On July 9th, Donna and I set off for a 6-day, 5-night whitewater kayaking trip with Tarkio Adventures, located in Missoula, Montana. Tarkio was supported by Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures, also located in Missoula. At first, we weren’t sure that the trip would take place because of COVID-19, but, as I will explain, everything was under control.
MAIN SALMON RIVER
The Main Salmon is a classic Idaho Multi-day whitewater trip that usually takes paddlers 6-7 days to traverse. The 78-mile run begins several miles downstream of the Middle Fork Salmon confluence at a launch site called Corn Creek. The river is drop-pool, with a nice mix of rapids ranging from Class I to Class III+/IV- at moderate flows. The rapids are almost always characterized by large clean wave trains, and the more difficult rapids throw a hole or rock in the mix that require dodging. At higher flows the river supposedly becomes a bit more squirrely. There are some good river map books that can be bought to help navigate the river and keep track of camps and hiking options. Note that some older books will fail to mention Black Creek Rapid, which formed in 2011 and backs water up to Salmon Falls. It is one of the more powerful rapids on the run. Keep that in mind as you read on.
The whole trip was a highlight! But I will discuss some aspects of the trip that made it the best we have been on by far.
Tarkio and Lewis and Clark
The night before the trip started, Tarkio had us meet on the lawn of the Holiday Inn, Missoula, where everyone wore a mask. Land and Erica Heflin, the owners of Tarkio, discussed COVID protocol for the trip, and Erica passed out small paper bags that contained extra masks, Latex gloves and little bottles of hand sanitizer. Land also explained that when we were camping, the Lewis and Clark team would always be wearing masks and gloves while preparing and serving food – there would be no “make your own” sandwiches, grabbing cookies and so on. Tarkio’s COVID approach was outstanding. Below is a picture of one of the support staff preparing a special pancake for Land Heflin.
Of course, the people on the trip, paddlers and staff, were actually what made the trip much more fun than it might have been. We played games, sang and danced. Below is a collage of random photos taken by my wife Donna and me.
I’m not sure when this happened – third or fourth night. A challenge was laid down – take a beer and go shirtless into the cold water up to your nipples. The water was freezing! But, after a while, I got used to the cold. I think, though, that the water sped up my heart rate so one beer more or less left me hammered. Here we all are (a couple of women NOT shirtless). Photo by Donna Hansen.
One night we broke out a Bluetooth speaker, put on some good music and started dancing. Here, courtesy of one of the paddlers, Lauren Costantini, is a small example of the dancing that went on.
Say what? I’ll let the video explain it all. Videos courtesy of Donna Hansen.
Kan Jam is a frisbee game that has two “cans” into which players deflect the disc. The rules I found on the internet vary, but the way we played it was as follows: if you hit the can, your team gets one point. If your teammate knocks the frisbee you threw into the can, you get two points. If you send the frisbee through the hole in the can – GAME OVER! I put the frisbee through the hole on my second attempt but, to be fair, I have been playing frisbee games for over 50 years. This is what the equipment looks like.
Polly Bemis House
The Polly Bemis Ranch is a designated National Historic site. The Ranch is a 26-acre estate located on the main branch of the Salmon River, 44 miles east of Riggins, Idaho. It lies in an area protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Polly Bemis House was the home of Idaho County, Idaho pioneers Charles Bemis and his wife Polly Bemis, who lived alongside the Salmon River in the late 19th and early 20th century. Polly was a Chinese American former teenage slave whose story became a biographical novel and was fictionalized in the 1991 film A Thousand Pieces of Gold.
We stopped there during a period of flat-water kayaking. It was a welcome stop, especially when we got to watch Boris the Pig feeding on the plant material the support staff gave him.
Buckskin Bill’s Fortress
Five Mile Bar is the former home of one of the Salmon River’s most famous residents. This is the location where Sylvan Hart, better known as Buckskin Bill, carved a life for himself out of the wilderness. Hart first came here in 1929 and lived out his life on the property. In all, Buckskin Bill spent fifty years on the Salmon River. What made the stop interesting is the fact that we could buy ice cream! You could also have a Black Butte (a porter beer) ice cream float or a root beer float. I had the root beer float and Donna had the Black Butter float.
A lot has been written about Buckskin Bill. This is a link to a Wikipedia article:
Shortly after running through Black Creek Rapid, one of the more difficult rapids the Main Salmon River, paddlers can calm their nerves and warm up at a hot spring pool. It is a short but steep hike to the spring and, after clambering over some rocks, I realized why some of our group left their helmets on. Anyway, you will finally reach a natural tub where hot water trickles up from deep in the ground to create a steamy pool perched high above the river. PS: while the pool is natural, it is clear that some people, probably raft guides/companies, maintain the pool. Thank you.
This is supposedly a West Coast river trip custom. There were little bottles of brightly colored fingernail polish passed around so, if you chose to, you could color your nails. Donna and I chose luminescent green. I wondered, after the trip, why I was getting weird looks from people (not that I don’t get them all the time). Note that I have a reverse “farmer tan.” My hands got tanned while the rest of me stayed white.
Now to the good stuff. The Main Salmon had many class 2/3 rapids, and a few 3+ rapids. In the video below, the waves in the rapids may not look big but, trust me, they were. What made running the rapids exciting, though, was that you could be knocked three feet to one side and then, almost immediately, be knocked three feet to the other side. Water was coming at you from all directions.
In addition, the “flat water” and the eddy lines were very swirly. Whirlpools could pop up at any time and catch you unaware.
Here is a link to a video I put together of some of the rapids we ran. I don’t have the names, unfortunately, except for one where I got flipped.
“Other Side” Kayak Roll
Because of a shoulder injury, Donna has been using a left-hand roll despite the fact that she is right-handed. Within 10 minutes – seriously – Tarkio instructors had her rolling on both sides.
They worked with me as well, pointing our three things I was doing wrong. I still don’t have a roll on both sides, but at least I now have a list of what to do to accomplish that. It’s not a physical thing – just a mental thing. I will get it done!
“Big Water” Eddies
Eddying out in high volume water on a wide river is a lot different from eddying out in high volume water in a narrow river. High volume in this case was 16,000 CFS.
Let’s say you are coming down river and you want to eddy out behind a rock.
On a high volume, wide river, you may not have a “foamy” eddy line that tells you right where it is. Instead, you may have what appears to be a nice benign eddy line that is almost float. Well – it may not be. The eddy line may have a lot of swirls and water moving in different directions, even a whirlpool or two. On occasion, I got pushed more downstream so I was entering the eddy away from my target. Not a big deal because the eddies were pretty large, but a bit of an annoyance. Unfortunately, we don’t have “big” water here in Texas, so practicing eddying out under the conditions we found is next to impossible.
Go with the flow
On a few occasions the swirling water caught me and started pointing me up river. At first, I tried to sweep stroke back around, but that became too difficult. When I told someone that I instead did a back sweep and spun around, they said, “Yeah. Go with the flow.” I was curious about the origin of that expression, and here is what I found.
“This expression was first recorded to be used by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Arelius, in his writings “The Meditations”. He penned a lot about the flow of happiness and thoughts and he surmised that most things flow naturally and in his opinion it was better to go with the flow than to try and change society. Then sometime in 1960s America, this expression was ascribed to the hippies, who liked outdoor activities but also espoused a philosophy of taking life easy, not getting worked up, not struggling or fighting. These people drew an analogy from the way they kayaked and rafted on white water to the way life should be led, by going with the flow. Source: theidioms.com”
Never Stop Paying Attention
If you viewed the video of the rapids I posted, you’ll see that I rolled up in Black Creek Rapids (the rapid is actually called BLACKADAR). American Whitewater does not rate individual rapids in Black Creek other than to say they are class III-IV. Well, I flipped, rolled up and celebrated. I stopped paying attention. The river had other plans for me and flipped me again – this time I had to swim. Maybe, just maybe, if I had put in a couple of forward strokes, this would not have happened.
Even the flat water on the Main Salmon is tricky. We were going through a stretch of flat water and one guy, who was not paying attention, actually got flipped by a big swirl that came out of nowhere.
Another time we were going down a rapid. I don’t know what I was thinking, but suddenly there was a big rock in front of me. Now, I know better. I should have leaned into the rock. In fact, we have taken lessons where we had to lean into rocks. I, of course, leaned away from the rock. Fortunately, there was an instructor nearby that gave me a T-rescue. I wish I had leaned into it and slid off it – I could have claimed I boofed it on purpose.
Always put your rain fly on your tent
On the first night we camped, Donna and I looked at the crystal-clear sky and thought – now way is it going to rain. We put the rain fly on anyway. Yep – the sky opened up in the middle of the night.
We are already planning our trip with Tarkio for next year. We are debating doing two weeks back to back – that’s how much fun the trip was.
Here are links to pertinent web sites:
Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures
My YouTube channel
Be sure to check out my entire blog. You may enjoy it.