Middle Fork of the Salmon River Adventure Run
Sponsored by the Middle Fork
Wilderness Outfitters (MFWO), Ketchum, Idaho.
Last October Randy Gehrke posted a message titled "Ultra Adventure of a Lifetime". Randy's “ultra adventure,” is a white water rafting and running trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, five days and four nights, covering nearly 100 miles.
The adventure run takes place in the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 states, the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness (see 1 below) in central Idaho. The trailheads are hours away from any city. About the only people around are those enjoying white water raft trips or using the airstrips that are the only way in or out of the wilderness other than the put in/takeout for rafting trips.
Having experienced running adventures in Peru and Patagonia I was elated to find a trip here in the USA, lasting less than a week, affordable and promising outstanding outfitters to take care of every need while we are engaged in rafting and/or running. As it turned out I was the only runner that actually made it to Idaho. On Sunday, June 13, I meet the rest of the group, 18 wilderness adventurers plus six guides for a total of 25 on the trip.
Our group left Stanley, Idaho, a remote outpost for nearby recreational activities. We traveled by school bus from Stanley to the put in to raft about 15 miles the first day. What appear to be beautiful blue lakes in the fields going to the put in turn out to be vast fields of wildflowers. Naturally, we stop for photos.
Stanley's elevation is 6,400 feet with the put in at 5,700 feet. The end of the trip is about 3,000 elevation with mountain peaks ranging to more than 9,000 feet along the way. There are trails along the river up to mile 78 where the river enters the Impassable Canyon. No one has even thought about building a trail along the last 18 miles of the Middle Fork.
I decided not to run the first day. Rather, I wanted to experience the continuous white water and a number of Class III and IV Rapids. Going downstream rekindles fond memories of white water rafting on the New River in West Virginia far too many years ago. Sulphur Slide Rapid, Velvet Falls and Powerhouse Rapids are all exciting.
The tent camp is up and ready when we arrive. It is clear we were far from civilization with the worries of the world nonexistent until the end of the trip. The only noise at night is the sound of the rushing water from the Middle Fork, a few feet away from our campsite. Earlier, we discovered a tiny fawn in a brush pile close to the river. A doe spent the late afternoon and evening just beyond our tents. To our relief, both the doe and fawn depart during the night.
Monday is my first day on the trail. Although narrow, the trail does not look all that difficult from my perspective while white water rafting. I am eager to explore as the outfitters drop me off on the other side of the river, after a hearty breakfast, and the group heads downstream from John's Camp (15 miles) one of the dozens of campsites used by rafting expeditions.
There is a waiting list for permits to float down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Those with permits are tightly regulated by the Forest Service with only a limited number of ventures permitted daily.
The trails are single track except on internal road systems through built-up areas where there are airstrips and/or isolated private properties. The trails are mostly undulating along the river, but occasionally cut across benches higher up and away from the river.
There are frequent ascents of 20-120 feet. The trail surface is quite rocky at times as you might expect. I was intrigued the first day when I came to the first rock falls along the river's edge. Unlike the Signal Knob Trail, kind souls have removed all of the rock along the path. Unfortunately, this is not always true, especially towards the end of the trail.
The first day is very pleasant with the wind at my back and moderate temperatures. I unexpectedly meet the group as they finish lunch and talk to another group of rafters later in the day. I enjoyed sightseeing along the trail including hordes of colorful wild flowers everywhere. I enjoyed the wood roses and mock oranges in wet spots along the river. Much of the area suffers from past forest fires but there is little danger of fire at this time of year. The ravages of forest fires are clearly visible on surviving ponderosa pines, an important evergreen along the Middle Fork.
In many places the trail is soft sand or loose rock. Quite a bit is overgrown in wet spots near stream crossings or in large meadows that consist largely of sagebrush. The area generally is classified as high desert. There are numerous rock falls along the river and a nice path is clear along most of them the first couple days but not the last day. Most of the streams are crossed easily except for one I do wade up to my knees. At times, the trail is high above the river with significant exposure, the trail scarcely a foot wide. There are a few places where the trail is covered by rock or soft dirt from a landslide.
The second day ends at Stateland Camp, mile 34. Somehow I miss the trail to the campsite while skirting an airstrip; however, my mistake is readily apparent when I get to a bridge and check the location on my map. My fellow travelers were enjoying Happy Hour or fly fishing when I arrive. The outfitters are busy preparing dinner, a fitting meal of grilled chicken breasts. The first night we dined on grilled salmon. Being so far north, we are able to enjoy daylight until past 10 p.m.
I left early the next day since the campsite and trail are on the same side of the river. The plan is to stop at Johnnie Walker Camp, mile 60.6, at night. I will be picked up just short of the campsite at the Camas Creek Camp because the trail and Johnnie Walker campsite are on opposite sides of the river. As planned, a guide and boat meet me when I complete my marathon. We waited for three others who are walking about three miles to experience the trail.
Camas Creek is more of a river than a creek. At this time of year the Middle Fork is fed by a number of substantial tributaries. Fortunately, there are bridges across major streams.
We saw the most wildlife on my second day of running including bighorn sheep and a small black bear. The last day we saw a herd of elk. I liked the many chukars and black-billed magpies along the way, the former being a tasty partridge enjoyed by Idaho hunters. When I scared up a chukar and her brood the parent does not fly but leads me down the path to stand guard and assure I continue away from her offspring. Ground squirrels and pika are abundant. Ducks and geese inhabit the river. Snakes are present both on shore and in the river.
My third day of running was another 20 miles. We agreed to meet at Big Creek Bridge where the trail ends. Then it was another six miles of white water rafting to Ship Island Camp.
There were a number of interesting places to visit on my last running day. I meet a couple of ladies at the Mormon Ranch who have walked a mile from the nearby Flying "B" Ranch. The Mormon Ranch is a tiny reconstructed cabin, once home to a lady early in the 20th century. She moved into the area as an early settler and never left although she lived there for 30 years. The Flying "B" Ranch is a small settlement for tourists willing to fly in and relax at the ranch. There are horses and other amenities. The two ladies from the Flying "B" are the only people I meet in three days on the trail.
I viewed Indian pictographs at Rattlesnake Cave and continue on a tough climb, just over 500 feet, steep and with switchbacks before a 400-foot descent, leveling off well above the river before eventually going down another 120 feet. The elevation at the top of the climb is exactly 4,000 feet with a beautiful view of the river and surrounding granite cliffs.
Day four was my favorite. I left early from the campsite after the guides took me across the river. As usual, it was cool, sunny and pleasant. I spent the day looking downstream for the white water rafters behind me but their pace was even more leisurely than mine. It is exhilarating to be alone in the wilderness with a beautiful white water river below, granite peaks above and an easy trail to run. My adventure more than meets expectations.
I arrive at Big Creek Bridge nearly an hour before the group arrives. They lose time visiting Rattlesnake Cave and of course had stopped for lunch. Later, we stopped to view a failed mining venture at the edge of the river. Next stop was Veil Falls. We climbed a boulder field to a bowl where the falls end, the falls originating on a high cliff above the river. The “falls” are not typical waterfalls. The water volume is rather diminished; however, it is truly a veil as it falls hundreds of feet from the cliff above, the water descending left or right depending on the wind.
The scenery is absolutely spectacular as we enter the Impassable Canyon. In many ways I am reminded of the Grand Canyon even though we are passing through a rather narrow gorge. It is obvious why the trail stops at Big Creek Bridge. There are numerous rapids including several Class III and IV to conclude the trip on day five as I enjoy white water rafting with my companions.
The Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters lives up to its reputation as outstanding, experienced outfitters. Another plus is a good group of people, mostly from Boise or other Idaho towns. The food is excellent and the guides are commendable in looking out for everyone. Some people do some fly-fishing (couldn't keep the fish) and others navigate inflatable kayaks - looked intriguing. There are two types of boats, one where the guide takes care of everything with a set of oars, the other a paddleboat with as many as six paddling and a guide steering. The paddle-boat is the most fun but a bit of work. A sweep boat leaves early every morning and proceeds with most of the equipment and gear to the evening campsite.
Eric Rector, one of the owners of MFWO, is willing to have its first trip of next year (starting the first weekend in June 2005) as a running and rafting adventure. More information should be available in the next few weeks for anyone interested in a wilderness adventure run. The trip would be similar to what I did this year. Raft the first 15 miles. Then daily runs of about 20, 26 and 20 miles. Finish the trip rafting through the Impassable Canyon. More information on MFWO is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ultrarunning has always been adventure to me, starting with my first Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run back in 1979. There have been many exciting trips over the past 25 years. I enjoy variety and our world has so many opportunities for adventure. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is one of the best. Thanks Randy. I’m glad you made me aware of a great wilderness in Idaho. It may not be Mt. Everest or the North Pole but it is definitely a great experience to enjoy right here in the USA.
(1) From the Forest Service Guide: "The Middle Fork of the Salmon River originates 20 miles northwest of Stanley, Idaho, with the merging of Bear Valley and Marsh Creeks. It traverses portions of the Challis, Payette, and Salmon National Forests as it flows 106 miles northeast through one of the deepest gorges in North America before joining the Main Salmon River. The Middle Fork was one of the original eight rivers in the nation designated as Wild and Scenic on October 2, 1968. In July, 1980, the President of the United States established the "Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness" which encompasses the Wild and Scenic River in its entirety.
It passes through a landscape of rugged peaks and deep valleys. Near its junction with the Main Salmon River are the Bighorn Crags, one of the most rugged and wild mountain ranges in the nation. Only a few trails, landing strips, private ranches and Forest Service stations are evidence of man's presence. It is this combination of rugged scenic beauty, quiet isolation, and the challenge of wild water that draws people to Float the Middle Fork of the Salmon River."