Idaho 2011

Middle Fork Memories

July 12, 2011

Daybreak at Stanley.

It was a cool clear morning at the small airport of Salmon, Idaho, the sky a deep cloudless blue. This was the last day of my vacation, and as it happened, my puddle-jumper flight to Boise would be passing through the wilderness of the Middle Fork Salmon River, where I'd spent the last six days with a modest group of 13 adventurers. Only one morning ago, we were waking up in the shadows of vertical granite crags, and the day's journey had seen our paddleboat charging bravely and triumphantly through an enormous wave, the oar boat momentarily trapped in an unexpected hole, and a last-minute flinging of Mike into the river for the trip's only swimmer.

Ship island crag, towering high above our last campsite.

The pilot had finished loading supplies onto the Cessna, and soon we were flying over mountains of evergreens and valleys traced by creeks and dirt roads. Peak after peak flew by as signs of civilization grew sparser, and presently the green gave way to a golden sagebrush canyon carved by the mighty middle fork. The plane veered right, took a sharp U-turn within the looming canyon walls and landed at the Flying-B ranch.

View of the Flying B ranch from Johnson Point.

While the pilot unloaded supplies, I strolled down to the river, dipped my finger in its cool gentle flow, and recalled the evening dips, splashes up the nostril, dribbles down the spine, and swan dives that we had shared with this river. It was three days ago when we passed these shores, two-thirds of the way through our 100-mile journey. Not far downstream I could make out the peak of Johnson point where we had climbed, touched the moon, flown with the swifts, and looked ahead at the narrowing gorges of the impassable canyon.

Enjoying the view after a tough climb.

The supplies had been unloaded into a pile by the bushes; we took off the way we came, turned quickly around to follow the middle stretch of the river as it wound through the wide sagebrush canyons, home to chukars and magpies and the peculiar Lewis's woodpecker. Suddenly the river cut right underneath us, and directly below I could make out some white patches marking the sunflower hot springs' terraced pools overlooking the river below, spouting its natural warm shower that was most welcome after a day of cool overcast. From the hot springs the upstream course of the river ran straight to the mouth of Marble Creek. There, those are the rapids I had ridden while saddled on the prow of the oar-boat, one hand waving my bula hat while Jake and Dustin photographed from shore; and there, beyond camp, that knob protruding from that foothill of Pungo Mountain, that was the hill that Mikey and I had scrambled up, with cheatgrass seeds latching onto every fiber of our socks.

Riding the Marble rapids.

The plane continued over a region of matchstick trees razed by the fire of '07, and eventually a winding dirt road pointed down the hill to the put-in at Boundary Creek. How long ago it seemed since we trundled down that same road into the middle of nowhere to find a floating city of rafts quilted together along the narrow shoreline, where we waited patiently for our guides to make final preparations and watched the boats one by one drift down, around, and through the first bend rapids and out of sight.

Bear Valley Creek meandering through Bruce Meadows.

Tracing the dirt road up the hill, the plane soon landed at the beautiful Bruce Meadows. It was a busy morning here with three other planes already parked. Nearby a bus sat waiting for a group gathered next to piles of dry bags and ammo cans, anxious to begin their own middle fork adventure. I wondered... what if I were to abandon my real-world obligations, to stow away with these folks and again drift down the rapids, through canyons deep and wide, past ponderosa groves and lonely stumps sculpted by fire and decay, under towering batholiths and hanging waterfalls, with swallowtails and salmonflies drifting carelessly by, the air echoing with songs of warblers and buntings and the occasional wookie...

View from Pungo Mountain Hill.

My reverie was interrupted by the pilot signaling time to return to the real world, and off we went, over the dramatic Sawtooths back to the city of Boise with its blue-turfed stadium and potato-colored capital.

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