I push off from 6-foot tall snow banks and we float, effortlessly, barely 6 inches downstream before our 16-foot raft runs aground. I jump into ankle-deep water and use my body weight to tug the rubber monstrosity through a boulder-littered choke.
The creek is barely wider than the boat.
A scrub pine forest rises out of the white landscape, obscuring my view and focusing my energy on the task at hand: moving the boat downstream.
Our rafts are heavy. In addition to the typical car-camping-esque pile of river trip paraphernalia, we’re toting ski gear, hoping to use the river corridor to access remote ski lines in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains. It's enough supplies to spend 9 days in the biggest swath of Wilderness in the lower 48 – the Frank Church River, shown for ages on old trapping maps as the River of No Return.
As I wade down Cape Horn creek, towing the boat, our convoy of 3 rafts and 3 kayaks is still within bailing distance. State Highway 21 runs out of sight, back towards the small town of Stanley.
My friend Allie’s words from this morning play in my head: “I just don’t know if the rafts will make it.. I’m not sure we can do it.” She and our two other safety kayakers ran this section yesterday: 15 miles of creek confluences and tree strainers forming the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon. No one in our group had been down this way before, so the kayakers went ahead to scout the way.
After their return, we deliberated about going for it or pulling the plug. But this wasn’t part of the plan.
Months earlier, as our Float-to-Ski trip took shape, we had arranged to snowmobile our gear from the highway into Boundary Creek, the starting point for summer trips on the Middle Fork. Since it was mid-April and well before permit season, the 33-mile dirt road would be buried under many feet of snow. However, last minute changes nixed our sled access plan, so it was either start in the tiny creeks flowing under the highway, or abandon the trip entirely.
Last night, the kayakers came back tired from a long day of snowy paddling, but the overall verdict was positive: we could do it. This morning however, with boats rigged and drysuits on, doubt had bubbled up. Setting off, the general feeling of unease persisted. Every heave of the raft, every stroke of the oars, brought us further from where we started. The only option for quitting, should we need to, would be to abandon the boats until later in the year and hike out on skis.
...we're toting ski gear deep into
Idaho's Salmon River Mountains."
As tiny rivulets added water to our stream, we bumped our way down to Marsh Creek, one of the main tributaries of the Middle Fork. The rafts were sliding over more rocks than any of us thought possible, and we were actually making progress towards takeout, 115 miles downstream. As daylight waned, we pulled over beneath towering snags of burnt Ponderosa Pines. After setting up tents, a few of us took off on skis to check out the winter wonderland surrounding camp. We wove through fire-charred trees on soft snow.
Cresting a ridge, the entire river corridor opened up before us, a panoramic view of snowy peaks.
We cut through the black and white forest back to camp and when our fire burned low, we settled in for a cozy night’s sleep under starry skies.
Waking to a beautiful sunny morning, I pushed off into the gin-clear creek, giddy with the good fortune of clear weather. I’d prepared to be cold and wet for days on end, and here we were; dry, warm, and making progress downstream. The day started hard, with tricky maneuvering through logjams leading to a river-wide strainer where a 100-foot tall pine had fallen. The kayakers sawed branches off the left side, but it was still a sketchy run through a boat-wide slot over the barely-submerged trunk. The current pushed right, towards skewer-like, protruding branches; this was the river equivalent of a no-fall zone. Due to the seriousness of the situation – getting stuck on the strainer would destroy a boat and could pin one of us underwater – we lined the boats, belaying each one through the correct slot. It was a slow process, but by 1:30 all the boats were down safe.
After plunging through a vertical-walled canyon barely wider than the rafts, we reach the confluence with Bear Valley Creek, and officially began the Middle Fork of the Salmon. As we glided downriver, snowcapped mountains and blue skies on the horizon, Mason – my boatmate and oarsman – grinned, “THIS is Idaho.”
My boatmate grinned...
"THIS is Idaho!"
We spent the evening and morning portaging around Dagger Falls, a Class V rapid, and then floated a short distance to camp below our main ski objective, Big Soldier Mountain. It froze hard overnight, and I fought into my frozen shoes in the glow of pre-dawn light. We shouldered ski packs and cruised through the Ponderosa forest, quickly gaining elevation. Skinning towards the ridge, ski lines started to appear in the distance. Huge cornices draped off the spiny wall of an impressive cirque.
In the other direction, an old fire lookout marked the summit.
We skied laps in the warming cirque. Turn after turn, this was what we had come for. It hadn't always been a sure thing, but now Idaho had really delivered.
When we finally ascended to the dilapidated lookout, its broken windows rewarded us with commanding views of the surrounding mountains.
The river rose a foot overnight, and it was time to make miles towards takeout. We descend fast through the river’s more serious rapids, getting surfed as we crash over the falls. The 33 miles to Sunflower hot springs pass quickly. We soak, then fall asleep under a waxing moon.
The following days are blissful...more skiing, then hot spring soaks, then 3 days floating the river completely alone.
Seringa, the Idaho state flower, perfumes the shores of Impassable Canyon as we fly down sections of Class III and IV rapids. Our group of professional river guides know this place intimately, and every turn in the canyon holds something to cherish.
Our last camp is a half moon of white sand shaded by one massive Ponderosa Pine stretching skyward. It’s downright hot, and that's okay with me. I drift to sleep under the bright Milky Way, thinking how glad I am that we went for it.