Finding our groove on the Middle Fork Salmon
I recently returned from one of those trips that changes a person. I’m not just talking about the week’s worth of facial scruff and weather-tanned hide. Nor am I referring to the body musk that would cause rival bull elk to lose their minds, stomping and snorting and pissing all over everything. I’m also not referring to the 5 pounds I gained due to the amazing food. No, while this trip certainly afforded all those things, it stirred something deep inside me: the romantic desire to disappear off-grid and live as a hermit in the beautiful wilds of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. At least until the first snow fell and my food supply ran out, then I’d undoubtedly reach for my Garmin InReach and send an SOS message to Mrs. UA.
OK, just because I’m not fit to live permanently in such a rugged and remote place, spending some time there did sound appealing when, nearly a year ago ago, Jimmy suggested that the Firehole Rangers do a multi-day float on the Middle Fork Salmon River. He had done the trip a few times before with his daughters and seemed to think the Rangers might also enjoy it. Jimmy and his brood had done earlier summer floats when the emphasis is on whitewater rafting, with the opportunity to do a little fishing as rafts descend the river from the Boundary Creek launch (River Mile 0), to the take-out at Cache Bar on the main Salmon (River Mile 99.1). Our trip (September 12-17) would differ a bit from summer trips, with fly fishing being our main course with a side of whitewater (which is not say that there isn’t any whitewater later in the season). As flows drop late in the summer, the Boundary Creek launch is used only by the guides to get their boats to the river. From there they navigate the boney, rock-strewn river and meet the guests downstream at Indian Creek (River Mile 25). Below Indian Creek the river is considerably more boat-friendly during the late season flows.
Previously this year both Jimmy and Marck had the nerve to break ranks and move to Boise (not together, per se, although they do live within a couple miles of each other). Those of us Rangers left behind to endure the endless gray skies and incessant drizzle on the western side of Washington (close-ish to but definitely not Seattle) flew to Boise on Friday afternoon. Fortunately the flight is just over an hour long, because wearing a mask (thanks, Covid) any longer than that would be a deal breaker. Uber-Marck picked us up at the airport and drove us to his house where everyone was gathered to feast and toast to our upcoming trip. Those in attendance included Marck, Jimmy, Goose, Nash, myself, and sometimes-on-again-off-again-Firehole Ranger, Erique.
The next morning we awoke far too early and drove 3 hours under the cloak of darkness from Boise to Stanley, ID. Upon reaching Stanley one thing became rapidly apparent: we were not dressed for the early morning at 6253 feet elevation. While the daytime high may have been headed upwards of 80 degrees, the temperature at 7:30 AM was a brisk 21 F. Consequently the frigid air slapped our shorts-clad legs like a thin willow branch swung by an ill-tempered stepfather. We immediately donned protective long pants and grabbed a quick breakfast before meeting up with our host for the trip, Jerry Hughes. Jerry is the founder of Hughes River Expeditions. While his full-time river-rat days are now behind him, Jerry and his wife Carole are still very much involved in the business that bears their name. We gathered our outfitter-supplied dry bags and signed our lives away before hopping on a school bus for the 2 minute ride to the Stanley Airport. With the Sawtooth Range as a backdrop we met the pilots whose job it was to load guests and their gear, in a balanced manner, into small planes for the 20 minute flight over the mountains to Indian Creek. Most of the planes were single-engine Cessna type something-or-anothers. I was relieved to be loaded aboard the largest of the planes, a twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander operated by G&S Aviation. It’s always good to have a back-up engine in the event that one engine decides to not function in mid-flight, right?
The flight from Stanley to Indian Creek was uneventful—just the way I like it—and I enjoyed a great view from the seat to the right of the captain (while I may have felt like the co-pilot, I was instructed to sit on my hands and not touch the controls). Both the takeoff and landing were very smooth but I was still glad when the plane came to a stop and we set foot on terra firma once again. The day had warmed considerably and long pants were traded in for shorts. 16 total guests assembled for a formal welcome/introduction from those who would be our guides, chefs, and camp attendants for the next 6 days. We were finally about to embark on the main feature of this multi-faceted trip, and in short time we were aboard a variety of rafts that would carry us downstream: three 17-foot rafts that carried non-fishing guests and five 13-foot rafts that provided transportation for those of the fly angling persuasion. The most impressive vessel was the sweep boat, a twenty-something foot-long inflatable river boat that was a cross between a black ops military raft and the keelboat used by Lewis and Clark as they made their way up the Missouri in 1804. Essentially a cargo barge, the sweep boat was heavily laden with the overwhelming majority of the gear and was manned by two guides. The oarsman stood mid ship, pushing and pulling comically large oars with blades the size of a half sheets of plywood. The oars blades were fore and aft, rather than starboard and port, enabling the plus-sized craft to navigate relatively skinny chutes. Had the oars been mounted as they are on a standard raft there is no way the big boat could make it down the river.
The first day of the trip felt not entirely unlike the first day of high school: exciting, for sure, but a bit awkward as we slowly got to know the other
kids guests and guides. The guides are like the cool kids at school. The Seniors. And the river is their campus. They all drive cool cars and hang out in the parking lot while the guests are like the incoming Freshmen: naive, a little too clean-cut and wearing clothes that our moms laid out for us the night before. This is not to say the guides weren’t welcoming, because they were. It just took a day to settle into the easy groove of river life (and a couple more days to remember everyone’s names).
Marck and I were were assigned our Day One River Guide, Texas Gus. Seriously, he was named for Agustus McCrae of Lonesome Dove fame and I instantly respected his parents for their decision. What a fantastic TV series and an even better novel. Anyhoo, we boarded his raft and began the requisite small talk. I could tell right away that we wouldn’t have any trouble from Gus. The conversation came easily as we got into the rhythm of the river. Go with the flow, as they say. And that we did. After the previous 15 hours which had included flying and driving and flying, it felt good to finally be floating. And fishing. It wasn’t long before the first fish was brought to hand.
And the fishing was amazing for the next 6 days (catching was pretty good, too). Were the fish large? A couple were in the 18-inch range (hearsay) but more commonly were under 15 inches. But even a small fish, using the force of the river’s powerful current to their advantage, put a good bend in a 4 weight rod, and many fish felt bigger than they ultimately revealed themselves to be. The vast majority caught were westslope cutthroat, with a smattering of very aggressive steelhead. It had been 6 years since I’d last caught an Idaho steelhead, and in one afternoon on the trip I caught 7 (fortunately I had my Idaho steelhead punch card handy). Did I mention the steelhead were 6-8 inch smolt? Minor detail. A couple of smallish bull trout were caught during the trip (not by me), as well as one or two Rocky Mountain Bonefish (on the first day Marck caught a whitey in a fast riffle, on a dry fly). I even managed to catch a 16-inch
Squawfish Northern Pikeminnow that would have ended up on the river bank as fodder for scavengers on most any other river. Here, it was no more a salmon and steelhead child molester than the heralded bull trout, so back it went. At times—usually in the morning—fishing was a tad slow, which was totally fine because so were we. During these lulls in the action I resisted the temptation to run a nymph underneath a dry. After lunch the catching always picked up and was quite good.
Purple was a popular bug color with the fish of the Middle Fork. Be it a Purple Haze, purple Chubby Chernobyl, purple Amy’s Ant or purple Hippy Stomper, all were generally met with great enthusiasm. Small black ants and cinnamon ants also produced, as did black/cinnamon ants and orange stimulators and red hoppers and well, just about anything else. Did I mention purple? But if ever a place was deserving of the old saying, “There’s more to fishing than catching fish,” it would be the Middle Fork Salmon. It’s a vast and wild place and I missed a few fish because I was gazing upwards, slack-jawed, at the steep mountainsides most of the time. Once we dropped into Impassable Canyon the geography became downright distracting. It was absolutely gorgeous country despite the haze from distant wildfires that thickened a bit each day.
Each morning the Firehole Rangers would select a different fishing partner for the day and the company was always good (at least from my point of view). We usually fished with a different guide each day and we were always in capable hands of whomever was on the oars. I had the good fortune to fish with Gus, Colin, Drew, Colin, Tony, and Colin. As Vice President of Hughes River Expeditions it fell upon Colin to deal with problematic guests, which is why I was in his boat three times.
Much has been written about the Middle Fork Salmon and if detailed information about the river such as landmarks, specific points of interest and names and descriptions of particular rapids is what you seek, there are far better resources than the UA. I do, however, want to tout the merits of our host company. The guides for Hughes River Expeditions were all exceptional. They rowed our rafts expertly through whitewater while still going the extra mile to put us on the best water for catching fish. The sweep boat would run ahead each day and have camp set up each evening by the time we arrived. And by setting up camp I mean the tents were all pitched for us, the kitchen was established and food prep was taking place (appetizers were ready for us). And perhaps most importantly, the “Groover” location had been designated and the facilities were fully operational when we stepped off the boats for the evening. The Groover is the name given the camp toilet and is derived from the not-so-olden days when river floaters had to drop their deuces into steel ammo boxes, the sides of which were known to leave grooves in the backsides of the users. The modern day Groover includes a regulation-sized toilet seat, and while I find very little to be unsavory about shitting in a steal box with a toilet seat mounted to the top, I do recommend being first in line, if at possible. The Groover has a dedicated place of honor at each camp and the location always ensures privacy. The location also comes with a soothing view of the river so settle in and relax–but don’t take too long. Several hundred feet from the Groover itself is where the line begins. We were debriefed on how things work and it was made very clear that a kayak paddle is placed perpendicularly across the trail to denote that someone is presently in a meeting at the Groover. It was hammered into our brains that we were NOT to forget to return the paddle to the parallel position once finished with our business. Located at the site of the Poop Path Paddle was also a foot-pump activated hand washing station that we were strongly encouraged to use after each visit to the Groover. Sanitation was of paramount importance—especially during this Year of the Covids—and a hand-washing station was readily available in camp, as well as at the Gateway to the Groover.
Butt enough with the shit chat, let’s talk about food! After a long day on the water, as we guests sat around and enjoyed ourselves, the guides cooked amazing fare in Dutch ovens and on charcoal -fueled grills. We could not have eaten better had we been on a swanky Tour de Bistro vacation. To give you an idea of of the menu, the main dinner courses consisted of Bristol Bay salmon, Cornish game hens (which I could eat for dessert–ask my wife), Forty Mile Stew (amazing, but you’ll have to go to know because this is a Hughes special recipe). We had pork brisket of which even the end cut was amazingly tender and moist (and I typically tend to steer clear of end cuts of any meat). Our final supper was Surf and Turf that included delicious shrimp and the absolute best ribeye steaks I have ever had (major props to Chef Josh). Desserts included upside down pineapple cake, chocolate cake, berry cobbler, freshly-baked brownies and some others that I can’t recall because I was usually in a food coma by the time dessert was served. As a guest of Hughes River Expeditions you will not go hungry, nor will your thirst ever go unquenched. Guests brought their own bottles of spirits, and ice-filled coolers contained all the soda and beer you could ever want. Thankfully the beer selection included my grade of swill, too, and just not a bunch of crappy IPA’s and such. PBR, Coors Yellow Jackets, and Rainier were in ample supply despite my attempt to single-handedly deplete the inventory. At one point the flotilla pulled over at Loon Creek (the location of a remote air strip where more beer had been flown in). That was a monumental day.
There was ample fresh, filtered water on hand at any and all times, and coffee was always ready by the time guests arose each morning. Breakfast was hearty and served hot. If one preferred a lighter fare, yogurt, granola and fresh fruit were also an option (you could have a bit of everything if you wanted). Lunch consisted of fresh sandwich fixin’s and chips and cookies. We discovered that a dollop of peanut butter on an Oreo was an absolute game changer, and that a glob of peanut butter between two Chip-Ahoy cookies was the definition of decadence. Lunch was a perfect mid-day break from fishing but we generally didn’t linger long as there were always many more miles of river to float before evening camp. Long days on the river didn’t feel long, however, and time flew by. Even on our longest day when we covered 18 miles.
Rather than drone on incessantly, allow me instead highlight the trip with a few photos (though these few photos will not do justice to the Middle Fork). In a nutshell this is a trip you should take if you like vast wilderness, whitewater, excellent fly fishing, top-notch guides and exceptional hospitality and food. And if you decide to book a trip, I cannot recommend enough that you do so with Hughes River Expeditions, and be sure to tell them you heard about it here on the UA. Or, not. To be very clear, this is not a paid advertisement and I received no special treatment for this writeup other than having my name on the Poop Path Paddle. I would, however, like to pursue the possibility of sponsoring one of the Groovers.
On the last morning we begrudgingly loaded up for the two hour float to our terminus at Cache Bar on the main Salmon. Before we reached the confluence we got to enjoy some of the most plentiful whitewater of the trip, and whomever was in the bow of the boat got wet. We also continued to catch fish. In fact the last day saw my two biggest fish of the trip including a nice 16″ cuttie on the main Salmon. Once on the Salmon the water changes, from the gin clarity of the Middle Fork to a more turbid green, and we were told that we shouldn’t expect to catch any fish here. In the front of the boat was Erique, who, despite being drenched from the many stretches of whitewater that morning, also managed to catch a good fish on the main Salmon. We weren’t on the Salmon for long and then, just like that, we arrived at Cache Bar and it was over. We gathered our personal belongings and bade farewell to the crew (who was busy breaking down raft frames and loading up gear for another trip that would begin in a couple of days). My earlier high school analogy seemed fitting as the last leg of our journey included a 4-hour school bus ride back to Stanley. The awkward band of high school Freshmen had gained an education on the river. We learned new jokes (most of which if not all are ill-suited for this family-friendly blog) and made new friends and gathered fond memories.
While the rest of our group departed for other destinations, the Firehole Rangers spent one last night in Stanley. Showers felt good and flushing toilets were a welcome luxury (which is not to in any way diss the Groover). As if more food was needed, we did enjoy a fine meal at the Sawtooth Hotel (it was no Hughes River Feast but the food was delicious). We were joined by our recently newfound pard whom we’d met on the trip, Don Snow. Don is 88 years young, a Viet Nam veteran, Trout Unlimited Life Member, tier of flies, catcher of fish and liver of a good life. Don had driven from his home in Oregon and made the trip by himself and it was a pleasure to get to know him. Sharp as a tack and spry as someone many years his junior, we should all be more like Don. The next morning he was off to visit friends in Idaho and do more fishing before returning home to Oregon in a couple of weeks. He may not approve, but we voted to make Don an honorary Firehole Ranger.