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I drive school bus for a living and had the opportunity to drive for the Boy Scouts of America at the Ore-Ida Council's Salmon River High Adventure Base. This remote base camp is 18.3 miles east of Riggins, ID up the main Salmon River. I shuttled boy scout troops around the mountains on hikes, mountain bike trips, and whitewater rafting trips (with kayaks and inflatable kayaks, too). The scouts also rappelled and I tried that, too..
I had been wanting to try my hand at kayaking for about a year before this summer and saw this bus driving job as a great opportunity to do just that. My first time in a kayak was a little nervous time but once the balance thing was figured out, I was comfortable....though a little fearful of rolling. Two of our staff were whitewater kayakers and endeavored to teach the scouts some of the art of kayaking with mixed results, but most had fun anyway. They showed me numerous times how to roll and I finally got the dynamics all together in the right order and managed to roll back up 8 consecutive times. Talk about a confidence builder! Well, at that point, I was ready to expand by getting out of the big eddy we were learning in and go down the river. That trip happened on August 2, 2002.
Our camp director offered to drive the bus to the takeout point so I could go along with the next group of rafters and floaters. I jumped at the chance to experiment with going down the river.
The camp was located right at the mouth of French Creek, a medium sized creek flowing north from the mountains north of McCall, ID. We loaded the scouts into the rafts, inflatable kayaks and hardshell kayaks on the scout camp beach and shoved off around 11:00 am that Friday.
The kayaks the boy scouts have are older whitewater styles but serviceable for the purpose of learning and fun. I was in a Mongoose (don't remember the brand) which sits a little lower in the back and I liked the feel of the boat. We headed downriver. I was confident enough in my paddling and good enough at it that our kayak guide asked if I could bring up the rear so he could keep an eye on the beginner scouts who didn't have the roll figured out yet. I nodded agreement.
A little background....the Salmon River is a popular whitewater river in the middle of Idaho. It is over 300 miles long and has three feeder branches. It is VERY rugged country. It has the nickname "River of no return". This should give you an idea of the ruggedness of the surrounding terrain. It is some awesome and beautiful country and worth a look if you are in the area even if you don't hit the water for a float. Riggins, ID hosts a number of whitewater river guide and rental companies and is known as the "Whitewater Capital of Idaho".
In June of 2002, the water level (not the flow) was 10 feet higher than August when I kayaked. The rapids change as the water level changes. Depending upon when you hit this section of river, the descriptions of the rapids may not be entirely accurate. Some are bigger, some are actually smaller or non-existent at higher water flows. Some become more challenging, not due to size, but due to features like submerged rocks emerging during low water flows. You get the general idea.....
The country along the Salmon River is host to numerous types of wildlife. While working there this summer I had spotted lots of deer, a cow and calf moose, mountain goats, eagles, elk and the usual range of normal birds and other mountain wildlife. Our floaters saw much of the same, though the moose aren't too plentiful.
The Big Salmon River Road runs east out of Riggins and ends about 27 miles up the Salmon River at a take-out/put-in called Vinegar Creek. This stretch of river from Vinegar Creek to Lucile (Lucile is about 9 miles downriver from Riggins) is one of the most floated sections of river in the state, if not the country.
The water ranges from calm flatwater to class IV rapids on this roughly 36 miles stretch of river. French Creek is 18.5 miles up this road. Spring Bar is a campground and put-in/take-out about 10 miles up the road which makes my kayak trip about 8 miles, through easy flatwater to class III rapids.
Back to the trip.....
We shoved off about 11:00 am and almost immediately hit a small, class I rapid. This was my first rapid in a kayak and I was a bit nervous, but managed to handle it just fine. I am a good paddler and fairly quick, though a bit out of shape. This little rapid was also short, comprised of only a few decent waves. We wound our way down the river for a couple of miles through class I and class II rapids, some long and some shorter ones. Water flows were at August levels (unfortunately, I don't know what the normal water flows are in this river at certain times but the USGS website should be able to help you out) as we headed for the next marker on my mental map...Elkhorn Ranch. Elkhorn Ranch is a working ranch about 1/2 mile upriver of the Manning Bridge. The Manning Bridge is a 1930s era suspension bridge which is extremely narrow. I have included a photo of it.
Between Elkhorn Ranch and the Manning Bridge is a short rapid with big waves. As I had made all the other rapids before this one, I was fairly confident I could handle this one. As I entered the rapid, it became apparent that the waves were bigger in a kayak than they looked while peering down at them from the school bus! I made it through the first one, got a little lax and set a little sideways into the second. I actually got flipped over coming down the backside of the first one and ended up rolling over. I admit, I did panic a bit. I didn't remember if I had gulped enough air before my head went under and I didn't know how long the rapid was (the waves were too big to see over) so I immediately pulled the spray skirt and bailed from the kayak. I swam to shore with the aid of our kayak guide who had seen me and helped me get the paddle and boat to shore. I learned a valuable lesson on that dunking...know the length of the rapid if possible before going into it. I could have simply waited that one out and rolled back up. Oh, well. Live and learn.
After getting back into the kayak, we continued on toward Spring Bar. The Crevice (as the gorge the Manning Bridge spanned is called) is a sharp cut into the river with shear sides (except where the road cuts into it now) and is solid rock on both sides. Along this section is a spot where floaters jump off the rocks into the river for some fun.
The next rapid of mention is Partridge Creek where the rapid starts at another newer cement bridge. It is a class II (I believe) rapid but just downstream are some boulders above and under the water that make some rather large eddies that are fun to catch.
The next 2-3 miles to Spring Bar are pretty flat and mellow with a lot of just floating and looking at the scenery, which as mentioned before, is pretty rugged. There are two class I - II rapids and some smaller riffles, but they were fairly easy.
At Spring Bar, you can take-out and rest up on a sandy spot. The rivers edge is rocky with water smoothed river rocks except at the paved boat ramp, but there is plenty of sand around. Spring Bar campground is a nice little campground for RVs and tents with no electricity, running water or sewage facilities. There is a spring or well water faucet near the rest rooms with good water so you can get a drink or fill containers. Most people who camp along this section, beach camp or find another wide spot to pitch a tent for no charge. There is a camp spot with Forest Service restrooms along the road upriver from Spring Bar, but I don't know whether a fee is charged.
This trip took our group about 4 hours. We let the slow sections carry us along and seldom paddled except to turn to look around or talk.
All in all, this stretch of the Salmon River is a good beginner section. If I could handle most of it, then most kayakers could. Our scout beginners often went down this section with little trouble even if the couldn't roll a kayak back up. It is scenic and rugged. It has a road along the whole stretch, some of it paved (but still narrow) so a rescue and transport would be easy. Camping is also possible at a few other places upriver from Spring Bar, but these fill up quickly so get there early. One does have a Forest Service restroom, this one is just upriver about 1/2 mile from the Elkhorn Ranch (unknown if they charge a camping fee). The others are pullover beach camping and are free.
Another note: The beach we started out from at French Creek is a private beach owned by the Boy Scouts of America and also extremely difficult to carry gear down anyway. I would recommend putting in about 1/4 to 1/2 mile downstream from French Creek where the road is closer to the river and pullover parking is available.
One MY scale of 1-10, I would rate this a 4 for difficulty (at least for me) and a 9 for fun (a variety of water and scenery).
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