Rafting Idaho's Main Salmon River

Last September I had the opportunity to “turn the corner” running the Middle Fork of the Salmon River into the Main Salmon River, both incredibly beautiful Wild and Scenic rivers in the heart of Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Our original group of eight parted ways at the end of the Middle Fork. Pat and Mitch, good friends and fellow guides from the Kern River, continued with me for another five days on the Main Salmon. This journal account picks up at the confluence boat ramp, where Middle Fork trips traditionally end, a few miles upstream of where most Main Salmon trips begin.  

main salmon river and middle fork salmon river map

A Map of the Middle Fork Salmon River, Main Salmon River, and Lower Salmon River

For Pat, Mitch and I, the beginning of the Main Salmon River was really the middle of a much longer journey, a strange pause in the hypnotizing rhythm of river life. We had already seen nearly 100 miles of one of Idaho’s most beautiful wilderness rivers, the Middle Fork of the Salmon. We had seen its character change from a shallow, crystal-clear creek in the upper reaches of its navigable waters all the way to the deep blue pools near the confluence, where it joins the Main Salmon. We had gone from dodging gravel bars to sliding through mazes of iceberg-like rocks to the wide-open space of the confluence and a river suddenly doubled in size. With our brightly colored river gear strewn across the warm asphalt we took one last picture and hugged goodbye to the six other people who had been our river family for the last seven days. My dad and I quibbled over the last of the mind-bending shuttle logistics before he waggled an eyebrow at us and told us to be careful. “It’s only a couple easy miles to Cache Bar,” he says.

Main Salmon River Rafting

Pat and Leslie Riding the Raft. Photo: Mitchell Solkov

Hah! Quite the couple miles it was. Being river guides, we threw everything back in the boats and didn’t bother to look at the map or tie anything down. Pat headed out on his own little whitewater adventure in the oar rig and Mitch and I paddled ourselves and pile of dry bags down river. And we paddled and paddled and paddled… We were hungry, and it might have been windy and there was no way it was only two miles. Mitch and I see whitewater and, used to the splashy, inconsequential hits of a low-water Middle Fork, we head straight for it. We quickly find ourselves staring into the frothing, wide mouth of a HUGE hole. Some speedy back-paddling gets us out of there and we avoid the holes after that. The day ends with a ride into the town Salmon, dinner with friends and a shower. How odd to sleep under a roof again, so odd in fact, that I sleep on the deck.

The next morning finds us back at the put-in for the Main Salmon, navigating the permit system and repacking the boats. We discover we have no ice, no beer and no coffee. Classic. So, begins, or rather, continues, the hour-less motion of river life. Pulling the paddle boat behind us, we ride high and dry in the oar rig, un-linking occasionally to run the rapids. We angle the boats to miss features that look like they could swallow us whole and slide down tongues of water as smooth as glass. We are learning, adjusting to this new river, twice as big, just as beautiful and so different in character. See a few rivers and you come to understand that each one has a personality. Just as you come to know your friends, you come to know a river. We set up camp on a small beach with dark clouds threatening and go our separate ways for a while. Then dinner, a round of cribbage (Pat wins), and bedtime. The clouds have moved on and I get a glimpse of the stars before I bury myself deep in my sleeping bag.


Sunset at camp on the Main Salmon River

The days slide together after that. We stop and scramble up a slope to the finest hot springs I have ever seen. A round tub, deep enough to float in, clean water gushing in from an old pipe at just the right height to pound the soreness from my shoulders and an incredible view or the Main Salmon. We camp near an old homestead with what was once an impressive apple orchard. I run back and gather apples you will never find in the supermarket. Old varieties that quite possibly exist nowhere else. The pale-yellow ones are tart and creamy, tiny cherry-sized red ones are bitter and crisp, probably grown for the cider press. I find pale green ones with a blush of red that are sweet and complicated. The bears and the deer have been here too. We eat sweet potatoes and black beans and rice and Pat wins another game of cribbage.

We pull over to scout Black Creek rapid, then Big Mallard, then Elkhorn. There is nothing like standing on a rock looking down into the churning river you know you are about to float your little blue boat through to make your hands sweat. There is something mesmerizing about the way the water moves, boils upward, disappears under itself and yet is somehow always there. You feel the thundering echo of it in the rocks and your bones.

Scouting Rapid on Main Salmon River

A group scouts Black Creek Rapid on the Main Salmon

A day goes by where not much happens at all. We tie the boats together and Pat and Mitch pull their singular magic out of two guitars. I row. Swaying to the rocking rhythm of the water and the music. It’s like dancing. At some point we realize we have no idea where we are or how far we’ve gone or how long we have been on the water. Se stop at a massive beach for the night. Pat wins another round of cribbage.

Playing Guitar on Idaho's Main Salmon River

Pat playing guitar while Leslie enjoys the scenery and music. Photo: Mitchell Solkov

Coffee! The boys order an early, pre-breakfast launch in the hopes of finding coffee at Buckskin Bill’s. One of the original characters that once populated the Main Salmon corridor, Buckskin Bill built an impressive collection of structures above this wide beach. We spot the stone-walled lookout tower first, then the main buildings, stucco-ed and solid tucked into the shade. Bill, who moved here during the Great Depression and remained until his death built an impressive collection of knives, firearms and tools in addition to the buildings. A small museum holds many of them, and I find myself thoroughly distracted by a grainy film of Buckskin Bill himself proudly demonstrating the range of one of his guns to a rather nervous city slicker. Pat spies a bag of coffee among the odd collection of goods in the neighboring store and we leave the slightly perturbed looking caretaker to his day.

Buckskin Bills Guns Main Salmon River

Buckskin Bill’s Guns

We boil water with the stove precariously balanced across the boat and a Great Blue Heron watching us from the other bank. We must have made an odd sight as we pushed off that morning through the rising mist. Two blue boats tied together, one looking for all the world as if it had been abandoned in a hurry, paddles at the ready. The other hosting all of us. Pat’s lanky frame reminiscent of the heron, bent over the oars and rowing patiently. A small figure perched atop a high pile of red bags, keeping quiet watch from under the brim of a big hat. And one more human, in sunflower yellow shorts, sprawled across the bow, whistling.

Main Salmon Sunny Beach

Leslie reading at a beachy camp. Photo: Mitchell Solkov

Our last night finds us on a wide, sandy beach with the boats in a slow eddy. By now we have become so used to each other’s presence that no words are needed. We unload the boats and set up the kitchen in comfortable silence.  The river makes for a cold bath to rinse off the day’s sweat and I dry off in the last of the sun. It sets behind a jagged ridge, the light shattering off every small ripple in the water. The sand holds on to the heat of the day as we eat more sweet potatoes and beans and boil more tea water. Pat finally loses a game of cribbage. That night we are gifted with another deep sky of stars and I fall asleep to the sound of the last of the crackling embers. Strange to think there will be vehicles and people and diner food tomorrow, but I savor the last wide-open night.

Does Leslie’s journaling spark some interest in a Main Salmon River rafting adventure? Join us in June, July or August for a similar experience, except our expert guides take care of all the gourmet meals and complicated logistics.

Leslie rowing on the Middle Fork Salmon River. Photo: Mitchell Solkov

A White Salmon native, Leslie was lucky enough to grow up hiking, rafting, and exploring the beautiful Columbia Gorge. Since the rafting bug bit her family, Leslie has loved every minute that they get to spend on whitewater. After graduating from Southern Oregon University in 2018 with a degree in pre physical therapy she got to explore the Chihuahuan Desert for the first time while guiding on the Rio Grande. Leslie has spent time in Oaxaca Mexico, biked across Italy and just returned from a couple months in Ecuador in May, 2019.

Join Leslie on the river for both half day and full day trips on the White Salmon River!

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