7 Self-Support Lessons … on Idaho’s South Fork Salmon

PHOTOS AND STORY BY NICK HINDS

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CONTINGENCIES: As we unload boats from vehicles the night before launching, I notice a crack in Bruce's creeker. Instead of freaking out or ripping the seat from his kayak as twilight approaches, he keeps calm and favors a different approach. (That piece of slightly heated Gorilla Tape will last through the South Fork and part of the Main Salmon, still holding fast at the takeout.)

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LETTING GO: Floating away from our cars left for the shuttle service, an overwhelming elation takes over, realizing that we’re suddenly amidst three days of central Idaho wilderness paddling! I know we are prepared as we will be. Hopefully we packed all the necessities and our group gels into a cohesive team. Because when it comes together, we can start falling into a rhythm with the boat-scouting, setting safety, and supporting each other through the rapids.

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PERSPECTIVE: As I float behind Scott Gerber on the South Fork of the Salmon River, it occurs to me: Getting older doesn't necessarily mean that I need to stop exploring whitewater. Gerber is a talented paddler who has seen our sport evolve from the daily fix-it-yourself foibles of fiberglass Lettmann Kayaks to the comfort and durability of a modern creekboat. At 65, Scott still gets on new runs, though he’s more seasoned, more selective about river levels and paddling partners.

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RUNNING SAFE: Paul sees another line — maybe one of the toughest moves on the entire river. Right as he announces it, I have immediate doubts about the water levels. But we support his decision to line up this beautiful left S-turn through the first Class V on the trip. We pull out a throwbag, plus set folks in their kayaks, ready for safety support. We’re prepped for the worst, but Paul’s perfectly timed and placed strokes guarantee his stylish passage past some enormous holes.

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LOOKING DOWNRIVER: There is an art to reading water. Each paddler takes a look, some eager to test their hypotheses while others wait to watch a few experimental lines before trying their perceived best routes through the rapid. Being respectful of your crew’s need for scouting time is always important.

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THINKING SAFE: Shannon pushes off in her Dagger Nomad and deftly avoids the hazards in a long Class IV boulder garden. I’m holding a camera and standing on a rock parallel to a larger hole. As she nears the end of the rapid it spins her. Years spent growing up in a safety-rich camp environment have taught me to always have my rope prepared — it’s at my feet, open with the rope exposed, ready to toss. There’s no need to reach; Shannon applies a few deft strokes and straightens her line before the trouble. Thinking about these troublesome spots and preparing for them still makes all the difference when help is needed.

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ENJOYING CAMP: Bradley sets up his new tent like the masterful outdoor education instructor that he is. His gear dries on an enviably strung clothesline-paddle combo. After my oogling, he admits a few days later that he failed to give the baby poison oak plants enough berth. Itchy ankles, however, are a very small price to pay for an unforgettable wilderness experience.

— Check out more tips on self-supporting from your kayak.

— Read more in our Voices of Wilderness series.