Outdoors

Middle Fork Ranch helped rafters in a jam

There's an unwritten code in the wilderness.

Everyone looks out for the next person, and when trouble hits, there's no hesitation. Help isn't far away.

The 2.4-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho is a big, remote place. You just don't drive in a truckload of supplies from the nearest Costco.

Getting out of the wilderness means hiking down a narrow, rocky trail 100 feet above the river to a dirt airstrip and taking an hour flight to a town outside the wilderness.

Supplies and people don't move that fast.

The code of the wilderness was evident last week when a massive logjam at Pistol Creek Rapids blocked the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and stranded 250 to 300 floaters upstream.

A majority of the help came from the Middle Fork Ranch at Pistol Creek, a private ranch and airstrip in the middle of "The Frank."

After the logjam, the ranch's staff opened up the airstrip for four days to U.S. Forest Service crews, outfitters and others.

Small planes touched down and took off as outfitters had to fly customers either downstream to continue the wilderness float trip or to end a trip completely.

After hiking out 1.5 miles because of the logjam, rafting customers waited in the shade near the ranch's bunkhouse for planes.

It was a difficult walk for some elderly rafting clients. One woman suffered heat stroke.

A rafter who uses a wheelchair was taken around the logjam on the trail by horseback with the help of Middle Fork Ranch wranglers.

Mackay Wilderness Trip rafting guides Chris Welch, Patrick Kohnke, Alyssa Welch and Lee Mitchell found a way to haul customers' dry bags on the hike from camp upriver to the ranch. They hoisted a raft oar on their shoulders and strung the dry bags on it like a clothes line.

One woman at the Middle Fork Ranch made sandwiches for some of the folks waiting around.

"It's backcountry hospitality," said Dave Dewey, who manages the ranch with his wife, Chris.

That's the way it is. They once walked about 3 miles downriver to Indian Creek in the winter to help a stranded pilot. It was late in the afternoon and no place to be on a winter's day. But they did it because someone needed help.

Last week the ranch's packstring made countless trips hauling people and gear from above the logjam to Pistol Creek.

"Our horses are worn out," Dave Dewey said late Wednesday when things started to calm down.

Even though dozens of rafters were stranded at one campsite across from Lake Creek above the logjam, everybody took it in stride.

"We're sharing food," said Justin Ridle, whose dad owns Middle Fork Rafting Expeditions.

Guides also shared advice on running the log-strewn river above Pistol Creek Rapids. They stood on the river bank with safety ropes as rafts ran the gauntlet of driftwood.

This whole thing started early Monday morning when a rainstorm caused a gully washer on Lake Creek, about a mile upstream from Pistol Creek Rapids.

The massive amount of water gouged the creekbed and sent mud, logs, trees and rocks down into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The soils of the mountainside were unstable from past forest fires.

The debris scattered down the river and the logs all piled up in Pistol Creek Rapids.

U.S. Forest Service crews backpacked in supplies to blast the logjam.

The principle of keeping a watchful eye out for the other guy was apparent right from the start when backcountry pilot Jeff Overton spotted the 50-by-30-foot logjam and saw rafters approaching it.

He radioed the Middle Fork Ranch and wrangler Matt Scott rode upriver on a horse to warn oncoming rafters.

Because the logjam could only be seen from a few hundred feet upstream where the river curves, rafts could have piled up on the logjam sending floaters into the river and possibly under the logs. There could have been a bunch of injuries and even deaths.

From there on, people just kept on helping each other and attitudes remained pretty upbeat.

Although rafters were packed on one river bench without much space for privacy, there was still a lot of smiles and joking.

That must be the spirit of the wilderness.

"If you are going to get stuck some place, this is a great place to get stuck," said Michael Hartnett of Winchester, Mass., who was stuck at the camp.

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