South Fork Salmon and More 06/27/2020 3.9 ft

South Fork Salmon Trip (and More)

Submitted by Shannon Smejkal

When I look back and think about our trip down the South Fork of the Salmon river, the first thing I remember is how loud it was.  There was so much water moving though that canyon that at some point I noticed I could not hear any birds chirping, anyone around me talking, or the wind blowing.  It was just loud.  Lots and lots of big water.  Big waves, big munchie holes and big rapids - much bigger than what I was used to.  We all made it down the river safely. There were 11 cat boats,  3 swims - one through a class V rapid, two about 50 yards from the take out, and one person unable to make the trip due to an injury.

Sometime last year a few friends started talking about making this trip out to Idaho.  Mark Tyree told us it was his favorite river and we are going to get on it next year.  Plans started coming together this past spring, and an official invite was put out by Jessie King in March.  The group would consist of Jessie King, Mark Tyree, Nate Soukesian, Mike Evans, Ernie Eichhorn, Josh Hollander, Skip Currier, Steve Oslund, Sam Watry, Bob Smejkal (my husband) and myself.  That’s right, 10 men and me!  Bob and I had just gotten married the weekend before in a covid-friendly small ceremony.  He kept telling me this was our honeymoon since our originally planned one had been canceled (Bob, this was not our honeymoon). The trip would start off with a day of travel to Crouch, Idaho, where we would raft the SF Payette for a couple days and then we would travel another day to Yellow Pine. There we’d launch and then spend the next three days on the SF and Main Salmon rivers, taking out at Vinegar Creek.

On June 27th we left early in the morning from Portland and Skip, Steve, Josh, Sam, Nate, Jessie, Mark, Bob, and I caravanned to Crouch.  We arrived at our campground, The Riverpond, later that afternoon.  Between passing rain showers, we made our homes for the next couple days, inflated tubes, strapped down frames and shared river stories over beers and cocktails.  There were a lot of people in town rafting and getting ready for the upcoming holiday weekend.  Our campground had spacious sites for trailers, pit toilets, and a bar across the street, called “The Dirty Shame,” everything we would need for the next couple days.  One of the more unique features of this campground that is worth mentioning was the neighboring Starlight Mountain theater.  This was an outdoor theater that performed nightly musicals by local teens.  We were serenaded by (loudly) performed songs from Beauty and the Beast Saturday night, and Shrek the Musical on Monday night.  It was a bit distracting to say the least.

Rested from our travels on Saturday, we loaded up Sunday morning and headed to the put in at Sleepy lane on the SF Payette.  The water level was 2400 CFS.  This was a class IV section with the two big rapids being Staircase and Slalom.  It was 4.5 miles to the confluence of the North Fork Payette.   From there we would raft another 7.2 miles on the NF Payette to Beehive Bend take out.  This lower section was rated class III. From what I could see from the road the river looked fun with some challenges and a lot of surf waves!  Once on the river, there were smiles all around as we “warmed up” for the next leg of our trip.  Monday, we woke up to a lot of rain.  Some folks wanted to go explore, some wanted to hang at camp, some started the morning with bloody Marys.  A group of us drove to Boise to buy some goodies at Cascade River Gear.  Later that evening a group of us decided to run the SF Payette again, but a shorter stretch from to Deer Creek to the confluence.  At Deer Creek we launched our boats down a big slide and had a great evening float. After dinner that night we walked across the street to the bar, The Dirty Shame.  When we arrived, the bar was closed but the bartender agreed to open back up for us.

Tuesday morning, we loaded trailers, deflated boats, packed our soggy gear and made our way to McCall where we would meet up with Karen and Ernie Eichhorn and Angie and Mike Evans.  We had lunch at McCall brewery.  We had delicious food and beers (I highly recommend the house made sangria hard seltzer) and discussed logistics with the gang.  Jessie and Mark picked up our permits at the McCall ranger station.  We needed these for the 22 miles we would spend on the Main Salmon.  We bought a few more snacks for the road and topped off our coolers with ice.  The Eichhorns and the Evans would spend the night at an Airbnb in McCall and meet the rest of us in Yellow Pine the next morning.

We headed out of town on East Fork Road through some small neighborhoods that then opened to a dirt road.  The drive through the Payette National Forest was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.  We took as many photos as we could on the 50 miles/ 4-hour drive to Yellow Pine. It was tempting to ditch the trip and spend the next few days just exploring the camping, hikes, lakes and rivers we passed.  Words cannot describe the beauty we were taking in.  There were huge slabs of rocks as far as we could see, the landscape was sprinkled with orange, yellow, and purple wildflowers, towering trees, and cascading waterfalls. Somewhere near the top of the pass a guy in his pickup flagged down Jessie and Mark, who were at the front of the caravan.  We later found out he saw our boats and asked if we were headed to the SF Salmon.  He had just come off that river and warned us of a river wide ponderosa tree about a mile above Fall Creek rapid.  We would need to be cautious and possibly need to portage depending on water levels.  

We arrived in Yellow Pine and set up camp for the night.  We stayed at the put in, which was the confluence of the SF Salmon and Secesh rivers.   We were just a couple miles outside of the town itself.  Again, we set up boats and sorted out the gear we would need for the next couple days.  That night we headed into Yellow Pine, this tiny little town with only 32-year-round residents.  The town consisted of a main street with a few businesses, a golf course, and a few houses sprinkled throughout the trees.  When we got there, it seemed that everyone in the whole town was gathered at the local bar, the Yellow Pine Tavern.  A couple locals welcomed us and told us stories about their town, the elk that passed through, the wolf packs that lived on the ridges above them, and how dangerous the river was that we were about to raft.  We met a guy from Yellow Pine Shuttle Company there that handled our shuttle arrangements to Riggins.  A couple of the drivers for the company were there, drunk and assuring us that our vehicles would arrive safely, “not like last time.” We had dinner outside the bar, which was pizza, a little undercooked and doughy, but all part of the experience.

From the time I first heard about this trip, the boys had said we had to pack light.  There were many discussions leading up to this about what to bring and what not to bring.  We would be taking only jet boils and back packer meals with no other cooking equipment.  On my boat, all I had was a chair, paco pad, tent, small bag with minimal amount of clothes, sleeping bag, pillow and a soft cooler with a couple beers and snacks.  I kept asking why we needed to go so light?  After I saw the river it made sense- we needed to be able to maneuver quickly around the water.  The morning we launched there were a lot of important decisions to be made about what was worth the weight in the boat.  Some snacks and a warm pair of pants stayed behind to make room for vodka, a cocktail shaker, and a flask full of martini olives.  All necessary items.

As we loaded boats and put on our dry suits, my fear and anxiety about this new river started growing.  Bob and I had watched a few videos about the big rapids on the river a couple weeks beforehand.  They seemed manageable and within my skill level, although I was learning that in the videos the water was at much lower levels than we were about to experience. I think the description of this section is best summed up on saying “The narrow nature of the canyon means that changes in flows mean big changes in the difficulty of the rapids. Lower water runs (below 3') consist of a more technical run with class IV/V- rapids. Above 5 feet however, the river becomes a lot more treacherous with huge hydraulics and the risk of long, dangerous swims. The river gets exponentially more challenging at flows above 4 feet.”  When we launched the level was 3.9 feet, but arguably higher down river.  The gauge at Kassel, was several miles above where we launched and does not account for all the creeks flowing into the river down below. The little voice in my head started having her doubts but I ignored it and got ready to launch.  We waved goodbye to Angie and Karen as we headed out for our adventure.  The two of them would meet us on Friday in Riggins to pick up Mike and Ernie before heading home.  We also waved goodbye to one of our buddies that had to back out last minute due to an injury.

We launched about 9 am that morning and the sun was shining.  It was a beautiful day.  The river was loud.  The louder it got, the more nervous I got.  Sometime the night before, Bob mentioned to me that he wanted to row ahead of me so he could not see me.  I totally understood what he meant.  He told me he felt like he was rowing in two heads - mine and his and he did not want to be distracted worrying about me on the river.  This totally made sense.  We were rowing this river as individuals.  We were responsible for ourselves.   I picked a spot in the lineup where I felt comfortable.  I had boated with a few of these guys on several trips and felt safe with these familiar faces around me.  Nate was behind me and Ernie behind him.  Mark and Bob in front of me with Jessie in sight.  As we made our way through the first couple miles, the reality of the consequences of this river became more apparent and the voice in my head got louder.   I was the only woman on the trip, possibly the person with less experience than the rest, and was worried I could be the weakest link.  This river was challenging, physically, but more so mentally for me.

There was not a whole lot of time for socializing, eating, drinking, or much else than dodging rocks and holes on this river.  It was the longest, most continuous action I had experienced on a multi-day trip. Bob and I have joked that it was twenty something miles of class IV with a couple of mile long class Vs.  8.9 miles from the put in, we came to the first big rapid, Devil Creek, Class V.  We pulled our boats to the left side of the river to scout the huge holes to the left and pile of logs to avoid on the right.  As we climbed along the bank to get a better view, I got quiet.  There is something about hearing “Class five rapid” that demands a lot more focus and consideration.  I felt a little sick to my stomach as I debated my line.  Bob and I did not even talk to each other - We both were deep in our own concentration about the rapid and did not want the possible distraction of each other’s concerns.  Steve went first.  We stood on the side and watched his smooth run through the left side of the rapid.  He skirted just past the first big hole and slid into a little eddy to catch his breath before the next drop.  Then he pulled out and negotiated his way through the white frothy wavy mess at the bottom.  It was a great run!  I could not wait to be through this rapid and down below, watching the rest of the guys come through.  Ernie went second, choosing a different line, through the middle of the rapid.  He made it safely through.

Jessie approached me and checked in.  We talked about the line to take.  I did not say much.  I remember him looking me in the eye and telling me “you can do this.”  He then asked if I would like to follow his line through. It meant everything to me to hear his confidence in me.  I felt a little bit of relief knowing I would have someone close by in case anything happened.  We did not waste much time hopping into our boats and making our way through the rapid.  Jessie did awesome and made it look easy.  I skirted the first hole as the three guys before me did and stopped briefly in the eddy before the next big drop.  I got turned around and ended up backwards headed to the next hole.  With one big stroke I avoided getting stalled out and quickly turned back around to pull back on a lateral wave keeping me from getting pushed into a big rock wall.  I made it!  Then with adrenaline pumping I pulled into a small eddy and watched the rest of the guys navigate through the big rapid.  Of course, they all did great.

We found camp on river left about 13 miles from our put in.   It was a big sandy beach with many shady tent spots. We made our home for the night.  We gathered in the sun, our chairs in a half circle looking at the flowing river.  We talked about the day, the levels, and our runs through Devil Creek. There was a lot to process. So much action had happened this day.  We talked about the next day.  Mark said it would be a lot like what we had just been through with a big rapid in the middle.  I was grateful to be here with all these guys.  I felt proud to be part of the trip with all these seasoned boaters.  I slept well that night.

Thursday morning, we packed up camp and got ready to head down the river.  I was so nervous.  What were we in for today?  The guys the night before had talked about Surprise Rapid, class IV+ being just around the corner (about a mile) from camp.  There was also Elk Creek rapid that was a class V at this water level.  I put my dry suit on and shoved off.   There was so much action on the river this day!  Nonstop dodging rocks and holes.    Surprise Rapid started us off and It seemed like we were in a class IV rapid that lasted about 2 miles. At the end of it we came upon what was later identified to be Elk Creek rapid, class V. There had been no time to stop and talk about it or scout it.  So, we all went for it, one by one.  I could not see the guys in the front after the river bent to the right.  I watched Bob go through, and then Josh.  It looked like there were two poor over rocks to avoid in the middle of the river.  The right side was too shallow.  The left side looked scary but was the line.  I hesitated for a second and ended up stalled out on one of the rocks in the middle of the river.  My boat was stuck.  Knowing that Mark was getting closer behind me and I’d soon be in his way, I jumped off through the center of my frame and grabbed my scout bars and shoved hard off the rock into the churning hole below.  I was so thankful I did not slip but ended up with my butt back in my seat.  About a half mile or so down the river we all pulled over in a small eddy to collect ourselves and have a snack and some water.  Bob was waiting for me there as I came in fast into the eddy.  “What the f--- was that?!”  I exclaimed, referring to the past couple miles of crazy water we just made it through. Nate and Bob and I were picking gnats out of our eyes and mouths.  Somewhere about a mile or two back there was a hatch.  There were millions of bugs hovering over the river.  I had the bonus of two bugs in my right eye going through that rapid, and I lost count of how many I swallowed.  As we were checking in with each other we learned that one of the guys had swam Elk Creek rapid.   He was ok but tired from his swim.

Our next challenge was Grouse Creek rapid, class IV+ which seemed like it got lost in the water before and after it.  After that we would scout the tree that had fallen across the river, and then lastly, the biggest and longest of them all, Fall Creek rapid, class V.  The tree looked intimidating as we came around the corner.  It looked like there was enough room though for our cat boats to make it past on river right.  It ended up being in calm water and we all carefully passed by the side of it.  Another mile or so we came to Fall Creek rapid at mile 31.5.  We pulled over to the right to scout it.  It was big with many moves to make, and it was long.  I would guess it was a quarter to a half mile long. Two Lochsa falls sized waves were at the entrance.  Then a boulder garden, then from what we could see, a whole lot of water flowing into a rock wall at the end.  I picked my line and discussed it with Jessie again.  I asked if I could follow him again.  He agreed and we headed towards our boats and took off.  I punched through both waves at the top, the second one spun me around and popped out an oar.  I recovered quickly and picked my way through the boulders along the left side.  Next, I came around the center of the rapid, setting up for the waves headed into the rock wall.  I pulled back on my oars and the wave sent me away from the wall.  I made it.  What a rush. I felt so accomplished after all that we had rafted the past couple days.  The voice of doubt in my head went away and I had a new sense of pride.  We then watched as one by one the rest of the crew came through the rapid. There was almost a swim at the end, but a quick recovery and everyone made it safely through. 

Now that the big stuff was behind us, it was time to relax and have a mellow evening in camp.  We found a spot about 3 miles up from the confluence of the main salmon river on river left.  The row out the next day would be quick.  The Main Salmon was running at 22,000 CFS so we would cover the 22 miles in about 3 hours to the takeout.  That night at camp we joked about Nate, Steve and Josh’s choice of light weight chairs.  All three guys struggled to get out of the tiny little chairs that sunk into the sand.  We questioned if they were worth the few ounces they saved in weight on their boats. Steve later admitted he would wait to steal other people’s chairs when they got up from them. Nate’s was made of sheep’s skin and doubled as a snuggly pillow.  That evening we heard something breaking branches on the hillside above us.  We all got up to look and saw a fuzzy little bear butt running through the trees. He was blonde with a black face.   As we were watching we heard a “thud” and watched as a basketball sized rock came bouncing down the hill.  I ducked behind a tree.  We joked that that bear was throwing rocks at us!  Cocktails and beers were consumed, and stories of the day’s events were shared.  It was a great trip and an awesome crew.

The next morning, we launched and made our way to the Main Salmon.  The river got wide and flattened out with the fast-moving water.  By the end of the 22 miles we had just one more rapid, Chittam, class III+.  Seemed easy compared to what we had done the previous days.  We had spaced out into a few groups by the time we made it to the takeout.  There were a couple guys ahead of us and a few behind us.  At the takeout Bob, Jessie, Mark, Mike and I made it through the last rapid and started taking apart out boats and unloading gear.  We looked up to find one of the guys had dumped out of his boat at Chittam rapid about 50 yards from the takeout.  He was floating by, holding onto his boat as the other guys were trying to help him to shore.  I grabbed a rope bag and slipped on a rock, almost breaking my ankle.  He floated right past the takeout.  Luckily, there were two more boat ramps down the river.  They made it to the next one.  We later learned out of the two guys in front of us, one had flipped his boat in that last rapid and had also floated on past the boat ramp.  Everyone was now safe on shore.  Angie and Karen never made it to the takeout to meet us. There had been a huge rockslide on highway 95, 5 miles south of Riggins and they had to turn around to head home.  They sent a text via in reach device that Ernie and Mike would need to find another way home.  They ended up catching a ride with Nate.  After all the trucks and trailers were loaded up, we headed out, starting the long journey home.  

The long drive home left a lot of time for contemplation.   Bob and I would check in with each other after long pauses of silence.  We would ask each other what rapid we had been remembering and discussed our lines and moves we made and did not make.  This trip was a big step for me.  I had not yet boated a class V river.  In the days before we launched, we had been checking water levels several times daily to try to anticipate the level of difficulty to expect.  I was secretly hoping for 3.5 feet or lower- which Mark and Jessie suggested would be a much easier run as they had done it at 3.2 feet a previous year.  With all the rain in the week leading up to our trip I knew the water would be higher than I wanted it to be.  I had so much doubt and stress that second day of our trip.  However, with each rapid I made it through successfully, I gained a new level of confidence.  Thank you so much to everyone that was on this trip.  I never felt like I did not belong because I was the only woman.  I felt like our crew was solid with so many skilled boaters. I appreciated all your river stories.  Thank you, Mark, Jessie, and Nate, for giving Bob and I the push we needed to try this river.  Thank you for having confidence in me when I could not find it myself.  Special Thanks to “Coach” Jessie King for giving me the guidance and calming words I need for the big rapids.  Bob, thank you for the weeks of gear planning, getting my boat dialed in, logistic planning, and several hours of driving while I napped.  I cannot wait to make another trip down the South Fork Salmon again next year.