It’s hard to jump back into real life after an adventure on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Central Idaho.
The Middle Fork’s 104 miles of roller-coaster rapids run through Idaho’s wild heart — the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness — carrying floaters from the high country down to the Main Salmon. Along the way, rafters and kayakers run 100 Class III and Class IV rapids, soak in six natural hot springs and fish for the thick westslope cutthroat that clog the river’s shadows.
“I think it’s the best river trip in the continental United States,” said Jerry Hughes. “I dream about it every night.”
Hughes should know. He guided on rivers throughout the West, including the Grand Canyon area in Arizona, before returning to Idaho to set up his own outfitting business in 1977. He also takes trips on Oregon’s Wallowa and Grand Ronde rivers as well as through the Owyhee Canyonlands in Idaho and Oregon, but the Middle Fork remains his favorite.
“I still get out and boat it four times a year,” said Hughes, 68.
National Geographic Magazine rated the Salmon as the third-best river to raft — not in the U.S., but in the world.
The river is managed as a true wild river, which means that each time you run it, the rapids have changed, the landscape is different and the ecosystem is reborn. The rapids are so gnarly and unpredictable that the guides have to decide whether to make guests walk around them when the water is running high.
You begin your journey running the Velvet Rapid, followed by the long Powerhouse Rapid that goes on and on.
The springtime torrents make Pistol Creek, long a precipitous rapid, even more technical and exciting. In high water, Redside Rapids flipped one of our boats on my last trip — a startling reminder that we were on an adventure, especially with the water at 47 degrees.
A FAMILY ADVENTURE
Hughes first started guiding on the Middle Fork decades ago.
“I was a college kid. Our clients were cutting-edge risk-takers,” Hughes said. “The trips were pretty primitive.”
These days some of those early floaters have returned repeatedly, bringing their grandchildren.
The outfitters have become safety experts, and their guides cook gourmet meals, set up the tents and do all the work so that their guests can just have fun at all ages.
“I think the rafting trip has become the great American vacation experience,” Hughes said.
And it’s a trip that most family members can enjoy together. I took my twin boys on an outfitted trip when they were 7. They played in the sand with other kids and were watched carefully by all of the guides. My last trip included a grandmother in her 80s with her brood, and they all had a ball — whether in the boats or on the shore.
As we floated down the river, the spring chinook salmon were swimming against the current, heading for spawning grounds upstream.
Untouched by hatcheries, these fish that enter the mighty Columbia River in March, April and May carry the pure genetic material that may allow salmon to survive even climate change. In the river above the put-in point on Boundary Creek, huge salmon jump up Dagger Falls on their way to spawn in the headwaters near Stanley, the main jumping-off spot for people starting a Middle Fork trip.
About 10,000 people float the Middle Fork annually, but the low-impact camping practiced by the outfitters and private boaters under U.S. Forest Service guidance keeps the river crystal clear and clean. Boaters carry out everything, including their human waste, so that the land and water remain pristine.
This is a land of elk, deer, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and smaller mammals such as pine marten and mink. And you hear wolves howl here.
CHANGES IN RIVER, SEASONS
The rafting season’s timeline also has changed over the decades that Hughes has outfitted on the Middle Fork. Climate change has made trips in June possible with conditions that would have been rare in the 1970s. (Previously, the water was too wild for most people to run the Middle Fork in June.) On the last trip I made, we took wetsuits for a mid-June trip, and the first day was cold and it snowed.
But the sun came out the next day, and we were in our shorts for the rest of the five-day ride.
Outfitters and private boaters now run all the way into October. Fly anglers especially find the fall float awesome. I paddled down one October and, while the water was low, we had no problems flying into Indian Creek for the start, like most trips in August and afterward. This cuts 25 miles off the trip. (There are two places to begin the trip — Boundary Creek, which can be reached by road off of Idaho 21, and the Indian Creek airstrip, which lies 25 miles downriver from Boundary Creek.)
The Middle Fork’s canyon walls and caves hide more than natural wonders. Pictographs, painted by ancient ancestors of the Shoshone and Bannock Indians who lived along the river for thousands of years, tell their stories still. Several of the campgrounds were used by the U.S. Army during the Sheepeater Indian War of 1879, the last Indian war in Idaho.
With all of the tributaries flowing into the Middle Fork — including the largest, Big Creek, which enters in Impassable Canyon — the final rapids are big and bold. Guides usually have no problem keeping their guests in the boats, even in high water. (However, I swam both Rubber and Hancock rapids after being bumped out twice on an earlier trip in an inflatable kayak.)
Devils Tooth drops me, spins me and shoots me downstream. House Rock and Jump Off rapids try to flip me. After all that, I’m still upright.
Pete Zimowsky, longtime Idaho Statesman outdoors writer
Hughes and his wife, Carole Finley, are beginning to back out of the business as their son Colin takes over the operations. Many outfitters are still longtime family-owned businesses, and both the smaller and larger companies have developed best-management practices to ensure that everyone has a good time, Hughes said, while staying safe.
One of the main reasons the Middle Fork trip is special is that only seven parties are allowed to launch daily. Private trips are made available through a lottery in February for rafting dates from May 28 to Sept. 3. After Sept. 3, it’s first come, first served. You can sometimes pick up permits that people have given up by calling 877-444-6777. Private trips should be undertaken only by the most experienced floaters with all the right equipment.
Outfitter trips are included in the seven daily put-ins. The best way to find an outfitter that meets your needs is to check out the Idaho Outfitter and Guides website. There are many options and packages.
My last trip with an outfitter included my wife, Tina, and longtime friends. Tina, who has done her share of rougher adventure trips over the years, just wanted a break and some good, old-fashioned R&R. The Middle Fork trip turned out to be just the ticket. Afterward, she told whoever would listen, “I felt I was still on vacation a month later.”
I felt the same way. I returned to the real world, a couple of pounds fatter from the tantalizing Dutch oven cooking, and felt relaxed like I haven’t for a long time.
Rocky Barker is the Idaho Statesman’s energy and environment reporter. He has floated many of Idaho’s wild rivers many times since 1985.
When to go
The Middle Fork rafting season for outfitters generally runs from about the second week in June into October.
Do you like bluegrass? The band Shades of Grey, which plays an eclectic mix of modern, bluegrass and acoustic country music, will float the Middle Fork during the day and perform live music around the campfire each evening after dinner on a trip offered by Adventure Sun Valley beginning Aug. 13. Call at 208-507-1012 or send an email to:firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Boise, you can take state Highway 21 to Stanley. It’s under a 3-hour drive from Boise, about 130 miles.
Plan your trip
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is a 104-mile free-flowing river in the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, starting 20 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho, at the confluence of Bear Valley and Marsh Creeks.
The Middle Fork is administered under a permit system to protect it from excessive human impacts. Only seven parties are allowed to launch daily with private trips made available through a lottery from May 28 to Sept. 3. Outfitter trips are included in the seven. Once again, outfitted trips are the way to go unless you have extensive rafting experience.
Outfitted trips range from about $1,000 to $2,600 per individual depending on the season and the outfitter. Trips are usually about four to five days.
For official travel information about Idaho tourism, check out visitidaho.org.
Accommodations: Outfitters will put you up in Stanley, Salmon and other locations at the start and end of the trip. (The float trip camping is made comfortable by the outfitter’s skills.)
The area around Stanley: The Sawtooth National Recreation Area surrounds Stanley and offers hiking, horseback riding, lakes and great beauty. Don’t miss gorgeous Redfish Lake, one of Idaho’s hidden gems that’s just 5 miles outside of Stanley. The newly created Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness lies southeast of Stanley. Ketchum and Sun Valley also are great in the summer. About 60 miles from Stanley, the area offers beautiful scenery and fabulous fishing, hiking and other outdoor opportunities as well as top-notch dining and accommodations. stanleycc.org, visitsunvalley.com.