through the heart of the second-largest federal wilderness in the continental United States, the nearly 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork is about a far from pavement, cell service, and wifi as one can get in the Lower 48. We’ll be days from the nearest road or town.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon was one of the original eight rivers designated in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968. The River of No Return Wilderness bill passed Congress in 1979, a year after President Jimmy Carter rafted the Middle Fork with his Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who was also a four-term governor of Idaho (a great man whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with). Idaho Sen. Frank Church was a giant of conservation and wilderness protection. In 1984, as Church lay dying of cancer, Congress renamed the wilderness in his honor. About his success at helping protect wilderness against fierce opposition, Church said, “The winners are the people of Idaho, who will enjoy the finest wilderness in the West, the crown jewel of the National Wilderness System.”
As a whitewater river, the Middle Fork is uniquely steep for a long distance, roughly 100 miles, starting at 7,000 feet above sea level about 20 miles northwest of the tiny town of Stanley and dropping to 3,900 feet where it meets the Salmon River. That means that while there are certainly calm sections, there’s a lot of whitewater: 300 ratable rapids, a number of them pretty big whitewater—class III and IV.
We launched this morning from Indian Creek, at mile 25.5 on the Middle Fork, instead of the usual starting point, Boundary Creek, because the Middle Fork is running unusually low for mid-July, due to last winter’s meager snowpack. Our group got flown in small, prop planes to the airstrip at Indian Creek. We’ll float about 74 river miles, camping five nights on the Middle Fork, and take out at Cache Bar on the Salmon River.
This morning, before reaching Marble Rapid, we bounced through the easier wave trains of Pungo Rapid, Orelano Rapid, and Higby’s Rock, all class II, getting barrels of chilling river water dumped over our heads—the trip already more fun than I think many of us had imagined. We floated through calmer stretches in a current just strong enough to push us gently downstream, while we lazed back in warm sunshine, staring up at cliffs and steep, grass and sagebrush slopes giving way to ponderosa pine forest higher up, then to mountaintops that meet the sky 2,000 feet above us. Beyond what we can see, the Salmon River Mountains stretch for miles in every direction, with summits over 10,000 feet, most of that vast reach of peaks and canyons lacking any human habitation. The Middle Fork alone drains 2,500 square miles of the mountains.
In 17 years living in Idaho, I have not yet floated the Middle Fork Salmon River—a shortcoming equivalent to living in Rome and not visiting the Colosseum. It feels good to finally redeem myself for that glaring omission on my outdoor résumé.
Like solitude? See “Big Wilderness, No Crowds: Top 5 Backpacking Trips for Scenery and Solitude.”
Middle Fork Salmon River Trail
According to the plaque on a rock, the restored, one-room log cabin, with its pitched, shingled roof and a handful of windows, is a historical site built in 1906 by homesteader John H. Sater on land eventually approved for a homestead patent in 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson. The Sater cabin sits on a bench several feet above river level, beside a couple of pine trees. It looks out on rocky crags and the canyon’s brown, grass-and-sage slopes, below a sky that feels as big as the galaxy out here—especially at night. It’s a physical reminder that the canyon of the Middle Fork was once a place where a surprising number of people attempted to forge a life from the land, typically mining or ranching, very far from civilization.
Six of us—Penny, her sister-in-law Barb Peterson, our friends Meleah Butruille and Laura Tirrell, our lead guide Anika Lofts, and me—are spending our trip’s second day hiking the 10-mile section of the Middle Fork Salmon River Trail no. 578 from our first camp, at Little Creek, to our next campsite, Whitie Cox. (All campsites for parties floating the Middle Fork are assigned when you obtain your permit from the Forest Service.) Most of our group will float the river instead, although three others, Jim and Christi Bell and Penny’s brother-in-law, Dan Corley, will get dropped off downriver to join us for the last three miles of hiking to camp.
The Middle Fork Salmon River Trail wanders up and down as it parallels the river. We leapfrog with the rafters and kayakers when we stop at different times. We don’t see another boating party on the river today—and rarely do all week, because of the low daily quota of permits issued by the Forest Service, to preserve a wilderness experience, and because the system of assigned campsites helps spread parties out.
While today’s 10-miler is the longest hike we’ll do this week, some of us will take advantage of several very scenic side hikes on the Middle Fork this week, including trails along Loon Creek—which has a nice hot spring pool—and Big Creek; a short hike to the enormous, clamshell-like Veil Cave, where the kids stand in the light rain shower of a waterfall free falling 100 feet or more; a 10-minute walk to extensive, ancient pictographs on rocks near Stoddard camp; a 30-minute uphill hike to Aparajo Point, high above the canyon; and the 2.4-mile, 1,200-foot, steep hike to Johnson Point, which our guides recommended as the best overlook anywhere on the Middle Fork.
See my story “Middle of Nowhere: Hiking Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon Trail.”
We walk past the closed-up cabin at Cougar Creek Ranch, cross a broad, grass bench where cattle once grazed, then hike several hundred feet uphill onto Mahoney Ridge, high above the Middle Fork, yet still well below the canyon rim on either side.
Bighorn sheep scat litters the ground for about a quarter-mile across the ridge crest. “They had a party up here,” Meleah says. We see the specks of our group and their boats on the beach far below, having lunch. Broken clouds begin darkening—they will later build into a thunderstorm that pours cold rain on us for maybe a half hour. But for now, they flood gorgeous, dappled light across the canyon, magnifying its depth and breadth, making the variety of earth tones and colors more vivid, sharpening nature’s lines.
Late afternoon, we hikers catch up with the boaters at Whitie Cox camp. Meleah’s husband, Tony, and 10-year-old son, Evan, are fishing—what they’ll do all week, in camp, in oar boats, through thunderstorms. The Middle Fork is a five-star trout stream; they’ll lose count of how many they catch and release this week.
By dinnertime, everyone’s ravenous. Just as I’m thinking our guides will have trouble outdoing last night’s cedar plank salmon and spinach salad with apples, bacon, and candied almonds, they start serving us an appetizer of brie topped with homemade blueberry chutney, followed by a dinner of garlic- and ginger-marinated pork tenderloin with sweet potatoes, and then a dessert of carrot cake topped with mascarpone cream cheese frosting. Other meals will include breakfasts of cinnamon swirl French toast, and eggs benedict topped with fresh tomatoes and olive tapenade, and a lunch of shrimp tacos. There’s a very real risk of this being one of those rare wilderness adventures where I gain weight.
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One by one, we pull the boats to the riverbank and some of us clamber over rocks to ledges at the brink of Tappan Falls. Here, the Middle Fork funnels into a vertical drop about five feet high. To the left roils a hole that will keep a raft—never mind how it would treat a kayak or a ducky—and on the right sit rocks that could flip a boat. I stand with Matt as he points to the sweet line: the fast-moving, foaming tongue rolling down between those two obstacles. Beyond that, a boat must successfully negotiate a chaotic jumble of swirling water before spinning to a slow stop in the pool below Tappan.
It’s our third afternoon on the river, about halfway through a long day—22 miles from Whitie Cox to Trail camp—consisting mainly of some easy stretches of floating or fast riffles, with an occasional class II or III rapid. We also took a morning hike to the hot spring on Loon Creek, whose crystalline waters pour over one cascade after another.
Class IV Tappan Falls presents the day’s biggest excitement.
Earlier, at lunch, I told Matt, “I’m not sure I’ll run it,” and he responded, “You’ll be fine.”
Matt’s recommendations carry a lot of weight; he’s kind of a Middle Fork Salmon River celebrity. A guest guide on our trip, Matt, 41, guided the Middle Fork for more than a decade in the 1990s and 2000s; he estimates he’s run this river over 130 times. He has authored the definitive, mile-by-mile guidebook to the river, including detailed advice on planning and everything of any possible interest along the way, from campsites (rated by three size categories) to hot springs, good photo opps, and points of geologic interest. (He’s a photographer and a geologist.) Its waterproof pages have diagrams of the river and the most complex rapids so well illustrated and detailed it’s like a work of art. (In fact, he and I first met at a book event three years ago, when his guidebook and my book both won National Outdoor Book Awards.)
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Tonight, Matt will draw a rough map of the Salmon River country in the sand, using pine cones to represent historic mines, and regale us with an oral history lesson of the early exploration of the Middle Fork and other tributaries of the Salmon, delving with knowledgeable detail into the stories of miners and military campaigns targeting the native Sheepeater Indians in the 1860s. By the 1880s, much of the area that Lewis and Clark had detoured around after deciding that the Salmon, the “river of no return,” was impassable, had been explored. Once the mines played out in the 20th century, most people left this country, helping set the stage for wilderness designation and today’s era of multi-day river trips. Middle Fork has since become one of the most prized whitewater adventures in America.
I think Matt’s right: I’ll be fine running Tappan. But Alex, who shared a ducky with me all morning, doesn’t want to take her chances with me in Tappan; she climbs aboard a raft. Nate decides he wants to take a break from his kayak for the afternoon and gets in the paddle raft with Penny and other adults.
Matt and I photograph some of the rafts and kayaks running Tappan. No one swims. As I’m walking back to my ducky, expecting to run Tappan solo, Carl Bell, the 14-year-old son of our friends Jim and Christi, says to me, “Hey Uncle Mike,” (his nickname for me), “can I run it with you?”
When I say, “Sure,” he asks me, very seriously, “You won’t flip, right?” And I respond, “Well, I don’t think so, but no promises.” Carl jumps into my ducky.
We paddle lightly toward the roaring throat of Tappan. Just as we’re entering, I turn the kayak to the right, and we slide down the tongue like a laundry chute, plowing into the standing wave at the bottom. Carl smiles like those were 10 of the best seconds of his young life.
Later, the sun’s sinking toward the canyon rim as our boats spread out on the river, floating easily through riffles and calmer water between tall cliffs and steep, grassy slopes. Ahead of Carl and me, Tony and Evan call out and point to one canyon wall, but I can’t hear what they’re saying or see anything. Later, they tell us they saw a yearling black bear; others saw it swim across the river.
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A Wilderness Sensibility
Sometime on our fourth or fifth day, I’m not sure exactly when, it happens: We lose track of what day it is. Not entirely, of course; we could recall the day if we think about it. But the point is that we choose not to. We stop caring what time it is. We revert to gauging time more vaguely by the position of the sun, moving according to the pace of the river, and living by the simple rhythms of the wilderness—where you can eventually begin to feel far enough removed from civilization that its headaches can no longer reach you. It takes a few days to happen; I’ve experienced it many times on backpacking trips, too. It always brings a pleasure that penetrates to marrow.
I especially love seeing it happen to these kids, who have rarely, in their entire, short lives, known what it’s like to be disconnected.
But it’s a little different on a river than when backpacking, maybe partly because hiking with a pack is hard work, while rafting or kayaking feels more like play. And it’s different with a big group of people. Penny and I are the links joining everyone in our party; many of them are meeting for the first time. And of course, none of us knew our guides before we all met up in Stanley the night before the trip. But part of the magic spell of floating a wilderness river is how it makes everyone start behaving like we’re all old friends.
At Wilson Creek camp on our next-to-last evening, a sandy beach and patch of ponderosa pines, we gorge on another excellent dinner of lasagna, garlic bread, and salad. One of the guides, Topher Moehringer, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a degree in music education, entertains us again with his vibrantly orange, plastic slide trombone. He’s been playing it all week—on the water, to summon us to meals in camp, and in the unique acoustics of the cavernous Veil Cave.
Anika, the lead guide, dumps a bag of costumes onto the ground; before long, we’re all, adults and kids, wearing tight dresses, leopard skin, and wizard outfits. Fortunately for our kids, we’re too far from their friends for them to feel mortified over the behavior of their parents. Then out come the games. Penny’s family and others start up what has been a nightly card game of Wizard. A ferociously competitive contest of Bite the Bag goes through several rounds, until the field whittles down to my daughter, Alex, Anika, and another guide, Alex Myers—and Alex the guide wins, but not until the bag is cut down to an inch tall.
Later, as stars begin to densely populate a charcoal sky, some adults sit around the fire pan passing around a guitar and singing, outlasting the kids, not turning in until midnight.
On our fifth afternoon, I share an oar raft with MFRT owner Grant Porter, who flew in to the airstrip at Flying B Ranch yesterday to join us for the remainder of the trip. We’ve entered the Middle Fork’s Impassable Canyon, the two-day stretch below Big Creek where the canyon grows narrower, with towering walls of ancient stone and severely pitched talus slopes pinching the river on both sides. Today will be our best day for wildlife sightings: three bald eagles and three bighorn sheep.
Grant and I run class III Cliffside Rapid first, pulling into the big eddy just below it to watch everyone else plunge through Cliffside’s enormous line of waves. Almost everyone makes it, but our friend Todd Fischer gets catapulted out of the back seat of a ducky and swims it. After quickly getting his raft over to pluck Todd from the river, Grant tells me, “That one’s usually about 50-50 for duckies.”
Then Matt takes his raft down Cliffside, producing one of the trip’s most memorable moments for me: watching the four kids in his raft—Alex, Carl, Sarah, and Annika—scream and laugh with each of several full immersions of the boat, and Matt’s priceless, maniacal laughter.
Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon is one of “My Top 10 Family Outdoor Adventures.”
Grant tells me he’s run the Middle Fork about 160 times since he was eight years old. (It brings the parents in our group considerable comfort knowing that two of our guides have about 300 Middle Fork trips under their belts combined; and our other guides are clearly competent as well.) Grant’s father, Bob, a physician, and mother, Karen, started Middle Fork Rapid Transit in 1980; their four sons grew up running the river and being part of the family business. Grant, the youngest, spent his boyhood summers in tiny Stanley, Idaho, cleaning rafting gear; he guided his first trip the day after he turned 18. He eventually became the lead guide, and he and his wife, Kim, now own MFRT. The company runs 12 to 14 trips every summer, June to September, exclusively on the Middle Fork.
As we gaze up at the sheer walls of the Impassable Canyon, I ask him, “I imagine this never gets ordinary.” Grant shakes his head. “I just love this section, it’s my favorite day of the trip, with these rapids and these walls.” He flies in to join the last couple days of several MFRT trips every summer. It’s not hard to understand why.
On our final day on the Middle Fork, we run a gantlet of wonderful class II and III rapids. After the past five days, there’s no question everyone will wrap up the trip running class IV Cramer Rapid on the Main Salmon—which will flip both Nate and our friend, Jeff Wilhelm, a longtime kayaker who ran every rapid on the Middle Fork without a hitch. But that just gives them grist for a good story. As Nate will describe it afterward, grinning proudly, “I went all the way through Cramer upside-down.” But he stayed calm through two failed combat rolls, and then hit his third attempt.
But before we reach Cramer, as we drift through a calm stretch of river, Matt recites for us, from memory, Robert Service’s poem, “The Spell of the Yukon.” While many of those verses seem to ring as true for the Middle Fork as for the Yukon, one passage in particular feels like it could have been written while floating on this river, at the tail end of an unforgettable journey:
“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—Òoh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—Ò and I will.”
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THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR just about anyone willing to get wet and sit on a raft through big whitewater; riding in a paddle raft or inflatable kayak is optional (as is bringing your own hard-shell kayak). While private parties should have experienced rafters and/or kayakers with the skills to run rapids up to class IV, no experience is necessary on a guided trip. Middle Fork Rapid Transit requires a minimum age of eight most of the summer and 12 at high-water levels of early summer. Our party ranged in age from 10 to the 60s.
Make It Happen
Season Early June through September is the usual floating season. The road to Boundary Creek often doesn’t open until June, but boaters can often fly to Indian Creek and put in there in May. High water, with very challenging rapids and cold conditions, can persist until late June. The river usually gets very low, and difficult to run, by September.
The Itinerary Guided and private parties typically spend six days and five nights on the Middle Fork Salmon River. Daily mileages and itinerary are dictated by the campsite assignments each party receives when obtaining their permit.
Getting There The nearest town to the Boundary Creek launch site for the Middle Fork is Stanley, Idaho, about 20 miles to the southeast, at the junction of ID 21 and ID 75 in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains. From the takeout on the Salmon River, it’s about a four-hour drive back to Stanley (provided by the guide company or arranged privately).
Shuttle Service Companies offering private shuttle service for the Middle Fork and other sections of the Salmon River include:
• All Rivers Shuttle, allriversshuttle.com
• Blackadar Boating, blackadarboating.com
• Central Idaho River Shuttles, centralidahorivershuttles.com
• River Shuttles, rivershuttles.com
Permit A permit is required year-round to be on the waters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River between Dagger Falls and the Salmon River. There are a combined total of seven commercial and private launches per day. Permit applications for the control season (May 28 to Sept. 3) are issued through an online lottery at recreation.gov; applications for it are accepted annually Dec. 1 through Jan. 31 (midnight Eastern time). For information about submitting an application, launch date calendars, and lottery statistics, see the Four Rivers Lottery page.
Guides Middle Fork Rapid Transit, (208) 371-1712, middleforkrapidtransit.com. Other companies offer guided rafting trips on the Middle Fork; search the Internet.
• Four Rivers Lottery and Permit Reservation System, fs.usda.gov/detail/scnf/passes-permits/recreation/?cid=fsbdev3_029568
• Current river conditions, fs.usda.gov/detail/scnf/recreation/wateractivities/?cid=stelprdb5302105