River of Uncertainty: Rafting and Skiing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Slashing a turn above Marsh Creek rafting and skiing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Photo by Allie Rood

By BCA pro athlete Martin Lentz

Each summer as raft guides on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, we gaze up at the inspiring peaks of the Frank Church Wilderness and imagine how the ridges and faces would look covered in snow. Even amidst the sweltering August heat, visions of pow turns fill our minds. This April, we rallied a crew and tried to manifest our dreams of skiing and rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The plan was to run a rarely rafted upper tributary, Marsh Creek, down to the Middle Fork, then spend a couple of days on the upper section of the river, camping and skiing lines. Then we’d pack our boats and ride the melting snow we had just skied out down the lower section of the river.

Our crew was filled with competent boaters with years of experience on this river. However, no matter how much we planned, the trip was still full of uncertainty. Questions and doubts kept coming to mind as we prepared. Would there be enough water in Marsh Creek to carry our heavy boats? Would the snow line be low enough to ski our objectives? Would there be ice dams or logs across the river blocking our way? Would we be able to portage our rafts around Dagger Falls? Would the weather hold out or would we spend ten days soaking wet and miserable?

As the snow continued to fall in the rafting mecca of Stanley, ID, we rigged our boats and prepped our gear. All the while, we heard the murmurs and laughs from folks in town at our ambitious plan. We decided to rely on our ability as boaters and float the unfamiliar Marsh Creek in order to avoid trying to drag our boats and gear in 20-miles using sketchy old snowmobiles to the normal Boundary Creek put in. This was not an easy call, but ultimately, we had to trust our experience, follow our passion and push off down the river to lay those doubts to rest for ourselves.

“Will they even float?” Rigging our boats and sizing up the tiny creek while dodging traffic on Highway 21. Photo by Martin Lentz

With nervous laughs, we launched our boats from the guardrail of Highway 21 directly into a creek that was about a foot deep with banks just wide enough for our boats to squeeze through. This creek led us to Marsh Creek which would ultimately dump us into the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The first day of rafting could be best described as “full-body boating,” with one person punching the oars and the other knee deep in the river, wrestling the raft off rocks and around obstacles. By afternoon we’d made it four exhausting miles down Marsh Creek and decided to set up camp with enough daylight to ski a quick lap through a nearby burn forest.

On day two, we encountered a tree down across the river, creating a river-wide strainer. Through a coordinated team effort, we were able to cut a portion of the tree out and using a system of ropes, line our boats down through the gap in the dangerous logjam. The day ended when we reached Dagger Falls, marking the official start of the Middle Fork. Each day felt more exhausting as next as we carried all our boats and gear around the ‘un-runnable’ rapid and into the more familiar water.

What we came for: skiing lines for miles, high above the Salmon River corridor on Big Soldier Mountain. Photo by Ryan Holmes

Now that we’d successfully navigated the unfamiliarity upper sections of the river, it was time to check out some of our objectives. We set up camp, ventured through a tick-infested forest and toured up to one of our main skiing goals, Big Soldier Mountain. Our journey was rewarded with an expanse of ridges littered with sneaky spine lines, perfectly cooked springtime corn and impressive vistas of the Frank Church Wilderness. With a newfound perspective on our cherished river corridor, we pushed on down the river, hoping to make it through the challenging rapids of the upper 25-miles before the rising water levels from the influx of spring melt increased the hazard. We were forced to float past beckoning ski lines, as the snowline rose higher and higher above the river.

When we made it to camp that night at Sunflower Hot Springs 35 miles downriver, it seemed that skis would remain strapped to the boats for the remainder of the trip. Feeling an urge to ski more, I rallied the crew for one more ski mission and the early the next morning we set off to hike up nearly 2,000 vertical feet of dirt to reach one of the remaining snowcapped peaks perched high above the river. Our efforts made the snow conditions seem a little better than they were and we scored some all-time skiing on an unnamed peak high above Jackass Camp, nearly 40 miles down the Middle Fork. With contentment in our skiing legs, we were now able to enjoy the luxuries of rafting the unpopulated river in April. We donned shorts, soaked up the sunshine and smiled as we rode the high spring flows down to the takeout. Basking in the scenery and wildlife of the river, sans the typical summertime bustle of people on commercial and private trips, we experienced the Middle Fork like none of us had ever before.

Scrambling up to the snow above Jackass Camp, Mile 38 on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Photo by Martin Lentz

Gorgeous weather and advantageous water levels contributed to the success of our trip, but it would not have been possible without the experience of our team and the clear communication amongst our crew. Our team was made up of raft guides, ski patrollers and outdoor adventure athletes with each member bringing experience in swiftwater rescue, snow safety, and expedition-style trip planning. Even with all this experience, none of us had faced the uncertainty and challenges of a river trip with this kind of complexity. The various decisions that proved to be critical to accomplishing our goals were made by having open discussions with the entire crew. In addition to the trust and communication between our group, we utilized our BC Link two-way radios to maintain clear group communications on the river and in the mountains. Safety kayakers gave scouted instructions to the rafters, with photographers and videographers preparing skiers for lines and guiding them around looming cornices.

Rafting and skiing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River challenged our crew with uncertainty and required us to prepare for the worst possible scenarios. In the end, we planned for the worst and the Middle Fork gave us its best. We achieved our collective dream of skiing lines down to our rafts, and in the process discovered something new. As guides, we develop a personal relationship with the river. Each rapid, bend and rock hold a special place in our hearts. This trip offered a unique perspective of a familiar place. We experienced the river as it awoke from its winter slumber with its creeks swelling, serene from the summer crowds and blossoming wildlife.

Each trip down the river offers an opportunity to learn: about the environment, your friends and yourself. But this trip was special. We learned of a different river on the stretch that we are grateful to call our home. Overall, the trip was a team effort and I am grateful have been a member of this squad.

The crew posing before we pushed off on a Middle Fork of the Salmon River trip like none we had experienced before. Photo by Allie Rood