Early Season Whitewater Rafting in Idaho

Written by guest blogger Josh Mcdannel.

On May 21st, I set off for my big river trip of 2011. The agenda: 9 days of early season boating on some of Idaho’s best whitewater. I ran Marsh Creek, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and the Main Salmon. That’s about 220 miles in 7 days. Mileage per day ranged form 13 to 47 miles. We technically launched on Cape Horn creek, where it goes under highway 21. It was about 8 inches deep, 20 feet wide, and 150 yards from the highway across a 12″ deep snow field. We had to push our loaded rafts across the snow, post-holing into the frigid water beneath the snow. That was exhausting. Then we had to portage our boats around dagger falls due to logs in the run-out of the main drop. There were logs blocking passage in the run-out of the rapid. You could make the main drop, but one missed stroke and your trapped under a log. No good. We made it 18 miles down marsh creek and 14 miles down the middle fork that day and stayed at sheepeater hot springs. THAT was a long day. The portage was 1/4 mile.

The next day, I got to practice my muay thai and ju jitsu skills in pistol creek rapid as my oars were ripped from my hands in a raging toilet bowl slamming into a cliff. My oars whipped around like ninja’s with 9 foot long arms and I had to bust out the 5 D’s of eddy-line rafting – dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge. I got in a couple jab/cross combos too. But, it was all good fun.

The next morning, I awoke to a river that had risen several inches and crept about 6 feet up the shore. Unfortunately, I had set my life jacket about 4 feet from shore and it was long gone by morning. I was devastated. I was 40 miles into the trip and without a PFD. I sat around and worried in the hot springs for a bit and came up with a brilliant plan. I strapped a small drybag full of air to my chest and zipped it up under my dry suit. We launched onto the river and scanned the shores for my PFD. We had no major rapids to run that day, so I wasn’t too worried. I WAS worried about the days to come when the river would get thrashy and violent. Luckily, about 2.5 miles from camp, one of our trip members found it hung up on some willows sticking up in the middle of the swollen river. It was black-side up and 3″ under water. It could have easily been missed. Whew. Always, always, always secure your gear, especially your PFD. Once my flotation was strapped on and the ridiculous dry-bag float was unstrapped from my chest, I rejoiced.

After that, the trip was pretty mellow. Just a few huge crashing 15′ waves in a steep narrow canyon with no way in or out except through the white froth below each horizon line. The Main Salmon was swift with a fast current, swirling eddies and huge rolling waves every few miles. The highlight was running the center line at Elkhorn. At most “high” flows, this would be a BAD idea. But we had just under 60kcfs at Whitebird and at that flow, the center holes opens up into a green wave – sometimes. It crashes every few seconds and closes off. If that happens when you’re on it, you’re going to flip. We had a some close calls, but it turned out to be a huge, fun ride. Those were the biggest waves I’ve run in over 20 years of rafting. Chittam was big, but manageable. We only spent two nights on the Main Salmon and it went by in a blur. We started on a creek in the snow with about 60cfs and we ended up in a river running 60,000cfs (ok technically, that gauge is several miles downstream from our take-out). It was amazing to see the river swell, creek by creek, that much during the week we were on it.

When we reached Spring Bar, our chosen take-out, wives picked us up and we drove straight to the lochsa for some memorial day madness. I decided to attempt a dry year and stay in boat and out of the highlight reel. Success. I’ve made the reel for the last three years. But it was fun watching my friends get wet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjtZTT7IGYk.

I <3 ID.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1053629801 Karen Jensen Fitch Ballard

    Sounds like a crazy trip. Thanks for sharing

  • http://www.stevestuebner.com Steve Stuebner

    Way to go for the gusto Josh! You are doing exactly what I did in my mid-20s and 30s … I never could get enough … and it never mattered if it was raining or snowing … just couldn’t get enough :) 

  • http://www.adventuresunvalley.com/ Adventure Sun Valley

    Wow…could almost imagine the water with your active descriptions.  Glad you took the time to share….very cool!

  • Dad

    Great adventures make for great blogs.  Well done