Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Main Fork Salmon River, Idaho

The rafting trip that I had been waiting for finally came the last weekend of May.  A year ago Ben had told me about the trip and invited Emily and I along.  I put in the time off at my job and worked 70+ hour weeks for two weeks to make sure that I got a project out by the end of the month and could go on the trip.  Emily wasn’t able to get any time off of work as she was taking a few days off the following week to go back to the Northeast for wedding dress shopping. 

So, with Emily not coming Chris and I decided we would try to tackle the river in inflatable kayaks from the ORC rather than in a big raft.  Although we were going with friends with professional level rafting and river experience none of us had been on this river before so the kayaks were a risk if there was big water....  

We left work early on Friday and met up at Bryan’s to pack up his mega van and head out of town.  We stopped briefly at Ben’s parents house just south of Canby, OR to pick up Stella, the oar boat, before continuing on to Portland to pick up Martin.   I was surprised to see that Ben's parents had a plane in their garage as well as hearing that Ben and Brian had killed a massive, possibly record breaking, black bear on the Rogue River, packed it in their raft and floated it down stream to the takeout... only in Oregon.

Where we picked up Martin was a massive warehouse underneath one of the many bridges of North Portland where one of Bryan’s friends had bought a massive 1950’s prison transport bus and was painting it bright red, green and yellow.  In any other area this would have been perceived as a bit odd but in Oregon this type of thing just no longer surprises me.  The warehouse manager was a portly, short fella who seemed a bit creepy to us as we later found him out on the loading platform watching a lightning storm rolling in saying to himself, quite loudly, “boom”, “boom” “boom”.... yeah... this was the start of our trip.  

After coaxing Bryan that we needed to leave with hit the road towards Hood River for dinner with our final group, Martin, Bryan, Cody, Nicole, Sarah, Chris and I.  We had been enjoying some libations on the ride up from Corvegas but once we hit I-84 we brought out the harder stuff while stoic Bryan remained completely sober getting us to our destination as he always does.  By the time we made it to the Big Horse Brew Pub in Hood River Sarah was hilariously lit and we had to order for her.  The pub was really cool and possibly a location to hang out at while planning or during our wedding weekend next year.

After dinner we all fell into a deep food coma as Bryan drove us through the night towards Ben and Tiah’s house in Walla Walla where he had made some late night cookies for us and set us up with more rafting gear.  I was especially thankful to him for giving me a dry top to go over the farmer john I had bought for the trip as it definitely saved me from freezing the first few days.  It was great to see Ben and we had all been wondering if he would be able to make the trip with us but Tiah had pretty much given him an ultimatum and had gone to bed crying so he did the right thing for his new family and stayed home to help with the kids.  It was sad to say goodbye and leave him there but at the same time a little nice knowing that I may just end up a bit more sober on the trip without him... hehe.  Just kidding... it was sad.

We drove all through the night and I actually slept pretty good in the van but was blind at every stop we made because I had stupidly left my contacts in a bag buried in the back of the van.  Therefore, when I woke up to find us pulling into KT’s Hayloft saloon for breakfast in Lolo, MONTANA I was completely bewildered as to why we were in the state of MONTANA to everyone’s amusement.  

We had a great breakfast there before continuing down the road to a Les Schwabb Tire Center in Hamilton, MT where Bryan decided it was a good time to make sure all the tires and spare had air in them for the shuttle company that would shuttle the van to the take out for us.  Unfortunately, his spare was pretty busted up and wouldn’t completely hold air so we remained, to the distress of Cody, at Les Schwabb for a long time while Chris and Martin played their mandolin and guitar to keep us entertained.  

After a quick stop at the North Fork General Store for some last minute supplies we made our way through the snowy high mountains to the put in at Corn Creek where we arrived at around 2:30 in the afternoon, nearly a full 22 hours after we had left Corvallis the following day and driven through the night.  We talked to the Forest Service workers at the put in and found out the river was 45 degrees with a flow of 17,700 CFS and was at almost 6 feet on the ramp which was one step below the “EXTREME” boating hazard rating... why did we bring kayaks.....  

We were sat down by the park service girl named “Z” who told us about the conditions, gave us suggestions on were to camp and instructed us to always use our ammo can to poop in... yup, no pooping in the woods on this trip (I did the first two nights though far off in the woods as I had to work my way up to using the ammo can).  Cody and Nicole, graciously paid for everyone’s permits for the trip.  We then left the van in the trusty hands of a shuttle company that would drive it through the night and leave it at the takeout where we would find it in 5 days.

We hit the river around 5pm and had a couple fun hours of rapids before we reached our first camp.  There was definitely more water than I had kayaked in before on any trip so it was pretty exciting for Chris and I in our inflatable duckies.  The wave trains were often 10-12 feet deep where we plunged into them, disappearing below the horizon each time then rising up steep wave faces to crest out at the top and paddle super hard not to be sucked back into the holes.  At camp we quickly set up a large tarp Cody had thought to bring which kept us out of the intermittent rain showers and Sarah and Martin cooked up a delicious dinner of brussel sprouts and bbq chicken and of course Chris and Martin played guitar for us.

In the morning I ventured out of camp east back upstream to an Eagle’s nest we had passed just before the camp to get some shots.  I had borrowed Jason’s Pelican Case for the camera which kept all the expensive gear well protected throughout the trip.  When I got around the corner pushing my way through dripping wet branches and soaking my puffy pants and jacket in the process I was greated to a huge nest with a juvenile and two adults watching over the nest.  They were clearly not happy to have me so close to their nest and flew back and forth above me screeching through the misting sky.  I stayed in the area for nearly half an hour getting various shots of the eagles flying by with the long 300mm lens.  Unfortunately, it was tricky as it was raining slightly and overcast which meant I couldn’t get the clearest photos but they still came out pretty impressive anyway.

The weather was worst on Sunday with nearly continuous misty skies all day long, but this worked out perfectly for us because on Sunday we found our way to the most amazing hot spring I have ever been to.  Cody was in charge of the GPS the entire trip and had marked down places to visit along the river.  Unfortunately, we overshot the hot spring by a couple hundred feet which the guidebook said would be impossible to get back to if that happened.... yeah right, not for us.  Martin took the high route as a rock climber over a cliff face while I took the low route over the water (in case I fell) and we both made it around the corner where I was thrown a dry bag to help pull the others who  jumped in the paddle raft to frantically paddle upstream against the strong current.  They all paddled as hard as they could and I pulled on the rope as hard as I could and we were all able to make it to the scree slope below the springs.  

The spring was a built up rock tub along the face of a cliff steaming with hot spring water.  There were four inch and and two inch hoses leading into the empty tub with a drain hollowed out into the rock containing wall with a plug.  Ingenius!  In this way we could fill up the hot tub with hot water from the larger hose, cool it off if needed with cooler water from the narrow hose and then drain everything at the end so the tub remained clean and didn’t build up algae or any human left funk.  With the cool weather and cold rain we remained in the hot spring for nearly two hours I think enjoying wine, mixed drinks and assorted bears with the beautiful river below and cliffs on the opposite side behind us.  Truly paradise in the middle of no where (The Frank Church Wilderness where the Salmon River runs is the most remote wilderness in the US).  

When we finally left the hot spring and continued to our 2nd camp site we were all completely lit and having a great time.  The rapids were easy Class III’s so we had nothing to worry about.  That night Cody and Nicole cooked up a great dinner of steak fresh from their farm and Holm had a little rest on a cooler for quite some time... The great thing about rafting is that you don’t have to skimp on weight.  You can bring as many drinks, amazing meals, etc without worry of having to carry any of it much of a distance except to camp on shore.  That night I slept under the tarp by the kitchen because I had soaked my sleeping bag pretty good the night before not zipping up my bivy well enough, although I stayed warm both nights.

In the morning we were greeted by a very curious deer in our campsite who freely roamed around us clearly waiting for us to leave to check out anything we may have left for it.  I also took some time photographing the hundreds of beautiful swallowtail and periwinkle butterflies that everywhere on the beach.  When we hit the river again we encountered our first people in two days in jet boats coming up the river.  I’m not sure how it happened but Cody somehow managed to flip the paddle raft in Class III rapids when they passed us, I’m sure to the amusement of everyone onboard the boat.  Poor Cody never heard the end of that from his wife Nicole.

The weather had finally turned beautiful on Monday and we had a great day paddling down the river with snow capped peaks rising all around us.  We stopped at the Zaunmiller Wisner Memorial Bridge over the river and Cody led us to an amazing abandoned mining homestead in a beautiful valley.  We spent some time walking amongst the wooden cabins in the field checking out the old farm tools and living areas where the miners used to live.  It must have been hard living compared to the luxuries that we have in todays modern society but damn, you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful location.  From there it was a relaxing float down the river under blue skies to our next camp spot where everyone took some time to clean themselves up in the cold river.

That night Bryan made some unbelievable meatballs for dinner and we got a pretty great fire going for Chris and Martin to play beside.  The only bad part about the night is the amount of poison ivy I got on my legs while looking for firewood around our site.  Late that evening the clouds burned off a bit and I was able to get some amazing shots of the Milky Way over the river with a few shooting stars as well.  We had gotten to the site early enough to let all my gear dry out from the previous rainy days so I also had a very comfortable nights sleep.  

On Tuesday we had another great day on the river with wonderful warm weather.  The most interesting part of the day was the time we spent at the historical Buckskin Bill Museum.  This is a homestead on the side of the river where two German accented folks live who bought the property when it became available after Buckskin Bills death in 1980.  They have taken the time to erect a wonderful museum and have preserved all of the structures Buckskin Bill had erected in the area, leaving them pretty much the same way that Buckskin Bill lived in them.  

Buckskin Bill was a hermit on the river who lived off the land and was friends with all the Native Americans of the area.  As the river became more popular for rafters and outdoor enthusiasts he became a virtual celebrity on the river and was always welcoming to people onto his homestead.  He had built his own wooden boat, living quarters, a lookout tower on the hillside, kitchen and tool shed and had survived through all the winters, forest fires, etc.  

The museum itself was filled with animal bones, crude hunting weapons and tons of photos with Bill in his viking had with rifle with various rafters throughout the years.  The couple who now owns the property asks for, but does not require, donations and serves up candy, food and even Black Butte Porter ice cream floats.  We spent a good amount of time exploring the area and talking to the residents, and I even found a cicada emerging from its exoskeleton on one of the paths before we moved on down the river to our final camp site.

The part of the river from the Buckskin Bill Museum to our final camp site was my favorite.  The Main Fork Salmon is supposedly deeper than the Grand Canyon and we had a good sense of that through this section as the walls around us were enormous and could see snow covered peaks in the distance as well.  Here we also encountered the first people we had seen in days.  Two kayakers had come down from the South Fork of the Salmon and had caught up to us.  They were nice and were familiar with Corvallis, Oregon so we threw them a couple beers before they continued on their way.   It is amazing that on an 80 mile stretch of beautiful river in Idaho on Memorial Day weekend we could go 5 full days and only see two other boats... It was truly remote and we felt like we had the entire wilderness all to ourselves.  

When we reached camp we had plenty of time to lie in the sun and play a few rounds of cards before cooking our final dinner.  Somebody made up the crazy idea that whoever lost the next round of cards had to take a dip in the cold river... well, you can guess who lost first... and 2nd.... yes, it was cold, but Chris and Cody soon found out next how cold.  We had a done a pretty good job polishing off most of the booze on the trip but there was still a keg can of Widmer that we needed to Kill.  When we were finished Chris had a fun time crushing it with a boulder on the rocks.  

At about 6:30 Martin had the crazy idea that he wanted to climb a tall tower of rock on the opposite side of the river.  I was feeling lazy and honestly a little concerned about the amount of light left in the day so I declined but Chris decided to go for it with him in case someone got hurt... What then happened was the group of us watching as Holm and Martin got in an IK together, paddled frantically across the river and then scale a wicked steep slope up to the top of the tower, thankfully at a quick pace.  This actually worked out pretty good because if they hadn’t climbed the tower none of us would have noticed the family of goats at the top that were peering over the cliff edge at the climbers coming towards them.   

For the next hour we nervously watched as Chris and Martin first made it to the top and then made their way cautiously down the steep slope back to the river and then frantically paddle back across to us just as it was getting too dark to see.  Martin came back with some amazing photos of both the sheep, the river and canyon and us looking up at them from far below.  They had spooked the family of goats down the mountain side and the next morning I was surprised to see the goats still there keeping an eye on us from above.  

On our final day on the beautiful Salmon we once again had great weather and enjoyed easy rapids for much of the day until right before the take out at Carey Creek where we encountered a class IV.  Chris flipped his kayak but Martin made it through ok in mine I believe.  I was in the paddle raft with Sarah and Nicole and we made it through just fine.    At the takeout Martin got to work grilling up some burgers while the rest of us packed up our gear and loaded up the Van that was conveniently there waiting for us after the long shuttle.  Right before we left we encountered what I would call a “true cowboy” who was breaking in about 6 new horses on the bridge over the river and the trail to possibly take clients on.  He was skinny with a cowboy hat and rugged looking old jeans with a button down top and a gun in holster.  Definitely a true cowboy.

On the way home we stopped at Ben’s for a bbq dinner he and Tiah had arranged for us and shared our stories with him of the river, toning down our excitement so as not to make him feel bad he missed it.  We got to play with his super cute puppy and get introduced to their new son Fenix.  It was super nice of them to have a cookout for us and could tell they were happy to have company.  Hopefully, someday soon they will move back to the Valley to be closer to us all.  The drive home was long and we got in late to Corvallis around 3am but it was all worth it as the trip was a blast. 

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