Saturday, September 7, 2013

Packrafting the Salmons - part II

Since the first part of our hike was to be a long climb up a west-facing hillside and the daytime temps were high, a morning start to our hike out of the canyons was important.  Which meant that we needed to do our Main Salmon paddling in either two or three days, meaning either 28ish miles per day or 19.   My first couple of paddle strokes off the boat ramp threw the bow of my donut back and forth wildly, and my resulting thought was "28 miles?!   I'll be wiped at 10!". But of course it wasn't hard to adapt an efficient stroke, and down the river we went, and actually made surprisingly good time.

Our first lunch stop was on a nice little beach and we had just busted out our food when a startling yell echoed across the river.  "HEY!   What are you guys doin!?   What are your names?!  You're both named Tom?!?  Where are you goin?!  Do you know how many mountains over 10,000 feet I've climbed?!   Do you like Nascar?!  How about A-Rod?!  I've been to 33 states!" And on, and on....and on.  We had unwittingly bumped into the Salmon River Rainman.   Once we understood what was going on (it took me a bit) we tried to be a bit more patient with this odd conversation being yelled back and forth across the river, but we didn't linger.  As we left I saw his companion, and.....a goat.  Huh?   "What's up with the goat?" I asked.  "Pack goat."  (He was as taciturn as his buddy was chatty).   I have heard of people using burros, mules, and llamas, but one goat?   "Yep, had three.". A pregnant pause as I waited for more info before asking what happened to the other two? "Dead".   Wow, edible pack animals?  "Nope, they wandered off. Now they're dead." Uh, sorry, I guess......and onward we paddled.

Paddling the main salmon was uneventful, though we did get a chance to try the boats in whitewater, as the "new" Salmon Falls rapid (formed when a landslide came down, created the new rapid, and backed up the water enough to "drown" the old Salmon Falls) was steep enough to be fun and require some moves.  The boats performed quite well; pivoting is, of course, their strong suit, but in the thick of things they also were drive-able without a ton of effort.

And the stability of them is extraordinary; no real need for a roll in class 4- whitewater.
I agreed to jump off the bridge with this kid, but on his count of "1-2-3".....I was duped!  

But the next time he was game
After a night on the river and two nice all-day paddles we arrived at the confluence with the South Fork, de-rigged, and walked a couple of miles up an ATV trail to the foot of our trail to camp.  Not long after our spartan camp was set up a quad showed up with a couple of guys on it.  One was a friendly forest ranger, and his buddy saw our paddles and said "you guys on the river?". We explained what our mission was and then he surprised us with the next question:  "you with an outfitter?"  We kinda looked over our shoulder to see what vast amount of gear might have suddenly appeared behind us to give this chap the impression we were traveling "with an outfitter", and shrugged and said no, no outfitter.  "Oh, so you came down the south fork and you are flying out?" Uh, no, we are hiking up and over to Big Creek.   "Oh, you're going for a hike and then going down the Main to Riggins?". Sure.  I mean, never mind. Of course!  Again, an indication that the concept of packrafting has a ways to go before getting accepted by the collective consciousness.

The morning of our hike was the most salient example yet of a trend that had been appearing; Tom was way more efficient than I was and was constantly waiting for me.  Maybe it's a characteristic developed as an ER doc (and a busy parent who still gets after it outdoors!) to maximize movements, but literally I was puffing on the twigs of a fire for my morning cup o' tea when I looked over and he was literally packed and ready to go. Oy, I better get on it. But between the still-long days of an Idaho summer, more or less consistent movement once we (actually I) got going, and Tom's easygoing nature we were still able to make good time.  

Looking down the south fork from our pre-hike camp
You can take the doc out of the ER, but you can't get his scrubs off him!

Why is it so onerous to get a river permit, but these guys have absolutely no limitations?  
The first climb was fairly stout: 5000 feet in about 6 or 7 miles.  Despite the early start (delayed by my tea!) It heated up quickly and I tested the limits of the sweet drybag rubber/plastic right against my back and I worked myself into a fair lather (good thing I had some morning tea!).  We then rolled along the aptly-named Horse Heaven ridge that generally separated the Main Salmon, Big Creek, and the South Fork, all by now far below.  There are thankfully a few springs up there to provide water, and while the bare-ish ridge offers great views it feels unusually bare when the inevitable thunderstorm moves in.   As Tom succinctly put it as the flashes and peals were simulizing all around us:  "we are at risk here", but we survived despite ourselves, and continued marching.
Hard to escape lightning exposure up here
Idaho appears to have a couple of different types of trails:  "maintained" and "primitive".  Given the recent spate of fires and - perhaps? - the dwindling number of backcountry travelers and FS trail maintenance dollars, the primitive trails seem to be getting reclaimed by the forest.  The only important beta that we had gotten from Andrew was to avoid dropping into the belly of their primitive-trailed descent canyon since they had to wallow through a "miserable bog".  We decided to do a favor for the global packrafting community and explore an alternative route on the maintained trails. Tom figured that it may have added up to 8 miles to our route, but since Tom and I hadn't hung out much he hadn't heard all my stories, so he at least tolerated my incessant yammering (who's calling who the Rainman?!) and it made the miles crunch away underfoot as we made our way down to Big Creek.  For what it's worth, when we got to the "intersection" where we met up with Andrew's crew's primitive "trail", it looked like a giant's pile of match sticks of downed/burned logs.   We were glad for our detour.  As we approached Big Creek we started seeing a lot of impressive bear scat
proving that long held adage

 and Tom - ahead, as always - surprised one of the large local residents mid-shit and he (the bear) bounded frantically down the trail.
the first person we've seen in days and - go figure - his name is also Tom.  Note the sidearm.  "Fer barrs, wolfs, and mooze" Really?  a pistol?  

meeting back up with a rio.  Looking forward to floating again and let water bear the weight!  
 We had to walk down Big Creek a few miles

 to a major trib that added maybe 30 percent more water, which was a bit tough; floating seemed a lot nicer than increasing the shoulder and hip discomfort.  But finally we arrived at the trib, quickly changed from backpackers to floaters (at least, Tom was quick!) and we recommenced bobbing merrily along in our little boats.
Happy to be bobbing again

It was here that the shallow draft of the packrafts came into play; Big Creek is aptly named and it's mostly pretty wide without much water, and while a few more inches of water would have been much appreciated, we were able to float along without getting out, which would have been impossible in a hardshell boat.

After miles of flat but scenic floating the walls of the Big Creek canyon rise up and close in for the last plunge to the Middle Fork, which almost invariably means "good rapids".  And it was super fun class 3 technical creeking, with the "intensity" (well, maybe just "drama") pushed up by a ferocious morning thunderstorm right on top of us as we bobbed and weaved through the gorge.

We popped out on the relative "sea" of the Middle Fork (sporting all of about 1000 cfs) and started stroking downstream towards the Main Salmon.

Another couple of hours down that and we were back to our put in to complete our first-ever river loop! Here are a couple of reference maps:
Our route in yellow.  Pink is our July bike tour.

Stats......oh, like any baseball game we had plenty of statistics from our trip thanks to the handydandy GPS that were of mild interest to us - and I alluded to some earlier - but the reality is that it was an awesome adventure with plenty of paddling in goofy little boats connected by plenty of charging around the mountains on foot, and the stats....they are of no matter.

And wither the wayward wheel and tire to be repaired?  Sure enough, there was Tom's wheel with a tire on it, and a note underneath saying "We found a slightly-used tire and had it put on, so we didn't need to use your credit card number.  You owe me a six pack of Gatorade and a box of donuts"

You gotta love the folks you meet on the river!  

Thanks again to Andrew's Team from last year for coming up with this great trip, Bruce Tremper for his generous loan of his little boat, and Tom for figuratively driving the bus on this trip and literally driving the considerable distance to the adventure from SLC and being a great (and patient!) pard
Nothing quite like "Loaded, Baked" local "Buds" to keep a guy moving efficiently!  

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