All my life I heard lore of the Middle Fork of the Salmon. People talk about the Middle Fork like they talk about birthdays, if birthdays came less often and lasted a whole week…oh, and also if a single birthday had the capacity to radically change you as a person. Boaters talk about the Middle Fork in almost religious terms, as if a trip down the Middle Fork is a trip toward enlightenment; a hajj.
Like any good pilgrimage, it’s difficult to accomplish. I apply for a private permit every year. In 2021, there were 22,389 applicants for only 220 available private permits. With a 0.983% chance of success, I also make my friends – boaters and not – apply. And still, in the 18 years I’ve been paddling whitewater in Idaho, I had never set eyes on her enigmatic waters. I had to assuage my repeated rejection with the wonder: is the Middle Fork of the Salmon really that different? Could it really be that special? My wariness of the hype was obviously greased by my inability to procure one of the elusive private permits.
I’ve seen a lot of rivers, though. I’ve been down the Grand Canyon three times. I guide on the Main Salmon which bisects the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. I’ve seen the elusory and fleeting Owyhee, the technical Tuolumne, the playful South Fork of the American. All are indescribable in their beauty with a high factor of fun, so I tried to convince myself it was okay everytime someone said with indignation, “You’ve never been down the Middle Fork?!”
Well, in the final week of June 2022, after 18 years and countless stories heard, I finally saw it. And guess what, the hype was real: the Middle Fork of the Salmon river is different. The top 25 miles has a gradient of 40 feet per mile, while the section below Indian Creek averages 23 fpm. This insanely steep gradient creates over 100 rapids in just 100 miles compared to the Grand Canyon’s 80 rapids in 277 miles. The Middle Fork is non-stop action. I don’t think I saw a single piece of flatwater in six days (the Grand Canyon is 97% flatwater). The level of whitewater action is utterly unparalleled. I could not stop smiling or whooping as I dropped into rapid after rapid after rapid after rapid.
The human history in the corridor is also robust, with plentiful pictographs and pithouse depressions from the Bannock Tuka-Deka, the Bighorn Sheepeaters. At Indian Creek, Diana Yupe, the Forest Service Native American Interpreter told our group a creation story, and spoke about the cultural significance of the landscape. Homesteaders, hermits, and trappers, too, used the area. Some sidecreeks are runnable and the hikes offer phenomenal views. Oh, and did I mention the hot springs?
Yes, the Middle Fork is unlike any other stretch of river…in some ways. But in others, it is just like any and every other stretch of river. It warped time, kindly forcing me to lose track of time and sink into the moment. It got my heart pumping as I stared down green tongues and towering haystacks. It made me giggle with staccato gasps of disbelief and joy as I looked back up stream at what we just paddled through. It settled my heartrate to a slow, steady, serene rhythm as I wound down from the action packed days with my toes in the eddy and a cold drink in my hand. It lifted my spirits and increased my confidence; it filled me with awe, and planted a seed for future adventures.
I have loved all the rivers I’ve had the privilege of floating, but I think the lore had it right: that place is something else. It’s everything a river trip should be and then some. I do feel changed. And even though my odds aren’t great, I am single-minded about getting back to the Middle. I must.
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Photos: Rob Aseltine