By Dunbar Hardy
The Main Salmon River in central Idaho is one of the longest undammed rivers in the lower 48 states, and perhaps the longest river within one state. The Salmon flows out of the Sawtooth Mountains south of the picturesque mountain town of Stanley, Idaho, and flows a convoluted course more than 400 miles to its confluence with the mighty Snake River, along the Washington and Idaho border.
The canyon of the Main is one of the deepest in North America, measuring more than 6,000 feet from the summits of adjacent peaks all the way to the river. This canyon was carved from 1 to 10 million years ago, which is young in geologic terms. Along its course, the river drops through rugged mountain scenery-snow-covered peaks, big smooth black granite cliffs, pine-covered crags, and open, sparsely vegetated hillsides at lower elevations.
The Main Salmon River flows through the Frank Church Wilderness Area, which is the largest roadless area in the lower 48 states. The canyon is home to bear, moose, bighorn sheep, elk, coyote, and numerous bird species-great blue heron, bald eagle, golden eagle, raven, osprey, water ouzel, sandpiper, and northern flicker. The river canyon remains pristine because past plans for dams, railroads, and roadways have proved to be impractical in this dramatic landscape. The only sign of human intrusion is some jet boat traffic from the few seasonal residents.
The history of river-running on the Main dates back more than 150 years. The first documented account of paddlers was in 1832, when trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company navigated the river in small canoes made of animal hide. Wooden scows were used on later descents in the 19th century, as trappers, hunters, and prospectors began navigating the river canyon. Gold was discovered along the river in the 1860s, which led to further exploration. During this gold rush, miners dynamited some of the rapids along the river to make navigation easier. The first inflatable raft floated down the Main in 1929, with the bulk of inflatable boat river-running occurring after World War II. River traffic increased steadily in the following decades, and the Forest Service adopted a minimum-impact camping policy and a permit system in the late 1970s. The current permit system is lottery-based, and highly competitive.
The Trip: We began at the put-in at Corn Creek, warming up and doing yoga before we started the 80-mile, seven-day journey.
The rapids of the Main Salmon are pool-drop in character, offering paddlers brief challenges with good recovery pools at the bottom. Even though the rapids are rated only Class III+ at the highest water level, good play spots and surfing provide more advanced paddlers plenty of challenge and fun along the way downstream. Notable rapids are Rainier, Salmon Falls, Big Mallard, Elkhorn, Growler, Chittam, and Vinegar Creek.
The first few miles below Corn Creek provide plenty of warm-up, with straightforward current and wide-open wave trains. There is something for everyone on this river, and it is forgiving enough to allow paddlers early in their careers to have an enjoyable first multiday paddling experience.
We paddled and drifted eight miles on the first day, and set up camp on a big sandy beach just above Rainier Rapid. Clinging to the side of the canyon, ponderosa pines towered above the camp, and warm white sand squished between our toes as we ran around chasing a Frisbee.
After breakfast, a morning class on river-running and eddy strategy was given, complete with sand diagrams. Folks were here not only to experience the beauty of this place but also to improve their paddling skills, and the Main Salmon was indeed a great classroom. The rapids of the day, Rainier, Devil’s Teeth, and Salmon Falls, filled the newer paddlers with some trepidation but offered generally straightforward routes.
The second day on the river ended in great fashion. It had been a successful day for everyone, and fatigue was beginning to set in just as Barth Hot Springs appeared on river left to soak our tired and weary paddling bones.
The next day, Big Mallard proved to be a worthy rapid, with exciting runs down the river-left side of a huge midstream pourover. At higher water, this pourover turns into a nasty hole known as the Christmas Hole, because “if you get in there, you’re not gonna get out till Christmas.” We charged through Elkhorn Rapid and then bounced our way through Growler Rapid.
As the days seemed to slide together and we made our way farther downstream, we were engaged by the surroundings. We landed at a huge sandy volleyball beach in front of Buckskin Bill’s, a folksy museum that was once the home of a true character who lived in the canyon for decades. Floating on mellower water, we passed two bears and some bighorn sheep as we approached Mackay Bar. This is the site of a landing strip and a lodge used by many fishermen and as a possible access point. Just below here, the South Fork of the Salmon River joined the Main, and our river-runner curiosity was stirred as we gazed longingly up the clear waters of the South Fork.
The river continued with good whitewater and scenery all the way to the take-out. By the end of the trip, this gang of kayakers had improved their boating skills and were pleased that the river had challenged but not scared them.
Dunbar Hardy is a freelance photographer and writer. His work can be seen at dunbarhardy.com.
MORE ON THE MAIN
How To Get There: The common put-in is north of Salmon, Idaho. Drive 22 miles to North Fork, and then drive downstream along the river for 45 miles to the Corn Creek access point. The regular take-out is the Carey Creek boat ramp, 20 miles upstream from Riggins, Idaho, on USFS Road 103.
Logistics: The Main can be run year-round, but most trips occur from April to October. Permits are required between Corn Creek and Carey Creek from June 20 to Sept. 7. Permit applications, available from the North Fork Ranger District, Salmon National Forest, PO Box 180, North Fork, ID 83466; (208) 865-2383, are accepted from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31; a lottery occurs in February.
Lodging: Take a tent.
Outfitters/Resources: Commercial raft trips: Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures, Missoula, Montana; (406) 728-7609. Canyons, Inc., McCall, Idaho; (208) 634-4303. Instructional kayak trips: Tarkio Kayak Adventures, Missoula; (406) 543-4583; teamtarkio.com. For additional information on outfitters, please refer to our Adventure Paddling Directory. For information on other wonderful destinations, visit our Adventure Paddling Directory.
While You’re There: Catch up on your reading.