After a day and a half of floating, and over 30 miles and 1500′ of vertical from our put in, Marble Creek felt comforting in it’s familiarity. We blew up and put in on a tiny side channel and were swept downstream, the thin eddies and beaver-cut willows a quick 30 feet apart. A mile or so downstream and out along the cliffy bend we hadn’t been able to see from the trail, Will approached a horizon line, doubt turning in a second to action as a twist of his paddle snapped his boat forward over the edge. As had become habit already, I followed, shock and acceptance simultaneous as the line revealed a glassy 15 foot drop, ending in a frothy kicker over a boulder with a further 100 yards of beefy rock dodging. As had been the case about 20 times since the trip began it wasn’t quite the single hardest move I’d ever made in a packraft, but it was another step towards submersion in technical whitewater paddling the totality of which had me, but the end of the week, approaching rapids with an unprecedented comfort and interest.
Which is to say that it was a life changing trip, which is in the end all we can ask for?
I had an un-vague enough idea of what I was doing when I took up Will’s invitation to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon, insofar as the difficulty was concerned. I was to leave home to meet them at 3am, and with 12 hours to go had assembled the swollen duffle a late-spring whitewater with some hiking trip required. With one car in the shop and the other getting a flat tire at 430pm, my timeliness was in question long enough for me to contemplate alternate, closer, and less scary vacation ideas. But Costco tire is open until 830pm, and M read by doubt well enough and made it clear I was going. Will and I had done enough research and communication prior, based on the familiar to me process of examining maps and sat photos, that I felt we had a solid plan which would surely stretch my abilities. We united in Stanley, where Will’s request for the local shop to set aside a map of the river resulted in Liedecker’s encyclopedic Middle Fork guidebook. It being a bit after 10am and cold at that point, and us having a lot of packing and paddling to do, we brought it along with little consideration for the potential impact.
That book had a bigger impact on our trip than any other single item. Late nights, my little bottle of Laphroaig, and lots of clean ponderosa to burn provided atmosphere for wide ranging discussion. A few nights in, in a small meadow hanging along Loon Creek, we had gotten to know each other and ourselves enough that we could intentionally bend our different backgrounds in boating together, for comparison. Having just revised my own guidebook it was easy to review the influence reading about our trip, mile by mile, had had thus far, and even easier to contrast that with the unknown, and deeply exciting, stretch of Loon Creek upstream, and the equally as exciting, and intimidating, sections of Loon we had hiked past that afternoon. It might have been nice to have seen the whole main river with first descent eyes, though after the first day, which provided 1100 feet of descent and gave me a long, garggling swim through either Ramshorn or Hells Half Mile, reassurance of diminution to come was comforting.
The river itself was a constant delight, especially after the first day hardened us and our confidence. The pace of unfolding biomes detailed, like no other place I’ve yet been, how well floating dovetails with human apprehension. I kept remarking on the seeming poles of past accounts either failing so well to capture the place, or of me failing so well to pay attention. The later surely, equal parts prejudice against the destination rivers of the west and their burial under commodification and folding tables, and my chosen ignorance, an act of self preservation. There being no equal to a big, primary line through a new Wild place when every foot is new.
But as delightful as the main river was, it was the creeks we explored that stole the packrafters heart. With comparison to my 7 years of exploration in Glacier and the Bob so near at hand the ways in which they broke the rules, or at least my rules, were bracing. They ran straight for miles, gradients mostly clean and constant. The lean ponderosa forests made wood almost an afterthought, at least by my standards. Robert, a hardsheller from the PacNW, experienced the river and creeks opposite of me; nervous in the unknown skinny, at ease punching big holes. We found beef aplenty, especially in the 4+ miles of continuous III++/IV at the bottom of Big Creek, but the evident cruxes were consistently vastly easier than any of us would have guessed. The Big Creek gorge itself lived up to its name, but was clean enough to be read and run. The lower Loon gorge, by topographic rights a V+/VI gnarfest, had only one feature that was just too sieve-y, woody, tight, and remote to suit our desires. Since getting home, when my sore brain and forearms allow it, I can think of little besides the creeks, and creek miles, we didn’t see.
This was the most whitewater I’ve paddled in one trip, measured either by number or intensity of rapids, as well as by days on the water. I made two equipment upgrades in the weeks prior, both of which ended up being crucial. First, I replaced a partially torn ankle gasket on my drysuit with a pair of latex booties, and was able to enjoy the frigid and challenging first day with warm feet, a novelty. For those who have known it, know that this is the same ancient, much patched drysuit as before, and that it worked just fine, though a relief zipper would have been nice. The second upgrade was a new seat for my Yukon Yak; the extra height and flat shape were welcome as expected, the added rigidity added to the boat made a surprisingly and much welcomed difference.
Will and I, in a 2019 Wolverine and 2015 Yak respectively, both struggled with aspects of our boats. I can’t imagine and have no desire to do that route at that level (5k, falling to 3.5k, then rising to 4.5k at MF Lodge) without my gear (especially 7 days of food) not in the cargo fly, but the zippers were a consistent nuisance. We each had to relube at least once when the zip wouldn’t seal, and both had to apply UV Aquaseal at least twice to the upper interface between the zipper tape and the boat fabric. My thesis here is that the presumably stretchier boat fabric pushes the welded seam hard enough, especially on a protracted whitewater outing, that micro leaks develop. I had to patch such leaks on the morning of day 2, and again before paddling on day 6. Any readers have similar struggles? I also struggled with keeping my spray skirt on the boat, with it blowing off in several holes and during several more emphatic boofs. All of it left me wondering how the folks who more regularly pursue whitewater at that level in a packraft put up with the fiddling. Boat performance itself, or to more exact hull performance, was excellent. The Yak is still capable of things beyond my skills and my desires. Each of my three swims were similar, hitting a big hole with inadequate velocity, getting pitched a little sideways, and flipping upstream. More skill would make a difference, as would more aggressive outfitting than the 1.5″ webbing, two-point thigh straps I’ve run for almost the past decade.
Our general strategy of packing somewhat heavy and stashing gear before each side trip up the creeks was effective and efficient. I went both protein and nutrient heavy on my food, and did not regret doing so. By day six I was tired, and with Big Creek on the menu providing the hardest paddling of the trip by a significant margin, what recovery I had been able to maintain over the days previous made the difference, allowing me to mostly keep things together and mistakes to a minimum. I also went heavy on clothes, knowing that plenty of insulation on the river would save energy in the long term, as would having dry items to put on at the end of the day. Were I to re-do this aspect I would go heavier still, with a bit more torso insulation under my drysuit, and camp shoes. Due to the 3k+ vertical drop over the course of the trip, and weather changes over the week, staying warm got significantly easier. The snow line on the morning of day 2 was only 500 feet above camp, but even with the last day being the warmest of the trip, the consistent overhead soakings in the huge rapids below Big Creek made things almost as chilly as day 1.
Planning wise, I’m eager to dive into options for the future. The lower 2/3s of the Middle Fork seems a probable packrafting destination for 9 months out of the year, opening up all sorts of options in the times of year when permits are easy to get. I’d very much like to return to lower Big Creek at the mini-golf flows of early fall, do a complete descent of Loon, and explore Pistol Creek and the Rapid River. To say nothing of the endless, massively steep, eminently hikable ridges which provide so many routes, as well as the logical wilderness route linking the subalpine foothills of the Sawtooths all the way north to the big Cedars of the Lochsa.