Solo Down the Middle Fork of the Salmon

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In 2009 I won the lottery. The ticket cost $6 and I won the right to pay $700 for a 5 day camping trip. The lottery was held by the Forest Service, and winners got a permit to float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The Middle Fork winds for about 100 miles through the heart of the Frank Church- River of No Return Wilderness. It rumbles past hot springs, wildlife and sandy beaches. The main attraction to most people is the whitewater. The rapids are not particularly life threatening in terms of difficulty but they are nearly continuous and technically challenging.

I had been entering the lottery in one way or another since I became legal to do so. The odds are long. For prime dates in June and July up to 350 people a day throw in their money for a chance to float. Typically 4 permits are issued per day. If you live to be 95 and enter the lotto every year you might get to float- once.

If you are granted one of the coveted permits you can take along up to 23 of your best friends. Permit holders often find themselves inexplicably popular.

I did not draw a prime date. Each lotto form has 4 spots for launch dates. If you name is drawn and your first date is already gone they try to give you your second choice, and so on down the line. My last choice was August 22. I received August 22. Not that I was upset. Any time your number comes up you are lucky.

Months later I stood on the precipice. At the launch there is literally a precipice. The river is about 300 feet below the parking lot and a huge wooden ramp slides boats down to the launch eddy. The ranger was kind enough to zoom through the mandatory safety and zero impact spiel. She issued my permit and campsite and helped me lower my boat to the river.

It was about 11 am by the time I got all rigged and pulled out. The only other people at the launch had rigged the night before and gotten a leisurely start of things. I was about 5 minutes behind them. I began to wonder if I was doing things wrong. They had 3 people in 2 rafts and an inflatable kayak. Each raft was heaped with gear and the kayak looked pretty stuffed too.
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The ranger had checked my gear and approved, I had the big 6 required items plus food, shelter and safety gear along with enough clothes and backup gear for 7 days. I only planned to spend 4. The group in front of me could have lasted a good month.

As I pulled around the first bend I noticed two things. The fish were jumping everywhere in a feeding frenzy and one of the rafts that had launched 5 minutes ago was already firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place. I was forced to eddy out already. I debated internally over fishing a little or helping. Since I was alone I decided to make a karma deposit.

Several friends, family members and co-workers had been committed to the trip at one time. My plans for the trip seemed less appealing to them as the date neared. I wanted to launch at Boundary Creek which meant go light- no cooler, one small boat and inflatable kayaks. No fires, no amenities and no propane fired showers- backpacking without the walking. The crowd slowly thinned and left me the lone participant. I’m normally a social guy, but if you need a propane shower to enjoy the river you can win your own damn lottery.

Before I could make my way down the shore the party barge had been extricated and was lumbering on. I slipped through a side slot and followed. The gauge at the launch read 1.89 feet.

Within a few miles it was clear that going light was big wisdom. The barges scraped and banged their way downstream. I straddled and slipped. That’s not to say I didn’t hit anything, but I never had to do more than bounce a bit and push with an oar to get un-wedged. My newfound friends were going to have to keep the z-drag kit out.

Since I was alone and needed to make good time to finish in four days I soon said goodbye and started rowing. Around lunch time I decided to stop in a big eddy where the river deepened and swirled between two cliffs. While I ate my bagel sandwich I decided to try my new fly rod out.

I tied on a red stimulator and stripped some line. As I prepared to cast my fly inadvertently fell off of my raft and I caught my first fish. I took a picture of the 12′ cutthroat and released it. The whole river is catch and release only.

I made an actual cast, being careful to keep my fly out of the water until I was ready, and landed another nice cutthroat. For 20 minutes I fished adjoining eddies and pulled in fish on nearly every cast.
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I finally cast into the current and had the biggest strike yet. I fought him for about a minute. I never had a good look through the foam and swirls that the rapids above sent down. Eventually he won and I went back to the smaller eddy fish.

I still hooked a fish about every other cast but I was having trouble landing them. The fish were aggressive and the water is crystal clear so setting a good hook was as easy as it gets. I just couldn’t get them to my boat.

I gave up and pulled in my line to push down the river. It was getting late and I had to go 32 miles today to reach my assigned camp.

I navigated several small to medium rapids, carefully trying to track my progress on the Forest Service issued map. I also had a GPS along that a friend of mine that guided the river had loaded with waypoints. I liked the idea of doing some discovery for myself and stuck to the map so I didn’t accidentally float in over my head. A few more miles in I ran a small unnamed ledge drop. It didn’t seem worth scouting and went smoothly.

I did worry a bit though. If that ledge wasn’t on the map I wondered what Velvet Falls would be like. I had seen you tube videos and it looked like it could get nasty if run poorly. Then I came to another distinct rapid. Again, it didn’t seem like I needed to scout it and the run went smoothly. It was a fun S curve with a drop at the top.

I was starting to worry about time and light at this point. I needed to get down river and I was not making the time I needed with the two big rapids of the day looming. I finally passed a group of rafters setting up camp.
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I subtly asked what camps they had been assigned, to ascertain my whereabouts, and was shocked to hear they drew Pistol Creek. I asked where Pistol Rapid was and they smiled, you just ran it. I looked at the map and reality dawned on me. I had run Velvet and Pistol already. The pictures and videos I had seen were all at much higher flows and the rapids get significantly easier at low flow.

I was also relieved to find that I was making good time and might be able to fish a little before getting to camp. I pulled over a few times and the fishing was good everywhere I tried. The entire river was brimming with big, aggressive and very stupid fish. I still couldn’t land them but since it was catch and release I figured it saved me an extra step.

A few more miles along I came around a corner and spotted the oddest sight of the trip. A completely nude lady was squatting on a beach illegally dropping a deuce on the beach. She seemed embarrassed, I seemed very embarrassed. Fortunately the river ended it by taking me around the next bend. Her other half was blissfully fishing an eddy and singing Bob Marley to himself. I waved as though nothing was amiss. He waved because nothing was amiss.

I stopped at Indian Creek launch site and re-filled my water bottles. The ranger was again friendly and helpful. I fished a little mid stream and managed to hook and not land a whole bunch of fish again. An outfitter web site bragged that on their trips an experienced angler could bag up to 50 fish a day. I’m pretty sure that on the Middle Fork a small child with a Barbie pole could bag 50 fish a day.

After negotiating a few more rapids and catching a few more fish I pulled into Sunflower Flats campsite. The main redeeming quality of the campsite was not the beach (tiny) or the tent sites (rocky) or the view (standard) it was the shower (hot). A natural hot spring had been corralled into a series of pools which finally culminated in a chute over a cliff. Right on the banks of the river you could catch a hot shower, or a fish, or both at the same time. I hooked a few more fish and settled in a pool at dark with my dinner, which was not a fish.

The next morning the shower and pools made getting up much more bearable. I realized that my only clock was on the GPS and that I probably didn’t have enough batteries to justify checking the time. I also realized it didn’t matter what time it was. If it was light enough to float I was going to float. When it got dark I went to sleep.
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I also decided to try a yellow fly instead of a red one. The red one was coming untied from all of the abuse the fish were giving it. When I clipped it off I discovered why I was suddenly inept at landing fish. The hook was bent. My monster fish had literally bent the hook straight enough to get off. All of his smaller brethren that followed had reaped the reward of his girth. I was soon landing fish again.

The next three days blended together a bit, I slept at a beach or hot spring or both every night. I swam when it was hot and fished until I was literally tired of catching so many fish. I rowed all day every day and ate lunch on the boat in the calmer stretches.

I fell into a comfortable rhythm of sleeping and floating. As the river became more familiar I made good time and could follow my position on a map with pretty good accuracy. I scouted when necessary, sometimes when it was not, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The rapids continued to be technically challenging, but not particularly dangerous or intimidating.

I saw as much wildlife as I had on most trips to Yellowstone. The canyon just got deeper and more dramatic. I couldn’t imagine a better way to see the wilderness than from a raft. I shared my final camp with an entire colony of Chukars and caught fish by the reflected light of towering walls.

On the last day I decided to forgo fishing altogether as thanks to the many fish that had foolishly bit my flies for days. I filled the day with a few short hikes and what passes for photography.

The final day of rapids proved to be fairly straightforward, but still fun. In all I had covered 98 miles and averaged about one spoken word per mile. I saw more sheep than people. I do believe I will put in exclusively for late season dates next year.

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