Outdoors

The Olsons portage around Middle Fork logjam

Wilderness means different things to different people.

For John and Debbie Olson of Boise, wilderness meant working in sweaty temperatures and walking a mile-long trail back and forth countless times to carry about 2,000 pounds of rafting gear around a massive logjam on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The logjam, caused by a mudslide, trapped between 250 and 300 whitewater rafters on the river two weeks ago. It's old news, but the logjam stirred a continuing wilderness debate: Should you be prepared to fend for yourselves when something happens in wilderness or should you expect the government to bail you out?

When the Olsons came upon the logjam, with a whole river bank jammed with stranded rafters, they sized up the situation. In less than an hour, they agreed to portage.

They had eight people in their party with two 14-foot Avon rafts. And two Airedales.

"For us, we like to take things into our own hands," John Olson said. "When we are in wilderness we feel we should be able to handle ourselves."

They moved equipment from the river bank above the logjam to a beach at Pistol Creek below the clogged river, where they could continue their float.

It wasn't easy.

"It was like childbirth. You just blacked it out," Debbie Olson said.

It all started when they hit the massive camp where several private rafting groups and commercial outfitters where holed up on Monday morning (July 24). A rainstorm hours earlier had caused a gully washer on Lake Creek, a mile upstream from Pistol Creek.

The Olsons hadn't been down the Middle Fork in 13 years. They were going to scout Pistol Creek Rapids anyway, but when they came upon the lake in the river made by the mudslide, they knew something was wrong.

After they pulled off the river, they looked at the logjam, the trail, and the beach below the logjam and decided to portage.

They began breaking down their rafts and moving equipment at about 2 p.m. Monday.

They took a dinner break and by 10 p.m. had all their gear on the beach at Pistol Creek. They camped Monday night near the beach and launched Tuesday morning.

"We were exhausted doing it in the heat of the day," Debbie Olson said.

The Olson are both 53 and active backpackers, climbers and bicyclists. Their kids and friends, who are in their 20s and 30s, also were on the trip with them.

The rafts weighed 140 pounds each. Ice chests and dry boxes, containing food and cooking gear, were upwards of 200 pounds each.

They had rowing frames, oars, propane tanks, stoves, Dutch ovens and personal dry bags which contained tents, sleeping bags and clothing.

They broke down equipment and took everything out of the coolers and dry boxes. They put food and gear in dry bags that were equipped with backpacking straps. That made it possible to portage gear piece by piece. Luckily, there was no beer. They went light with hard stuff.

They deflated their rafts and strapped them to oars and then shouldered the oars. They had to blow up the rafts with hand pumps at the beach.

They carried stuff in their arms. Each person made five to six round-trip carries.

"We were so exhausted and dehydrated," Debbie Olson said.

While other rafters at the camp were stressing out over the delay, Debbie Olson said their group focused all their energy on the portage.

You ask, why portage? Why not wait for the Forest Service to clear the logjam? Why not wait for help?

The Olsons said the government doesn't move fast. But besides that, Debbie Olson said, "We are big wilderness people and we thought this is what you should do. If you are doing a wilderness experience, you should deal with it."

Many of my e-mails said the Forest Service shouldn't have blown the logjam because it was a natural event. There were debates in camp on the river and on the Internet from one end of the country to another. The Forest Service even heard from Capitol Hill.

One outfitter followed what the Olsons did, but he hired a packstring from a nearby ranch to haul gear.

Another outfitter just gave up and flew clients out from the Pistol Creek airstrip, ending their trip. Others flew their clients to airstrips downriver and continued the trip. They also flew in additional rafts.

The 1.5-mile hike to the airstrip was difficult for some rafting clients, raising the question of who should be floating the river, even with outfitters. Some guides were really worried about clients. One woman suffered heat stroke on the hike out.

The Olsons didn't do the portage to make a statement. They were doing it to continue the float trip. You don't get to do the Middle Fork very often because rafters have to get a permit in a lottery to be able to legally do the trip.

Even so, they did make a statement. When the Olsons pulled into Indian Creek, a Forest Service outpost downstream, they got a standing ovation from other rafters at the beach who had heard about their portage.

They were recognized as the group that was prepared for what wilderness can dish out.

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