The Middle Fork needs no introduction. Exciting whitewater, hot springs, world-class trout fishing, spectacular canyons; the list goes on. It’s one of the most beloved wilderness rivers in America. For many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Over the years, word has spread about the wonders of spending your hard-earned free time on a pristine river with old friends (or complete strangers). Record demand for permits and a less predictable climate is making access to the Middle Fork an increasingly fickle affair.
While the Middle Fork has always had a dynamic character, the past several seasons have shed new light on a rapidly changing river corridor and what the future of river trips might look like. Drought, fire, high and low water, early or late springs, warm water, and logs jams are going to be more prominent in the seasons to come. A flexible approach and some knowledge about recent happenings on the river will be important in planning and executing a great trip in the coming years. Despite challenges, a successful trip on the Middle Fork is as spectacular as ever, and navigating challenging conditions is part of what makes it all so fun.
MFS Classic History
In geologic time, the Middle Fork moves at lightning speed. Every few years, a rapid changes or a landslide occurs. Since the 1990s, the increasing frequency of fire has had the biggest impact on a river runner’s experience. Camps have changed and burned; some for better, most for worse. Major fires in 2000, 2003, 2007, 2012 and 2021 have affected nearly the entire river corridor. When the forest burns hot, the soil loses the vegetation and trees that provide stability. The landscape then becomes much more susceptible to erosion and debris flows, which most commonly happen because of heavy downpours on parched summer soils. Landslides and fires deposit logs and other debris into the river. The most famous occurrence at Lake Creek in the summer of 2006 completely blocked the river at Pistol Creek Rapid and stranded numerous river trips upstream until the blockage was cleared by the Forest Service.
MFS Recent History (2021-23)
Since the pandemic, the Middle Fork has changed even faster. Elevated interest has altered the demographic in rafting to include more aspiring Middle Fork boaters. Simultaneously, the Middle Fork is more tumultuous than ever. In 2020, a cold late spring avalanche cycle deposited countless trees into Marsh Creek, one of the main tributaries that form the Middle Fork, making spring passage difficult and putting lots of wood in play for years to come.
In 2021, a dry winter led to a hot summer filled with fire and extremely low flows. That summer, the Boundary Fire limited access by road and plane and burned from the put-in at Boundary Creek to past river mile 30. As a result, many tributary creeks were scorched and soils made vulnerable to erosion.
In August of 2022, heavy downpours caused several debris flows inside the burn scar around river mile five, temporarily blocking passage for rafters and impacting rapids like Ramshorn and Velvet Falls and depositing fully grown trees and other riff-raff, including the Ramshorn Creek bridge, into the river. A typically crystal-clear river became chocolate milk, impacting fishing opportunities.
These adversities have forced us to get creative. In 2021 and 2022, commercial outfitters flew entire trips, often including sweep boats, into airstrips at Indian Creek, Thomas Creek, Loon Creek, and the Flying B. Private trips and commercial trips were forced to make tough decisions on what or how much to fly in; or if to cancel their trips entirely.
Without a doubt, 2023 will be an interesting year on the Middle Fork. The freshly deposited debris from 2022 will be moving and dynamic with higher spring flows. The accumulation of wood in the first 20 miles will present challenges—like the comically long log jam that blocks access to the once-popular Fire Island camp. We can hope for high flows that flush the river clean, but those same flows can also deposit blockages in new places. Later in the season, the risk of additional debris flows remains in places where the Boundary Fire burned hot.
As a silver lining, it will be fun to watch the burned areas recover. On a trip in late June of 2022, the morel mushrooms were abundant. In about an hour near Boundary Creek Campground, I was able to harvest nearly two pounds of morel mushrooms, which made for fantastic appetizers at our first river camp.
How to Prepare
As I mentioned before, a trip on the Middle Fork is as worthwhile as ever. The landscape is changing but remains pristine and beautiful. Being prepared and flexible are key ingredients to a successful trip in 2023 and beyond. Here are a few tips that might help you execute.
Communicate with your Crew
Make sure that your crew is comfortable not only with the demanding nature of a wilderness river trip, but with the potential for adverse conditions that the 2023 season might present. It’s also important to include your crew in planning logistics and to keep them informed about potential changes. A cohesive and well-informed crew always works best once on the river.
Stay Informed and Ask the Right Questions
While obvious, it’s important to know what to focus on. For example, trying to predict flows or road conditions more than a few days ahead of your launch date is nearly impossible. Rather, focus on different scenarios. If the Boundary Creek road is closed, how does your plan change? If flows are higher or lower than what the group is comfortable with, what is your backup plan? Is the group open to flying some or all of the trip in? What do flight logistics look like? How many days ahead of launch do you make the call? Is the river rising or dropping? Having answers to these questions will make for easier decisions in the days leading up to your trip. For high-water trips, a recent and accurate report on wood and debris in the river will also be necessary.
Get Accurate Information
While social media can be useful, I encourage you to contact the USFS Middle Fork Ranger District for accurate and up-to-date information. Once you launch, other private groups and outfitters can be helpful sources of information as well. Be skeptical of information from your buddy’s buddy who did a Mid-July trip eight years ago and claims that “it’s good to go!”
Marsh Creek, one of the Middle Fork’s main tributaries, can provide access to the Middle Fork before Boundary Creek road opens or if you want added adventure. However, do not consider Marsh Creek as an access on par with driving in or flying. Marsh is famous for having lots of wood in spring (or summer), and anyone planning to float it should pack light and be prepared for swift, challenging whitewater and multiple portages at log jams and/or Dagger Falls.
If water levels are a concern to your group (they should be), set cutoffs with backup plans. If your group is light on experience, consult other boaters or friends, but keep in mind that others’ advice is subjective. This is especially important if you’re a conservative or novice rower. Higher spring flows, especially in 2023 with lots of moving wood, require a group that is comfortable in continuous whitewater, cold weather, and swiftwater rescue. Low flows in late summer and fall require lighter loads and plenty of patience.
Be aware of how different a spring trip is in comparison to a trip in July or August. New rafters successfully navigate the river at a variety of flows every season; nothing is more fun than seeing a river for the first time. With that said, if the majority of your group’s Middle Fork experience is with low flows, or if this is your first time, then approach your next spring trip with a humble perspective.
It’s important to check in often after you’ve launched. On one high water trip in June of 2020, we launched in a snowstorm at about 6 feet. The whitewater was our main concern. Soon we realized that the cold weather was an equally important consideration. Rather than beeline to camp, we pulled into Trail Hotspring to warm up (it was still snowing). We got to camp later than is ideal, but it was worthwhile to minimize exposure to cold while on the water.
Don’t be afraid to Fly or Deadhead
A backcountry flight into the Middle Fork is a memorable experience all its own. Dialing in your gear and putting it into a small backcountry airplane is both rewarding and fun. While the cost of flying part or all of your trip is not nearly as fun, committing to a flight adds a rare element of predictability. While weather can delay flights, it’s out of your hands and less stressful. And remember, flying in can often save on vehicle shuttle costs!
While fly-ins have traditionally been due to low water, below two feet on the gauge, you should also consider it if conditions on the top 25 miles aren’t suitable for your group due to wood, high water, etc. Below Indian Creek airstrip, where most fly-in trips start, problems with wood and access are much less frequent. While the first 25 miles of the Middle Fork are spectacular, so are the remaining 75. Removing the element of unpredictability and stress that surrounds the top 25 can make a trip that much more enjoyable. Less daily river miles translate into phenomenal hikes and camp time. I can assure you, the Middle Fork is still worth it, even if you skip the first quarter.
Deadheading is an additional consideration that allows more experienced members of your group to raft the first 25 miles with the majority of the equipment the day before your launch. This can save on flight costs while allowing some of the group to skip the burn-affected and wood prone top 25.
In late May of 2022, our commercial group was facing a logistical challenge. The Boundary Creek Road was still closed after an exceptionally cold and wet spring. We also had several intermediate kayakers. The river was running between five and six feet on the Middle Fork Lodge gauge. We made the decision to fly all the gear and people to Indian Creek. We lightened our loads for the flights and headed to the airport in Salmon. The majority of the gear and about half of the crew flew to Indian Creek the day before launch to blow up boats and rig. We thought we were home free. The rest of the crew and equipment were slated to fly in the next morning to start the trip. Mother Nature had other plans.
A storm prevented any flights from getting into the Middle Fork the next day. Permit launch dates and trip lengths are set, so we were forced to shorten our trip by a day. Luckily, we were able to contact the crew at Indian Creek. They launched and floated approximately 10 miles to Thomas Creek, the next airstrip downstream. Two days after our planned launch, the rest of our group and gear caught a mid-morning flight to Thomas Creek.
The river ended up rising and holding at about 6 feet, which is an exciting and fun level, especially in the lower canyons. A few days later, we floated through an almost impossibly lush and green Impassable Canyon. Wildflowers in bloom and we saw plenty of bighorn sheep, and even a few river otters! Due to our perseverance, we were almost completely alone. With all the heavy logistics, it was a hard-earned, but highly memorable trip—one I would undoubtedly repeat.
It’s Okay to Bail
Sometimes, it’s as if your crew is fighting a headwind. Logistics aren’t falling in your favor. Maybe part of your crew is bailing. Maybe the flows or the weather don’t look like much fun. Mother Nature may have laid down the gauntlet. Most folks might turn, stick their tails between their legs, and stay home, sad that their trip was ruined. However, Idaho is loaded with other rivers.
I like to call this a redirect. Is your Middle Fork trip losing steam? Drop your permit for someone else to suffer through. Go paddle a week on the Lochsa and Lower Selway–world-class scenery and whitewater. Maybe spend a few days near Riggins on the Salmon. Southern Idaho offers some cool spring runs. You can run the Main Salmon on a self-issue permit until the third week of June. The Payette River system offers weeks’ worth of boating and camping. See my point? You probably already took the time off work, so don’t be discouraged if the Middle Fork shuts you down this year. Go play!
The Middle Fork is a world-class river trip in a real wilderness area. I wish you luck in the permit lottery. With a few tips and a flexible approach, I hope you can make some lifelong memories on the Middle Fork, as so many have in the past and will in the future.
Guest Contributor Jonas Seiler is a river guide, kayaker, and angler long on the lookout for cool camp spots and more river time. While a footloose flavor of adventure has been a priority over the past 10+ years, Jonas is spending more time living and working around Salmon, Idaho. Follow his adventures on Instagram @skiingonskis. Photos courtesy of Paul Neiman unless otherwise noted.