With the onset of winter looming over our heads, Braden and I set out to complete a river trip we had been scheming for the entire summer. Thwarted by “bad weather” a few times, it appeared that a window of sunny skied opportunities just wasn’t in the making. I checked the forecast once again for the seventh time in three days;
“Yep, still no change. Two days of cold overcast. Two days of snow. And some rain here and there. I suppose we better just give it a go.” And, that’s what we chose to do.
The trip stemmed from years of peering up Ship Island Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River where Braden guides in the summer. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness serves as the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48. Over 2 million acres of a giant chunk of unseparated remote terrain exist there. Ship Island Creek rises 6,000 feet above the Middle Fork’s river bed. The Middle Fork is about the most pristine of a wilderness river one could imagine, and exploring the heart of the territory that fuels it was alluring, to say the least. Thousands of people apply by lottery for a chance to float it during permit season each year, with only a few hundred actually winning a permit. By waiting until late season, we were A. past the window of needing a lottery permit, and B. more inclined to see less humans. Bingo. Our grandiose plan was to bushwhack ourselves and our boats right through the middle of the Frank Church, and descend to the banks of the Middle Fork. From there, we’d float the waterway for 30 miles through the very aesthetic Impassible Canyon section. The hike itself would require at least 30 miles of backcountry travel, so, our highly portable Kokopelli packrafts were, suitably, the boats of choice.
We started our journey by crossing the Main Salmon River, on a section that touches the wilderness border yet is lined with several ranches. Our last little taste of civilization ended with me ringing a bell in order to obtain permission to cross the river on a private cable car. The man I inquired permission from raced across the river using the cable in a skilled fashion that represented to me that he had probably done this a thousand times. I felt like I was peering into the face of a pioneer from the 30’s. A very hearty head shake “No” was all the answer I needed. I didn’t feel the urge to argue with this Idaho Rancher Man, obviously very skeptical of our intentions.
“Humpfh. You’re going in there? You do know there’s bad weather coming, right? It’s probably some pretty rough moving in there…. Hmmmm.”
Braden and I swapped glances and nervous smiles, knowing it was time to end this conversation before we, heaven forbid, had second thoughts.
Creeping across the river with overloaded boats, we peered up at hills that disappeared into the clouds in the sky. I noticed a speck of a structure on top of the hills across the river, and realized that we would in a few short miles be standing at the same level. Wow! Google Earth had been so deceiving. I finally grasped what 6,000 feet of vertical gain in six miles truly looked like. So, with heavy packs and optimistic smiles, we left the river valley and began our jaunt up a faint horse trail into the Frank Church Wilderness.
One mile into the hike, I felt a bit more gait-steady, as if I wouldn’t tip over with each staggering step. Two miles in, we sat down and consumed of a portion of our three liters of wine we deemed necessary to bring along. At about mile four-ish, we welcomed wind gusts blowing us sideways, and were both so trail weary that we decided to call it a day. After all, we had hiked for a whopping four and a half hours. Watching the sun set over the Main Salmon River and munching on oatmeal cream pies, we giggled about our trip so far; four miles in and the big bad Frank Church was already kicking our asses!
Each day, new challenges transpired that I ignored as omens of destruction, and attributed them rather to lessons from the wilderness reminding us to stay humble. The terrain remained a consistent level of incredibly steep ascents followed by equally steep descents on repeat, again and again. We reached the lake, our somewhat midpoint destination spot, a couple days prior to the proposed forecast I had looked at a week before predicting snow. From this point on, we would have our toughest part of the trip navigation-wise, as we would be bushwhacking and route-finding all the way down to the Middle Fork.
The next morning, we awakened with a sky nudging us to leave. However, Ship Island Lake lured us in for a paddle instead, with absurdly sexy granite fjords dotting the northern brim, and the most charming tiny island in the center of the water. Besides, we had hauled those spaceboats 20 miles in for such a moment as this. Decision. Made. Our bagel picnic breakfast was even a bit romantic in a weird, perhaps masochistic sort of way, as we sat and endured wind-blast slams to the face while occasionally sneaking bites of bagel. We finally motivated to ascend out of the lake basin and beyond when the first day of “winter” released itself. The top of the saddle twelve hundred feet above us, the pass we needed to cross, was getting exponentially more shrouded in a cloud until eventually, it was a complete whiteout. As the storm further brewed, we reevaluated our trip, considering bailing altogether with our heads hung low and retreating back along the heinous path we just trekked.
However, as in any wilderness situation (or any situation with risk, for that matter), sometimes one just has to face the unknown, make A decision, and stick to it no matter what. So, for better or for worse, we were getting to that damn River of No Return. During the period of time we had stopped to discuss our options, we glanced at the sky simultaneously. Lo and behold, there was a beaming window of overcast. Not sunny…but not snowing, either! This was our opportunity. We raced up to the saddle, bargaining with the clouds overhead to just keep moving. Peering out above the lake, the forest, and the immense granite jaggedness, we deemed our decision to continue into the abyss entirely worthwhile, because this was perhaps the most beautiful place we’d ever seen in Idaho. But, we didn’t soak it in for too long, for a new storm already brewed and it was time to rally down.
Two days later, with soggy feet and tuckered out bodies, we completed our wobble down to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The initial view of the flowing beauty had us both jumping up and down. Finally, we could celebrate with our last oatmeal cream pie, remove those giant packs for good, and embark on to the BEST PART, the boating! We loaded our packrafts near the confluence of Big Creek, and I tried to be a little discreet inflating mine, so Braden wouldn’t notice if I had any giant tears from a week of limboing and snagging under down logs. The repair kit within quick reach, I was ready to complete some stealthy and secretive repairs, if need be. But, alas, they’re tougher than they initially appear. Not a single slice. Phew.
We reentered the world of human encounters by paddling up to a group of pack rafting folks we observed directly across our loading zone. It was a group of about 20, most of them floating the Middle Fork for the first time. After conversing for a quick moment, we said our goodbyes, and began our bebop through the Impassible Canyon.
We spent the day initiating conversations with the merganzers and marveling over the geological formations, brought to us by centuries and eras of wind, water, and pure power. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else in this very moment than floating down this section of river, but I always feel that way about the Middle Fork.
I considered all the fearless explorers who had encountered this place before us. I daydreamed about the Sheepeater natives, perhaps trekking through some of the same terrain we had just crossed, in a much more gallant fashion than ours, of course. I thought about preceding pioneers, constructing their own crafts to navigate these waters, sometimes being forced to disassemble and use the scraps for lumber. I imagined the old hermits who historically lived along the river and their initial descents, waters foaming and roaring along the way. Pfffft. And I thought our trip was tough? In this day and age, it is a privileged wonder that we can rely on packrafts to carry us along for this journey. In my wildest of dreams, I’m still a rogue pioneer adventurer, making first descents into unknown territories in the spirit of the great explorers who have come before me. But, at the end of the day, it’s also equally bedazzling to hop into a comfortable boat and eat an oatmeal cream pie. – Claire Cripps www.eclairecripps.com