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