Outdoors Blog

Idaho trio kayak 300 miles of Salmon River in 33 hours; trip would take weeks in summer

Idahoans (from left to right) Kyle Smith, Mike Bond and Sam Wells celebrate their arrival at the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers.
Idahoans (from left to right) Kyle Smith, Mike Bond and Sam Wells celebrate their arrival at the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers. Courtesy of Big Cedar Media

Kyle Smith has a philosophical answer when asked why he and two friends kayaked 300 miles of the Salmon River through the heart of Idaho in one 32.5-hour push.

He also has a short version.

“Why the hell not?” he said Friday, about 24 hours after the journey ended but still feeling the effects of the cold in his fingers.

Smith, who grew up in Twin Falls and is attending nursing school in Boston, made the trip with Mike Bond and Sam Wells of Boise. Seth Dahl of Boise was their shuttle driver, photographer and videographer.

Their idea was to paddle from the headwaters of the famed Middle Fork Salmon River, through its confluence with the Main Salmon and onto the confluence with the Snake River. It’s a trip that takes three to four weeks in the summer. The trio hoped to do it in 24 hours with the extreme runoff this spring but flows weren’t quite that high.

The Main Salmon was running at about 63,000 cubic feet per second, Smith said. That’s six times the flow of the Boise River.

He was hoping for 90,000-plus.

“The Salmon doesn’t have any dams on it,” Smith said. “Once you start thinking of what you could do in one push — what could the human spirit handle in one go — when you start to look at rivers in that way, it really tends to narrow the field. Idaho is one of those few places, certainly in the United States, that you could do that. That was our initial vision.”

The trio weren’t able to access the headwaters of the Middle Fork because of the snow in the area. Instead, they put in on Marsh Creek northwest of Stanley on Tuesday night, joined the Middle Fork and floated to Dagger Falls, a Class V rapid east of Warm Lake. They camped alongside the river, grabbing five much-needed hours of sleep and hit the water at 6:33 a.m. Wednesday.

They zipped down the Middle Fork, which is a week-long float in the summer, in nine hours to join the Main Salmon west of the town of Salmon in the east-central part of the state. The Main Salmon took them all the way back across the state, through Riggins and to their finish line at the Snake River on the Oregon border, 25 miles south of Asotin, Wash.

The group hit the Snake at 3 p.m. Thursday. They took few breaks after leaving Dagger Falls.

“It probably worked out that we took two hours over a 33-hour timeline that we weren’t actually paddling,” Smith said.

All three kayakers have extensive river experience, including time as guides, and knew the terrain well. But the high water changed which areas were easy and which were dangerous.

The only time they walked around a rapid was near the end of the trip, at a spot (The Slide Rapid) that is flatwater during summer flows.

“It was one of the biggest rapids I’ve ever seen in my life,” Smith said. “There’s these rock formations on the right side of the rapid that at low water are two to three stories overhead as you float through in a raft. We were at eye level with them and the river was running over the top of them. We stared at it for probably five minutes. All of us had boats that weighed over 100 pounds with all of our gear and we had this really sketchy portage to walk around on this rock slide — loose boulders, ankle-breakers. At the same time, there was this massive rapid chock full of wood and eddies and so violent and powerful. If you messed up, you would either be torn clean from your kayak or pushed into an eddy with Ponderosa pines that are 80 feet long going end over end. After 300 miles, being exhausted and delirious from paddling through the night and on the border of hallucinating, we figured it was probably not the prime time to try to run the hardest rapid of our lives.”

Smith’s biggest scare came on Chittam Rapid on the Main Salmon. All he could see was the 20 feet or so illuminated by his headlamp. He flipped upside down while his two friends took a different line and passed him.

“That was scary,” he said. “I rolled up after a couple of attempts getting worked in the eddy line, caught my breath ... it just reinforced that what we were doing was not something to take lightly, that situations can get very real very quickly.”

Bond, whose wife went into labor three weeks early about the time he returned home, fell asleep while floating, Smith said. All three boaters battled the challenges of the cold, sleep deprivation and fatigue. They wore dry suits made by Idaho’s NRS but their heads and hands were exposed. They used liquidlogic Stinger kayaks with a hatch for storage and a rudder to help with steering.

Smith appreciated the rare chance to test himself in ways that aren’t necessary in modern life.

“We don’t really get as physically and mentally tested as people used to be when just traveling 100 miles was a big mission,” he said. “We have to look a little bit further to find adventures like that nowadays, to test ourselves and see what we’re made of and test our mettle. That was a big part of it — just to see what we could do.”

He also considered the trip a tribute to all the people who have fought to preserve Idaho’s wild places.

“There’s this legacy that we wanted to partake in,” Smith said, “to follow in the footsteps of generations prior.”

Dahl’s video for Big Cedar Media will be published on the NRS Duct Tape Diaries blog in June.

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