“Damn, if this is another un-named rapid, we’re in for a doozey,” I think to myself, the last of us bobbing in a pulsing, river-left eddy on day one of our self-support kayak trip down Idaho’s South Fork Salmon.
Ryan had just disappeared over the horizon line downstream, charging hard right. Nick and Jon, our “leaders” who had last paddled this stretch four years ago, had done the same, leaving me the last man standing. Or bobbing.
All the umpteen Class IV horizon lines up to now had looked more or less the same. You just plunge ahead and run them, dropping into frothy wave after hole after wave. And none of them had even had names. But this one seemed a notch above.
Peeling out, I dig my blade in and soar to the right, missing the maelstrom below. A few holes and braces later I emerge to my team below, water droplets sparkling off my helmet in the July sun. It’s only a half mile later, when we run into another group of slef-support kayakers, that we learn the rapid was indeed Devil’s Creek, one of the “named” Class Vs on the run.
“Damn, Eug, sorry; didn’t mean to run that one blind,” says Nick, author, with Jon, of “Paddling Pacific Northwest Whitewater”and a rep for Werner Paddlers. Nick had put the trip together — thinking so highly of it as to justify his 12-hour drive from Seattle. I can’t blame him for the oversight; his last time here was four years ago, and you certainly can’t memorize the lines.
That’s how it goes on the South Fork, one of the best wilderness whitewater runs in the country. You have to read it and eat it — sometimes, apparently, even in Class V.
At least we’re here at a relatively user-friendly, medium level of 3 feet on the gauge. The last time Nick was here it was 4.1 feet, and he says he likely wouldn’t go back at that level; just a little too pushy. My buddy Joe, a former North Fork Payette grom, said he did it once back in his day at a whopping 6.5 feet, flushing through its whole 40 miles in a sinus-douching three hours. Doubt he’ll go back at that level either.
Watch video here:
The South Fork— once home to 25 percent of the Columbia watershed’s Chinook salmon run — is a super-charged tributary to the Wild and Scenic Main Salmon, the second longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. It begins high up in the Salmon River Mountains at 8,000 feet, before plunging 86 miles north to the Salmon at Mackay Bar. Day trips are possible on its upper East Fork and South Fork reaches, but its lower 40 miles, before dumping into the Main for an 18-mile paddle out, are what make up one of the best multi-day, self-support kayak trips in the Lower 48.
Starting at the confluence of the similarly rated Secesh River, the stretch harbors continuous pupil-opening and eyelid-peeling Class IV-V rapids in as remote a wilderness as you can find — which also makes rescue difficult. My wife, who, bless her heart, agreed to drive shuttle, was having second thoughts about even driving back over the single-lane dirt road up Lick Creek Pass that jostled us here.
We had arrived near sunset and set up camp at the confluence put-in, about as deep into Idaho’s backcountry as you can drive. Nick, Ryan, Kam and Jon trickled in throughout the night, joining a gaggle of other kayakers getting ready to put in— including a group of off-work Middle Fork guides tackling it in rafts (they knew the lines a little better than us).
In the morning, over Jet Boiled coffee, we began the puzzle of cramming gear into our boats, somehow making it all fit, down to drybags on our lap. “Don’t strap that one in,” advised Nick. “You don’t want any sort of entrapment issues if you swim.” So I stuffed that bag with expendable gear, like underwear and socks — not my two lone beers.
Then we shoved off into emerald-colored water that seemed to get greener and whiter with every stroke. After a few miles, just pass Moss and Sheep creeks, I glanced up to see the burn scars from the 1994 Thunderbolt fire. Then our own blaze of whitewater began, with one of the few named Class IVs: Slide Creek rapid at mile 6. Don’t even ask how to run it; there are simply too many to memorize or remember. The whole South Fork is a game of Read It and Run It, and you’d better ready to turn the pages frequently.
After passing the Fritser Creek waterfall, we entered miles of Class III-IV boulder gardens that would all be named on any commercial run. Charging through horizon line after horizon line, one rapid seemed a hair stouter than the others; but oh well, take out the bookmark, read it and run it.
Realizing we had paddled blind through Class V Devil’s Creek, we take stock and settle in for an afternoon of nonstop rapids before arriving at a camp Nick knew about on a river left bench near mile 13. It’s quintessential, complete with towering ponderosas, a rock fire ring and massive logs for seating. After unloading — and trying to find everything I had so painstakingly packed — I walk upstream to a large eddy and cast a luxury I felt was worth its weight: my seven-foot fly rod. A few casts and I have my first brook trout on the line — right as a lone group of solo catarafters row by. Famished, with only a dehydrated glob of beef stroganoff for dinner, I contemplate keeping it. But it’d barely dent our stomach growls so I play the karma card and let it go — knowing we have our biggest Class V drops tomorrow. Back at camp I crack my day’s lone beer and we toast whitewater with whiskey, turning in at a lampshade-wearing 9 p.m. Only Kam stays up to see a bear meander down the river across from camp.
The action heats up as quickly as our Jet Boil the next morning. Just a mile after our coffee we drop into Class V Surprise, also called Citadel for a triangular rock in its middle. This time we scout, eyeing a line through the maze down the left. My kayak handles better after redistributing some weight, putting a few pounds in front of my bulkhead.
Both the gradient and our heart rates quicken as we then hit Class V Elk Creek, followed by miles of Class III-IV, including Deer Creek, Grouse Creek and Raud, though few people know their names. There are too many to mention, let alone single out.
Around mile 23 we spy an old charcoal kiln on the left, as well as an old steam saw mill, abandoned once they realized logging trucks could never make it here. Besides kayaks and the occasional raft, the only other real way to get here is by air. Later we pass the landing strip for Hettinger Ranch up Smith Creek, our first tangible sign of civilization.
Development here is sparse, but it’s here nonetheless, including the river’s most recent threat: a Canadian company’s proposal for multiple open-pit gold and antimony mines in the river’s headwaters. It has those who cherish the area up in arms. The waterway is designated as critical habitat for endangered Chinook as well as steelhead and bull trout. Something like this would tarnish it forever.
“Fresh water and a sustainable salmon run are considerably more valuable than gold,” maintains local kayaker Nate Ostis of the South Salmon Alliance (www.southsalmonalliance.org), who counts it as one of his favorite runs. “Clean water and salmon are disappearing. Activating three 700-foot pit mines in the middle of the riverbed will poison everything in the river and all along the way to the ocean.”
The mine would be a travesty, which is why American Rivers has put the South Fork on its Top 10 Most Endangered Rivers list. I see the reason for the fanfare.
Still, right now I’ve got other things to worry about. Like Class V Greyhound rapid at mile 24, a harder jigsaw puzzle than fitting our gear in our boats. Later — after the Porphyry Creek pack bridge, where the canyon’s sole trail crosses from river left to river right — we see the first horizon line hiding the three distinct parts of Class V Fall Creek rapid.
Of course, us being us, as with Devil’s Creek we get sucked into the first drop unknowingly. When we get out to scout, we realize we’d already run the first section. The good news is that only leaves the second and third rapids, which are harder. We run them one by run, Kam opting for a dynamic boof in the center and the rest of us content to stay left. The third part is the hardest, and not for the rattlesnake blocking our path scouting. The entire river collides with a cliff on the left, which you want no part of, with a series of holes to dodge and punch above. We charge right of the maelstrom, emerging unscathed.
A few miles later we scrounge up a marginal camp on river right. The catarafters who had passed us earlier are at a great camp on the left and wave us over. It’s Alan Hamilton, co-founder of raft-maker AIRE, who’s done this run, he says, nearly 50 times, at every level. He invites us to camp with them and, more importantly, help them with their leftover cocktails and spaghetti. Knowing the worst, or best, of the whitewater is behind us, we fuel up for the run’s last six miles and 18-mile paddle out on the Main to Vinegar Creek — and settle in for an evening of tales that make us yearn to return to the River of No Return.
Beta: Boaters floating the South Fork and exiting onto the Salmon must obtain a tributary permit from the Krassel Ranger District, 208-634-0600. If you intend to stay within the river corridor for more than a day, you must obtain a Main Salmon permit through www.recreation.gov and contact the North Fork Ranger District, 208-865-2700, to arrange for permit pick-up.
Gear I Used On The South Fork Main Salmon
Idaho’s Class IV-V South Fork of the Salmon drops a whopping 1,600 vertical feet in 40 miles, for a one-two punch of wilderness and whitewater. But you’re paddling a loaded boat, which ups the ante as space and weight are at a premium. Below is the gear we used to make the descent…swimmingly.
Tent: Copper Spur HV UL1: This baby was the schnizzle for the drizzle — especially during the first night’s storm at the put-in. While the lightning and thunder (barely louder than the roar of the river) was an ominous start, the tent shed the rain perfectly — and with it any misgivings I had about what lay ahead. Its tapered footprint contoured to my body, minimizing weight to just 2 lb. 2 oz., while still leaving room for my drysuit. I kept the fly on for night two and used just the body for stargazing on night three (those I could see between the towering canyon). It set up easily thanks to its new TipLok Tent Buckle™ while I waited my turn for the Jet Boil. Inside, I stashed toiletries (just a toothbrush) in 3D bin pockets, putting remaining gear in an awning-style vestibule. A new ‘mezzanine’ at the foot even provided elevated storage. It excelled just as well when it was time to pack up; it rolled up so Nalgene small that I could fit it into my bow in front of my feet, trimming my boat for the turbulence ahead. www.bigagnes.com
Pad: Insulated Air AXL: Oh, Big Agnes Insulated Air AXL pad, how I covet thee. You took up barely more space than a beer can (I brought two Alaskan Ambers, thank you) and far less weight at a paltry 14 oz. Plus, after I spent the first day popping a mini-wheelie in an untrimmed boat, as with the tent you fit up front easily, evening out the weight. Sleep-wise, you were a gem. Even without a bag sleeve to slide into, you stayed in place way better than I did on the day’s rapids — with your large outer tubes keeping me on line. As BA’s lightest, most packable, three-season pad, you helped sleep come easily, even after we saw a bear coming our way across the river from camp. And I could save my breath for my Eskimo roll, using your upcycled pad inflation sack to inflate. www.bigagnes.com
Sleeping Bag: Star Fire UL 30-degree Down: Perhaps it’s not the best idea to bring a down bag on a self-support trip, where it’s surrounded by water when packed. But the Star Fire is made with treated 850-fill-power water-repellent DownTek™ with a Pertex® shell, so if it did get wet it retains its loft. Its beauty is that when the 1 lb., 6 oz. bedding is cinched with BA’s compression strap, it bundles up into a softball-sized orb, which we could play hacky sack with and easily slid into any dry bag I mustered. Another nice feature is its mummy shape for weight savings and heat, aided by baffle construction and 3-D anti-snag draft tube along the zipper. The only knock: two webbing loops by the feet that I couldn’t understand, though I’m sure the PR folks will enlighten me. All in all, my tent, bag and pad weighed only 4 lbs., 6 oz., not nearly enough to blame for missing my lines. www.bigagnes.com
Sleeping Giant Pillow: So it’s a lightweight self-support trip and each night we’d be so tired we’d pass out on an ant pile. But it’s nice to have some creature comforts after kayaking Class V and, while a little frou-frou, for me the Sleeping Giant Pillow, topped with memory foam, was worth its 7 ounces. Besides its noseplug-like weight, I also scrunches up tiny; you don’t even know it’s in your stow float. But blow it back up at nighty-night time (after day one that came at 9 p.m.) and there’s no counting the bighorn sheep you saw clinging to the day’s hillsides to fall asleep. www.bigagnes.com
PFD:Kokatat HustleR: Simply put: Do the Hustle (without singing). Two words describe Kokatat’s new side-entry HustleR PFD: low-profile and comfort. Both stem from two stacked and sculpted GAIA, PVC-free foam panels, covered with ripstop nylon, that wrap around and float to fit varied torsos. A large, compartmentalized front pocket keeps small items accessible, while adjustable shoulder straps and side adjustments keep it snug. Thankfully, we never had to test the rescue tether, but it was there if needed, with easy access to the clip ring for anyone requiring a helping hand. www.kokatat.com
Stow Floats: Salamander Paddle Gear UltraNighter: These babies have been newly re-designed with a separate sealed bladder from the storage area. Pack your gear, roll down and close the bag, stuff it in and then blow up the bladder. It keeps gear sealed and dry, while also holding it in place, while still offering displacement should you swim (we didn’t test it that far). Made from lightweight and tough 210-Denier PU Laminated Oxford Fabric, the taper shape also slipped easily into the confines of my Dagger Mamba, maximizing their 43-inch, 28-liter storage. Bonus: they weigh just 15.7 oz. each, less than a tallboy PBR.www.salamanderpaddlegear.com
Apparel: Level Six Odin Drysuit: You don’t want to swim on the South Fork, but in case I flailed I wore the front-entry Odin drysuit from Level Six. Constructed of its toughest waterproof-breathable nylon, Exhaust 3.0, it’s designed Canada tough, shrugging off abrasion from scouting scrambles. Features include a stealth double tunnel, 3-ply built-in socks, articulated spine, reinforced knees and elbows, relief zipper and adjustable waist-belt. I kept sunscreen (which we used frequently in the Idaho summer) in its fleece-lined, zipper pocket, which provided easy access even under my PFD. As with any drysuit, the true lynchpin is the gaskets, which proved bomber with British latex on wrist and neck, with adjustable protectors. Instead of worrying about the seals, I could worry about my seal launches. The only note: it seemed a tad large around the waist, causing me to tighten to belt like I did my bootstraps boating. Maybe the Canucks just combine Molson and maple syrup a little too much. www.levelsix.com
Kayak: Dagger Mamba 8.6: Admittedly, I could have packed my boat better the first day; it was a tad tail heavy. But the Mamba is my go-to boat back home, and it still handled well even with a slight wheelie. After day one’s action, I rectified matters by stuffing my tent and bag up front past the bulkhead, streamlining the trim. At 160 lbs., I’m a tad light for the 8’6” Large, but it seemed the right size for the South Fork. And I appreciated the extra room for gear and stability bashing holes. Its forgiveness for errors — like my botched boof at Surprise — are what I love most; as well as its surf-ability even when loaded. With new volume distribution, at 89 gallons at 51 lbs. it punches holes, plugs drops and carries speed — everything you need on a run like the South Fork. Making me even more confident: my buddy Kam, who works for CKS and could bring any boat he wants, brought one also. Safety features include a repositioned bow grab handle, an added handle near the cockpit, and a molded-in stern foam wall.
Sprayskirt: SnapDragon Expedition: On a self-support down a wilderness river like the South Fork, you want a bomber skirt.For that I went with my tried-and-true Expedition from SnapDragon. It comes with a deck made of abrasion-resistant Expedition Supratex neoprene, with what it calls Rim Guard Reinforcement heat-welded to high wear areas on the edge. For the cockpit combing, heavy-duty Power Cord is sewn directly into the skirt’s edge for a seal as tight as my sphincter when we dropped into Class V Devil’s Creek blind. It’s their best-seller for a reason. www.snapdragondesign.com
Paddle: Werner Sho-Gun: Where’s the beef? It’s right here in this river-running beauty from Werner. Available in 194, 197, 200 and 203cm (I used the 197), the Sho-Gun is a classic all-arounder, blending all of Werner’s technologies. Buoyant, full-sized, carbon blades have volume for rising to the surface rolling and bracing — which I found especially handy in aerated rapids like the tail end of Fall Creek – while a dihedral shape keeps strokes smooth. Though I couldn’t really feel it, more technical paddlers might even notice the low-profile back face allowing for a quieter catch and easier exit. Back to the beef (which, for me, unfortunately was dehydrated stroganoff), it also has Dynel edges and Kevlar reinforcement to protect the blades when you’re scraping up an eddy — which I did often. For feather angles, R45 is their most popular for river running and R30 for play. www.wernerpaddles.com
Water Purifiers: Adventure Medical Rapid Pure TrailBlazer: Don’t waste time and precious arm strength pumping. The Rapid Pure TrailBlazer is billed as the world’s fastest gravity-powered water purification system, purifying up to 5 liters per minute. No batteries, chemicals, pumping or priming; simply screw in the filter inside, fill it up (it holds 9 liters) and open the valve to fill. We set it up each night, dangling from an errant ponderosa branch, and chugged liberally to rehydrate in the hot-ass-hell temperatures of northcentral Idaho in summertime. It protects from viruses, bacteria, parasites, chemicals, pesticides, microplastics and more (except hangovers) — including heavy metals, which aren’t in the South Fork now, but could be with the ill-planned Stribite Mine still in play. www.adventuremedical.com
Footwear: Keen Men’s Gorge Booties: I’ve had these babies for years; they just haven’t worn out. That’s why I chose them as my go-to footwear for the South Fork, where scouting, scrambling and — in event of a swim — protection were paramount for anything worth its weight. An EVA midsole provided shock absorption for scrambling on rocks — like, say, dodging that rattlesnake on Fall Creek rapid — and their rubber sole kept slipping to a minimum. And I’ve always liked the 3mm neoprene ankle uppers, secured with a beefy Velcro strap; when you’re hopping out of your boat in an awkward eddy, you want a leg up on sure-footedness.www.keenfootwear.com
Stove: JetBoil: We had a couple of these for five people so there was some wait time, but not much (and it gave us time to dry our gear). Weighing just 12 ounces, these babies can boil water in two minutes, which we all eagerly poured into our dehydrated glop (mine: Chili n’ Mac and Beef Stroganoff). The secret is increasing the pot’s surface area with Back to the Future-sounding FluxRing technology. The 0.8-liter cooking cup also comes with a handy insulating cozy, with the bottom cover doubling as a measuring cup and bowl — nice when you’re shaving pounds. We used them for dinner, coffee and oatmeal (and ill-choiced dehydrated egg stuff) — every meal except the last when some catarafters invited us over for leftover spaghetti. www.jetboil.johnsonoutdoors.com