Winter Whitewater: Part I

You Can’t Plan for Everything

Last week, I wrote about using the distraction of adventure to cultivate a happy state of mind. In this article, I share a whitewater example of me practicing what I preach.

In June 2020, I occupied a 400 square foot cabin in Challis, Idaho. It was good accommodation; the right size in the right place for the right price… not a home, but somewhere to stay. I was waiting for COVID travel restrictions to lift so I could fly to Poland and begin the next chapter of my life.

I had no idea how long I’d be waiting. Europe closed its borders to Americans and there was no criteria, much less a timeline for reopening. For the first few months, I stayed busy with my book on the Middle Fork’s Anderson family. By June, I was getting stir-crazy.

Something to Do

Yes, I was planning an adventure… to Poland to begin a new life. And that should be enough to satisfy anyone. As the weeks turned into months of waiting, however, I needed some positive energy. I needed something to do while waiting for the borders to open. (See how this fits with last Friday’s article?)

The year before, a guy I didn’t know invited me on a private permit whitewater trip down the Middle Fork in November. Most people hire outfitters to take them on the water through the wilderness, but Todd Nelson and his friends had the knowledge, experience, and gear. I hiked in to join them and it was an eye-opening experience.

River Hippies and Mountain Men adventure

Backpackers, by definition, carry their camp, food, and clothing everywhere they go. I learned to keep long-distance pack weight around fifty pounds and most of that weight was fixed. There was little room for luxury.

I spent years exploring the Frank Church Wilderness on foot but had never been on the whitewater. We travelled on the Middle Fork for 50 miles in ten days, at least half those days in relatively luxurious camps. The river guys showed me a new way of roughing it.

Todd (left) & the Bristols on the Middle Fork

I was amazed at the difference in style. They had coolers of food; fresh eggs and bacon for breakfast, venison and sausages and other dinner meats, and homemade meals in freezer bags. Large tents with propane heaters, lawn chairs, grills and propane stoves… not to mention refreshments. It was hard-man glamour camping in the wilderness and I loved every minute of it.

The whitewater adventure was worth doing again, so I called to ask for another ride. Todd confirmed they were planning a repeat in 2020. When he made it happen, I felt reenergized: I had an adventure to keep me motivated while I waited for COVID to pass.

Whitewater in November

The Middle Fork of the Main Salmon is a designated Wild & Scenic River, which is our nation’s strongest form of protection for free-flowing rivers and streams. It cuts through 100 miles of alpine forest, high desert, and impassable canyons on its way through the Frank Church Wilderness (which locals call ‘The Frank’). Late in the year when the water is low, only the lower half can be safely navigated. Most people hire whitewater outfitters; Todd and I would crew a boat and join the Bristols again for our trip. We would fly in mid-November…. long after the official river-running season ended.

Landing at Loon Creek on the Middle Fork in November
Landing at Lower Loon in November

When I’m evangelizing the benefits of adventure, I often say “anyone can do this”, but it’s not true about this river thing. Anyone can hike, but it takes great skill to pilot a 14’ foot raft through the Class III and IV rapids on the Middle Fork. I saw only a half-dozen boats downriver of the last airstrip on our ten-day trip the previous year. It takes more than good gear and skill; you’ll need plenty of ‘savvy and salt’ for a late season trip on the river through The Frank.

Every fall, a few dozen hunting parties fly into Loon Creek or Bernard Ranger Station along the river, set up wall tents, and hunt within walking distance. And there are other hunters camped on those flats; 6-8 groups at a time. It’s a genuine backcountry experience, but they’re near an airstrip and have radios. Remote, but not isolated.

Those who hunt as they run whitewater down the river are on their own once they pass the last airstrip at the Flying B Ranch. And even if you have to ditch your rafts past that point, you can still hike out until you pass the confluence with Big Creek. From there, the last twenty miles of the Middle Fork runs through the Impassable Canyon, so named because the only way out is via the river. Very few people pass through the canyon without the services of professional guides and most of those go in the summer.

Gearing up for whitewater adventure on the Middle Fork
Gearing Up for Adventure

Todd and Chad were professional guides. Not full-time anymore; they were grown and mostly settled, but mindful to make time for adventure. They moved to Idaho from Wisconsin to pursue adventure when they were young. Taking wild work where they could find it, they learned to pack stock, guide hunters, and pilot rafts on Idaho’s whitewater. They knew all about adventure and passed it on to their kids. Chad brought his son Tristin on both trips, and Tristin brought a friend. Everyone on the 2020 trip was experienced and enthusiastic.

Weather; Like It Or Not

The weather was unsettling, unfortunately. Our charter pilot took us in a day early to beat an oncoming front. The forecast was heavy and hard, and we joked anxiously about it the morning of our departure.

After unloading the plane and assembling the rafts, we floated only a few miles before setting up a camp near Hospital Bar. Chad and the young men hiked up the ridge to the north. They planned to hunt that area two days, so Todd and I would stay at main camp while they spiked out.

The second morning at Hospital Bar, I woke to eight inches of snow. Todd was up early clearing the boats. The weather front had arrived dramatically.

winter whitewater
Big Weather on the Middle Fork

After picking up the Bristol crew and packing camp, we headed downriver. The sky cleared and it got colder when the cloud blanket lifted. A day later, while the hunters were out, the weather came back in. I slept in a -20 degree sleeping bag with two ground pads and it was cold when I woke up. It was dark, too, which felt bad; the heaviness of the second wave was on me before I got out of bed.

Snow was blowing sideways as Todd tended to a fire. It was futile; even when it burned, the heat died a foot from the flames. We made coffee with Irish cream and sat quietly in the storm together. Outdoorsmen like the feel of nature on the face but, even smiling and courageous, we couldn’t overcome the vibe.

“Did you look at the boats?” he asked.

Conditions Bad & Getting Worse

There was ice in the water. Halos formed around the rocks on the river’s edge; moving water was freezing. At first fascinated, I felt suddenly anxious. Looking further out into the river, I could see the whole body of water slushing up.

(Continues with Part II on Friday, January 13th)

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  1. Damn brother, I can feel that cold again. I think you are exaggerating when you said the heat, from the fire, made it a foot! I still feel bad for New Guy, Cheese, Jockey and the other guy whose tents had collapsed in the first storm…..

  2. It’s getting cold just reading this story.It seems that Mother Nature was testing your endurance limit.

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