Fires Plague Main Salmon River Runners
By Shea Stephens
Private paddlers and commercial passengers hoping to float the coveted Main Salmon this summer had a rougher go of it than usual as a series of wildfires ravaged the river corridor throughout late July and August.
“We had a permit for early August and drove all the way up to Sun Valley from Colorado, thinking we might still be able to get on,” says rafter Marko Rabinaul, who drove up for a trip with his family. “We ended up picking up a permit for the San Juan and driving all the way down to southern Utah.”
Rabinaul wasn’t alone in being shut out of the river. Countless other private parties were also turned away, forcing them, with provisions already chopped, to find alternative rivers to float.
Outfitters were hit even harder. The park was closed for 25 days forbidding passage along the famous waterway. While Idaho outfitter Verle Duerden of Action Whitewater Adventure only had to reschedule two trips to the Lower Salmon due to the fires, the inability to know whether or not they were going to be able to get their trips on the Main fluctuated daily, affecting their ability to book additional trips.
“We camped along the river on a sandy beach and watched the fires all night,” says Action Whitewater’s Verle Duerden. “Trees were exploding like Roman candles–the whole side of the mountain was on fire.”
According to the US Forest Service’s Kent Fuellenbach, there were two fires caused by lightning strikes that forced the closure of the Main Salmon. “The Rattlesnake Fire on the north side of the river started on July 13, about 25 miles south of Elk City, Idaho,” he says. “The Raines Fire started on the south side of the river in mid-July and on July 23 it burned three residential structures at Mackay Bar and crossed the river.”
The convergence of the fires created a wrath of chaos. While the Forest Service tried to keep the park open, on August 6 it was forced to close the park. Fuellenbach describes the scene of canyons completely clouded with smoke. Firefighters were the only ones permitted to use the river to transport materials and people to the hard-to-reach sites of the fire.
Most rafting companies either rescheduled customers for different dates or took them down the Lower Salmon. Action Whitewater postponed a total of 19 customers and took 340 people down the Main Salmon over the course of the summer. Most rafting companies agreed that if the fires began in early summer it would have had a more devastating impact on their businesses.
Although the fires have finally moved away from the Main Salmon, both fires are still active and have burned a total of 180,296 acres.
Fires have also affected parts of the Payette system, with the current East Zone Complex Wildland Fire torching more than 300,000 acres so far in the Payette national Forest. As of Oct. 2, it is marked as 0 % contained.
How the Forest Service Alerted Paddlers
Had you had a permit for the Main Salmon before it was closed completely, here’s the warning you would have been faced with from the Forest Service. Would you have gone?
“The river remains open but continued fire activity could cause additional area closures for safety reasons. Boat parties with existing launch permits are being allowed to launch from Corn Creek. All Salmon River permit holders need to think seriously about whether or not they want to launch on their Salmon River trip.”
“Boaters should be cautioned about unstable trees and sweepers in the river. Three trees at Ludwig Rapid were identified as becoming a hazard to all river travel if they fall.
“Once you have launched you must plan on being able to go all the way through on your own. Jetboat availability is limited, as many of the operators are providing fire suppression support. If you do make the decision to launch, the fire suppression crews will not be able to make arrangements for you to jetboat. Don’t ask.
“You should be prepared to endure several days of thick smoke. Nighttime inversions have been trapping smoke in the canyon from many fires across the region. The smoke is not lifting until late in the day…if at all.
“If fire activity threatens downstream passage, you should also be prepared to stop traveling down stream and stay at one campsite for several days until the danger is past.
“Some float parties may have to travel up to 20 miles of the float trip in one long day – most of it on slow water below Mackay Bar.
“Once parties launch the only options for exiting the river corridor are; float through to Vinegar Creek, fly out from Mackay Bar or use commercial jet boat services. Road 222 between Mackay Bar and Dixie is closed because of the Rattlesnake Fire.
“Private and commercial floaters will not be penalized if they choose to cancel their trip within 21 days of the launch date due to the existing fire activities.