Salmon River, Middle Fork
Location: Challis National Forest , Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness
Length: 100 miles
Gradient: 28 feet per mile. Put-in is almost 6,000 feet; take-out is 3,000
Levels: Class III+ (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on water levels)
Wildlife: Alpine, forest and grassland habitats with frequent spottings of big horn sheep, mule deer and river otter
When runnable: April (dicey) through September Features: Hotsprings.
Side hikes: Waterfall Creek, Veil Falls, Loon Creek. Runnable sidesstreams. Excellent fishing. Rich in historical evidence: petroglyphs (Indian rock paintings), pioneer homesteads, gold dredging ruins.

Heart and mind. A trip down a river replenishes both. It's not just a matter of physical exercise, though you get plenty of that paddling, maybe even hiking. It's the mental exercise of scouting a rapid - figuring out the river. It's the appreciation for life you get from testing the edges of safety and civilization. It's what you absorb from being in the river, in the canyon, in the forest or the grassland or the desert. In nature.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River in northwest Idaho is the standard: the float that's used to compare all others. Not only does the river have plenty of whitewater character, the surrounding environment is unsurpassed. Along the Middle Fork's length, you'll find spectacular scenery, wildlife, hotsprings, and history.

Idaho has more floatable whitewater than any other state. And the Middle Fork is one of its most legendary challenges. The first adventurer to run it was probably Henry Weidner, who started in two 18 foot canoes and finished in one. A Cole Porter era team from National Geographic probed a few miles up it in 1935, during a run down the Main Salmon. The group's photos are well worth a trip to the library to see. A group of six from Utah ran the river in two wooden boats that same year.

The river received Wild and Scenic Designation in 1969 - one of the first. President Carter floated it in 1978. By 1979, 7,000 people were floating it every year.

But there is a cap. If you want to float the Middle Salmon during the main season, June 1 - September 10, you have two options. You can enter the permit lottery or you can sign up with an outfitter. Good luck getting a permit - you've got about a 1 in 20 chance. In 1996, out of 11,764 applications, the Middle Fork was the first choice of almost 7,300. The other choices were the Main Salmon, the Snake in Hells Canyon and the Selway, spectacular rivers every one. But they do not have the reputation of the Middle Fork, so there are far fewer applicants seeking permits on these rivers. If you want to try your luck, contact the Middle Fork Ranger District, or download the application from the Idaho Department of Tourism's site (you need an Adobe Acrobat reader). Lottery applications must arrive between December 1 and January 31.

An outfitter is your best bet. It may cost a few more bucks, but you're guaranteed a spot, and unless you're a very experienced river runner, you'll have a more successful trip. It's great to go with someone who knows the river, will get the gear together and brew the coffee. Besides getting you and yours down the river, a good guide team can fill you in on the history and ecology of the surroundings. The name of that wildflower. The legend rising out of the fallen logs of a ruined cabin. The meaning of those Indian rock drawings.

You can float the river outside of the permit season, but if you go in May the river will be cold, high and fierce, and the higher reaches may be inaccessible due to snow. If you go after the beginning of September the water will be quite low during drought years, requiring more technical boating skills, but still running strong in a year with above-average snowpack. The American Whitewater's Association is pressuring the forest service to allow non-permitted access to some of the Middle Fork's side streams on a day trip basis, but that's still up in the air.

What can you expect during a float? Well, you'll be traveling a hundred miles, encountering a hundred rapids, ranging from class I to class IV at intermediate water flows. But those rapids aren't evenly spaced like the lines on a highway. If you head out at Boundary Creek - the most popular put in point - you're in whitewater right away. Then sure, you'll have some long lazy floats, where you can pay a little more attention to the scenery and the wildlife. But don't get complacent, because there's a rapids up ahead, then another, then another even wilder one, then another. Then maybe a chance to kick back. But not for long. This is the wilderness, remember? If you wanted to be a grease spot on the beach, you would have booked a flight to Cancun.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 25 Aug 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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