The Big Bushwhack

Blazing a new trail into Idaho’s storied Middle Fork Salmon

Words  » Claire Cripps // Photos » Braden Gunem

I checked the forecast for the seventh time in three days. Still no change. Two days of cold overcast, two days of snow. Some rain here and there.

“I suppose we better just give it a go,” Braden said.

We’d been scheming too long, thwarted by inclement weather too many times. We’d have to will our window of opportunity.

Braden, who spends his summer guiding rafts on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, had spent years peering up Ship Island Creek, a tributary which rises 6,000 feet above the riverbed into the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48—over 2 million acres of undivided, remote terrain that constitute the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The mysteries and possibilities up that creek were endlessly alluring. Weather be damned, we had to scratch the itch to explore the heart of this wild territory that Ship Island Creek fuels.

Thousands of people apply by lottery for a chance to float the pristine Middle Fork Salmon during the permitted season each summer from May 28-Sept. 3, with only a few hundred actually scoring a permit. By waiting until late-season, we would skirt the need for a lottery permit and, as a nice byproduct, see less humans. Bingo. Our grandiose plan was to bushwhack ourselves and our boats right through the middle of the Frank Church, and descend to the banks of the Middle Fork. From there, we’d float out through the Impassible Canyon, the aesthetic and challenging final 30 miles of the prized 104-mile section.

To get to that ultimate 30-mile finale, however, the hike in would require at least 30 miles of backcountry travel. Highly portable Kokopelli packrafts were, suitably, the boats of choice as we set off to cross the Main Salmon River, situated along the wilderness border still lined with ranch properties that constituted our last taste of civilization. Before we could access the wilderness, we had to obtain permission. Ringing a bell, a local rancher raced across the river on a private cable car looking like he’d done it a thousand times. He looked like a pioneer from a different century. He also looked skeptical when we told him our plans.

Hummpff. You’re going in there?,” he said. “You do know there’s bad weather coming, right? It’s probably some pretty rough moving in there…. Hmmmm.”

Braden and I swapped glances and nervous smiles, knowing it was time to end this conversation before we too, heaven forbid, had second thoughts.

Unblessed permission granted, we crept across the river with overloaded boats, peering up at hills that disappeared into the clouds. I noticed a speck of a structure on the far ridge and realized that was our destination. Wow! I thought, Google Earth had been so deceiving. I finally grasped what 6,000 feet of vertical gain in six miles truly looked like. With heavy packs and slightly less optimistic smiles, we left the river valley and began our jaunt up a faint horse trail into the Frank Church Wilderness.

One mile in, I felt a bit more gait-steady, as if I wouldn’t tip over with each staggering step. Two miles in, we sat and consumed rations of our three precious liters of wine we deemed necessary. At Mile Four, gusts blew us sideways. Trail-weary, we called it a day having hiked four and a half hours. Watching the sun set over the Main Salmon and munching oatmeal cream pies, we giggled—four miles in and the big bad Frank Church was already kicking our asses!

Each day brought new challenges, perhaps omens of destruction that I ignored, attributing them rather to lessons from the wilderness. Reminders to stay humble. The terrain remained consistent: incredibly steep ascents followed by equally steep descents over, and over, again and again. We reached the lake, our somewhat midpoint destination, a couple of days prior to the forecast snow. From this point on, we would face our toughest navigation, bushwhacking and route-finding our way down to the Middle Fork.

The next morning, we woke to a sky nudging us to leave. However, Ship Island Lake lured us in for a paddle instead, with absurdly sexy granite fjords dotting the northern brim, with the most charming tiny island right in the middle. Besides, we had hauled those spaceboats 20 miles in for a moment such as this. Decision. Made. Our bagel picnic breakfast was even a bit romantic in a weird, almost masochistic way as we endured blasts of wind to the face while occasionally sneaking bites of bagel. We finally motivated to ascend out of the lake basin and beyond when the first day of “winter” released itself. Clouds began shrouding the top of the saddle, 1,200 feet above us marking the pass we needed to cross. Visibility worsened exponentially into a complete whiteout. As the storm brewed further, we reevaluated options. We even considering bailing on the trip altogether, heads hung low in retreat along the heinous path we just trekked.

Often, a huge chunk of the fun in adventure lies in the act of “being dumb.” For better or for worse, we were getting to that damn River of No Return. During the period of time we had stopped to discuss our options, we glanced at the sky simultaneously. Lo and behold, there was a beaming window of overcast. Not sunny … but not snowing, either! This was our chance. We raced up to the saddle, bargaining with the clouds to just keep moving. Peering out above the lake, the forest, and the jagged granite expanse, we deemed our decision to continue into the abyss entirely worthwhile; this was perhaps the most beautiful place we’d ever seen in Idaho.

But we didn’t soak it in for too long. A new storm began building and it was past time to rally down.

Two days later, with soggy feet and tuckered-out legs, we completed our wobble down to the Middle Fork Salmon. The initial view of the flowing beauty had us both jumping up and down. Finally, we could celebrate with our last oatmeal cream pie, remove those giant packs for good, and embark on the BEST PART: the boating! We loaded our packrafts near the confluence of Big Creek, and I tried to be a little discreet inflating mine so Braden wouldn’t notice if I had any giant tears from a week of limbo-ing and snagging under down logs. The repair kit within quick reach, I was ready to complete some stealthy and secretive repairs, if need be. But, alas, they’re tougher than they first appear. Not a single slice. Phew.

We reentered the world of human encounters by paddling up to a group of other packrafting folk who we observed directly across our loading zone. It was a group of about 20, most of them floating the Middle Fork for the first time. After conversing for a quick moment, we said our goodbyes, and began our bebop through the Impassible Canyon.

We spent the day initiating conversations with the mergansers and marveling over the geological formations, brought to us by centuries and eras of wind, water, and pure power. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else in this very moment than floating down this section of river, but I always feel that way about the Middle Fork.

I considered all the fearless explorers who had encountered this place before us. I daydreamed about the Sheepeater natives, perhaps trekking through some of the same terrain we had just crossed, in a much more gallant fashion than ours, of course. I thought about preceding pioneers, constructing their own crafts to navigate these waters, sometimes being forced to disassemble and use the scraps for lumber. I imagined the old hermits who historically lived along the river and their initial descents, waters foaming and roaring along the way. Pfffftand I thought our trip was tough?

In this day and age, it is a privileged wonder that we can rely on something a simple as a back-packable personal rafts to carry us along for this memorable journey. In my wildest dreams, I’m still a rogue pioneer adventurer, making first descents into unknown territories in the spirit of the great explorers who have come before me. But at the end of the day, it’s also equally bedazzling to hop into a comfortable boat and eat an oatmeal cream pie. ­

— Read more packrafting adventures on canoekayak.com

— Watch a tribute to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. 

— Check out C&K’s high-water run through the classic Middle Fork Salmon section.