Middle Fork Rising

This is the continued story from pg. 10 in the August 2010 Canoe & Kayak, now available on newsstands.

It’s funny how you don’t mind the rain when you’re on the river. Bundled in your cold-water kit, you’re already getting soaked, so you might as well pray for it to pour. Preparing to paddle 100 miles down the Middle Fork Salmon in a tiny playboat, I welcome any extra volume the downpour adds. And then it rains 96 hours straight. Day and night. Flooded kitchens and the eerie tock, tock, tock of deep, tumbling rocks remind us each morning that the beast is still rising.

By Day Four, with the Impassable Canyon still looming ahead, the sun finally pokes through as the river hits its annual peak, measured at 8.6 feet (upriver, at some 16,000 cfs). Swollen creeks gush into the river at every bend. The eddies swirl with wood, and limbless ponderosas clog the thundering current of endless wave trains. We’re 26 miles above our takeout rendezvous, with a stranded sweep boat that needs to get off the river before it rises any higher. Sorry, no rain checks today.

The eddy where our nine kayaks, four rafts, one cataraft and one massive sweep boat were parked last night is now a mess of tangled logs. Our minds are swirling too as we suit up and gather to discuss how best to run this final section. The river hazards are only amplified by the logjam conveyor belt before us and our setting in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, what our outfitter, Middle Fork River Expeditions calls,” “the largest, most remote, roadless and unspoiled Wilderness Area in the U.S.”

The reality of the situation sinks in as we discuss the game plan, always with an eye to the river, where every 10 to 15 feet another old-growth column sharks its way by. The collective coffee buzz takes a solemn turn as we talk about buddying up in our kayak pod to look out for one another. I can’t imagine what’s going through Scott “Jerni” Jernigan’s head, the veteran guide tasked with dealing with Fiona.

At 22 feet long, with 38-inch tubes, and weighing in at well over 3,000 pounds fully loaded with all our overnight gear, Fiona is no joke. This rubber monster the guides say was built in the ’50s has been covered in decades of paint, now coated in a silver glean that gives it the look of a Civil War-era ironclad, though it drives more like a tank. Just with no acceleration. Or brakes. All the sweep boat has is a pair of heavy, counter-weighted aluminum arms with fir planks attached at the ends, one at the bow and one at the stern. The continuous gradient of the Middle Fork makes it one of a very tiny handful of rivers in the world where it makes sense to haul gear in a craft at the mercy of the current. All Jerni has is the power of inertia.

With a cool head though, the soft-spoken guide has been “keeping up the mo'” to blast through holes, stay in the swiftwater and catch every final eddy to close the day and set camp. This is different though. Sweeps rarely, if ever, tackle the higher-end, Class III-IV rapids of the Middle Fork at 5 feet or higher. The river has more than doubled in size since we put on three days ago, but Jerni is feeling it. Fortunately, he also has a little help in Erik Boomer, who opts out of his playboat to hop aboard Fiona and back Jerni up should he need help heaving the sweeps for mandatory lateral moves.

That’s great news for Jerni. But it’s a little less reassuring for our kayak pod, also ready to have Boomer-easily the world’s number one mullet-ed expedition kayaker-back us up. The anxious nerves ripple through the group and our number shrinks to a mere fivesome. The rafts put on the river first with a few extra kayaks strapped on along with their former paddlers. I at least welcome the switch from a small-volume playboat to a slightly larger Pyranha Z.One up for grabs.

“Welcome to Idaho high-water boating,” Boomer offers up with a smile. “Just take it down the middle, maybe just right of center.”

Middle Fork Rising Photo Gallery

We put on ahead of Fiona. Hitting the current jerks the boat, and the entire scene into contrast with the acceleration. The sun, the scenery, any personal bowel issues from the prime rib feast the night before, everything but the river fades away. It demands total presence, 360-degree awareness not only on every stroke as the boats ahead disappear beyond the next wave, but also on the constant lookout for logs. Everyone’s heads are on swivels, yelling, throwing hand signals, anything to give each other a heads-up on the nearest wood. I yell to Nick how this feels like a dream as each stroke hits a chocolate-milk stew of sticks and waves of wood. I start putting my head down as I crash through waves more stick than water and realize how quick this could turn into a nightmare, pulling sticks off my deck, getting stern-squirted in the whirlpools forming on the eddylines, cautiously eyeing the huge five-alarm logs ferrying over and getting caught in waves, the flooded shoreline devoid of eddies. No stretch-and-pee breaks today.

Waterfall Creek pummels down a cascade on river-right that I can’t see the top of, I can’t even soak in the sights, the snow-striped ends of the upper horizon. We round a corner and I take Boomer’s advice and head for the inside of the main current to avoid a hole that could easily swallow Fiona. We pass a camp in the canyon that looks us at us like we’re ghosts-these guys must be crazy-and after a few exchanged shouts, we gather that they’re holed up for (at least) the day to wait for the water to drop. I steal a glace back upriver to see the even crazier sight of Jerni and Boomer on Fiona, heaving through every RV-sized wave, and I think, how the hell did I end up in this chaos?

Four days prior I’m rolling solo to a slow day at the Boise Airport.

The Canoe & Kayak Ford Funhog is long gone. Our magazine’s token late-model, four-door Sport Trac utility vehicle emblazoned with a slick sunglassed kayaker is already long on its way to our staging destination in Stanley, Idaho. Fortunately, Erik Boomer is back in Boise and willing to pick me up.

If you don’t know who Erik Boomer is, pick up The Idaho Paddler guidebook, he’s pictured on every other page on some remote waterfall. I catch Boomer, 25, between a trip to Quebec highlighted by an insanely hairball, expertly documented descent of the Chutes de Magnan (see the run here) and an insanely hairball, expertly documented run down historic high flows on the North Fork Payette. He flew in from Quebec, went to Hood River, crashed at 4 in the morning, woke up and drove to Boise. At least that gap in off-water time has given his paddling kit time to dry for the first time this summer. We stop in Horseshoe Bend to put oil in his ’91 Honda station wagon. The back bumper is held on by duct tape. He goes into the gas station to down a corndog and I notice his mullet. Cracked flip-phone, holes in socks, sponsor T-shirt. The size of Boomer’s on-river exploits around the globe, from the Stikine to the Himalayas, is matched only by his level of humility. There’s a reason he’s willing to take a break from the cutting edge and travel back for a spot on a Middle Fork permit, though he’s guided it for years and probably seen it 50 times. It’s something in the wilderness unknowns that’s pulled us all away.

The rest of the trip is a mix of professionals from the paddlesports industry from B.C. to Alabama, Ottawa to Washington, the only thing in common that we all work too hard indoors and all complain about not being out on rivers enough. We’re still getting acquainted with each other and MFRE owner James Ellsworth along with Scott, Dusty and Jerni, our trio of guides waiting at the Boundary Creek put-in, when the rain begins.

We shove Fiona off and put on the river at the solid flow of 4 feet, 3 inches. A few miles in, we’re to Velvet, our first significant rapid worthy of a scout. Only Stig opts to run the meat of the river-wide hole. I start soaking in the moody, misty, dark-green, steep-to-snow-capped environs and start turning green a bit too. I’m trying out a Big Dog Kaos, a crisp and worthy, well-outfitted playboat with performance chops from a relatively new UK company. It’s just that I’m scrunched in the medium version, about 25 pounds and a couple foot sizes above the recommended paddler fit. The cockpit is level with the waterline as I’m slowly in the process of filling with water, happily leaning back and squirting through the continuous playwaves.

Our camps for the next two nights are just the same: constantly filling with water. Our kitchen at Big Snag is flooded in the morning. Our runs through the tumultuous lateral mess at Pistol Creek are anything but clean. But no raft flips or serious carnage, aside from some bruised egos, keeps us cruising. I begin to appreciate James’ observation about how the Middle Fork on the rise “just has a different, more aggressive character,” after our pushy run through Pungo Canyon. I’m not even thinking, just absorbed, holding on for the rising ride and reacting-and finally arriving at our camp halfway through the run on Night Two.

That’s when it sets in-listening to that sound of rocks tumbling as the day darkens and the river grows, as the smoke turns blue and the guitars, Clamato concoctions and “jug o stupid” make their way around the fire. I finally forget about time and tune back in. Jerni talks about the canyon, about how a day-trip is one thing, but how a week out really does it-stops you from thinking about wrapping the trip up, what you have to get done upon reentry and how it plugs you in to seeing how little you really need.

It only takes me two days to slip back to river time. Feeling sore for good reason, enjoying my reek of hot-spring sulphur stacked on wet, sweaty synthetics. Surfing a wave, sticking a rapid. Half way. And not knowing what lies around the next, unknown jagged bend. Not knowing anything about when the river will stop rising and that epic potential for a nonstop, gut-checking 26-mile, two-hour run to the finish that none of us will ever forget.

Check out Boomer’s photos from the high-water Middle Fork Salmon trip HERE.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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