I’ll admit, I had almost no idea what I was signing up for when my buddy Stan sent an email for a quick-hitter three night trip to Idaho for a backcountry paddle. The plan seemed simple. 8 hours to the put-in Friday night, paddle 20 miles for the next three days in some fun Class III+ water, and make the long drive back home Monday night. What’s not to like?

I did manage to do a little research about the run and concluded this trip would probably challenge my boating skills, but it still felt pretty manageable. One of the best trip reports I read was from my friend Clair Crippes on the Alpacka Rafts blog called “More Than Gold.”

If I had to describe Idaho’s South Fork of the Salmon in one phrase, I’d call it the rowdy cousin to its more famous and beloved drainage to the east, the Middle Fork. I’d even go a little further and call it the three-bourbons-deep, wrassle-you-to-the-ground, slap-your-ass-and-leave-some-pawprints babe of a cousin to the Middle Fork.

Yeah, that about sums it up perfectly. If I had read her story a little more carefully, I would have realized my experience was about to parallel hers almost exactly.

Just a few miles in, the scenery is already world class.

When we arrived at the confluence of the Secesh and the South Fork, the water looked low. Like draggin’-ass in six inches of water low. I was skeptical it’d make for good boating. It’s also super easy to let your guard down when the water is that low, because it seems so mild.

A few miles in, the canyon begins to slot up into the iconic granite gorges that the other forks of the Salmon and the River of No Return Wilderness are known for – but even tighter and more intimate. After the first tiny drop into the canyon, it all starts to click. Even at low water this place is incredible – and the paddling was about to get a lot more challenging.

Beater of the Day

At these flows, I was expecting a pretty casual trip overall with a couple of stout rapids. Turns out, it’s pretty much full tilt the entire 30+ miles, with long fun boulder gardens occasionally punctuated by steep narrow drops.

I learned early on Day 2 how naive I was when I took a swim in Surprise. As I flipped, I death gripped my paddle imagining it would be ripped out of my hands in the rocky swim. First boulder I hit with my left hand, and it sheered my fingernail clean off. Melanie was able to bump my back boat to me while I finished an otherwise uneventful swim. Within 15 seconds I was back in my boat, when I looked down and saw my finger – the nail had been removed with almost surgical precision. Certainly a new injury for me. (No footage of the swim unfortunately, since my GoPro decided to freeze up continually on this trip. I’ve had nothing but problems with the Hero 7 Black.)

Turns out, having full use of your pinky is pretty helpful when paddling, I ended up using a pinky-in-the-air style more appropriate for sipping tea.

But probably the biggest injury was to my confidence. I had been paddling fairly well most of the summer and the first day of the this trip. But after flipping in what seemed like a pretty minor spot, I was rattled. Despite the occasional stretch of cabins and development, the South Fork is still very remote, and I was not interested in an epic. I ended up playing it pretty conservative the rest of the way, portaging Elk, Greyhound and the end of Fall Creek.

Fingernails are optional. Losing your paddle is not.
Melanie threading the needle in Elk Creek - at low water it's a really thin line.

Swimming the first big rapid of the Day is definitely not ideal, because they only get bigger and more challenging as the day goes on. Shortly after Surprise is Elk Creek. At 1.7 feet, there is only one line and it’s straight down the gut over a series of three drops. I walked around while Melanie and Dave carefully scouted the line – and proceeded to style it with ease.

It’s weird how a swim can affect your perception of how difficult a river is. Ratings for this river seem to run the spectrum even at low flows, with some folks calling it casual Class III+ and others calling it a very demanding Class IV.

Elk Creek, Greyhound, and Fall Creek all seemed to approach the challenging Class IV, at least I thought they did when I was looking at them. Looking back at some photos and pictures, my view was probably amplified a bit by the swim. It’s all quite manageable in small pieces, but the cumulative effect does add up. Even if it is Class III+, the rapids are numerous and long, and any flip in a packraft will end bruising your ego with a swim down steep rocky drops. Needless to say, the juice is worth the squeeze. The South Fork is pretty short for a multi-day trip, but it’s oh so sweet.

The gorge below Fall Creek - amazing!

A River Under Threat

Today, the South Fork is listed by American Rivers as one of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” due to the plans to reopen two open pit mines near the headwaters. Read the full assessment and learn how you can take action by visiting https://www.americanrivers.org/endangered-rivers/south-fork-of-the-salmon-river-id/