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Monthly Archives: September 2012

We had just passed the exposed ledges, where a fall would be your last, when the light began to fade. Despite my denial of the impending darkness, it was obvious that the cairns we followed were no longer apparent against the backdrop of broken sandstone. We had lost the route. Now, it would certainly be dark by the time we rimmed out. If we should be so lucky.

Looking for a route

We really didn’t need any more spice to our trip. It had been a gorgeous autumn day in the depths of Marble Canyon, relaxing for those of us in legitimate pack rafts, a bit more stressful for Govi, in his eighteen dollar China special. He was dubious about his pool toy from the start, having taken the time to label it “The Sea Hag” in appropriately scribbled black marker. Before we even launched, it had a leak, rubbed through where the little plastic blow-up valve was packed against the fabric in his pack. I was actually thrilled at the development, having gained an opportunity to use the emergency repair kit I’d hauled around for years with no reason to employ. It worked brilliantly, and with a little duct tape addition around midday, The Sea Hag made it to our destination—6.8 miles below our launch. Govi counted every tenth.

The Sea Hag provided one-time nerve-wracking usage

Reaching this unusual put-in at the bottom of Marble Gorge was really the whole point of our excursion, the rest was just escape. That is sort of what canyoneering is all about, escape. You plunge into a dark foreboding place, and then you try to get out, and the only way out, usually, is out the bottom.

Entering the Redwall

We didn’t even get to the canyon depths until afternoon, having scrambled through the Kaibab and Toroweap, boulder hopped through the Coconino and Hermit, and stepped down thigh quivering steps of the Supai. Finally, as clouds gathered, we de-robed and re-robed into wetsuits for a descent into the Redwall Limestone, Grand Canyon’s signature layer.

Off the rope and into the water

Following a robust monsoon season, the canyon was flush with pools, chocolate brown and pleasantly warm. Almost every rappel ended in the water, and twice we had to pull the rope while floating, or should I say treading, and whining. With the exception of the profligate water, the canyon was much as I remembered it from several years ago, on the first descent with Glenn Rink, Mike Harris, and Bill Hatcher. On that day, we had a boat, a real boat, waiting for us at the mouth. This time around, our boats (and Govi’s pool toy) were in our packs, and it was good that nobody waited at the river, because they’d have been worried. We could hear the mighty Colorado from a couple turns above, a sweet sound when daylight is fading. Our last rappel came at dusk. The long days of summer were over.

In the depths of Tatahatso

This fact might have spurred us into action the next day, but damn that Gorge is beautiful, and I don’t get to hike up Buck Farm Canyon near often enough, so we lingered and lolly-gagged our way downstream. Still, we’d have been right on pace had a dory trip not pulled in as we packed away our rafts. Our old friend Andre was there, and Jim, and photographer John Blaustein, and a host of other good folks who showed us true river hospitality which we were happy to abide.

So my companions finished the last two beers at the top of the Redwall, while I had the first realization that we might be hiking out in the dark. The light was indeed stunning as we marched across the desert. Cliffs of burnished orange loomed, beautiful and intimidating. We stopped and got out headlamps about the same time we lost the route, which was about the same time we lost daylight. From there it was a game of deliberate movement and careful communication. Don’t panic. Don’t roll a rock.

Racing darkness

I was glad to be familiar with the gully when Govi asked, “Are we supposed to go under this rock?” His headlamp illuminated the underside of a giant chokestone wedged between the cliff walls, the trademark feature of Eminence Break, where the ancient ones rambled in rope sandals during centuries past, relieved to pass under the massive stone, just as we did, to emerge into the big skies, the land of the bright moon, and home.

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The river moved slowly in a sheen of gentle current, passing over yellow-hued bedrock with fish hovering in eroded pockets. I had a bird’s-eye view to it all, flying over the riverbed in my little yellow raft. This was the kind of relaxed cruising I had envisioned when planning my source to river mouth descent of the Selway River, but it hadn’t materialized until now, with just two days left of the expedition. I guess that’s just the balance of things, before pleasure there must be a little pain. If those were the rules, I felt pretty good about what lay ahead.

On my first night solo, I had awakened to thunder, followed by a whiff of smoke. As the first drops fell, I packed everything into drybags, by headlamp, and put on my drytop. A tent, you see, was one of several things I lacked. The complex logistics involved in my hitchhike journey, followed by a commercial raft trip, followed by a nine-day pack raft trek, had produced a curious arrangement of gear. I was packing the extra weight of flip flops, but I had no reading material. I had maps for the first four days of my route, but none for the remaining five days. I had a cell phone—useless in the Idaho mountains—but no satellite phone. I had one sock. And no form of adequate shelter, so I stumbled into the night as the rain intensified, standing there in the dark wondering if I could squeeze under the vague overhang of a leaning boulder. My pack raft, when inflated, offered some shelter, so I pulled it out and crawled under with my feet exposed to the now diminishing rain. Between swatting curious ants and wiping away drips to my forehead, sleep did not come right away, but I did begin to doze, as dawn arrived. At least I got the early start I wanted.

Game trails criss-crossed a steep ridge that led out of the Salmon River’s Horse Creek drainage toward the headwaters of the Selway—my goal. The views might have opened as I climbed, but a thick pall of smoke filled the river canyon. A group of small fires, called the Maverick complex, smoldered just a few ridges to the east of me, and the lightning strikes that woke me had probably just started several new flare ups. The sun rose as an orange fireball. A nighthawk hissed from the ground as I walked past. Thunder rumbled ominously over distant ridges. The air was still, and quiet.

Climbing out of Horse Creek amid fresh smoke

By late afternoon I crested the divide into the Selway basin, and although the smoke persisted, things brightened almost immediately. An explosion of wildflowers burst from a hollow to my left, and soon I came across a clear trickling stream. I followed it uphill. The trickle tumbled over log waterfalls as it cut a miniature canyon between walls of red and purple flowers. At a large white boulder, the flow vanished underground. This was the source.

Wildflowers near the source of the Selway River

There is something about reaching river sources that uplifts me. The purity, the optimism of perfect beginnings, the sacred start of life sustaining waters; river sources are the ultimate expressions of nature’s sweet side. I spent a half hour at the spring, drinking the cold crisp water and etching the place in my mind—the dark fir and spruce, the flowers, the translucent flow—before starting downstream, following and growing with that water and moving on to the next horizon as we all must do, for better or worse.

Gathering water from the source of the Selway

Twenty minutes later I was at Hidden Lake, mirror smooth with orange flowering lily pads in the coves. I called it camp, but not before thatching together a crude lean-to, the fruits of an hour’s sap-infested work. I wasn’t going to be rousted by rain again.

Hidden Lake

Fortunately the skies cleared, and a bright blue morning offered and auspicious start to my hike down the growing Selway. Trail #4 follows the river clear to right from it’s headwaters, and I strode away from Hidden Lake on it, winding easily through green forests. Then I hit the burn. The trail stopped instantly. In 1996 a crown fire tore through the area, and few humans have ventured into the basin since. It was apparent why. Deadfall, fireweed, charred leaning logs, young lodgepole pine thickets, alder clumps, this was my new world. The gurgling ankle deep Selway ran below, through green parks of Englemann spruce that had survived the fire. Looking for a break from the matchstick deadfall, I entered the spruce forest and found myself atop fallen trunks, scouting my way forward. Down into boggy tall grasses or onto the next log to perform a balance beam walk? I usually opted for the latter, forging a circuitous zig zag route from one log to the next. When my log walking options ceased, the paddle became a useful probing tool to test the depth of my landing zone. I reminded myself that a broken ankle would be no excuse to stop moving. It would be ten long days before anyone came looking for me. Although I was merely hiking, it felt like class V river running, requiring a relentless focus that by the end of the day became mentally exhausting, but also cleansing. When, in our daily civilized lives, do we remain attentive to the moment for hours on end? It was tiring, aggravating work, but also a cleansing walking meditation.

Picking through deadfall along the Selway headwaters

That “cleanse” lasted until the next afternoon, when I reached the welcome sight of a freshly cut log. Soon there was another, and I breezed down the trail with the knowledge that I was on a maintained route. Now I could make miles with certainty, but when could I launch my boat? A few miles on, Wilkerson Creek nearly doubled the Selway’s flow, and I dumped my burdensome pack in favor of flotation.

Pack rafting on the upper Selway

Low water floating was slower than trail hiking, but more luxurious. Much of the time was spent spinning off rocks or even dragging my boat over shallow gravels, but the times in between, when drifting was effortless and I could watch, if only for a moment, the terrain pass without an ounce of effort, those times made it all worthwhile. As I sat idle on a submerged rock, movement caught my eye. Five feet away, a massive king salmon swished through the shallows, half out of the water. At first I was startled and a little afraid. The fish seemed as big as my raft. Moments later my surprise turned to utter amazement, that magic moment that comes unexpectedly yet consistently when I am immersed in the wilds. The huge fin backed fish spied me with the corner of its eye as if to say, “I know you’re here,” as it wiggled and weaved through the rocks of the rapid.

Clear Selway

I saw a total of sixteen salmon that day, stealthily darting like sharks near the bottom of deep pools. They were my companions, along with the cheery dippers and the striking badass kingfishers. All helped to provide distraction from the low water struggle. I was tired. A day of smoke followed by a day of bushwacking followed by a day of hot hiking and low water, with smoke plumes threatening from beyond the ridgetops every evening, when was the fun going to start? Golden afternoon light lifted my spirits some, but the addition of the Little Clearwater River elevated me to borderline happy.

Smoke plume over Selway headwaters

I had been anticipating its arrival. It was the single largest Selway tributary I would pass until reaching Moose Creek, a few days downstream. Carrying seventy percent of the Selway’s flow, the Little Clearwater’s added water matured the rocky stream into a real river, and with that came rapids.

I charged ahead into the evening somewhat dazed, finding the proper channels by instinct more than plan. The water tumbled through large boulders, sluicing through chutes and dropping over small falls. When I was forced to pull over and dump water from my pack raft, my trance broke. I looked upstream to see a class IV maze of rock and water—too steep to be bombing down solo, in a pack raft. I approached the next set of rapids with more control, catching eddies and planning my route stroke by stroke.

Despite the relative abundance of water compared to the headwaters, the river was exceptionally low by river runner’s standards. The put-in gauge at Paradise read 0.5, which I estimated at 300 cubic feet per second. It was too low for most boats, but just about right for my tiny pack raft, which offered a different kind of Selway trip. This launch ramp normally signals the start of a long sought wilderness sojourn, but in the context of this journey, it was the beginning of the end, the home stretch. Below here, I was in familiar territory (This was my seventh Selway trip, fourth from this put-in, the others starting on side creeks.), and it was the first time I felt I could relax since leaving the Salmon River.

Low water

Immediately, the river took on that classic Selway feel. Cedars dangled over deep dark green pools, the river danced playfully through rapids bound in sculpted marbled rock. River right looked like Salmon River country, with jagged fins of dark granite emerging from half barren hillsides sprinkled in tall ponderosas. River left, the shady side, was a Northwest jungle of cedar, fir, thimbleberry, dogwood, and maple. It looked like the kind of forest where any glance into its depths might reveal the face of a sasquatch sitting furtively in the camouflage as you drift past.

Cedars, water, cobbles—Selway

Although a bigfoot sighting would’ve made my day (okay, my life), I was really hoping to see a person, and get some information on the fires that filled the river canyon with smoke each morning. I had stopped at Magruder Guard Station and found nobody. I had walked to the Paradise Ranger Station and found a note saying the ranger was out for the day. I had stopped at Running Creek Ranch, walked among working sprinklers, and listened to the barks of nearby dogs, but I couldn’t find anyone there either. Late in the day, I was paddling steadily to outrun a cloud of fresh smoke when a voice, the first I’d heard in six days, called from the woods. It was a firefighter, posted along the river trail to warn any passers-by of a fire just downstream. He told me that within a couple miles, I’d be past the Shearer Fire, but another one waited at Bear Creek, and more flames were making for the river at Moose Creek. Not the greatest news, but by now I was resolved to the fact that fire was part of life in these mountains. Like winter rains in Northern California, and spring winds in the Southwest, fire and smoke are simply part of the season in Idaho during August. Maybe there would be more smoke downstream, maybe less. In any case, I was staying with the river.

In another mile, I rounded a bend to see orange flames licking the forest floor. I realized just then that forest fires, like grizzly bears, are usually more threatening unseen. Billowing smoke, fresh tracks; these are the signs of impending menace. But an actual bear passing indifferently, or flames quietly toiling, these are mysteries revealed, the spookiness of their threat debunked.

The following morning, thick smoke settled along the river, but by midday it had lifted in its predictable way, leaving me surrounded by Selway beauty. Calm ink black pools imperceptibly gathered into sheets of water just inches deep, sliding over cobble bars of green and yellow, beaming with warm radiance. Stout solid cedars grew along the banks, tapering as they soared into bare worn woody tips 150 feet above. The old trees defiantly anchored in piles of angular rocks on the river bank, reaching through cracks and crevices with roots that somehow found purchase, collectively, to sustain the tall titans.

An eagle launched in front of me, its bright white tail glowing in the vaguely smoky surreal light. A pair of ospreys circled and perched and rested and flew again. A bear came stomping upstream, marching across the rocks with a determined swagger like an exuberant college kid on a Saturday night.

Evening in the “Moose Juice,” just above the Selway’s biggest rapids

I must have become immersed in the wild grandeur, because as I passed Moose Creek the sun filtered orange through the smoke. Suddenly, it was late afternoon. What better time to run the biggest rapids of the Selway than during the shadowy depths of evening? I paddled past the confluence, and onto a river-sized river, probably over 600 cfs now.

The first rapid nearly flipped me, thanks to my lazy posture. Fortunately I braced back upright and got my game face on. Despite my six previous Selway runs, none of the rapids looked familiar except the big one, Ladle, unmistakable by its row of giant boulders that seem to completely block the river. Despite its appearance, several channels lead through, and I made it down without any problems. Still, it was good to have the big one behind me. I gave a whoop of relief to the empty darkening canyon. At this low water level, however, the biggest rapid was almost a mile below Ladle. I considered portaging the steep river wide ledge, but a clean tongue and a big calm pool below guilted me into running it. More whoops ensued. True dusk was starting when I spotted a small bench of sand, a perfect one-man camp.

It was another two days before reaching the mouth of the river at the confluence of the Lochsa, where the conjoined rivers form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater, but I will remember the Selway for that lovely little camp below the rapids. The next morning in warm sunshine, I put on swim goggles and went for a plunge in the emerald river. I had lugged the useless little goggles for my entire trip. I guess I had a vision to fulfill: Swim underwater with the Selway fish, peel into the subsurface current and soar over river rocks. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I dove in. The goggles leaked.

My view was distorted, and I drifted cautiously at the edge of the current. Rising once more to clear my lenses, I went back down for an obligatory ride in the flow, and then quickly stroked back to shore. It wasn’t quite the spectacular river scuba session I had envisioned, but drying off on beach stones beneath warm rays of sun was nice, perfect even. I wondered, lying there, if I still considered the Selway my favorite river, after having seen all it’s phases from inception to debauchment.

The perfect place

It is not the most exciting river. The scenery is not the most dramatic. A trip here is far from the most epic of river trips. But the Selway has a charm, a unique charm, and taken on the whole that counts for a lot. You can drink out of the Selway’s creeks. You can see the bottom and swim in the eddies and spot bears. And the country is lush, and wild, and on a hot summer day when fires are burning in cities and forests and all you want to do is swim and sit by the river, this is the perfect place.

The river sprawled from bank to bank, rippling over rocks that were just inches below the surface. Steering my pack raft through the cobbles required care. Rowing an 18-foot gear boat on the shallow river seemed silly, a game of delicate oar dipping, rock pivoting, momentum, and a little luck. Yet even the 18-footers were not the biggest boats on the water. That honor went to the sweep boats, trademarks of the Middle Fork, behemoth cargo carriers which, despite magical deftness by their drivers (all other boatmen are guides, or oarsmen, sweep boaters are “drivers”), are much too big for the small shallow Middle Fork during the low water of August. They rumble along nonetheless, abusing the rocks of the riverbed and occasionally coming to a demoralizing halt, beaching in the middle of the stream with trickles of liquid seeping past their unmoving rubber tubes.

Such a scene greeted us as we rounded the bend. A sweep boat sat stuck in the middle of the river, in the one available channel. A trip of five smaller rafts were just behind us, and another sweep boat careened downhill upstream of them. This did not look good.

A sweep boat negotiates the Middle Fork at low water

It was day two of my trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon with ARTA, a non profit river company who donates proceeds to river conservation. They have been around nearly as long as commercial boating has, operating with little fanfare on the most sought rivers of the West. Their back-to-basics style suited me, and a few of my good friends guide for ARTA, so I was thrilled to join their operation for a run down the Middle Fork.

Put-in—Middle Fork of the Salmon

Although the six-day descent was an adventure in its own right, the ARTA trip served as just the first leg of my journey across central Idaho. My goal was to traverse the largest roadless area in the lower forty-eight states—the combined Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness areas. I hatched the plan years ago while guiding on the Main Salmon. Back then, I wanted to walk across the rugged backcountry, venturing deep into no-mans-land. But aging knees and the discovery of pack rafts conspired to steer my desires toward a more leisurely, and frankly, more logical route.

On a map, the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Selway Rivers line up almost perfectly. Both flow due north before taking sharp left turns, carving westward into the mountains. By following the Middle Fork to its left turn at the confluence of the Main Salmon, and then continuing north on foot until reaching the Selway, I could make the wilderness traverse mostly on the backs of Idaho’s iconic rivers. I would run the Middle Fork and the Selway, back to back, with just a few days in between of backcountry suffering on foot, to make me appreciate the river’s ease.

Pack rafting the roadless traverse

One of the most unique aspects to a Middle Fork trip is the change of environment between put-in and take-out. The trip begins on a small swift mountain creek, busily barreling through forests of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. Just three days later, the tumbling stream has grown into a medium-sized river, winding beneath towering walls of granite. The mountain lodgepoles are supplanted by majestic ponderosa pines, and dark green pools beg for a swim.

This change in scenery continued throughout my wilderness traverse. After passing the Middle Fork’s arid Impassable Canyon, a transition to moister, richer landscapes commenced. The shift occurs due to several factors—slope aspect, escape from the eastern Idaho rain shadow, and latitude. By the time I emerged from the wilderness in Lowell, Idaho, my surroundings were lush montane forest, a far cry from the high sagebrush valleys near the Middle Fork launch.

Rafts enter the canyons of the Middle Fork

One thing that remained a constant along my traverse was the ruggedness of the terrain. The lower canyons of the Middle Fork were an eye opener. Here the river bores into the Idaho Batholith, that granitic mass that offers foundation to the maze of ridges we call the Salmon River Mountains. Along the Middle Fork, the terrain is sheared into a true gorge, where crags form a rim to the river canyon. Different from canyons of the Southwest, however, is the view one gains from that craggy rim. You do not find yourself “out” of the river gorge here, but rather “in” an array of grassy slopes, forested gulches, and rocky ridges. The scope of isolation gained with an hour’s hike away from the river is more than most river travelers can imagine.

Salmon River country

On this first leg of my traverse, I was happy enough to stay mostly confined to the water. Anyway, that’s where the action was. As the baggage boatman, Kate Aitcheson, and I pulled ashore so that our ARTA compadres could help with the grounded sweep boat, a private trip pulled into shallows above us, unsure of the unfolding situation. I told them our trip was helping with the stuck boat. The cataraft oarsman nodded, and started bumping downstream past us. But he was now in the left channel, a route that held more rocks than water.

An ARTA raft manages low water on the Middle Fork

Unable to row effectively in the shallows, he pinballed onward as we watched with pensive, morbid curiosity. The rest of his party, all four boats, followed with tragic devotion. A downstream oar caught rock, catapulting vertically and pulling the boatman from his seat. He let go to watch the oar pitch erect like a twitching flagpole. The raft immediately pinned against the rock-chocked oar. Other boats bounced past the spectacular configuration, sticking on their own rock piles nearby. As worrisome and entertaining as this scene was, our attention was arrested upstream, for there came a giant sweep boat, barreling headlong for the improbable shallows in the middle of the river where the first sweep boat sat immobile.

There was a shout, a collision, a screech. The sweep boats sat in the shallows, anchored beneath the weight of thirty chairs, twenty tents, a full kitchen—stoves, silverware, tables—and a pile of drybags and sleeping pads and everything anybody could want to make their wilderness experience a little less wildernessy. Guides waded into the river to free the beached whales. Shouts emanated from the private pile-up, still unresolved in the smaller left channel.

The traffic jam cleared, eventually, and before long the river was robust enough to let us forget about the low water shenanigans. As the Middle Fork deepened, the rhythms of river life infiltrated our group and we made our way, comfortably but not ostentatiously, down the growing river. The roots to which ARTA still anchors became apparent on the last morning, when our propane supply unexpectedly tapped out. This might have been a full-blown crisis with many companies I’ve run with. It hardly slowed ARTA’s morning routine. Charcoal was started, and everything was cooked old-school style—over fire. It even tasted better.

A Douglas fir leans over the Middle Fork as an ARTA raft floats past

Following goodbyes and swift load up at the take-out ramp, the reality of my upcoming adventure was suddenly apparent. My friends were driving back to town, to hot meals and cold beers. I was continuing down the river, and into the smoldering mountains, my route and my future uncertain. As I peeled into the current on my own, my fellow boatmen gave a raucous cheer out the window of their departing truck. Their support buoyed me all the way to camp. One half of my traverse was behind me. The next leg—to the Selway—had already begun.