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South Fork of the Salmon Self-Support

Published on 7/21/2018

By Kanako Iwata-Eng

Having heard the South Fork of the Salmon is fantastic whitewater, this river had been on my bucket list for a few years. Rated Class 4-5, it was more challenging than other multi-day trips I had done, and I wanted to go with someone who is familiar with the run. The opportunity suddenly came up. Friend Jennie’s out-of-state kayak buddies were planning on a SF trip, and they were looking for the eighth member. I had paddled with four of them, and the trip leader, Larry, knew the river like the back of his hand. Besides the water level was nice medium low flow of 2.5 feet at the Krassel gauge. I jumped on the opportunity with short notice.

After driving on a dirt road for two hours from McCall, ID, I arrived at the launch site, the confluence of the East Fork of the South Fork and the South Fork. We camped at the free campsite there the night before the launch. Next morning, we left two cars at an airstrip about five miles away and launched from the confluence.

The first few miles were pretty flat. Larry told me they used to drive down to the end of the road to launch, but now the road is closed. It didn’t matter because soon enough the exciting water started. The first challenge was the Devils Creek rapid. We scouted from the left shore. To avoid holes and rocks, river left was safe at the top of the rapid. Then the river is divided by a few boulders lined up in the middle. The right side is quiet; the left was steeper with a ledge. Talking with an experienced boater, Jim, I planned to stay left down to the eddy and ferry to the second slot between the center boulders to get to the river right. As Jim said, “At this (low) level, if you end up in the left, you will be OK.“

I am a bit weak in ferrying, so I looked at the left side and made a Plan B. I got to the eddy successfully. To overcome my weak ferry, I intended to cross as high and as fast as possible. It went well, but went a little too high and fast, and I was pushed back to the left, and the next moment, I realized I missed the aimed slot. I immediately switched to Plan B and went down the left line OK. Teresa later said that ferry was the hardest move on the entire run. Everyone else made it to the right eddy. Jim even made through the more challenging first slot.

We camped at a nice campsite a little below the Devils Creek. It got cloudy, and they were happy, because this campsite had been always so hot in the past, even though there were some trees.

The Day 2 started with five miles of non-stop Class 3+ action. Each rapid is long and has good gradient. With so many horizon lines, it was truly nice to have a leader who knew what’s next. I was mostly following Larry, but in the Surprise rapid, I ended up alone on the river right, while everyone went to the left. I caught the eddy right above the last drop, stepped out to check the narrow but runnable line and successfully got down. Larry said he knew I would be OK as he usually takes that right line.

That day’s highlight was the Elk Creek. We scouted it from the left shore. The river turns right with a steep drop going into an ugly huge deep hole. All of us opted the sneak route on the right, which was not clearly seen from the left shore. The sneak route wasn’t super easy with a deep crease and everyone had to brace hard, but we stayed up.

Soon there was a huge campsite on the left. This location had a road access and was big enough to hold hundreds of cars and people. That was where this group had always stayed in the past, but this time, there were a few dozen people playing loud music, so we continued down.

We had one more challenging rapid (name unknown), which three newbies scouted from the shore. The first four people went down the right of the center avoiding a hole but banged on some rocks. Looking at them, Walt went down in the center punching through the hole, which looked much easier, so three of us all followed Walt’s line. Soon we found a nice campsite on the river left. This place was shady with rock furniture around a fire pit. It was very nice.

On the Day 3, we had more long Class 3-4 rapids until we got to the Class 5 Fall Creek rapids. At this level, it is a series of three drops, or “falls.” Fall #1 was unnoticeable as it was similar to the preceding rapids. We walked on the river right trail to scout Fall #2 next to the humongous logjam. The center is a huge raft-flipping hole. The left looked boney with an ugly rooster tail in the way. At the right end, however, there was a chute looking like Ned’s Needle on the Skykomish. Below the chute was an eddy. Larry told me to catch the eddy below the center right boulder about 15 yards above the chute. The plan was to line up from there to speed up and boof the chute. He went first, and I went second. With not enough speed, I flipped at the bottom of the chute but rolled in the eddy.

Fall #3 was on the left. Larry and Jim went to look, as they could still come back to the right if they decide not to run it. The rest of us didn’t bother and went down on the right shore sneak route. We had to bang between and over rocks. Larry and Jim ran the Class 5 side with two drops ending with a wall on the left. Larry avoided going against the wall by plunging into a deep hole. Jim went closer to the wall and used a white pillow the wall made to get down very smoothly.

We camped four miles above the Main Salmon confluence. There were campsites on both sides of the river and some more downstream. Nice and shady, though a few of us took multiple dips in the river to cool down under the hot Idaho sun.  

Next morning, the first two people left the camp at 7 a.m. for the first flight at 8 a.m. Jim and I left the camp at 7:45 a.m., and when we almost got to the airstrip, we saw the first plane flying away. To our surprise, there was the second plane waiting for us. We immediately loaded our boats and took off. The plane went to the Main confluence, which I had paddled a month before changing the direction. It was really cool to see the river we came down last three days and the surrounding area.

All airplane shuttles were done before 10 a.m. and I got home about 8 p.m. It was a truly exciting and enjoyable trip. I hope I will go back there next summer.

South Fork of the Salmon Self Support

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