Selway the Hard Way
An alpine traverse unlocks access to America’s exclusive wilderness run
Photos by Jim Harris
Story by Tom Diegel
A private river trip on central Idaho’s mighty Selway has long been known as one of North America’s best, and most exclusive, ventures. Difficult access creates much of that challenging allure, as the Selway’s remote location compounds the scarcity of its private permits: The Forest Service issues only 62 to the lucky few of the thousands who apply in the annual lottery.
Weather also puts a huge premium on those permits as snow typically blocks access to the put-in prior to the controlled permit season from May 15-July 31. Even in that window, some of those fortunate paddlers invariably cancel their trips if the flow spikes to carnage-guaranteed levels. Then the permit season ends and the flows go with it, typically dropping past the point where loaded rafts can scrape their ways down.
Smaller hardshell and inflatable kayaks, however, have an easier time in the lower flows, and a few of these more minimal parties are a common August sight after the permit season ends. Most take the common-sense route in to the Paradise launch site driving on suitable logging roads.
But why do things the easy way? The advent of packrafts had photographer Jim Harris thinking about access differently. And when an abnormally large snowpack provided navigable flows well past the end of this summer’s permit system, Harris got creative, forgoing roads with a 30-mile overland approach to float the Selway the Hard Way. He recruited firefighter/pro skier Kalen Thorien, me, and my brother Paul to join him on the adventure.
The catch with Harris’s approach from the town of Darby, Montana to the appropriately named Paradise put-in on the Selway was that it crossed some of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness’s most rugged terrain, with 10,000-foot peaks soaring out of the deep valleys. Harris had gone to school in nearby Missoula, Mont., and skied and backpacked throughout the Bitterroots. Once he got a packraft and did a couple trips, he immediately saw the opportunity to tackle one in his old stomping grounds: a wilderness area that at 1.3 million acres is one of the original and more significant chunks of our country’s 9 million created by the Wilderness Act of 1964.
It all sounded great. But on the August afternoon that our crew assembled at a trailhead overlooking Darby, we felt so far from any paddle-able water. Our shuttle driver left us with a week’s worth of food and our boats on our backs—and with a skeptical look that asked, ‘Why not just drive in?’ Were we too cheap, or nuts, or stupid? Hmm, the lines between these motivations are so thin, I thought. Probably yes to all.
We immediately encountered other backpackers heading back from the Trapper Peak summit.
“Did you see the deer?” the man asked.
“Uh, sure,” I answered, already having seen plenty bounding through the woods.
“It was peeing! We got a picture of it peeing!” he beamed.
As if it weren’t enough to hike in to the Selway, the odd exchange helped us agree that the typical trail (up one valley, over a pass, and down another long valley) wasn’t enough. We needed to escape mankind and get into the meat of the beautiful alpine scenery. We decided to head straight up and run the high-terrain ridge of the Bitteroots paralleling the valleys. And so our week into the wilderness began with a 4,000-foot grind straight up Trapper Peak.
The Google Earth images indicated a pretty straightforward ridge and basin running west off Trapper Peak. What ‘The Google’ hasn’t quite perfected is showing the true sizes of the rocks in the talus fields. It was burly terrain. And though packrafts are relatively light, they still add to a typical load, slowing our progress slightly through the endless maze of giant, loose boulders all keen to twist ankles and break legs. One careful step at a time, we inched our way westward over sub-ridges, down slabs, up scree fields, over mini-cols and long sections of side-hilling, with an evening stop at a beautiful mountain lake high above the valley trail—true wilderness devoid of the telltale fire pits or shoreline degradation from other visitors, plus a few more peeing deer.
A half-day of scrambling got us to the aptly named Boulder Pass, where the generally little-used trail felt like a veritable highway despite the grass growing in it and enough deadfall to break up the monotony of plodding along a trail. In the interests of time, food, and ankle preservation, we agreed the last 20-plus miles to the river on the trail was preferable over continuing along the ridges.
After another day and a half trundling down the trail we found ourselves at Paradise, happy to sling the packs off for good. As it turned out, our hike-in wasn’t that stupid after all. Fires of the previous year combined with thunderstorms of the previous week had washed out the road to the put-in! It was moderately passable, but road crews were closing it for most daylight hours, rendering our grind in to float the Selway mandatory.
We got a taste of those thunderstorms during a long night at the put-in as the skies unleashed: Jim’s tent site in low spot of the parking area got flooded; I took refuge in the doorway of the outhouse; and Kalen got hit by a rock dislodged out of a hillside. I won’t soon forget the image of Paul abandoning his lean-to, silhouetted by lightning as he sprinted through the deluge for the other outhouse doorway!
At the least, the rain eased any tension we had putting on a river during fire season and we began bobbing merrily down the Selway, which at low flows, is fun Class III. Kalen had literally never paddled whitewater before, so that had remained a question mark. Previous packraft trips have taught me the little crafts are forgiving enough that a strong athlete who has little inherent fear, who can follow leads, pay attention and learn quickly, and who can recognize the value of “When in doubt, Give’r!” will probably be okay.
Kalen passed with flying colors; she was all of those things and more, to the point where after she greased a rapid, Paul shot me a humbled look that I immediately understood. “Here we are with all these years of running rivers,” it said. “We think we’re burly and she, the total beginner, just comes in and nails it no problem!”
As expected, we bumped the river bottom a bit on our way down to Moose Creek. There we met a handful of good ol’ boys flown into the airstrip for a fishing trip, distraught by a muddy, rain-swollen river blinding their fish and a fire keeping their horsepacker from delivering their extra beer. That meant no beer for packrafters and the fire resulting in a road closure at our intended takeout, which we found out from a local volunteer forest ranger. As we spoke, the rain kept falling—keeping our hopes up. We needed the water as Moose Creek supplies the infamous “Moose Juice” which doubles the Selway’s flow as it makes an abrupt turn west. This direction change funnels the Pacific storms and changes the terrain from intermountain ponderosa forest to a deeper, greener, Northwest feel. We needed the hope as well; the geology also changes to create bigger rapids. Double Drop, Wa Puts, Ladle, and Little Niagara are the run’s most notoriously challenging rapids, lined one after another to set up a potential carnage-fest during the spring runoff. For us, however, it was just bob and weave through fun, boulder-hoppy Class III’s with the occasional pourover.
Our last, beautiful riverside camp was appropriately at Jim’s Creek, a fitting end to Jim’s Excellent Adventure. We moseyed on down to the takeout on the final morning not knowing if the car would be there, sniffing for the smell of smoke. Sure enough, the rain had snuffed out most of the fire and our car was waiting for us at the Meadow Creek takeout—a nice, gentle end to doing the Selway the Hard Way.
–Check out more packrafting features and photo essays from C&K:
–Packrafting Wyoming’s Absaroka Range: A journey into the wildest corner of the Lower 48
–Exploring Bosnia by Packraft
–Hanging Spear: The Class V Headwaters of the Hudson