At first, I was looking for some sort of trip in Idaho to spend a few weeks on. Initially, I was planning on a North to South ski/hike traverse of the Frank Church Wilderness from Stanley to Lolo Pass. But, then the real world happened and only a few weeks before I was supposed to start, I found out that I would only have a week or so.
So, I settled on hiking into the Middle Fork of the Salmon and floating out. I had heard about people using packrafts and I figured that would be the best craft for the trip. After much effort, I found out that, apparently, people are unwilling to lend out their packrafts. Something about them being expensive and fragile (although after completing this trip, I know that the fragile part is BS).
Luckily, Amy at Jackson Hole Packraft
s rents them. I arranged to rent one from her and she said it would be at my door on December 22.
Now that I had all the gear I would need, I set about calling various hunting outfitters who work in the area. The hunting guides always have a great sense of the land and have been incredibly helpful with my past journeys through the Selway area. Eventually, I settled on hiking down into the MF from the Camas Creek Trailhead. It would be a quick 12-mile jaunt from the trailhead to the river.
I sat like a child waiting for presents until the package with the packraft showed up via fed ex. Now there was only a 600 mile drive to the put in. Unfortunately, the drive to Camas Creek turned into an epic 24 hour drive with snow and ice covered road for the ENTIRE way. If there was one part of the trip most likely to kill me, this was it. After a few hours of sleep at Marsh Creek (where it was 3 degrees and snowed 3 inches on my truck) I made my way to North Fork, Idaho. One left turn, and into the wilderness I went.
So, there was one hitch to the Camas Creek plan. The outfitters said that if I left my truck at the trailhead, I would be running the risk of having it snowed in for the season. That would suck. Instead, I planned on dropping my gear at the trailhead and then leaving the truck at the top of the pass. I would hike the additional 14 miles on the road to my gear and then continue down to the river.
Stashing Gear in the outhouse.
Now is where it got weird. I dropped my gear at around 2pm. This meant that instead of hiking in that day, I would sleep in my truck and hike in early the next morning. No problem. But, as I started driving out I had an attack of loneliness.
Now, in the past I have spent weeks alone in the wilderness before and never felt this. Yet, here I was longing to see another person. It was strong enough that I spent 3 hours driving into Salmon to get a hotel room and a burger. I almost thought of bailing, but then I focused on the fact that told a cute girl back home that I would be running the MF in winter, so, I couldn’t bail before even starting.
I left Salmon at 4am, got to the pass at 6am and started hiking in the dark. 5 degrees out. Luckily, after only a few miles some lion hunters came rattling down the trail in a diesel redneck-mobile: complete with atv, hounds, guns, bumper and rust. It made my 2500 look like a BMW. Anyways, after being incredulous at what my planned trip was, these guys from Rawhide Outfitters give me a ride down to the trail head.
Although the pack was heavy, the hike went quick. It was fun to see deer, elk, rabbit, wolf, lion, and coyote tracks all on the trail as I worked my way down to the MF. By mid-afternoon, I was lounging on the banks of the river. Although, lounging is perhaps the wrong term to use when the sweat on your shirt freezes to you when you stop moving.
Morning on the MF.
The day dawned with a trapper saying Merry Christmas at just before daybreak. He was out and about trapping wolves. We chatted and then he was on his way into the predawn chill. I broke camp, eventually figured a way to strap my large pack onto the raft. I crammed into the packraft and I slid off of the bank ice and into the river. I was boating at last. After only a few minutes ice began to form on my dry suit and pack.
Now, as I was paddling I was keeping watch ahead for the ice bridge the trapper told me to expect. I was also watching the foot high ice that the guarded escape from the river. After only a mile the first ice bridge appeared. There were no eddy’s , but no biggie, I just paddled next to shore, threw a crimp on a chunk of ice, stopped the boat, and climbed out onto the ice.
I now developed the technique I would use for the rest of the trip. Shoulder the pack and drag the packraft. Unstrapping the pack was particularly fun because the knots would form giant solid ice chunks.
The day ended after 10 river miles and at least as many ice bridges. I was starting to love the ice travel, especially the constant breaking through the ice.
The day dawned with the same tasks, but ice encased everything. Shoes took 15 minutes to get onto my feet. The backpack had to be broken open. The Velcro on the spray deck laughed at me. Poggies were frozen unusable.
The one thing that was a ray of sunshine (other than the sun, because I did not see it for the duration of the trip) was my non-breathable OS Systems drysuit. Because the material absorbs exactly ZERO water, once you get out of the water, the water on the suit freezes, falls off, and then the suit is BONE dry. I was able to sleep with the suit in my tent every night without bringing water into the tent. More importantly, each morning I put on a flexible suit with gaskets warmed in my bag to minimize the chance of a torn gasket. The difference between this drysuit and the Gore-Tex ones I have used on previous winter trips was night and day. Word to the wise….
I hoped to get into the final canyon today. Indeed I did. The river was relatively free from camp to Big Creek. Just down from Big Creek things got a bit rowdier. The ice on the banks grew to 3 feet. The ice bridges started having real current going into them and 8 inch lips. The length of the portages started growing to 1/8ths of a mile.
The other feature of the lower canyon was crap ice extending for about 4 feet out from shore. It would look good, but it would give way, having a consistency of corn flakes.
After another 10 mile day, the camp at Redside rapid was well received
Only 20 miles to go. Home free. At least now, even if I lost the boat and had to walk out, it would be no problem and I would get out before my parents cutoff date for calling SAR. Pretty much this day was the same as the previous two. Ice on everything, ice shelves breaking off as I get out on to them, falling through the ice, portaging through snow covered rock, more holes in the drysuit.
Thinking about playing another game of make believe polar explorer (i.e. dragging boat over ice)
But MAN, what a beautiful setting. That lower canyon is spectacular.
The hardest rapids of the trip were today. Here is a photo of the class III waves and holes at Hancock.
Followed immediately by deep water and strong current flushing under the ice and only one eddy before the ice. (Brown?)
After a good day, I camped a few miles from the confluence at Solitude camp. Aptly named for sure.
Or at least I thought I was home free. The single hardest day was last day. I must have dragged the boat over a ½ mile of: broken ice, thin ice, good ice, rocks, and snow.
Boating trip, eh?
The take out was in the sun: GLORIOUS.
Now it was time create a shuttle for myself. Within 24 hours I hitched back to my car in the middle of nowhere, was given all the beer I could drink, and finished the trip.
In the end the trip was 98% type 1 fun. Kind of disappointing, but good practice none the less.