Rich Girls and The Little Boats That Could
The following is a guest post by Erin Johnson.
In 2013 my friend Laura bought my dad’s old packraft and we went for a few after work floats down Glacier Creek and Eagle River, short fun class II rivers. Not long after that, she moved down to Seattle and for a few years we had been trying to come up with a fun trip to go on in late fall. After a lot of internet sleuthing, I found a trip where we could drive from Laura’s house, use that old packraft, and enjoy some sunshine in October! Thanks to the inspiration of a few videos (Forrest McCarthy’s River of Return & Chad Stoesz Salmon River Packrafting Loop) we found a trip that would be warm, fun and we could use packrafts!
We invited another lady friend, Aliza, who I have been on numerous packrafting trips with and was stoked to join. The day before we left, Aliza acquired all of the appropriate permits for our trip (we went through three ranger districts and rafted three rivers). On Friday, September 30th, I came up with meals and sent Laura a shopping list and later that day Aliza and I caught a plane down to Seattle. Apparently our excitement was so obvious that the flight attendant gave us an extra Crown Royal bottle each in celebration of the beginning of our vacation (we announced this several times). We arrived at the airport in the evening, Laura picked us up and we went right to work packing in her garage, and putting meals together until 2 am.
Woke up early enough to miss traffic and started on our 12 hour drive. We had a few stops to make on the way, including finishing up our grocery shopping and picking up some gas canisters for our stoves. We stopped in Missoula and grabbed all the items we needed, including some burritos and zoomed off toward Idaho. We pulled into the campground at Corn Creek in the dark to find we had the campground to ourselves. After a quick dinner, we headed to bed.
Sunday morning came around faster than expected. We tossed everything in the car in an unorderly fashion and headed to the ranger station to get our permit. The lady there was really great, she gave us a guidebook to the Main Salmon and made sure we had all of the required gear to camp in the Wild and Scenic Corridor and went out of her way to show us how to identify poison ivy. Considering we had two botanists on our team, it was pretty silly neither of us knew what poison ivy looked like. Once we got our permit we headed back up the road to put in at Cache Creek. We figured we might as well do most of the rafting next to the road at the beginning of our trip, and if there were any big issues, they would be easier to deal with next to the road.
It took us a significant amount of time to dole out the gear, make sure it would all fit in our backpacks and then re-pack it up into our packrafts. I started out the trip with a bang by using a freshette, or “she-wee” and forgetting to zip up. It was really warm out and I wanted to cool off so I jumped in and fully submerged myself, soaking the inside of my drysuit. Little did I know this would be a theme of the trip for me (this happened nearly everyday we packrafted). Once I drained some of the water out of my dry suit, we got in the boats and headed downstream around 12:15pm. The float started off with a nice class II rapid that quickly reminded me that I nearly no experience in voluminous rivers! The next rapid was a II+ to III- called Kitchen Sink (that we decided not to scout). Aliza and I went down it first and Laura followed suit, but accidentally plopped herself right into a hole. Near the beginning of the rapid Laura flipped and had to swim. Thankfully, the Main Salmon has fairly short rapids and nice pools to collect gear. I grabbed Lauras raft and paddle and Aliza gave Laura a nice island to rest on. We flipped the boat over and Laura was a champ about just getting back in and paddling on, though we all decided that all rapids that were over II+ would probably be worth scouting.
We continued down to Lanz Bar and we pulled off to collect some fresh fruit. Little did we know this would only be the beginning of our ‘river bounty’! It seemed like there were hundreds of apple trees of all sorts of varieties scattered all around this field surrounding Frank Lanz’s homestead, built in 1925. There is a lot of history on this river and many interesting stories. One of the stories that I came back to many times on our trip was about a forest Service Employee who accidentally burned the cabin (Frank Lantz’s homestead) down while heating up water. Harold Anderson, the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor, sent lumber and Forest Service employees to rebuild the cabin. Local fishing outfitters used their jet boats to get the Forest Service employees and lumber down the river. It is a neat story of a community coming together and helping each other out. We were reminded of how generous and helpful the community on this river are nearly every day, whether it was from great beta, friendly conversation, sharing a campsite or beer and gifting food. We ate a bunch of fresh apples and collected a few for the days ahead, while trying to miss the mine fields of bear scat from all of the apples.
As the sun started to dip fairly low we found a nice campsite on a sand bar and put up camp, only to find that during Lauras swim, all of her gear got wet. Thankfully, Idaho has very low humidity and there was a slight breeze. All of her things eventually dried out during the night and we stuffed her wet phone in a bag of cous cous, which dried it out over the rest of our trip. We ended the night with some beers, cous cous and pesto, which ended up being a bit of a gut bomb.
Woke up to patchy skies and intermittent spitting rain. We had a lovely breakfast of what we called “Trop Bre,” which was pearled cous cous, dried coconut milk, coconut flakes, coconut oil, dried fruit, nuts and some brown sugar. It ended up being pretty delicious and I think it may be a staple for winter camping trips in the future. The day started out with a few small rapids and a lot of stagnant water, and some paddling against the wind. We finally made it to our first III+ rapid, Black Creek Rapids. We pulled out and walked over to scout it. We were fairly silent for a second, it looked fairly frothy and the main channel looked as though it would push you up and over a rock, into a fairly large sized hole and the standing waves at the bottom looked like they would rock us. We stared at it for a little while and then looked across the river. There was a steep tongue that seemed fairly packraft friendly. Aliza volunteered to go down it first, the tongue was much steeper than anticipated and the water was bigger than we thought. Laura and I saw her enter the rapid and then her boat fly up in the air. She was fine and quickly recovered her own gear while swimming to shore. Aliza walked back up river to let us know that that was not the route of choice. Laura and I decided to try the main channel. We shot down it and it definitely felt as though we were going to get pushed right over the rock, but at the last minute we were pulled just right of the it and through the big standing waves.
We learned a very valuable lesson after that. Running with the main channel, in the biggest waves, when in bigger water and rivers is the way to go. And we learned that scouting lines on the other side of a really wide river is very different than a smaller creek where you have a much closer vantage point. It turns out all of us have only really rafted on small creeks, so the larger river was a fun learning experience (this coming from the person who didn’t swim). The upside of Aliza’s swim is that she got to warm up in the hot springs just after Black Rock Rapids. Post soak we decided all water trips are required to have hot springs.
The rest of the day was a lot of flat water and a few really fun rapids. Towards the end of the day, we came around a corner and saw a couple camped on the beach with their two dogs. They ran down to their boat and started waving beers in the air; it was a pretty welcome sight as we had decided to bring limited booze. After talking to them for a little bit and pounding an adult beverage, we headed down river a little further to camp. We stopped at a camp spot, and glutinously decided that it was not good enough, so we headed down river a little further to Allison Ranch, which was supposed to be a bigger campsite. Unfortunately someone was already there and it was starting to get pretty late. If we were going to camp downstream we would have to raft through three more rapids. Thankfully, one of the people, Mike, came down and invited us to join their camp. After about 30 seconds of talking it over amongst ourselves we decided to join them. We found a spot to set up the tent that was out of their space and made spaghetti for dinner. Laura couldn’t find her spoon that evening and proceeded to whittle some sticks to make chopsticks. Laura is a chopstick pro; she ate cous cous, noodles, potatoes and soup with her chopsticks! We tried to dry out our gear under trees (as it was raining). I forgot again later that day to zip my zipper after relieving myself, only to soak myself later in the day, this lead to a nearly daily singing of “oops, I did it again,” I guess I am just a slow learner.
It rained all night, and we woke up to a light sprinkle. We downed some coffee and packed up. Mike and Lynn, the folks that invited us to stay at their campsite were packing up their raft as well. We chatted for a while about packrafts, the history of homesteaders along the river and the rapids to come. They had spent a lot of time on the Salmon River and we were really appreciative of all the beta they gave us. It was also very nice to hear that they thought Black Rock Rapids was probably the hardest thing we would be experiencing on the trip, even though there were rapids that were rated higher to come. We ended up floating with them most of the day, scouting and running Elkhorn and Mallard Rapids together.
Learning from Black Rock Rapid, we faced the intimidating large waves, ran the main channels and had a blast! It was pretty cute seeing the two of them (Mike and Lynn) in the raft with the four dogs they had adopted over the years. One would sit on the bow of the boat, with another right behind it. Lynn would be sitting on a cooler with each of the pitbulls on either side of her. The cuteness was only compounded by the fact all the dogs were wearing PFDs! They had a nice system of pulling off to scout the larger rapids and having Lynn + dogs walk around them while Mike would run the rapid and pick them up at the bottom. That is a great thing about this river, all the rapids we ran were scoutable and portageable. We all stopped at Reho Wolfe’s homestead, picked some apples and wandered around. Mike, Lynn and puppies were going to camp near the homestead, so we said our goodbyes and headed down stream. Mike and Lynn gave us the inspiration for our team name, “The Rich Ladies.” The forest service permits ask what type of watercraft your group is using. Since packraft isn’t an option, we thought that inflatable kayak was the closest selection (we had no idea what an inflatable kayak was). Apparently an inflatable kayak is not at all similar to a packraft, so the permit ranger thought that we were paddling to Mackay Bar and then flying to the Middle Fork. When Mike and Lynn got their permit from the ranger station, they had been told we were the only other group heading out that day and assumed that we were a group of rich ladies. We thought this story was hilarious and talked about it probably 3 times a day. We cheered for The Rich Ladies at the end of every hard rapid.
A few rapids later, we pulled up to five mile bar, a homestead with a museum and a small shop. After ringing a bell and cautiously saying “Hello?” we decided to not be invasive and wander through a stranger’s property. We walked back to our boats and started putting our gear back on. As we were about to take off, Barbara, one of the owners of the homestead waved us down and invited us in. She took us around the museum, which was full of guns, armor and old pictures of Buckskin Bill (he built the guns and armor) one including him with two playboy bunnies on each leg. Just to note, he was known as “the last of the mountain men”. Though, it turns out we were more interested in her beautiful garden. Laura has gotten pretty interested in permaculture and Aliza and I have been nerding out with our gardens as well. Barbara’s was huge and she had all of the things we could only dream of growing in AK. We asked if we could check her garden out, as it was pretty incredible. She told us about her processing of food and the different plants she was growing, and as a very kind parting gift she gave us some grapes and fresh veggies, tomatoes and basil, which were pretty amazing in dinner that night. We floated to the pack bridge and camped. It was earlier than we normally pulled out, but that gave us time to dry all of our clothes and gear with a fire.
Once again we woke up to rain, packed up our gear (Laura volunteered to take the poop bag) and headed out. We had to skirt around Mackay Ranch, as it is private property and when we asked if we could pay them to take trash out, they responded that they would not be interested and that we should stay off of their land. As we walked around their property, we lost the trail and proceeded to super soak our feet walking through wet grass and shrubs. We rounded the corner and walked up the South Fork of the Salmon, which looked like a beautiful river, I wish we had time to hike up it as well! After a mile or so, we started up the switch backs and lost count at 10, though there were a lot more than that. Once we were mostly done with the uphill, the clouds opened up and we saw that the snow line was fairly low (~7,000 ft). The dusting of snow became about 3-4 inches at 7,500ft and little did we know that our next two days would be spent in a white winter wonderland. Aliza and I were in ‘meditation mode’ when we heard deep sounds that slowly broke our concentration and silence. We looked up to see two people with a long line of pack horses, all of us startled by the other party. It was a hunting group from Mackay Ranch, they were surprised to see us and wished us well on our trip (but not before making a slightly judgmental comment about us wearing shorts in winter conditions) as we stepped aside and let them pass. Not long after, we arrived at their camp at Quartz Springs. We felt a little sheepish walking through their camp, but we needed water and that was the only way to get to the springs. No one was at the camp, but there was a nice fire going. We filled our water bottles and warmed up our feet by the fire. It took a lot of motivation to leave that warm fire, but eventually we got enough to hike on to Soldier Springs and camp there. After work hardening the snow for a tent spot we ate freeze dried lasagna and curled up, falling asleep to the sweet sound of large snowflakes landing on the tent.
Woke up to another inch or so of snow and some frozen running shoes, my favorite. After a quick pack up, we zoomed off, trying to thaw our running shoes with our feet. As we hiked the ridge to Chicken Peak, the snow progressively got deeper. We dropped our packs at the trail convergence and hiked up to Chicken Springs, which was mostly frozen and would have been hard to fill our water bottles at. We decided to gamble, and hope that Mosquito springs would be in better shape. Hiked up to the look out on Chicken Peak and got a little sucker hole, giving us a view of the surrounding ridges. We celebrated Laura’s highest peak by strutting our stuff, chicken style and headed back to our packs and out along Mosquito Ridge.
Mosquito Springs was in great shape. We filled up our water bottles and went back into meditation mode. Mosquito ridge was all above 8,000ft and frequently had around 8inches of snow to posthole through. Thankfully, a packhorse team had recently walked it and made trail finding much easier. We celebrated when we got to the highest spot, ate some food and headed down the switchbacks. Once we got to the 4WD trail, Laura’s feet were pretty toast and we decided to camp there and dry shoes/feet out. We camped next to some horses and mules, who ended up being fairly curious of us. Some were not tied up and would casually wander towards us to check us out. We celebrated that our hardest walking days were over with hot toddys that had Green Spot Whiskey, brown sugar, butter, and ginger-lemon tea. We had a big fire that dried out our socks and shoes and feasted on pad thai.
Arose to a hard frost, packed up and headed down to Smith Road. On our way we walked past an old mine. After a little bit of downhill, Laura decided that all of her toes needed to be taped, as well as other parts of her feet. While working on food care, two women walked up the trail and after talking a little while, we found out that one of them was a packrafter with beta on Big Creek! She told us to put in after Monument Bridge due to wood and low water, and that was some of the best advice we had gotten the whole trip! It made for a lot less himming and hawing. Went into meditation mode most of the day, taking little rests here and there to get the group back together again. Found a nice campsite just downriver of Monument Bridge and enjoyed a nice relaxing night. A hunter set up camp not too far away and checked in with us to see if we had any stock (he had mules). We chatted a little bit about our trip and then let him set up his camp before it got dark.
In the morning we got a slow start, since the sun didn’t hit camp until fairly late in the valley. Our neighbor came over to check out our boats and wish us luck on the creek, which was fairly low. He was also heading down Big Creek, to meet up with his wife who had a sheep tag and was flying in to an airstrip further down the creek (by this point we had decided to call him Russ, since we didn’t know his real name). Nearly half or more of the day was a lot of butt boating and searching for the channel. We would get a few pleasant surprises when the creek became more narrow. There was one rapid we decided to portage around. The consequences for eating it were likely a rock to the face or head, which seemed like a bad choice. The portage wasn’t too bad, but we did have some excitement as Aliza nearly stepped on a beaver that was hanging out under a rock in the river. Needless to say, they both scared the shit of each other. We also passed by Taylor Research Station and chatted with the family who lives there. I ended up chatting with their daughter who was adorable. She told me all about growing up there and where we should camp down stream… and to watch out for nice seats at campsites, they apparently frequently have fire ants, and you don’t want ants in your pants! As we passed the station, we saw deer and a great horned owl. Just past there we pulled off and camped. It turns out our hunting friend, “Russ” from earlier also camped there! We chatted with him later in the evening, met his wife and wished them well on their hike and hunt.
Dawned our gear quickly and headed further down Boulder Creek. More of the same for a few miles, we got to “the gorge” and looked around for pictographs which folks had mentioned were in the area. We found them in a cool cave that had been scoured out by the river. A little after the gorge, the river became more steep and boulder. The last three plus miles were a fun read and run boulder luge. Boulder Creek would have been a little easier to run with a few more inches of water. We had a nice lunch at the confluence of the Middle Fork of the Salmon and headed down the Impassable Canyon. We stopped for a quick walk up to Veil Falls and then headed deeper into the canyon, with a few class II+ and III rapids before we got to our campsite. We went for a proper swim for the first time at our last camp. The weather wasn’t quite as warm as we had hoped for, so luxurious swims had not been a part of this trip.
Last day and biggest rapids ahead of us! We paddled down the canyon, scouting class III and above rapids, finding that they were all easier than expected. We had a little contemplation over Devils Tooth Rapid, but decided to go with the main flow, which was a great decision! The whole canyon was beautiful. Once at the confluence, we started to think about Cramer Creek Rapid, which the guidebook suggests that it would be the largest rapid we would be entering. We pulled out to scope it from the road. Aliza and Laura headed up to view the rapid from the road and I followed after a minute later. It was a pretty funny contrast to walk up on Laura and Aliza decked out in rafting gear just feet apart from five middle aged men in cowboy boots, hats and beer bellies who had pulled over to watch us go down the rapid. They cracked some beers and talked amongst themselves, never really acknowledging us. It was so strange after having interacting with so many nice and wonderful people over the course of nine days. After getting a little intimidated by spectators and our largest rapid, we jumped in and paddled like hell. The waves were big, but the rapid was a blast. We packed up and dried stuff out on the pullout while drinking a beer, and headed to Salmon for dinner, and then south to more Hotsprings.
The hotsprings were a relaxing stop after a long trip, minus the need to avoid eye contact among other things with a naked old man.
The next day we got a morning soak in and then headed back to the car and to Missoula for tasty food at Notorious BBQ (I had been dreaming about the burnt ends the whole trip!) and beers at K-house with Julia. It was a great stop on the way to to Coure d’ Alane where we had a delicious dinner and stayed with Abe parents, Jamie & Andy. We got some puppy snuggles and coffee in the morning and drove back to Seattle with enough time to have Laura show us her beautiful garden, unpack and re-pack and have a delicious dinner, courtesy of Laura’s husband, Shane. It was so nice to end such a great trip with delicious food and wonderful people.
If you are a person interested in stats. Here are some from our journey.
2894 miles of flying
734 miles of driving
94 miles of rafting
38 miles of hiking