Thursday, August 2, 2012

South Fork Payette River "Canyon" section is a must-do trip to cool off from the heat in August

Blackadar Rapids (courtesy Cascade Raft & Kayak)

Lone Pine Rapids! (courtesy Cascade Raft & Kayak)
Kayaker doing otter start below Big Falls (courtesy Payette River Co.)
Hi all,

Well, it's been stinkin' hot in the Boise Valley with temps in the high 90s or around 100, so we have to find ways to cool off. Last week, I recommended heading into high mountains of the Sawtooth Range to explore high mountain lakes and climb peaks.

This week, I'm recommending a raft trip on the "Canyon" section of the South Fork of the Payette River.  As I noted in my guidebook, Paddling the Payette, the South Fork Canyon "is the most challenging Class 4 section in the Payette River Basin. Get ready for an action-packed adventure." It's a total hoot!

Thanks for the cool vid Mica!
Idaho Whitewater Unlimited puts it this way: "This is the biggest, baddest river section we have to offer. Not intended for scared-ee cats, this segment of the South Fork will immerse you in the wild action of Gateway, Blackadar, Lone Pine, Little Falls and Surprise Rapids, to name a few. View the power of Big Falls (a 35-foot drop and mandatory portage) and soak up the warmth of Pine Flats Hot Springs ...."

Cascade Raft and Kayak: "Get wet and wild as you plummet 13 miles down one of the West's most magnificent river corridors. The steep drops, towering canyon walls and clear water make this the legendary crown jewel of continuous Class 4 rapids."
The low-water run in Little Falls (courtesy Payette River Co.)

I've always felt that the South Fork Canyon section is the highest quality day trip in the state of Idaho because of the solitude, hot springs, non-stop whitewater action, wildlife (seen mink, black bear and deer in the canyon), and the whole experience of doing the portage around Big Falls. After the day is over, you feel like you've had so much fun, the only way to top it off is to plan a big BBQ with your floating buddies, sip favorite beverages and swap stories about the day.

Now is a great time to float the South Fork canyon because:
1. There's still plenty of water to do so, but river flows will decrease as the month progresses, so the sooner the better. The canyon was running more than 1,200 cfs as of today, combining South Fork flows (690 cfs) with releases from Deadwood Dam (600 cfs).
2. It's hot, and the guaranteed cold waters of the South Fork, coming directly out of the Sawtooth Wilderness and the Deadwood River, will keep you plenty cool during the float trip.
3. It's a ton of fun with a great group of friends, family or work-mates. Paddle boat crews must work as a team to negotiate the rapids successfully.

People with their own raft may know about the South Fork Canyon, but a surprising number of private boaters haven't gone there before. The best thing is to go with someone who knows the lines in the many rapids in the 12-mile canyon and has the extra-long rope for portaging boats around the falls. Private boaters with catarafts should have enough helpers to carry the heavy crafts around the falls. Light-weight 14-foot paddle rafts are ideal. It's also a great trip for advanced kayakers.

If you don't have your own boat, you can book a trip with one of four outfitters who run the South Fork Canyon. All of these companies know their stuff and have excellent guides. Generally it costs about $100 for a canyon trip, including a hearty lunch. Check with the outfitters on any group rates or special deals.

The outfitters are Cascade Raft and Kayak, Bear Valley River Company, Idaho Whitewater Unlimited and the Payette River Company. Because of the challenging whitewater, kids need to be 12 or over to participate.

If you try the "Canyon" reach on your own, remember that the rapids are "pushy" - flips, pins and swims are always possible, and you should be ready to deal with any kind of mishap. I remember losing my entire paddle crew from the sheer jolt of crashing through Blackadar Rapids, and I barely caught the chicken line (rope around the outside edge of a raft) with one hand on the way out, held onto my paddle with the other hand, climbed quickly back into the boat, and pulled everyone in as fast as I could before we came to the next drop immediately around the next bend. Safety kayakers are really helpful to rescue any swimmers along the way.

The South Fork Canyon chapter in Paddling the Payette has a mile-by-mile description of the trip and a detailed map. You can buy the paddling trip for 99 cents on my web site. Laminated maps cost $2.95 each.

If you can't make time for a full-day canyon run, and you are thirsting for some high adventure, think about doing the Lower South Fork and Main Payette as an alternative. All of the outfitters mentioned above do this trip as well.

Have fun and stay cool!

Also ... in case you haven't heard about Idaho's new mountain bike license plate, check out this segment on the Green Room about the cool plate. Geoff Baker and I talk about the plate's benefits for our multi-use trails in Idaho. The segment aired last Monday on The River, 94.9 FM.
- SS