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Float to Ski on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

This is a story of a bunch of river guides and skiers who wanted to float to ski the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. They anticipated the worst and came out with the best.

by Allie Rood

When getting involved in a true adventure, the type-two sort, when you know someone is going to cry at some point along the way, it’s imperative to focus on the naïve, optimistic confidence that got you dreaming of the expedition in the first place. In the case of this float to ski expedition, it took six years of deferral to learn that if you want to do something, you need to just do it. You can always get shut down from the weather, and you can always assume next year will be easier.

But finally, in December 2017, Mali Noyes and I decided that no matter what, we were going to float to ski on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River at the end of April 2018. And that is what we did.

The river still remains the only viable (and machine free) way to access the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The Middle Fork flows through the center of this 2.5-million acre wilderness area, which is the largest contiguous federally managed wilderness in the Lower 48. Similar to the Grand Canyon, only a select group of permit drawers, paying clients and river guides get to float the river each season. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the Middle Fork’s elevation starts around 7000 feet and is free flowing, snow and rain fed for 425 miles until the Salmon River joins with the Snake River.

The permit season only runs from June-September because feet and feet of snow accumulate on the river banks in the other months. Guides will do 10-15 trips down the 100-mile river each season and in turn get to know every rock and bend in the canyon. The unmistakable remains of massive avalanches tell a story of a different Middle Fork, one not many know much about.  And in those remains, the winter version of the raft guide—the ski bum—looks up and can’t help but think, “Wow, wouldn’t that be amazing to ski?”

Each team member of this trip has guided on the Middle Fork for years, and with the collective experiences of the canyon, naturally we all came for the same skiing conclusion. After years of talking, the ultimate team seemed to take shape this year, and we began planning for a spring float trip, which is generally synonymous with suffer fest. You have to be prepared for rain, snow, ice, wind, sun, ripped boats, and iced dry suits. Most people said, “Sounds cold” and well, they were right.

Originally the plan was to snowmobile three rafts and three hardshell kayaks, nine people’s worth of ski gear, river gear, and food, as well as a bunch of cameras into Boundary Creek (the summer launch point). The logistical nightmare of driving 40 miles a trip with beater trail sleds on a potentially snowless road was daunting. The other common launch point for early season boaters is directly off Highway 21 on Marsh Creek (the headwaters of the Middle Fork), which runs at a modest 30 cfs when snow is still on the ground.

Kayakers usually choose this option, but not many people would dare float a 16-foot inflatable raft down it.  None of us had floated Marsh Creek before, and we were all scared of the horror stories we’d heard of ripped boats and multiple portages around downed trees. Naturally, we decided to launch on Marsh.

Drew, Ryan, and I were the three safety kayakers of the trip. We did a preliminary float of Marsh the day before the actual launch, which only made us laugh as we scratched and bumped our way down the creek in a blizzard. Too cold to touch my metal camera, I was nervous about how the trip would go.  It was “border line,” as Ryan put it to the rafters that night.

Though the rafting was very technical, the boatpeople got down the first 7 miles surprisingly fast. Before we knew it, we found camp on river left and had just enough time to quickly skin up for an evening ski. The conditions were surprisingly good, and it ended up being our only chance to truly “float to ski,” Up on Marsh, the snow still met the river, and we were able to ski straight from camp. The snow line quickly disappeared as we got to Boundary Creek.

I want to say we struggled and barely made it out alive, but to be honest, we won the spring weather lottery. We had clear skies and sunny weather all nine days of the trip, which meant we never had to put a frozen dry suit on (among other perks)! The trip couldn’t have gone better.  Each day was huge, and we pushed ourselves to take advantage of it all, but the trip was never soul crushing. In fact, it was downright magical. 

By the time we said goodbye to the snowcapped peaks and settled into river mode, we started to remark on the rapidly-rising river.  The incredulous claim that we nailed the trip started to sink in around day five and by day eight we started saying it out loud.  Somehow, we managed to successfully float Marsh Creek, portage Dagger Falls rapid with surprising ease, ski to the river bottom, hike and ski Soldier Mountain and an amazing cirque, float past endless skiing potential for next time, soak in hot springs, ski at mile 35 of the Middle Fork (which was not anticipated), and then float the rest of the way out at an ideal Middle Fork flow.

Each of us has a deep relationship to the Middle Fork, and it was truly amazing to ski sections of the river that were only day dreams until now. Our relationship with the river and each other was strengthened immensely from this experience and I think we are all pretty excited to get back in there and ski more.  But I think we would also be gravely mistaken to think the next time will go as smoothly.