Idaho’s South Fork of the Salmon a river-running classic

In the dark of the Idaho night on a dirt road northeast of McCall, the back tires of the truck slip just enough to remind us that I can’t carry that much speed on this backcountry thoroughfare. I’m with Chad Randol, a good friend and longtime river-running partner, and Trudy, our shuttle driver, who we hired by networking McCall’s robust river underground.

“This part of the road is super steep and dangerous,” Trudy says nervously from the passenger seat.

Chad and I are on a mission to run the South Fork Salmon River from the Secesh confluence near Yellow Pine to the Vinegar Creek takeout on the Main Salmon near Riggins. In mid-July on a low-water year, the river is just less than 2 feet on the Krassel Guard Station gauge, and we need to cover 58 miles in less than 48 hours (36 on the South Fork, 22 on the Main Salmon). Our late drive to the put-in is typical of our lives now: This is how dads do it.

Chad and I have run rivers together all over the world, dragging kayaks onto planes, trains and busses. But that was pre-kids, a simpler time, yes, but less rewarding because of the profound joy fatherhood provides — which we’re both engulfed in at the moment. (I’m three deep; Chad’s wife just delivered their first in April.)

So with work and commitments, we get our expedition fix in up-tempo fashion. Using a kayak forces us to keep it simple: light, packable sleeping gear; tight meal planning (although I splurge on a couple of steaks); and a serious sense of purpose when we’re on the river.

In the whitewater world, the South Fork Salmon River is considered a classic; its granite bedrock geology allows it to be run from 10 feet down to 1 foot. Before this trip, I’d paddled it at a robust 7 feet. Trees raced us down the river and each rapid thundered like a small earthquake as we approached: nerve-racking big-water Class V at its finest. The river we find when we wake up Saturday morning ready to put on is a different beast. It’s almost wadeable and resembles a pristine trout fishery: tranquil pine forests surround the gin-clear water.

But that granite bedrock channels each rapid, turning it into more of creek run with tight moves and fun “boofs,” drops similar to a California river like the Merced or Tuolumne.

Once on the water, we don’t sit in our boats without our paddles moving. Trudy is meeting us at 1:30 p.m. the next day, so we have some ground to cover.

The first 6 miles or so, the river passes easily. A huge golden eagle blasts off from its perch through the crisp, clean air of the canyon. We’re looking for Devil’s Creek Rapid — the first named drop on the run and the 9-mile mark.

Chad and I haven’t run serious rivers together in years, but the rhythm comes back almost instantly. We take turns leading, signaling each other from eddies and boat scouting. There’s no verbal communication. We’re yards apart, but the hand signals and eye contact form an international language for river runners.

This unique rhythm is something I want to always be a part of my life. Traveling deep into a canyon with a small group of friends — or one — is such an intimate experience. Nothing else matters. It’s like climbing a big wall in Yosemite or surfing an offshore break at sea. A comfort in the uncomfortable. Chad and I hope to pass that love on to our children, and Idaho has so much to pass on with a lifetime’s worth of drainages similar to the South Fork to explore.

Five hours later, we’re through Devil’s Creek and Elk Creek rapids and are looking in anticipation for the river’s biggest drop, Fall Creek (all formed by the debris from creek mouths). We approach a horizon line and Chad jumps out of his boat. The drop has a relatively straightforward line down the middle with a dynamic recirculating hydraulic on the left side guarded by a tough entrance. Chad hops back in and I follow his lead.

Was that Fall Creek? We ask each other five or six times. It’d been over a decade since I’d been on the South Fork and at the difference in water levels, it was virtually unrecognizable to me.

We continue downstream with the evening light creeping into the canyon, passing several gorgeous campsites with long sandy beaches decorated by large Ponderosas. “Check out the size of that fish,” Chad yells as a 3-foot fish we assume is a salmon streaks beneath his boat. We’re ready to be on dry ground but know we have a huge paddle in the morning. Fall Creek is at the 30-mile mark, leaving about 28 for the following day.

We decide we can’t pass up another pristine campsite, so we pull over to a gem and set up. I’d stuffed ice in the bottom of a drybag to keep our steaks cold. After getting the fire started, Chad devises a genius plan: heating a flat rock to cook on. The meat is soon sizzling on our custom grill and the potatoes I’d thrown in the fire were nearly perfect. But everything tastes perfect in places like this, especially when you’re spent from paddling six hours. We eat around the fire and fly-fish for cutthroats as darkness approaches — when the stars light up the night sky.

In the morning, we head downriver, anticipating the confluence with the Main Salmon around the corner. Instead we’re met by a large horizon line that marks Fall Creek. We scout the drop and make quick work of the river’s biggest rapid, sprinting like the dirtbag dads we are, trying to make it back to tired wives in a wilderness all their own taking care of our young children.

The flatwater slog on the Main Salmon takes longer than expected. We’re late meeting Trudy at Vinegar Creek. “I was starting to get worried about you guys,” she says.

Yep, that’s how dads do it.

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