This is a challenging post to write… where to start or how much detail? We’re still having river dreams a week after returning home. We both agree that this was the best vacation we’ve ever taken. We’d go back in a heartbeat … like tomorrow!
After watching some Salmon River episodes on “Outdoor Idaho” via the PBS iPad app this spring, David spied a Middle Fork of the Salmon River trip featured on The Clymb. The price was right and the timing perfect, so after a little research, he reserved a trip for two in August. We thought we’d try a lodge-to-lodge raft trip like the Rogue River trip we took with the girls back in 2001. However, L2L trips are quite a bit more expensive, and we thought we could handle five nights of camping and save a couple thousand dollars at the same time.
MFRE or Middle Fork River Expeditions is based out of Stanley, Idaho, which is a 10-hour drive from Portland. As we got closer to Stanley, the sky was thick with the smoke from the Beaver Creek Fire an hour south in Ketchum. There are 25 professional guide companies that have permits for the Middle Fork each season and we found a top-notch outfit owned by James Ellsworth. Five MFRE guides (Scoop, Scott, Mark, Rio and Larry) accompanied our small group of twelve, ages 8 to 65.
We met the other guests the night before the trip began at the MFRE warehouse and got a quick run-down of the schedule for the next day. We picked up our numbered waterproof gear bags— a large blue bag for clothes and a small red bag that came with us in the boat so we’d have access to cameras, clothing, sun screen, etc. Black gear bags with sleeping kits— bag, pillow, self-inflating pad— were already at the river, waiting for us. Each night we grabbed a 4-person Kelty tent and an extra Thermarest which was used to cushion boxes and equipment on the oar rafts, chose a spot, and set up our own little camp site.
We met at the warehouse early the next morning, loaded up a bus and rode the few blocks to the Stanley airstrip, where two very small airplanes awaited to fly us to the put-in at Indian Creek. The pilots sized us up (literally) and divided the group and baggage. We ended up on the smaller, 6-seat Cessna. It was a short, smooth flight over several mountains and valleys, all of which had been touched by fire at one point or another.
Our rafts and guides were waiting for us by the river. Our blue bags got loaded onto the sweep boat, as would be the practice every day, and it departed right away to set up camp six miles downriver. We were each issued a helmet and life jacket. A safety briefing and a demonstration on how to paddle the inflatable kayaks followed. Each day we could choose between riding in one of the three oar rafts in which the guide did all the rowing, a paddle raft which was steered by a guide but powered by the passengers, or an inflatable kayak. Two Stand Up Paddle boards accompanied our group as well as two hard-shell kayaks which belonged to two of the guests. Since we wanted to be a bit more active, we chose the paddle raft, which carried a guide and up to six paddlers. Each day a different guide manned this raft, so we got to know each one really well and were treated to a wide variety of fascinating stories and tall tales.
We finally pushed off and headed down the river. Since our iPhones were packed away in the dry bags during the day, most of the pictures in this post are from David’s GoPro Hero 3 camera which sports a very wide-angle lens.
After the first short six-mile day, we averaged 15 miles a day at 3-4 miles per hour. Located in the Frank Church River of No Return wilderness, the Middle Fork drops 3000 feet over 100 miles, and there are over 300 rate-able rapids ranging from Class I-V. Both the air and water temperatures would change dramatically over the next 6 days as we dropped in elevation from 7000 feet to 3900 feet at the Cache Bar take-out. Our August trip was shortened by 25 miles because of the low water levels which was fine because the water flows more slowly when it is low.
By pure luck, the dates of our trip aligned perfectly with August’s full moon. Each night was moon-lit for many hours as it tracked between the river canyon walls.
Day 1: Little Soldier Camp
Day 2: Shelf Camp
Day 3: Funston Camp
Day 4: Survey Camp
Day 5: Otter Bar Camp
Food: The personable guides turned out to also be talented trail chefs who worked together as a team to create memorable meals using a combination of propane burners, charcoal grills and dutch oven wizardry. Each night a portable fire box loaded with wood was set up on a burn-safe tarp. After adding charcoal, a sparse bed of briquets were placed under the rectangular dutch oven and packed onto the recessed lid to create the perfect cooking temperature for everything from chocolate cake, apple crisp, egg frittata, biscuits, pineapple upside-down cake, brownies, and scalloped potatoes. Fresh fruit and vegetables were in abundant supply at every meal. In addition to plentiful water obtained from springs along the way, the cooler was kept full of cold beer and soda. A couple of bottles of wine appeared at each evening meal as well as a large jug of tequila or gin-laced fruit punch. The “meat-bees” were a nuisance at many meals, and we all got stung a time or two (or five).
Goofing around in camp: By the fourth night, the group officially bonded and the guides unpacked the costume bag.
Hot springs, waterfalls and pictographs: Each day there were opportunities to pull over, tie up and explore the surrounding canyons and river banks. Our knowledgeable guides were prepared with interesting facts about old mines, ancient Indian tribes, hot springs and a hermit’s cabin. We saw several herds of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep as they came down from the hills to drink, bald eagles, hundreds of chukars and even a mink scampering over the rocks by the river’s edge.
River Dogs: Four dogs rafted with us on the trip, all belonging to the guides. They were well-behaved and proved to be a wonderful addition to camp life. Super-dog Oden even floated the river on the paddle raft, SUP and shot the rapids in a kayak!
The Groover: Ahhh, the “Groover”. You had to have been there to fully appreciate it. It’s actually a fairly ingenious portable human solid waste system that took a little getting used to. The custom welded stainless steel box has with a circular clamp that holds the lid on good and tight while in transit. Once in camp, a comfortable wooden seat replaced the clamp-top. At the end of each day, the first one to camp (always the sweep-boat operator) scouts for a suitable “room with a view”. A hand-washing set up is located with the “key” which turned out to be a large stainless steel box loaded with TP. When you felt the need, you first checked to see if the “key” was by the hand-washing station. If so, then the coast was clear. If not, then you had to wait.
On the river:
Leave no trace: We really appreciated the lengths the crew went to in following the Forest Service’s rules of “leave no trace.” Virtually everything gets packed out and all the campsites and lunch spots we stopped at were impeccable in that there was no trash, no fire rings, no charcoal. We weren’t permitted to soap up in the river and even tooth-brushing had to be done above the water line. The result is that this 100 mile stretch of pristine river, while traveled by upwards of 10,000 people each summer, still looks virtually untouched.
David spend a day and a half navigating the river in one of the inflatable kayaks, called a “ducky”, doing really well until…
Special thanks to my rescue team – Mark, Jan, Scoop and Sofia!
This final picture, below, was taken looking upstream from Cache Bar where the trip ended, five miles after it joins the main Salmon River. We loaded up the gear into a bus for the five-hour ride back to Stanley and said our farewells to the Middle Fork. We’ll be back!