"Did you buy a lotto ticket today? ..... Well you should have!" the firefighter said as he put up a road closed sign immediately behind us. We were the last ones to be allowed passage to the Main Salmon River that day, and as it turned out the following also. He was right - we were extremely lucky - not only had we been fortunate to be invited on one of the most sought after multi-day whitewater river trips in the U.S., but we had snuck in by the skin of our teeth. Numerous wildfires caused by lightning were burning in the 2.3 million acre Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness through which the Salmon flows. One fire was in close proximity to the road accessing the river put-in at Corn Creek. By the time we had our conversation with the firefighter we had already driven 30+ miles down a gravel road, through the Incident Command Post, observed the helicopters waiting to ferry loads and a hundred tents lined up in a meadow for firefighters to catch a few hours sleep and smoke billowed above. Now we were lollygagging at the confluence of the Middle Fork, enjoying clearer skies and marvelling at the stunning views reminiscent, to me, of New Zealand.
This was the location where, in 1805, William Clark had returned to Meriwether Lewis and reported "the river from the place I left my party to this creek is almost one continued rapid, five very considerable rapids the passage of either with canoes is entirely impossible, as the water is confined between huge rocks and the current beating from one against another". As a result the Lewis & Clark expedition detoured the Salmon river and continued overland.
For us however a detour was not possible, nor wanted. We were committed to the River of No Return, to 80 miles of whitewater through a granite walled canyon, more than one mile deep in some of the most wild and scenic country in the U.S. And with the road closed behind us there was no going back.
We arrived at the put-in to find half of our party (9) already there and... that was it. We had the run of the campground, the ramp and the first choice of campsites for the entire trip. For a river that sees 6 parties of up to thirty people launching per day we felt like we had indeed won a lotto ticket. Except for the problem half our party was missing. The road remained closed overnight and the next morning the ranger arrived to tell us it was to remain closed for at least another 24 hours. After exchanging messages with the rest of our party via firefighter and ranger radios we decided to launch.
We had six rafts and food for 18 so we were quite the overloaded convoy as we set off. We were not going to starve that's for sure.
As we moved westerly away from the fire the skies cleared but we could see the smoke from a second fire just a few miles away.
A couple of new rapids, formed late last summer, kept our attention on the river for the remainder of the day and we drew into the Devils Teeth camp with the skies still clear.
The next morning as we prepared to launch the winds changed and the smoke moved back in.
At times the smoke was so dense our eyes streamed and burned and ash fell on the boat. Rowing through some of the bigger rapids felt almost apocalyptic.
Reaching camp on the second night the winds picked up and cleared away the smoke making for a very pleasant cocktail hour. Having seen no one else all day we jumped up at the sound of a jetboat to wave at what we assumed to be passing firefighters (who traversed up and down the river quickly in this manner). Imagine our surprise when the jetboat slowed, stopped on the beach and the lost half of our party disembarked. It was quite the entrance and quite the journey for them having driven 400 miles to the take-out and then chartered a jetboat to cover the 60 miles of river upstream to meet us.
From there on out it was a classic river trip with the addition of conditions fluctuating between clear blue skies, haze and billows of smoke. Still it was off the charts in fabulous funtasticnous.
It was evident this area burns frequently. We learned that in 2007 the Salmon River was closed due to a massive fire.
When the smoke cleared the view of the canyon was spectacular.
The waters were too warm to catch much of anything on a dry fly but we tried.
We ate very well on the trip though I was quite thankful we didn't have to eat 18 persons worth of food.
There are lots of fun rapids on the Salmon River. Many unnamed, lots of II's and III's and also several class IV's though at lower water levels they were relatively tame. Here Chad tries to drop us in a hole in a small Class II rapid.
And here is one of the larger rapids - Elkhorn.
Ah, the games we find to entertain at camp. Paco pad slip'n'slide:
And of course last night costumes: