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Trip report:
Kayaking Big Creek / Middle Fork of The Salmon

Date: May 15-18, 1998
Paddlers: Fred, Brad, Brent, Rich, Will
Craft: Self-support kayaks (Freefall x 2, Overflow, Mongoose, Extreme)
River: Big Creek - Frank Church Wilderness, Idaho, USA

 

Plane leavingThe plane taking off from the Big Creek backcountry airstrip. This was an interesting feeling - we were left with our kayaks and only one way out -- down the Big Creek river which which flows for 34 miles until it reaches the Middle Fork of the Salmon. None of us had been on the river before, so we didn't quite know what to expect. We were hoping for some excellent class IV wilderness paddling. The put-in is less than a mile from the airstrip which we expected to be hard work with the fully loaded kayak. Fortunately, we met a very nice couple who were caretakers at the cabins near the airstrip and after some socializing, they offered to drive us nearer the put-in in their pick-up. In return we shared some of our alcoholic beverages and had a very enjoyable evening by the campfire.
Boats at dawnThis blurry picture was taken out of the tent the next morning. It was very cold, and the kayaks were covered with a thin layer of snow. The sun was out though, so it was a beautiful, crisp morning. It always takes a while to get the boats packed the first day, but we managed to fit everything in after a while. This wasn't our first self-support trip, so we had become a little better at bringing the right amount of gear. It is so much easier if you go down with rafts that can carry everything! Will in tight sectionThis is Will going down an interesting section on the first day. There were a handful of logjams, so we kept very alert and close together, always making sure that we could see a catchable eddy somewhere close. It went smoothly and we managed to spot all the logs in time.
Brad and Brent portagingThis is Brad and Brent portaging one of the logs - perhaps the most arduous one to negotiate. Some of the logs were easier - just a quick carry on some rocks, or leaning back on the boat while floating carefully under a small clearance. Will in boat, Fred on shoreThis shows Will running one of the fun little drops on the upper section. We had scouted a few spots, but there was nothing that we couldn't handle. This was around the time where we floated past a little island in the river. I turned my head towards the bushes, and right there, facing the river, stood a giant moose looking at me! I didn't seem to take much notice of us, but we had floated too far downstream before it occurred to me to take a picture of it!
Playing hackWe found a great camp spot, and this shows Brent, Will and myself playing a round of hack. The camp was a mile or two after Coxy Rapid, the only named rapid on the river - a long class IV. Fun stuff, and a great climax to a fun day on the river. We were quite cold by this time, and we had fantasies about the huge campfire we were going to build. Putting on some dry clothes when we got to camp helped tremendously. Brent playing bag-pipesLater that night, Brent creates a mystical ambiance when he pulls out his bag-pipe practicing whistle thing. Without the bags, it actually sounds pretty good!
Brent in frothI didn't take many pictures the following day. Here is one of Brent going through some frothy stuff. It was an absolutely brilliant day of paddling. The river got wider at this point - no more logjams, just white-water fun. Most of it was moderately technical that could be run by boat-scouting. I just love going down like this, jumping from eddy to eddy, finding The Right Line through the mazes of boulders, holes and pourovers. Middle Fork campWe wanted to camp somewhere on the last section of Big Creek, before it joined the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The reason is that we forgot our firepan (an alumin(i)um baking tray) which is required on Middle Fork campgrounds. We found one mediocre campground about a mile or two before the confluence, but we decided to try for a better one. Unfortunately, there were no further places to camp and after a while we floated on the Middle Fork. Never mind. There is a campground on the right bank immediately after the confluence, so we settled down there. Not a bad spot, really, but no campfire to warm our tootsies.
Will keeping low profileThe next day we floated down the Middle Fork which was running somewhere between 4 and 5 feet - a medium to high flow. Last year I ran all of this river at very high levels, close to 8 feet, so I wasn't too worried. This lower 20 mile section is one of the good parts called the Impassable Canyon, and we had another day of excellent white-water. It was very different from the Big Creek Experience, though, much less technical but much bigger water. Just line up somewhere and punch through

Brad punching wavesSome places would be nasty to mess up. I forget the name of the rapid (haystack perhaps), but I floated right next to these bloody enormous holes that looked like they would hold a bus. Brad did some interesting maneuvers in one of those, flipping over (deliberately I'm sure) right before he dropped into it and somehow rolling right out of it.

Rich trying to keep his paddle dry

Fred in holeOn a relatively mellow section, Will, Brent and I were rafted up next to each other talking about stuff. Suddenly we noticed that we were floating right into this huge, narrow hole in the middle of the river. We scrambled to get the hell out of there - Will and Brent went to either side of the hole but I were not so lucky and went *smack* right into it. It wasn't huge but it was bloody violent and sticky. I side-surfed for a bit, trying to get out at the sides. I got flipped over, rolled back up, still trying to get to the side, almost out - damn, this time it decided to back-ender me, upside down again, rolled up, other side, front ender, rolled up, tired, I should try and pull the skirt to flood the boat, cannot let go of the brace or I'll get window-shaded, try, *wham*, rolled up, damn let's just get out of here. I pulled the skirt and almost jumped with my paddle into the backwash and started swimming. It let me go quickly, but the boat was still in there, showing off a selection of rodeo moves that I have never been able to do when in it. Well, I got to shore and Will and Brent got the boat after it eventually decided to leave the playhole.

Brent on carThe rest of the run went without incident, and we arrived early afternoon at the confluence to the Main Salmon. This is where we had left my car a few days earlier, and this was the end of our adventure. I can recommend Big Creek to anyone who feels comfortable in class IV water. It starts out as a small narrow creek, grows into a good volume technical river, and ends as a big-water feast.

Everybody makes fun of my family style station wagon, but check it out with five kayaks on top, gear, and five smelly paddlers comfortably lounging inside. Smooth riding.


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