The Middle Fork of the Salmon River
Fork of the Salmon River in northwest Idaho is the standard: the float that's used to compare all others. Not only does the river have plenty of whitewater character, the surrounding environment is unsurpassed. Along the Middle Fork's length, you'll find spectacular scenery, wildlife, hotsprings, and history.
Idaho has more floatable whitewater than any other state. And the Middle Fork is one of its most legendary challenges. The first adventurer to run it was probably Henry Weidner, who started in two 18 foot canoes and finished in one. A Cole Porter era team from National Geographic probed a few miles up it in 1935, during a run down the Main Salmon. The group's photos are well worth a trip to the library to see. A group of six from Utah ran the river in two wooden boats that same year.
The river received Wild and Scenic Designation in 1969 - one of the first. President Carter floated it in 1978. By 1979, 7,000 people were floating it every year.
But there is a cap. If you want to float the
Middle Salmon during the main season, June
1 - September 10, you have two options. You
can enter the permit lottery or you can sign
up with an outfitter. Good luck getting a permit
- you've got about a 1 in 20 chance. In 1996,
out of 11,764 applications, the Middle Fork
was the first choice of almost 7,300. The other
choices were the Main Salmon, the Snake in
Hells Canyon and the Selway, spectacular rivers
every one. But they do not have the reputation
of the Middle Fork, so there are far fewer
applicants seeking permits on these rivers.
If you want to try your luck, fill out your
River Lotter Application between December
1 and January 31.
Fork outfitter is your best bet. It
may cost a few more bucks, but you're guaranteed
a spot, and unless you're a very experienced
river runner, you'll have a more successful trip.
It's great to go with someone who knows the river,
will get the gear together and brew the coffee.
Besides getting you and yours down the river,
a good guide team can fill you in on the history
and ecology of the surroundings. The name of
that wildflower. The legend rising out of the
fallen logs of a ruined cabin. The meaning of
those Indian rock drawings.
You can float the river outside of the permit
season, but if you go in May the river will be
cold, high and fierce, and the higher reaches
may be inaccessible due to snow. If you go after
the beginning of September the water will be
quite low during drought years, requiring more
technical boating skills, but still running strong
in a year with above-average snowpack.
What can you expect during a float? Well, you'll be traveling a hundred miles, encountering a hundred rapids, ranging from class I to class IV at intermediate water flows. But those rapids aren't evenly spaced like the lines on a highway.
If you head out at Boundary Creek - the most popular
put in point - you're in whitewater right away.
Then sure, you'll have some long lazy floats, where
you can pay a little more attention to the scenery
and the wildlife. But don't get complacent, because
there's a rapids up ahead, then another, then another
even wilder one, then another. Then maybe a chance
to kick back. But not for long. This is the wilderness,
remember? If you wanted to be a grease spot on
the beach, you would have booked a flight to Cancun.