Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Rafting the Lower Salmon: A Photo Journal

So this is essentially how the text thread went...

Patrick: Want to float the Salmon River next week?

Sarah: F#@k yeah!

And so it was that exactly one week later, I woke in the wee hours of the morn and drove 4 hours to meet Patrick at his home on the east side of the mountains. We piled our gear into his truck and drove with the raft in tow for another 6.5 hours to The Potato State. The next morning we began our 5-day, 72-mile float along the Lower Salmon River. 

I hereby present to you a Photo Journal of our rafting trip down the Lower Salmon River. Enjoy!

The Lower Salmon River.

I have lived a good life with lots of adventure. And while I've done a multi-day trip on my packraft with a bicycle aboard, never have I done a multi-day float trip on a raft-raft. Suffice it to say that I was a wee bit excited for our grand floating adventure.

The Salmon River, which runs through Idaho, is the longest undammed river in the entire contiguous United States. It cracks me up that the Salmon is known as "The River of No Return." To me, this conjures images of Deliverance. Cue the banjo! (Did I mention that Patrick and I had never met each other before this trip? We have some friends in common, we both have flexible schedules, and we both have our priorities in the right places (i.e. adventure > work). So it couldn't be that bad, right?) Patrick kindly explained that "no return" dates back to the times when (non-motorized) watercraft could navigate downriver but not upriver due to the fast-running water and sizable rapids. Phew!

Though the Salmon River drops 7,000 ft in the 425 miles between its headwaters in the Sawtooth Mountains and its confluence with the Snake River just to the north of Hells Canyon (see my 2015 trip Backpacking in Hells Canyon), we would only lose 600 feet in the stretch of river that we were rafting. But that's plenty of elevation loss for some exciting rapids. Thankfully, my personal raft guide was an expert paddler who navigated us safely through all the rapids. (I did get swamped on a few of these rapids. I'm unsure whether those dousings were intentional. I have reason to believe Patrick may have enjoyed my high-pitched squeals followed by my ear-to-ear grins.)

Once on the river, our itinerary was as follows:

Day #1: Hammer Creek → Upper Lone Pine (11 miles) 

Day #2: Upper Lone Pine → Lower Whitehouse (14 miles)

Day #3: Lower Whitehouse → Middle Billy Creek (12 miles)

Day #4: Middle Billy Creek → Meat Hole (22 miles)

Day #5: Meat Hole → Heller Bar (13 miles)

While this was my first time on the Salmon River, this was Patrick's third. As his two previous trips were both in the height of the summer, he wasn't quite sure what to expect this late in the season. As it turns out, this was a truly magnificent time to float the river. Though we had some sprinkles and overcast skies on Day #1, the remaining days were precipitation-free and full of sunshine. While the afternoon temps in the 70s weren't quite warm enough for extended swims, a dip in the river for bathing purposes was not only doable but also done. Patrick had warned me about the presence of yellow jackets; we only saw a few the first day. And though we saw occasional motorboats full of friendly waves and fishing poles, we saw only one other party of rafters (two individuals in two separate boats) our entire time on the river. Wowsers! Patrick and I both agreed that the solitude of the season made the whole trip super-duper special.

Alright already, you say, let's get to them photos! Ok kids, here we go.

This was our trusty raft, completely decked out for a luxurious week of river rafting.
[Image: Patrick]

And this is Patrick... 

... the trustworthy and trusting trusty guide.

This is me.
My job was to enjoy, and enjoy I did.
Admittedly, I felt a bit like a figurehead, those women at the bow of a ship.
I suppose I was a figurehead of sorts. After all, I worked hard to bring good fortune to our ship in the form of sunshine, and I kept the enemy yellow jackets at bay.
[Image: Patrick]

On Day #1, we pulled the raft over and walked a short trail to see some well-preserved pictographs.
This paintings taught me that people of long ago had my same bed head. Rad!

The Salmon River is known for its sandy beaches.
It was quite the juxtaposition to be floating through steep canyons of granite and columnar basalt and to camp on perfectly soft sand.

And oh how different rafting is from bikepacking!
I packed as if I were going on a week-long cruise — a different gown for each evening and my full makeup kit!
When we arrived at camp each afternoon, we unloaded our junk from the raft.
In the mornings, we reloaded all the junk back into the rafts.
Having done this multiple times, we got our system down pat.

After we unloaded the raft, we set up camp.
This is what our camp typically looked like.
We designated an area for the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, and the fire pan.

We also had to identify a spot for the groovers.
We found a somewhat private nook at our first camp, but after that, we just informed each other to kindly divert one's gaze.

Patrick constantly collected firewood... he could keep the blaze aroar.
Every evening, Patrick built a fire and kept it burning for 3-4 hours.
The fires were critical to both our warmth and our enjoyable companionship.
I looked forward to our nightly fires, and I think Trusty Patrick did, too.

At camp, Patrick studied the maps for the next day's float... I snuck some bites of a delicious loaf of chocolate banana bread.

I gotta include another fire photo, cuz they were just so dang enjoyable.

Here's a portrait of Patrick at the fire one evening.
He looks all pensive and everything, while he contemplates birds likely, or perhaps crackers smothered in peanut butter.

We had some delicious evening colors.
Patrick splendidly captured this spectacular light spectacle.
[Image: Patrick]

The mornings weren't too shabby either.
We were treated to some hubba-hubba sunrises as well.

Morning light, oh how I love thee!

All beautiful skies were enjoyed with tea in hand, as is the proper way.

Though we had rain and overcast skies the first day of the trip, a brilliant blue filled the skies every day thereafter.

I loved watching the moon float in the sky as we floated on by.

We kept our eyes peeled for wildlife.
We saw osprey, eagles, a heron, and river otters.
We hoped to see some four-legged creatures.
They were a bit trickier to find.
Can you spot them? All of them?

Yup. Bighorn sheep! And lots of them!
(There are many more in the photo above.)

Day #3 brought the big rapids — Snowhole & China Rapids.
Both are Class IV rapids with steep drops, big boulders, pour-overs, holes, blind curves, poisonous eels, and fire-breathing dragons.
Our trusty guide scouted the passages and made his skilled maneuvering all look like a breeze. 

I studied the guide to see how much of the river would be reasonably floatable with my elementary paddling skills and my two-wheeled bike atop my skirtless packraft.
Ummm, let's just say "not so much." 
[Image: Patrick]

Day #4 brought us to Wapshilla Creek, where we stretched our sea legs and walked to a nearby historic ranch.

We enjoyed exploring the old buildings... of which was a barn containing a collection of old tools...
[Image: Patrick]

 ...and containers galore.

While we greatly enjoyed the exploration on foot, we weren't so pleased to find that the soles of our sandals had been attacked by goatheads.
We plucked out each and every little dagger before stepping our feet back into the soft-sided raft.

And onwards we floated...

...down this amazingly beautiful river!
[Image: Patrick]

Did I mention that we had a lot of fires?
Precise calculus estimates that we spent 18.75 hours of the trip in front of a fire. 
So I shall leave you, dear friends, with one final fire photo.
Ah, life is good!

Thank you, Patrick, for organizing a truly awesome trip. I enjoyed your positive attitude and your companionship. Thank you for your gentle patience in humoring the newb me, thank you for safely navigating us down the river, thank you for building awesome nightly fires, and, most importantly, thank you for cleaning my shit out of your groover (that SCAT Machine is a hoot!). You are a fun adventure buddy and one helluva good guy!

For anyone interested in floating the Lower Salmon, The Lower Salmon River Boating Guide, written by the US Department of Interior, is a treasure trove of useful information.


  1. Wow wow wow! I was wondering why the goat heads were so bad, then you mentioned an inflatable raft! Yikes!!

    Never have I seen bighorn sheep…. Love this adventure!

  2. What a wonderful adventure. Some of your photos are definitely frame-worthy. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi, dear friend! I’ve been wondering if you’re ever going to blog again, it’s been forever. I’m glad to see you’re still out there making the world a more beautiful place by being in it! It looks like we resurrected both of our blogs around the same time, must be something in the air. Keep smiling, keep adventuring, and keep kitty sitting! Maybe some day we can get you over to stay with our little sweethearts. 😻😻

    1. So great to hear from you, Rusty! With all the writing I've been doing for my memoir plus the writing I've been doing for my freelance work, I've been finding it quite difficult to find energy for the blog. I wanted to capture this trip, though, as it is different from my usual biking adventures. I saw that you resurrected your blog as well. What a well written entry -- worthy of a magazine article, for sure! Hug those kitties of yours and keep on being you, friend. Until the next blog post! ;)


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