Middle Fork Salmon River, Idaho

Rafting: Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho
Rafting Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River (courtesy, Idaho Department of Commerce)
Middle Fork Salmon River, Idaho at a Glance
Price: $$$
River Rapid Class: III-IV+
Trip in Miles: 80 or 105 miles
Trip Duration: 5 to 6 days
Season: May-September
Raft Types: Paddle Raft, Oar Raft, Inflatable Kayak
River Sections: Boundary or Indian Creek to Main Salmon
Nearby Towns: Stanley (ID)
Gateway City: Stanley (ID)
Driving Times: Boise (ID): 3 hours; Ketchum (ID): 3 hours

"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 to September, 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. Lottery applications also include the Main Salmon, the Snake in Hells Canyon, and the Selway, spectacular rivers every one. But these three do not have the reputation of the Middle Fork, so there are far fewer applicants seeking permits on them. If you want to try your luck, contact the Middle Fork Ranger District). Lottery applications must arrive between December 1 and January 31.

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 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 rapid 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: 31 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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