Thursday, May 28, 2009

Don't overlook the upper South Fork Payette -- it's scenic and fun

Kirkham Rapids

Pinball Rapids

Kirkham Rapids (photos courtesy Payette River Co.)

Hi all,

Summer weather is kicking in with a vengeance. Idaho's mighty rivers are swollen with snowmelt, and the Payette River is no exception. It's cranking at 3,800 cfs in Lowman and 8,300 cfs in Horseshoe Bend as of Thursday night, 5/28/09, and rising. That means it's bank full, the water is in the trees and bushes, and the current is freight-training downriver.

Here's a tip for this week: Don't overlook the upper South Fork of the Payette River between Bonneville Hot Springs and Lowman. Known as the "Grand Jean" run among longtime Idaho boaters, this little-known gem is a challenging thread of turquoise as it pours out of the Sawtooth Wilderness into the pine-shaded cabin-ville of the Lowman area.

In the upper end, putting in along the Grand Jean road, there are log jamps and tight technical rapids. Below Bonneville Hot Springs, Chapman Creek and Little Surprise, both Class 3 rapids come up almost immediately. I've heard there's a log jam in between those two rapids. Then, the water flattens out a bit, but at this level, even the corners are going to be sporting in a raft or kayak. Below Helende Campground, a series of Class 3-4 drops come up, including Emma Creek, Pinball, and Wangdoodle, before Kirkham Rapids upstream of the hot springs. Some of the run can be pre-scouted on the way up to the put-in. After that, the river mellows out, but it'll still be swift.

I've been told by my friends at Payette River Company, based in Lowman, that they've got trips going this weekend and onward through the spring.

Check with Cascade Raft & Kayak, Idaho Whitewater Unlimited, Far & Away Adventures, and Bear Valley River Co. to see if they're running any trips on the upper South Fork. Some of the outfitters run multi-day trips on that reach, so you can maximize on several days of white-knuckle boating in a row, plus fun nights in camp with great eating.

For private boaters, it's a longer drive to Lowman and the Grand Jean put-in, compared to running the South Fork canyon or the Staircase run but it's well worth it. Be sure to work in a soak in Bonneville or Kirkham hot springs, and consider camping at one of many developed or primitive camping sites between Lowman and Grand Jean. Also, don't forget the Sourdough Lodge for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The Upper South Fork run is 22 miles from Bonneville Hot Springs to Lowman. I've included a map above from my guide, Paddling the Payette. If you run this river section on your own, be prepared for high-water whitewater conditions. Dress in appropriate cold-water gear. Have your throw ropes ready. Rig for a flip. Be ready and know what to do if you get into a whitewater rescue situation.

The Upper South Fork should be prime for floating for about the next month. Sometime in the first half of July, the water level begins to taper below rafting levels, and then it becomes a place for great wade fishing. Enjoy! - SS

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Go camping for Memorial Day Weekend

Hi all,

Well the weather looks fantastic for Memorial Day weekend, that's a rarity in itself.

Summer temperatures are kicking in, the snow is receding higher up in the mountains, the rivers are rising, and lower-elevation camping zones are free and clear of snow.

So for the tip of the week, I recommend going camping at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. Specifically, close to Boise, the Middle Fork of the Boise River and the North Fork of the Boise River are full of dozens of self-serve dispersed camping areas, and a few developed sites. Bring your own camping gear, water, food, supplies, and maybe bring the fishing poles, bikes, or whatever, and have a great weekend.

How to get there: Go to Idaho City. Just north of town, go right on the Rabbit Creek road (USFS Road #327), and drive over the mountains into the North Fork of the Boise. You'll arrive at the North Fork by Black Rock Campground, a developed site, and then there are a ton of dispersed sites for the next 10-plus miles, including Barber Flat and Deer Park, both beautiful rental cabins and meadows next to the North Fork. Cruise around and pick your own place to camp.

The Forest Service in Idaho City reports that the roads leading into the North Fork, the Middle Fork and Atlanta are snow-free. The snow level is about 6,000 feet. The Park 'n Ski trail areas around Banner Ridge still have snow in places. So focusing on lower-elevation areas is a good idea right now, unless you want to play in the snow.

Try to snag a map of the Boise National Forest before you go so you can consider your options after you've made camp. One hiking or biking possibility is to hike or bike a singletrack trail along the North Fork of the Boise, between Deer Park and Graham. The trail is snow-free near Deer Park, and you should be able to make a number of miles before you get into snow. I don't have any reports about the snow level at Graham. Let me know!

If you go camping, be sure to bring plenty of sun screen and bug stuff. It's going to be a warm weekend with lots of sunshine. Lather up. Expect to see a lot of mosquitoes. Watch for ticks as well. It's that time of year.

- SS

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Birds of Prey Festival in Kuna a great opportunity to see raptors up close and personal

Sunrise in Snake River Birds of Prey Area

Morley (with hat standing up) and Steve Guinn lead a tour

Steve with Slim, a golden eagle, in Stanley

Morley Nelson w/falcon on fist
Hey all,

For this week's Tip of the Week, I recommend the Snake River Birds of Prey Festival in Kuna this weekend, Friday, May 15 - Sunday, May 17.

On Friday night, you can enjoy a program about world-renowned birds of prey champion Morley Nelson, beginning at 6 p.m. at Reed Elementary School in Kuna. Morley brought the cause of raptor conservation into everyone's living room in multiple Walt Disney pictures and ABC-TV Wild Kingdom features, among many other movies that he participated in.

On Saturday or Sunday, you can sign up for an easy-going stillwater float trip on the Snake River above Swan Falls Dam with Birds of Prey Expeditions owner Steve Guinn. Bring your binos -- you'll see golden eagles on the nest, prairie falcons zooming amid the rock cliffs in flight, and enjoy many other hawks and owls on the trip. The yawning Snake River canyon is beautiful in this reach -- brilliant orange-mocha sheer walls form the bookends of the canyon.

The program on Morley Nelson is free. The boat trips are $70 for adults and $35 for children. Call 658-9980 or email for more information or to book a trip. I've done it several times, and it's a great way to spend a sunny weekend day.

As you might recall, I have a special affinity for the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area because I knew Morley. I knew how he had personally discovered that the Snake River canyon was unique in the world as a nesting refuge for a wide variety of birds of prey, particularly golden eagles and prairie falcons. I spent two years of my life writing Morley's biography, Cool North Wind: Morley Nelson's Life with Birds of Prey (Caxton Press, 2002).

Morley's sons, Tyler and Norman, will give a presentation on Morley's life and play a 30-minute highlight reel, featuring some awesome footage of birds of prey in flight and tail-chasing prey.

Morley was truly one of a kind. It was a privilege to know him and spend time with him.

No matter if you catch the program on Morley Friday night or if you go on a boat trip, you'll understand why the Snake River canyon has a special place in the world, and it's right here in our own backyard.

- SS

Friday, May 1, 2009

Explore the Owyhee Canyonlands - Idaho's newest wilderness and wild rivers area

China Ditch Trail

Hi all,

For this week's Tip of the Week, I intended to recommend hooking up with the Owyhee Canyonlands Coalition on go on a hike in the Owyhee Front. But as things turned out, the hike is already full and closed to additional people, so I'll recommend a hike from the Boise Trail Guide in Reynolds Creek that's super cool. It will still acquaint you with the kind of countryside that has been protected in the new Owyhee Canyonlands wilderness bill. This is a non-motorized hiking area that's also open to mountain biking and horseback riding. The area is managed by the BLM.

It's a moderate 7.5-mile hike from the Wilson Creek trailhead, south of Nampa, that begins with an easy 2.75-mile cruise over to scenic Reynolds Creek (redrock cliffs) and tours the China Ditch trail. Chinese laborers built some elaborate rock ditches on both sides of Reynolds Creek in this area to divert some of the creek water for irrigation. There is a trail (#600) on the embankment of the ditch that is great for hiking, and challenging for mountain biking. Take your time in here because it's really a neat and scenic spot. Great place to take a lunch break.

You'll climb upstream along the ditch trail for 1.5 miles, and then you'll regretably leave the canyon on Trail #510 to loop back to a junction with Trail #400, and cruise back over to the Wilson Creek Trailhead.

It took me 3.5 hours to do the full hike with my two boys aged 9 and 10 at the time. They loved throwing rocks into the creek along the China Ditch trail.

See an earlier blog post for a half dozen spring hikes close to home that are guaranteed to please ...

Here's a link to the Owyhee Canyonlands Coalition to hook up on another adventure in May to tour Idaho's newest wilderness and wild and scenic rivers in Owyhee County.

To get to the Wilson Creek Trailhead, take the freeway to Nampa, take the City Center exit, then go south on Idaho 45 to Walters Ferry at the Snake River. Cross the Snake, turn right on Idaho 78, and then watch for the Wilson Creek road (green sign) in a couple miles on the left. Take the Wilson Creek road to a trailhead on the left side of the road, and you're home free.

- SS