I could feel my heart throbbing in the tips of my toes, punched into the front of my shoes with every step that I took downhill. With every mile, the cam strap cut a little deeper into my clavicle. I was certain it would rub through polypro, through skin and eventually into bone. The 80-some pounds of kayak, overnight gear, and food strapped awkwardly to my back didn’t help my situation either. (I should have brought that backpack system—hindsight is twenty-twenty.) Whose dumb-ass idea was it to hike nine miles over a snowy 8,000-foot pass to reach a log-choked tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon that probably hadn’t been run in over 20 years? Oh yeah—mine.
Whether introduced at a young age or discovered later in life, those that experience what it’s like to sit at the edge of a wild river crashing against the rocks, or to rest on the edge of a precipice of an expansive canyon that falls away beneath the feet, know it’s in our blood. Some people refuse to let go of the wild after that first experience, choosing to sacrifice stability and material comfort to dedicate their life to the wild, allowing it to shape their lifestyles.
And so we guide. The reason we guide is rooted in that deep passion for whitewater and the mountain ranges and landscapes that it flows through. A love for eddy lines and churning currents, for the blankets of stars that tuck the Frank Church wilderness into bed every night. Yes, we get paid to be in this place—a stroke of luck on being born in an era and location where we can spend time where we love, doing what we love, and making some resemblance of a living wage. The Salmon offers a fix to the addiction for the wild but it’s not wholly complete. There’s never a time that I have rowed past one of the many creeks of the Middle Fork and haven’t wondered what other wild things lie in the vasculature of this free flowing river’s veins. Three other guides felt the same.
It took little time to convince Mike, an ER nurse from the sagebrush covered plains of Southern Idaho, just as at-home patching lacerations as he is at paddling class V, to jump on board. As our plans unfolded, we dialed and redialed the number to the Forest Service. Repeating our plans, confirming the logistics, gaining permission when forgiveness wouldn’t suffice. We drank beers late into the night, pouring over topo-maps, SNOTEL sites and flow charts. We packed and repacked our boats. We scheduled bush planes and called in deep-favors for a local shuttle.
When the hardy snow-pack turned to rushing spring flows, it was time to fuel the rig, pack the kayaks one last time, tighten the shoe laces and explore the Frank Church deeper than any of us ever had before. The plan was simple: explore the headwater(s) of the Middle Fork’s three largest tributaries—Rapid River, Loon Creek, and Camas Creek. These three creeks are the main source of runoff that resuscitate the Middle Fork each spring and sustain it throughout the fall. They are sections of water that an ancient population of fish exhaust themselves trying to return to, finishing their life cycle after surviving the Pacific Ocean. As paddlers with a craving for adventure in our hearts, we too wanted to move upstream in these waters, having passed by them season after season, watching them meld into one—the Salmon river.
Our small crew of four headed into the Frank Church Wilderness. The Ford F-350 rumbled into the driveway with two spare tires rigged to the diamond plated flatbed and cable winches front and back. The driver, with a soggy, half chewed ‘backwoods’ cigar crushed between his jowls, looked on as four seasoned river guides went to work with cam-straps, packing his monster truck to the brim. The scene resembled a meshwork of Mad Max and River Wild. Only there was nobody half as good looking as Meryl Streep on this journey.
The snow came quick as the chain saw opened the newly placed gates of felled trees, heavy with winter. Metal chains clung to the tires; the needle climbed on the RPM gauge; our elevation grew alongside our hesitancy. Once we hit snow too deep to push through in the gear-laden truck, it was up to our feet and willpower to get us over the summit and into the headwaters of our first tributary.
When the truck pulled away and the smoke from the driver’s cigar dissipated into the ether, we said goodbye to our last chance to back out of this asinine trip. There was nothing to do now but shoulder our heavy boats for the nine-mile approach to what would hopefully be a fruitful put-in, rolled ankle withstanding.
By midnight, I was expecting to be lynched by the crew. Todd, a 30-year-old carpenter, just one-year out from having both femoral-heads replaced with titanium, trotted on with a smile on his face.
Taking into consideration that nobody had paddled this stretch of whitewater in over 20 years, and in those two decades, massive firestorms had raged through the area, you can only imagine what the next 24 hours had in store for us as we slid into the trickling tributary, Rapid River. The hike had taken its toll on morale and gear. Through the night we stumbled blindly through the dark woods of downed brush and deadfall, guided only by the moon and our headlamps. We punched holes in our drysuits. And the deadfall we hiked through mirrored what we would find on the water.
After three hours of wood portages the next day, we started to reconsider our food rations—if this was to be the pace of the trip, we had half the rations necessary. As the daylight waned, the gradient steepened and we found ourselves routing from one fast blind corner into the next, fingers crossed we wouldn’t find the next log jam before we found the next eddy. When eddies were sparse, handfuls of willow bushes had to suffice to arrest our downstream momentum. The gradient finally gave up the ghost as we blasted out of the tributary and into the dark waters of the Middle Fork, rich with tannins and flotsam from above—hugs, laughter, relief.
A white squall formed overhead as we moved down the Middle Fork. We fantasized about a dinner of double bacon bleu cheese burgers enjoyed by a crackling wood fire, but a soak in the hot spring seemed like a close second. Either way, it would have to suffice. That next morning, we would stuff a small bush plane to the rivets with nine-foot kayaks and stinky kayakers for a winding flight up Loon Creek. But tonight, we hunkered down for the storm.
Wilderness is an idea. It’s a man-made concept that has been transformed since its conception. It has been considered rugged and scary, vast and unknown, priceless to some and a nuisance to very short-sited others. But growing up exploring the trails and rivers of Idaho gave me a deep-rooted respect and value for the wilderness, a landscape untouched and unsoiled by industry. As they say, valuing the forest for the trees, for the wild does indeed have worth. Not only does it feed our souls, it represents billions of years of meticulous evolution and thought that has allowed this world to provide a livable habitat for our species as well as many others. Something that we tend to forget. It fulfills a basic piece of our existence that is instinctual, a piece that staring at a screen, or walking on flat pavement does not. I tried to remember this as my muscles stiffened into the ground and the pitter patter of rain increased on our shelter.
“Hold on for the big bank fellas!” echoed our pilot’s voice over the scratchy headphones as the plane banked into a sharp turn just moments before hurdling past a cliff-side, wings missing by mere feet.
We had awoken that morning in a torrential downpour. Snuggled together in a not-so-well-thought-out shelter design, leaving the foot-box of Mike’s sleeping bag exposed to the night’s weather. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy about the state of his previous evening’s rest. Not only did the crummy weather mean that down sleeping bags would sustain a blow from their arch enemy moisture, our flight would also be delayed by nearly four hours. Precious time that we needed in case Loon Creek was chalked full of wood like its upstream cousin, Rapid River.
The crackle of flames began to pop as steam pressed the grains of the wet wood, apprehensive to produce heat at first. We dried our equipment around the small fire, awaiting the faint echo of a prop plane in the distance. No sooner had blue sky broken through the dark clouds, than a prop plane burst over the horizon. It was time to test our Tetris skills—Level 99: Kayaks in Planes. The small aircraft echoed with the pilot’s profanity as we crammed the last body into the cockpit. Seth, retired-military-infantryman-gone-talented-documentary-maker, sat contorted against the small glass paneling of the plane, a wide grin plastered on his face. With his camera rolling the entire way to the top of Loon Creek, Seth giggled like a child first discovering sugar.
Grins or not, when you look out the window flying over 2.5 million acres of green Idaho pine, with very few signs of human life, you feel insignificant, and you’re reminded of the fact that if you screw up, you will not be happy, you will not be rescued quickly, and you may not be okay. The key here? Don’t screw up.
The bush plane was older than the pilot, who was pushing 70. It shuddered with each pocket of turbulence, but safely touched down onto the rutted-out dirt airstrip. Not until I relaxed, had I realized I had been gripping the door handle. The white left my knuckles. These backcountry pilots are truly the cowboys of the atmosphere. With another round of Tetris and four-lettered words, we unloaded the boats as fatigue made its way into the muscles and attitudes of the crew. Instead of hiking his boat patiently and painstakingly down a long embankment, Seth let gravity rip and sent his fully loaded boat hurdling down the hillside and flying through the air after smashing into a downed tree. Terrible idea. The three of us followed suit.
On Loon Creek, veils of geothermal-heated water, cascaded over caves dug out by millions of years of erosion. We paddled our chilled bodies underneath the falls for a short reprieve from the crisp, freshly-melted-snowpack waters. We passed through an open valley, the remnants of a burned out ranch reclaimed by the woods and prairies, a stark reminder that wilderness finds a way to thrive, even after we’re gone. Playful otters lightened our moods as they swam from their homes of carved out driftwood. Tomorrow we’d greet a class V gorge. But now we relished in the idea of a solid night’s sleep under the clear expanse of the Church’s ceiling.
The class V gorge below appeared the following day with huge slabs of Idaho granite rising hundreds of feet on either side, like something out of The Neverending Story. We scouted with a degree of hesitation, allowing the reality of our seclusion in the backcountry to seep into our decision-making. “Well…we’re here, so we might as well,” someone stated. That’s all it took. We sat throw bags in place. Lines were visualized over and over again before seal-launching into the glacial-colored waters just above the rapid. Brisk. We ran the lines with differing degrees of success—but all smiles—and proceeded to paddle the remaining 50 miles back to the Main Salmon Confluence. By this time, our shoulder sockets were a little tight, an early sign of inflammation from overuse.
Our grizzled shuttle driver, Dale, also known as my retired father, met us as the light of the day waned into evening. After paddling through 60 miles of the inescapable Idaho spring weather, we were exhausted, damp, sore, hungry, and happy that we packed beers for the take-out…except, Todd and Mike drank the take-out beer on the way to the put-in amidst a fit of excitement. At least we had ibuprofen.
One last drive through the muddy roads of the Idaho backcountry found us at the headwaters of Camas Creek, a class V tributary of the Middle Fork that starts and finishes with a bang. Within four hours of paddling, we lost $400 worth of camera equipment to the river and had nearly missed two logs that were broached on an island, hidden around a blind corner. Phew. With blood dripping from my cut palms, a result of wheel-chairing my way over jagged wood mid-stream, all I could think was, “Come on boys, we are on the home stretch here.”
We spent the final night hunched over topo maps splayed across a makeshift table of deeply-gouged kayak hulls. The longest and scariest rapid lay at the end of Camas Creek. Fitting for the finale of a trip that started hundreds of miles ago and thousands of feet above where we stood now. We scouted with butterflies in our stomachs. After escaping sticky ledge holes, log-choked channels, and steep slots, we finally put the last of the high tension paddling in our rear-view mirrors. Or so we thought.
As the mouth of the tributary lay within sight, we found ourselves making some hot moves around the last of the riparian timber. An unobtrusive log to one of the crew member’s chest just before the outlet was a reminder that it’s not over until it’s over. We paddled 40 miles of roller coaster rapids to finish off the final leg of this ridiculous journey. We had rowed and paddled this section many times before, but this time was different. Dale stood at the take-out, cigar smoke rolling from a cracked smile. Even from a distance, his body language showed a chuckle as he looked on at four very haggard paddlers.
Three tributaries, six days; we touched the Middle Fork three times and paddled nearly 200 miles with only a handful of near misses. Our shoulders screamed from overuse, our calves ached from the long hikes and portages. We were exhausted, a little beat down, but more than anything, we were thankful for such an amazing opportunity. To be at a place in our lives that allowed us to embark on such an adventure in our own backyard was the real prize. To be allowed safe passage through such a wild area was fortunate. To have people in our lives that would embark on such silly endeavors? Luck.
The wilderness represents a piece of who we are as a species. We came from places like this. Walked from its woods and planes. They are places that hold value, even if many people cannot see it. The Frank is a place and a passion that we attempt to share every season as guides, as boaters, as lovers of the wild. A small way of making a local impact? Maybe. We try to expand a sense of appreciation throughout our community. A passion we hope will spread like the wildfires that have shaped this landscape. A passion we hope continues to burn deep into generations to come, for it seems if not enough people love something in this day and age, it fizzles and disappears. It’s a fire we must continue to stoke.
Editor’s Note – Words by: Kyle Smith
Photo credits: Kyle Smith, Seth Dahl, and Todd Richie
Film by: Seth Dahl