Thursday, July 12, 2012

Finding Paradise on the famed Salmon River, the "River of No Return" in Central Idaho

The Salmon River cuts a mile-deep canyon across Central Idaho ... it's BIG COUNTRY! 
Hi all, 

I had the privilege of floating the Idaho's famed Salmon River (aka River of No Return) last week, and it turned out to be a perfect time to float the river in terms of river flows and great weather. Combine that with great people, delicious gourmet meals and the best campsites on the river, and geez, how can life get any better than that? 

Craig Bachman, a friend and antitrust lawyer in Boise, had drawn the permit, and Craig invited an all-star crew of Bachman peeps, friends, musicians and 5 dogs. We had a total blast.

The 85-mile-long Main Salmon River of No Return section is considered one of the top venues in North America for a week-long wilderness whitewater vacation. There are three others that I love to do as well -- the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Selway. Hells Canyon and the Lower Salmon are great multiday trips as well, but they're typically done over a long weekend. 

The Main Salmon is arguably the best family wilderness whitewater vacation in America because it isn't as difficult to navigate as the Middle Fork, the Grand Canyon or the Selway, so it feels safer for kids, seniors and others who may not know how to swim very well. It's also an excellent river trip for beginning kayakers, novice inflatable kayakers and novice rafters -- large pools follow rapids, making it easy to recover swimmers. Follow an experienced boater down the river, and you'll learn a ton. 
My son Drew enjoyed the river and caught a fish
Being on a more mellow river trip also reduces the stress meter. The Salmon is bordered by beautiful, spacious campsites where you can hang out and relax, swim, or play volleyball, bocce ball and horseshoes. The sweet river flows we had for our trip allowed us to float just a couple of hours during the day, and then relax and hang out in camp, go for a hike, take a nap, whatever.

There are a couple of new rapids on the Main Salmon that created some excitement because I hadn't run them before. Alder Creek is the first one to come up, just a few miles from the put-in, but at higher water, it was washed out and not an issue. Black Creek is the more significant new rapid. On Day 2, we paddled up to what used to be Salmon Falls, a Class 3+ rapid, and that's gone now, buried by a deep pool. A short ways downstream, you hear the roar of Black Creek Rapids. A horizon line  provides a hint that it's a steep drop. We scouted left, and at our water level, we could run it either on the left or right; there was a large hole in the middle. Two of our kayakers got knocked over by strong lateral waves and swam the left route. But there's a big pool below for an easy rescue. 
Paul, Rachel and Mike in Barth Hot Springs 
Below the rapids, Barth Hot Springs awaits for a soothing soak. The water was quite hot on the day we visited -- we guessed it was 105-106 degrees. 

Day 3 is always fun on the Main Salmon because it's a whitewater day ... we ran Bailey (big wave train on the right), Five Mile Rapids (stay left to avoid huge holes on the right), Big Mallard (always run left) and Elkhorn (watch out for big rock or hole in the middle of the wave train). And we topped it off with landing at Ground Hog Bar, one of my favorite campsites of all time. Ground Hog has a sweet swimming beach next to a sandy, shallow water landing. We set up the volleyball net in that shallow area, making for a nice, cool game on a 95-degree day. 
In-water volleyball court at Ground Hog Bar  
Volleyball action ... we never lost the ball! 
Lawrence and Rico kept us entertained in camp
The top of Ground Hog Bar has a shady "kitchen" area and tons of choice tent sites, also in the shade. Plus, there's room for a horseshoe pit and bocce ball court. 
Sylvan Hart aka Buckskin Bill 
On Day 4, we floated to Buckskin Bill's place on Five Mile Bar, and my son Drew was thrilled to learn that he could get a chocolate ice cream bar there. He didn't know that would be an option on a wilderness river.  Buckskin Bill's also has a small museum with many pictures of Sylvan Hart, a mountain man who lived on the Salmon River for many years beginning in the 1930s. He made knives and deer skin clothes, built custom rifles and and battled with the U.S. government over various issues. Drew and I climbed up into a little fortress that Buckskin Bill built into the mountainside, including a turret where he could hide and protect himself from unwelcome intruders. 
Buckskin Bill's fortress
The River of No Return is steeped with history. Be sure to bring the book of the same name with you on the float trip to learn all the great stories that Cort Conley and Johnny Carrey put together in the highly entertaining book. You can learn who were the first people to float the Salmon River, you'll see Pine Creek Rapids, the spot where Lewis & Clark turned back and took an overland route via Lolo Pass, Jim Moore's Place near Campbell's Ferry, an historic site with old cabins still standing, and much more. 

On Day 5 and Day 6, the Salmon River slows down as the gradient decreases and long flat-water sections can be difficult to push through in big headwinds. Luckily, at our water level, we just cruised through the flatwater with ease and practically no wind. That's just lucky. Having slogged through "Lake Salmon," as it's fondly referred to, in low water many times, I kicked back and smiled as we glided through the canyon. We did a little fishing at the mouth of large streams like Warren Creek and Mann Creek and had some success. Way to go Drew! 

On the last day of the trip, I felt a tinge of melancholy, knowing that our magic carpet ride was about to end ... but we had some excitement as well, knowing that Chittam Rapids, a well-respected drop in high water, stood between us and the takeout at the Carey Creek boat ramp. We took a moment to scout it, and there was plenty of room on the right side to avoid some holes in the middle. Vinegar Creek Rapids had some big splashy waves down the gut, and even Carey Falls had some punch, especially for the kayakers. 

It always feels like a river trip ends too soon, especially one as sweet as this one was. But there's always next year~! 

A few notes: 
  • Logistics - Put-in is at Corn Creek, northwest of Salmon, Idaho, and the takeout is at the Vinegar Creek or Carey Creek boat ramp, east of Riggins. 
  • Hire a guide or do it yourself? If you don't have your own whitewater rafting/kayaking equipment, maybe you have friends who can take you on the river. If not, you can hire an outfitter to enjoy a vacation on the Main Salmon. Go to for information on outfitters who run the Main Salmon. 
  • Shuttle - One of the biggest costs of doing the Main Salmon is shuttling your vehicle from the put-in to the takeout. You can do a vehicle shuttle for $350-$400 per vehicle; hire a jet boat to carry your group and river gear from the takeout to Corn Creek (price varies); or hire a bus and trailer to drive your group and river gear to the put-in, and pick you up after the trip is over. For our group of 17, it was most cost-effective to hire a bus. We used Caldwell Transportation, and it worked out great. 
  • Trip timing - When the summer gets hot, it's a perfect time to float the Salmon River. July and August are a great time to go. Trips in June may encounter high water and sometimes the weather can be iffy in June. In May, same drill as June. A late-season trip in September can be really nice, with more moderate temperatures in the 70s and 80s, and stable weather. In October and November, it's steelhead season on the Salmon River. Try doing that sometime. 
  • Getting a permit - For do-it-yourselfers, you need a permit to float the Main Salmon. That's because it's very popular, it's in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area, and only 8 launches are allowed per day. To get a permit, go to and apply for one next year. Permit applications are due by the end of January. You'll be notified if you got a permit or didn't get one in late February. If you hire an outfitter, no permit is necessary. Last-minute cancelations can be picked up on as well. 
There you have it! Have fun! 
- SS


karenknudtsen said...

Loved this! Your story brought back so many memories of when I lived back there up the South Fork at Hettinger RAach. I spent some time at Buckskin's right after he died. We inventoried his stuff. Very interesting and just like he'd left it, down to the pan on the woodburning stove. Buckskin was an amazing artisan. There were so many guns, tools, utensils, pots, pans, etc. that he'd blacksmithed. My friends Heinz and Barbara who have lived there 20+ years now have totally fixed up the place, restored the turret Buckskin built to shoot the tax collectors he was sure were coming to get him, and Heinz rebuilt all the building foundations in Buckskin's compound. Their lovely garden is nothing like Buckskin's used to be - it was raw but it kept the deer out. One summer day, Johnny Carrey came to visit us at our ranch and gifted me with an elkhorn belt buckle he'd carved with the name "Sheepherder Bill - Porphryr Ck.", in memory of another hermit back there. I still have it, a great momento of my years living back there. We were friends with the folks up and down the river, especially Rose and Louie Rebillet at Mackay Bar. And there was Sylvia McClain at her ranch up river from us and our beloved friends Johnny Lawrence and Jim Bragg, two hermits who lived nearby, the old timers up at Warren's, the Badleys at Badley Ranch down from Raines Ck on the S. Fk (now mistakenly called Fall Creek by more recent boaters to the country), plus the Romines at the ranch up Warren Ck. on the Main. I remember shooting a big ole rattler and skinning it at Mann Ck. That country was full of giant rattlers, and fish! Every cast into the S. Fk. we landed a fish back then, mostly browns, cutthroat and steelhead. My biggest memory of the Main is surfing Chittam (involuntarily) in an Infinicat. I thought it was just going to be a fun wave so I rowed right into it. Whoop! But I didn't flip. Sure thought I was going to though. Well Steve, thanks for taking me down memory land. Love that country; it's in my soul.

Tim Bondy Writes said...

I completely enjoyed this article. It's hard not to hate someone who gets to float the River of No Return when it's a dream/bucket list thing I realize I'll never get to do.

Steve Stuebner said...

Tim, I hope you do find a way to float the River of No Return ... go with friends or an outfitter and fulfill your bucket list!