Thursday, August 23, 2018

Smoke-free weekend? Sawtooth Salmon Festival or visit South Fork Salmon River

South Fork Salmon River Road is about as wide as a driveway. Great place for a secluded road bike ride.
Caution: Vehicles should go slow around blind corners! 
Chinook spawning on the Salmon River near the Sawtooth Hatchery. Those fish take my breath away!
They travel 800+ miles to reach Stanley from the Pacific Ocean. SS photo.  
Hi all,

Smoke from all the wildfires has been depressing to me, but it appears that we might get a break this weekend! I hope that's the case!

For this week's outdoor tip, I wanted to share a few details about the Sawtooth Salmon Festival going on Saturday, Aug. 25, in Stanley this weekend, and some thoughts about road biking, camping and sight-seeing in the South Fork Salmon River area and Warm Lake area.

The Sawtooth Salmon Festival is a long-standing event, sponsored by Idaho Rivers United, for people to come up to Stanley and see Chinook salmon spawning, learn about how Chinook and sockeye salmon runs are doing right now (not well), enjoy live music, drink beer from Sockeye Brewing, and of course, you can vector off to go hiking, biking or camping in arguably the most scenic part of Idaho.

Tours of the Chinook spawning grounds will occur every two hours at 11 a.m., 1, 3 and 5 p.m. on Saturday. According to the fish counts at Lower Granite Dam, 38,500 Chinook salmon have crossed through the dam and are heading upriver to Idaho. The 10-year average to date is 80,800. There should be some Chinook salmon spawning down below Sunbeam Dam in shallow gravels, where it's easy to see the magnificent fish. About 1,000 Chinook have returned to the Sawtooth Hatchery, a few miles south of Stanley. That's another place where I've seen a lot of Chinook swimming in the gravels, directly below the Sawtooth Hatchery, north of Stanley.

If you go, this is a great teachable moment for your kids to observe salmon spawning and learn about the salmon life cycle. The way the Idaho salmon and steelhead fish numbers have been crashing lately, you have to wonder how long the fish can survive. The lower Snake and Columbia dams cause most of the mortality to our salmon and steelhead runs, in both directions, while we have hundreds of miles of pristine spawning habitat in the Salmon River and its tributaries that are awaiting the adult fish to arrive and spawn the next generation.

To paraphrase what someone once said about this situation, we have a 5-star hotel for salmon and steelhead in Central Idaho -- some of the best habitat remaining in the whole Columbia River Basin. The lights are turned on, but most of the bedrooms are empty. Sad tale, indeed.

Near the top of the climb, the forest has transitioned into an old burn zone. 
Now, on to the South Fork Salmon River ... Wendy and I went over to the South Fork Road from McCall via Lick Creek Road last Saturday to put in some training miles on our road bikes. We're training for Cycle Oregon. The smoke wasn't too bad. The South Fork paved road is exactly 31 miles from Lick Creek to the Warm Lake highway. It's a single-lane paved surface with pullouts, so it's kind of tight for a vehicle, but perfect for a bike.

What struck me during our ride was how quiet, desolate and beautiful it was back there on the South Fork. Perhaps the smoke was keeping everyone closer to home. I'm sure a ton of people were out and about earlier this month during the Yellow Pine Harmonica Festival. But we did not see hardly a soul  back there until we got within a mile or so of Warm Lake.

Deep green pools are visible as you ride along the South Fork 
Before early October, when rifle deer season starts, consider checking out the South Fork for a quiet camping spot next to a beautiful river, go hiking, mountain biking, hot-springing or do a road bike ride. I found the ride to be especially nice in the first 15 miles, where we rode through big green ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, and pedaled close enough to the South Fork that we could see the river. Later, you ride in a giant burn zone, and it seems like a bomb went off back there and stripped away all the forest cover. It's still super raw many years after those forest fires.

I was looking for spawning salmon, but I didn't get out and peer into the deep pools. I stayed on my bike because we had a lot of miles to clock. Our plan was to go over to Warm Lake and back for a 65- mile ride. It took us longer than expected to cover the first 31 miles to Warm Lake. There are several big climbs to Profile Summit, and it's generally uphill going from Lick Creek to Warm Lake. My GPS said I'd burned 2900 calories by the time we reached North Shore Lodge! We were ready for a burger! Seemed like I drank 3 quarts of water during lunch.

A couple of happy anglers at Warm Lake.
The main cafe, cabins and picnic tables by the North Shore Lodge. 
North Shore Lodge is a great destination, BTW. They've got a beach, docks, a place to launch your boat, a bar and cafe, cabins for rent, supplies -- just a great place located there right on the shoreline of Warm Lake. People were having a great time chilling next to the lake, hanging by the beach, having a beer on the outdoor deck of the cafe, or hanging out by the cabin. We sure enjoyed our time chilling there, and topped it off with a big huckleberry ice cream cone.

At that point, our truck seemed like a world away! I knew Wendy couldn't ride all the way back, she had some hot spots on her feet (new riding shoes), and I didn't really feel like doing the whole thing either. Lucky for us, some hot-springers offered to take us half-way down the South Fork, and then we had an easy 16-mile ride mostly downhill to the truck.

Hard-core road riders that do the 90-mile version of the Cascade 4 Summit Challenge ride do most of the South Fork road after they scale Big Creek Summit. If you're super fit, riding the South Fork both directions is totally doable in a day. For more casual road riders, you might try riding one-way from Warm Lake to Lick Creek, it's much easier that way. Place a shuttle rig at Lick Creek Road, or have a friend run a sag wagon and pick you up. Maybe they could soak in a hot springs, go fishing or hiking while you're out on the ride.

If you'd like to explore the South Fork Salmon River area, consult a Boise National Forest and Payette National Forest map to plan your trip. The South Fork actually is split between the Boise and Payette forests. Maybe you have online mapping software. The developed campgrounds back there are Buckhorn, Camp Creek, Poverty Flat, and Penny Spring. From the Lick Creek side, you're only 15 miles from Yellow Pine, which is definitely worth a visit. Salmon spawning season is just beginning on the South Fork, according to IDFG, and if you'd like to see some fish spawning, look for them in the Stolle Meadows area.

I feature a fun mountain bike loop on the South Fork in my Mountain Biking in McCall book. It's called the Teapot Mountain Loop. It's a narrow two-track four-wheeler trail, 11 miles in length that circumnavigates Teapot Mountain. The ride features 2,100 feet of gain. Travel time is 1.5-2 hours. The ride goes from Buckhorn Creek to Jakie Creek and then you circle back on the South Fork road.

Hope we all have a weekend with no smoky skies!
- SS

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