IDAHO - Salmon River
NEPAL 2003

Middle Fork of the Salmon - Idaho
May 24 - June 1
Watch those strainers

High water! Idaho was pumping; all the flow charts warned of danger and extreme levels, minds were changed back and forth all the week before. Should we go? Yes, we did it last year and it's only a little higher, right?

Off we set, 19 intrepid adventurers, on America's longest free-flowing river. We had 7 kayaks, 2 cat rafts and 5 rafts. The whole trip consisted of Marsh Creek, the Middle Fork and then the main fork Salmon, 220 miles to do in 8 days. The first 120 were done in 6; the last 100 miles in 2 days!! The creek that we put on was barely 2 rafts wide and by the time we took out we were cruising down a raging 80,000 cfs stonking piece of whitewater. This trip takes a lot of planning and good organisation. Luckily I was with people who have done it for 14 consecutive years. It's a great deal for the kayakers who load their kit onto the rafts and play the whole way down..and there's plenty of playing to be done for those brave enough to catch ten foot monster waves.

We put on having heard that a man drowned just the day before so there was some nervous tension in the group. However, we had our team talk and we were generally feeling confident of our own abilities. Coolers and dry boxes tied down, off we set........

Day one: We clocked up a total distance of 100 yards! A raft was ripped down by the side by a piece of bridge that had hidden itself in the shallow water. Repair job attempted but with little success. We decided to rent a raft for the week so by the time that had been arranged it was too late to get on. We camped at our point of entry. I should mention that we were at a high elevation (I think around 7,000 ft), there was still snow on the ground and we got more that night! Pretty damn cold!

Day Two: This time we really got going. I was feeling very relaxed and was leading as the kayakers had to scout the low bridges for raft clearance. The water was fast flowing and the speed increased as streams flowed in on either side. The creek quickly started to widen. We started switching lead as the water became pushier and we spotted nasty strainers that the high water had left. Two of the group had scouted by plane the day before we got on so we knew that there was a route through everything. This was mainly done for the benefit of the rafts and we were left to work it out ourselves.

One of the rafters started to feel very uncomfortable about his skill level on such technical water so we had a stop and discussed what options there were. One of the kayakers took his oars (even though he hadn't oared for five years). And then we were six. I think that I was third in line as we went through a substantial rapid and I rolled at the bottom of it.

I came up quickly and looked round. To my dismay I saw that the clear channel was far river right and the water had pushed me to the middle. I made a couple of digger strokes but could see quite clearly that it just wasn't happening. I checked my options in a split second, only to see I had none. The left channel had a killer tree across it and the strainer mass of logs and branches loomed closer. Right at the front of the obstacle was one big log horizontal to the river that looked fairly solid. I deliberately paddled to it and sidled up so that I could get my right arm across and hold on. I pushed my paddle up out of the way and tried to find a good hand hold. Slight panic as the rotting wood crumbled! Suddenly this was looking a less than attractive position. I dug a hand hold out and held on. The kayakers had passed me but I knew that the rafts would be coming any minute.

About three minutes later the first raft appeared and whoosh, right past me down the right channel. Ok, here comes the next one.....whoosh, cruised past me. So, I started losing my cool and hollered a loud HELP at the next one to pass. Some reassurance came with Michele blowing her whistle as they passed. Still, I wasn't feeling too comfortable and the water kept surging, trying to push me down the left side of the log. A couple of minutes later bodies started appearing on either bank. The throw lines were out, the smiles definitely were not.

After much debate from the sides, Kevin managed to swim/pull himself across on a rope to the island, grab a tree and walk up it to me. He must have been so pumped because he pulled me clean out of the water; boat and all! I was extremely relieved. He put me back in the water and then I got out around the next bend. We all decided that we should have a rest - I think it was almost as hairy for the onlookers as it was for me. After a quick lunch we got going again with the rafts in front of us. This was the worst decision that I have made kayaking for a long time. I should never have got straight back in. The next section was plain dangerous. Big, fast water, plenty of obstacles and a few pour-overs. I started to freeze up and asked the rest of the group to keep an eye out for me. I can honestly say that for an hour I was in sheer terror. The paddling group was really good and helped me but I was so happy to see our get out!

Good job it was my cook group that night because it kept my mind occupied. Nevertheless I was totally exhausted and seriously considering flying out the next day. I didn't, but it took me a few days to start feeling ok and I was a bit off balance for the rest of the trip. I did try oaring for a couple of days and that was a lot of fun. Unfortunately I cut myself and ended up with six stitches in my hand so I couldn't even oar any more! I was just a basket case!!

The rest of the trip was pretty eventful too. We had a couple of good raft flips - they are a sod to get to the side and turned over. But we didn't lose any gear! There were a few swims too as people got knocked over the side with the giant waves. We took every day as it came. You are supposed to go to a previously chosen camp site so that no more than one group is at a site at a time but we didn't make one of them. The hot springs were good and the group developed a great rapport. Some fun was had with Ralfie the rat who fell in to a bucket and ended up on a seat with peanuts stuffed in his mouth. Tom then thought the rat needed some after life excitement and tied him on to the end of his cat raft. It left one kayaker from another group quite startled as Ralfie swung violently in front of his face!

The main Salmon had gigantic wave trains and surfed a couple of rafts back down in to the troughs. We watched the kayakers getting tossed around; it looked fabulous. A jet boat didn't have so much luck and we spotted pieces of it floating down the river. We heard that the passengers made it out, but their dog didn't.

All in all still a fun trip. We ate like kings, saw a little wildlife (a couple of rattlers made going to the bog in the bushes quite entertaining) and everyone came back with a story to tell. I'm glad that it isn't someone else telling my story. Riley told me that he thought the next wave he would see me on was the Forever Wave. Thank goodness I was with such a good team. The section was not above my skill level; I was unfortunate. It goes to show that bad situations can happen, regardless how good the paddler or how easy the water. It was the worst position I've been in; I've never actually known that there were no options left before.

Don't let me put you off. If any of you ever get the chance to do this trip, do not hesitate, but make sure you're with a group you know and trust - you're really 'out there' and the nearest hospital is a good air ride away!!