When the snows finally melt in the high passes of the Rocky Mountains, a labyrinth of old forestry and mining roads beckon us with seasonal access to the region’s legendary Salmon River. Depending on winter snow pack depths, running whitewater on these rivers can be enjoyable, exhilarating, or downright terrifying.
Heading down an old mining road.
The roaring South Fork of the Salmon River cuts a distinctive path through central Idaho as it flows through one of greatest wilderness regions in the Lower 48. Occupying 2.4 million acres, the Frank Church Wilderness is the second largest protected wilderness in the contiguous United States, after Death Valley.
Because of its size, the wilderness area provides a secluded habitat for a wide variety of wildlife including mountain lions, wolves, bears, lynx, big horn sheep, mountain goats, elk and moose. The terrain also offers some of the most critical habitat for wolverines in the lower 48. Every visit to this region is marked with adventure, big animal sightings, rugged beauty, and a humbling sense of our place in Mother Nature.
The constant theme embedded in the DNA of the Royal Robbins brand is that of functionality. Self-supported kayaking on remote Class 5 whitewater runs demands critical attention to detail. All of my gear needs to be light, functional, and bombproof. Efficiency and functionality are key to the success of any adventure of consequence.
Unlike the world renowned rafting runs down the Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers, the South Fork is deemed too difficult and dangerous for commercial activity and thus remains permit-free, wild and pristine.
My friend Jed Weingarten and I have spent the vast majority of our lives pioneering first descents and new adventure travel routes around the world. No matter how many times we run a river like the South Fork of the Salmon, we are always left with a sense of awe and deep gratitude to those who possessed the insight, courage and determination to officially protect wilderness areas such as “The Frank” – not only for those of us who seek to always dance with Mother Nature, but for Mother Nature herself.
Jed takes the plunge into the final drop in Fall Creek – the last rapid on the South Fork of the Salmon. Weighing the pros and cons of photographing the moment versus safety, I asked Jed if he was comfortable running this rapid solo. There is always a heightened sense of awareness when you’re out in the maelstrom on your own.
At the end of a day of challenging white water, no meal in the history of culinary delights will ever compare to a “Moffatt burrito” served Frank Church Wilderness-style.
The end of an adventure, with another soon to begin.
The South Fork collides with the main Salmon at Mackey Bar. From the confluence, it’s another 22 miles to where the road meets the river at the Vinegar Creek take-out. There was a time in my youth (not all that long ago) when 22 miles of flat water would seem like a boring waste of time. Not anymore. Its been 40 years since I first sat in a kayak and during that time I’ve paddled many of the world’s top end runs – including a number of difficult first descents in the Himalayas. Today, with a slightly more mature lens, the flat-water paddle out provides nothing short of a profound sense of well-being and satisfaction as I watch the walls of the great canyon peacefully pass by. My only regret is that I’m not still sitting at the top of the run…that said, I know now that one adventure ends, another is about to begin.