This spring I’ve been living vicariously through some of the expert boaters I know. Take a guy like Tyler Allyn, a kayaker and film producer who grew up in Boise, who’s running rivers all over the world now. There he was in early April, doing top-to-bottom runs on the North Fork of the Payette River between Smith’s Ferry and Banks with a few kayak buds, at 5,600 cfs. Making it look really easy.
I remember tracing the history of whitewater achievements on the Payette River in my book, “Paddling the Payette,” in the mid-1990s. At that time, it was a big deal for anyone to kayak 15 miles of continuous Class V whitewater on the North Fork, and only a handful of catarafters led by Alan Hamilton of AIRE had rowed the whole stretch.
Twenty-five years later, the North Fork is being paddled by more boaters than ever before. The North Fork Championships, set for June 15-17 this year, has put the North Fork on the map like never before.
In a year like this, with snowpack and streamflow ranging up to 200 percent of normal, the top boaters really shine in the big water scene, and they go after it with gusto. They’re out running the Salmon River top to bottom, from Stanley to Lewiston, or Marsh Creek to Spring Bar, in a matter of days. They’ll be waiting to run the Middle Fork at 10 feet in a single day, all 100 miles in about 10 hours.
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But this is also going to be an awesome river season for us mere mortals who are fine with waiting for the peak flows to pass by before we jump into the game. The bonus is we’ll have excellent flows to run rivers all summer long. Late-season trips will have much higher flows than usual.
The desert rivers have been running for months, creating a much longer boating window than normal. I ran the Lower Owyhee in mid-March, and I could have done it two or three times again. It’s still running at boatable flows this weekend, 1,650 cfs, but it is going to be too low for rafting in a few weeks. Canoes and pack rafts can do it at lower flows.
The Bruneau should be running strong well into mid-June. It’s an intimate experience to be floating through the narrow canyon for 35 miles, the rock walls rising from the water’s edge vertically several hundred feet. The long passage of geologic time has polished the rhyolite lava flows exposed by the cutting forces of the river, and it’s left an especially showy display of towers, alcoves and spires.
For the retirees who can spend the whole summer on the river, why not try a top-to-bottom run on the Salmon River when it’s warm? You could take your time, enjoy the trip to the maximum extent possible, and tour a big part of the state as part of a 475-mile journey. The only hard part would be to snag a Main Salmon permit to run 80 miles from Corn Creek to Carey Creek through the core of Central Idaho. No permit is needed the rest of the way.
The Lochsa and Moyie rivers in North Idaho shouldn’t be overlooked, and neither should the rivers in East Idaho. It’d be a great year to run the South Fork of the Snake River in mid-summer. Several parts of the Henrys Fork are gorgeous to float and fish. Stop by Mesa Falls while you’re in the ’hood.
If you don’t have your own gear, consider hiring an outfitter to take you and your family on a week-long whitewater vacation on the Middle Fork or Main Salmon River. Or hire a day-trip outfitter to float the Payette River, the Lochsa, the Salmon or the Snake. Find an outfitter on ioga.org.
It’s hard to pack in so much river fun in a single summer, but this year is shaping up to the be one of the best years ever for Idaho rivers. Do what you can to carve out time for you and your family to enjoy it! Believe me, you’ll be glad you did, and you’ll want to come back for more.
Steve Stuebner writes occasional columns for Idaho Outdoors. He writes a weekly blog called Stueby’s Outdoor Journal and appears on 94.9 The River every Friday morning at 7:45 a.m. with Ken and Deb to talk about his outdoor tip of the week.