Paddling Since: 1978
Join Date: Jun 2011
Main Salmon Trip Report - 7.3' @ Corn Creek
We ran the Main Salmon from Corn Creek to Carey Creek last week. Launched on July 3, very late in the day, at about 7.3' on the ramp. Looking at the USGS site I would estimate water levels are now (Sunday, July 10, one week later) about 5.8' but I am going to go ahead and post this in hopes that it will be useful to someone in the future.
As the trip leader I really struggled regarding whether to go ahead and make this trip or whether to cancel due to high water levels. We finally opted to make the trip. For reference purposes (for those of you considering a trip at similar levels) I would call myself a strong, reasonably competent oarsman, with valid and reasonable but not particularly extensive experience. I had previously run the Yampa and Green, Green/Gates of Ladore, and Westwater, among others, but it had been several years since I had been on the water. We had a total of 6 people on 2 boats, including a 15.5' self-bailer and a 17' cataraft.
In general, as has been reported in many other places on this forum, the Main is not particularly technical at these water levels. The water is big, fast, and cold. There are plenty of boat-flipping holes in the river at these levels, but the river is so wide that it is very easy to avoid most of them. We had the river almost entirely to ourselves. We were the only launch on July 3. On July 4 a large commercial and a large private group launched. Both groups passed us on the morning of July 4, we passed both groups later on July 4, and never saw another boat on the river except for 3 kayaks which passed us on July 6.
Other than a very late launch on July 3, our first and second days on the river were relatively uneventful. We spent the night of July 4 at Bargamin Creek, which is a very nice high water camp. At our water levels there was just enough room for us to pitch a tent on the beach there so we didn't have to hike up to the tent sites in the trees. Bargamin had the added benefit of allowing us to scout Bailey Rapid in the am (about a 1/2 mile walk downriver from Bargamin). Bailey had a nasty hole on the left side which was easily avoided; we ran center and just enjoyed the large wave train.
The next rapid worth scouting was Elkhorn. Unless all six members of our group are blind (which is possible) the Elk Antlers marking the approach to the rapid are now gone. However, it was easy to see from our maps that we were approaching the rapid. We attempted to pull over to scout from the right bank but missed the eddy due to strong current and ran Elkhorn blind. I was in the lead boat and since we had not scouted I opted to run right and had no trouble at all. (The hole created by Elephant Rock was pretty obvious from about 100 yards or so upstream. We avoided it to the right, although it looked like there was plenty of space on the left as well. At these water levels Elephant Rock does not show; the river just flows over the rock with a massive hole behind).
The oarsman in the other boat thought he was running "part one" of Elkhorn and ran it straight down the middle, right through the hole at Elephant Rock which we were frantically gesturing for him to avoid. That hole flipped the 17' cat end-over-end as if it were a matchstick. I cannot overemphasize how powerful that water and that hole were. Fortunately 2 of the 3 occupants came up close to the capsized cat and scrambled up onto a pontoon; I tracked down the other passenger in my raft and we got him onboard our raft within a couple of minutes. We then tracked down the cat and managed to row it to an eddy, river left, before we hit whiplash.
After getting the cat flipped back over we proceeded on to whiplash. After missing the scout at Elkhorn we pulled over river right, well above whiplash, as suggested by our guidebooks. We ended up pulling over about 1/4 mile further upriver than we needed to; at these water levels there is no trail and it took a fair amount of work to hike down to the rapid itself. There is a nice campsite just above the rapid, river right, but it does not give you much room to navigate the rapid itself so we skipped that. At our flows (probably right around 7' on Corn Creek that day, perhaps a bit higher) Whiplash was the most intimidating water we saw. A combination flipper/lateral hole with a nasty eddy right side, with the current running right into the cliff face. After scouting from the right side we actually rowed across the river and scouted from the left as well. We ended up scouting for a total of almost 3 hours, including our extra-long hike, and ultimately ran left, without incident. Had we not scouted and taken the inside (right) route it would have been ugly.
Not much happened of significance between there and Chittam. Again, some large holes, but easily seen and avoided. However, after we passed Shepp Ranch the river had some very strange hydraulics; for just about the entire remainder of the trip we experienced a very narrow main current, with large eddies on either side, and large whirlpools popping up spontanously. This was manageable but a bit unnerving.
We spent the evening of July 6 at Lower Bull campsite, which was very pleasant at our water levels; we had a nice beach, shade, a creek, and a visit by a herd (?) of about 7 bighorn sheep in the morning.
We easily hit the eddy to scout Chittam, and the walk was easy at our water levels. There was a cheat to the far right, but it was right next to a monster hole that we wanted no part of, so we opted to run the tongue and row away from the pillow waves crashing from the wall, river left. As I was rowing to get away from those waves I had an oar mishap and lost my right oar for about 3 crucial seconds, during which our raft rolled right up against those waves and went vertical. The raft didn't flip, surprisingly, but it ejected me and my two passengers. One passenger was able to climb up on to the raft, I was able to make it to the right bank, and our cat was able to track down the other passenger. All of us were dunked repeatedly by the river through Chittam but thank heavens none of us were pinned against that wall on the left and we are all still alive and well.
Vinegar, the final rapid, was just a big wave train and nothing to worry about at these levels.
At the ramp at Carey Creek, as we were de-rigging, we heard that a jet boat had mis-timed the rapid at Chittam and had sunk the previous week. I have not been able to confirm this but it's easy to believe; that water was powerful. I'd be interested in hearing more about this incident if anyone has any info.
All in all we had a fantastic trip . . . in 4.5 river days, we had a total of about 10 minutes of terror (people floating Elkhorn and Chittam), a couple of hours of apprehension (scouting Whiplash), and the rest was just fantastic. If you are considering a trip around the 7' level I would echo what has been said elsewhere: you can avoid most of the obstacles if you simply pay attention, but Whiplash and Chittam are tough.