In 1942, Eliot Dubois was the first known person to boat the Middle Fork of the Salmon River solo. Eliot, an east coast boatman, was headed overseas for war and was determined to run the Middle Fork before he left. He had not originally planned it to be a solo trip. Eliot and his two buddies set off for Idaho’s Middle Fork in search of adventure. They each had a “fold boat,” a wooden framed kayak with canvas stretched tight around it. At this time, there were no roads to the modern launch point at Boundary Creek. Instead, anyone wanting to float the canyon had to access the river via Marsh Creek or Bear Valley Creek, the primary headwater tributaries of the river. Marsh Creek originates near the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains, draining vast high mountain meadows and funneling the water into a steep narrow and fast dropping canyon.
The young men set off down Marsh Creek, with 25 technical miles to run down to the current day Boundary Creek Ramp and 100 miles more below there. Marsh Creek is a much steeper section of water than the rest of the Middle Fork and boasts long technical stretches of whitewater, especially at high flows like Eliot and his friends were facing. Only a few miles into the trip on the first day, Eliot’s two buddies had both wrecked their boats beyond repair. With no other choice other than to hike out of the canyon. Eliot contemplated hiking out as well however he was just not ready to give up on his dream. As fate would have it, he soon discovered that Prince Helfrich had recently launched on Bear Valley Creek and was headed down the Middle Fork. Prince was taking a commercial group down the river and Eliot decided if he could catch up to them, he would still have a chance of running the whole river.
As you already know, Eliot was the first solo boater to complete the river, so it’s safe to assume that he never did catch up to Prince and his group. He did however continue to chase them all the way through the canyon. He would find footprints in the sand or left over campfire remnants but just couldn’t quite catch them. This same year, 1942 was also the year that the Middle Fork had a big landslide blowout at Cannon Creek on the upper river. If you read the article above about the blowouts on the Middle Fork in 2022, you will know the impacts that these blowouts can have. This Cannon Creek blowout created a large earthen dam in the river, creating a lake that backed up the river for almost a mile. When Eliot stopped to survey the scene and figure out a plan, he found Prince Helfrich’s fresh tracks in the mud, giving Eliot hope that he could be catching up, however he never did manage to find them.
Eliot chronicles his amazing journey in his book “An Innocent on the Middle Fork.” This book is on our recommended reading list for the Middle Fork and one we would suggest you check out before your next Middle Fork trip. In this book, Eliot goes into detail about the amazing people he met along the river. The Middle Fork was a very different place back then and this book helps to chronicle the rich history the canyon holds and the resilient people who called the river canyon home.
We are so excited to welcome Sadie Grossbaum-King and her baby girl Moxie to the Helfrich Family! Some of you may already know Sadie or her fiancé Blake King; you may have floated with them on the Middle Fork or spoken with Sadie over the phone or email. Blake has been the lead sweep boat driver for HRO the past few years on the Middle Fork and is a loved and valued part of our team. Sadie joined the Middle Fork crew in 2022 and was an instant hit with both guests and guides.
Blake and Sadie have worked together in the backcountry for many years, both on the water doing float trips, and in the mountains working for hunting outfitters in the fall and winter. Their love and passion for the outdoors and guiding makes them an amazing duo and a wonderful part to our team.
Sadie spent much of the summer in 2022 guiding Helfrich trips, but that wasn’t her only job. Sadie was also growing a new little person as well. In August, Sadie made the transition from river guide to office manager here at HRO. With her knowledge of the industry and great people skills, Sadie is a natural in the office and took to the task with ease.
Last Halloween, while many were transforming into fictional characters, Blake and Sadie made the real world transformation into parenthood when they welcomed a beautiful baby girl, Moxie Mae King, into the world. It has been wonderful to watch these two take to being parents with the same dedication and ease as we have seen in their other passions in life. Not much can pull a devoted guide off the water and into the office but starting a family sure can. Being the office manager at HRO allows Sadie to stay connected to the river world that she loves while also dedicating her time to being a mom. We will miss her on the Middle Fork trips but are excited for this new chapter of her life.
Being a family owned and operated business, we strive to make our Helfrich Outfitters operation as family friendly as possible for our team. Watching our guides grow and start families is very rewarding and now more than ever, we have quite a few river babies (guides in training) running and crawling around the boat house and office. It is awesome!
I think we can all agree that the world we are living and traveling in now is a bit different than it was a few years ago. Luckily there are still amazing river trips in wild places, and luckily those places don’t look all that different than they did 100 years ago. Well, maybe the food and accommodations have improved just a bit, but you know what we mean. We all deserve opportunities to disconnect. Travel is so important to our mental health but recently, pandemics, natural disasters, and more have impacted how we travel and plan our trips. In this dynamic and changing world, it is important to expect the unexpected and protect the investment you have made in your vacations. In addition to flight delays, family emergencies and issues at work, trips operated in the wilderness always run a higher risk of cancellation due to natural events such as wildfires, water levels, road closures or other conditions beyond our control. Travel insurance can help protect your investment in the event of any one of these unfortunate scenarios. Trip insurance can also provide you with benefits including emergency evacuation, lost luggage coverage and cancellation due to a personal, family, or medical emergency. Certain policies even provide “cancel for any reason” coverage if you simply decide to not attend the trip. Travel insurance has become an important part of planning any vacation and your river trip is no exception. Though Helfrich River Outfitters is not licensed to sell trip insurance we recommend you get it!https://www.travelexinsurance.com/index.aspx?location=12-0050&go=bp
The last few years have dealt us some interesting challenges on the upper Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In a domino effect of fires, storms, and mudslides, we are witnessing first hand the impacts of these events in a dynamic wilderness environment. These geomorphological shifts will change the river flow for many years to come. But don’t worry, in the end, these events are and will continue to have many positive impacts on this amazing river that we love.
In 2021, the lightning-caused Boundary Creek Fire ripped through the upper canyon of the Middle Fork. It burned along the river and through many of its tributaries. If you have floated the Middle Fork, or spent much time in the West, you know that fire is a natural and (mostly) healthy part of our ecosystem. The Boundary Fire caused access issues for boaters in the summer of 2021, but it was nothing we had not seen before and we did our best to adjust. While much of the fire had healthy impacts such as burning the underbrush and leaf litter, there were also sections that burned much hotter, killing large swaths of the forest and scorching the soil. Unfortunately, many of these intense burns happened in some of the steepest and most rugged sections of the canyon. Losing the vegetation and root structures in these steep areas leads to the destabilization of the soil and higher risks of landslides.
August of 2022 brought intense microburst storms and heavy rainfall to the Frank Church Wilderness. These storms released multiple inches of rain within just a few short hours on the fragile, unstable, burned hillsides of the upper river. The power of water should never be underestimated and we witnessed first hand how quickly a landscape can change in a matter of hours or even minutes as multiple canyons and hillsides gave way in large scale blowouts.
Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.
A debris flow or “blowout” is a geomorphological term for a landslide up a tributary that builds momentum as it continues downstream. With extreme force and speed, this flow of mud picks up debris like rocks, boulders, trees, even bridges along the way. When it finally reaches the river, it spews into the main channel, often carrying enough debris to create an earthen dam capable of rerouting or even blocking the entire flow of the river for a period of time. These events can happen on any scale but the ones we experienced last summer were large enough to cause drastic changes to the river corridor and prevent boat passage for the remainder of the season..
Throughout history, many of the rapids on the Middle Fork and rivers everywhere have been formed by blowouts. A debris flow will block the river, forming a dam. As the river backs up behind it, the force of the water builds and begins carving a path through the debris. Over time, the water will wash away the mud and small rocks and sediment, leaving behind big boulders and other large debris to form a new rapid. This is what we expect to see from the new blowouts on the Middle Fork as well.
This powerful event of nature created a mess for the river users, both commercial and private. The blockages started at mile 5, and the groups on the water above could not pass or go around and had to get their boats and equipment out via helicopter and mules. Trips were canceled and the fishing came to a screeching halt. At that point, all float groups had to readjust and begin flying in all equipment, guides and guests into the Indian Creek Airstrip to launch trips.
About a month after the August blowouts on the Middle Fork, just as the river was almost passable again, another storm system dumped rain on the already destabilized hillsides and we saw a repeat event of large scale blowouts in those same tributaries. The river’s ability to clear a path through the debris depends greatly on the volume of water in the river. With these blowouts happening in August and September during low flows, the river took much longer to cut a new path. Much of the debris that came down was wood. With thousands of trees getting pushed into the river, we were left with multiple impassable log jams. Looking forward to this next river season, we feel optimistic that the spring runoff will have the power to clear out these jams and clear much of the debris to allow boat passage.
Now for the good part! Though this mess created challenges for just about everyone, there is so much more that comes from it. Fire and blowouts have long been a part of the Middle Fork’s ecosystem. Many fun and challenging rapids that we have today were created from them. One of the biggest benefits is all of the added sediment that the blowouts deposit in the river. This sediment and fresh rock is great for the fish and creates optimal habitat for spawning salmon, steelhead and trout. With the Middle Fork being home to the highest elevation anadromous run in the world, spawning for these ocean going salmon and steelhead is critical. The sediment that came down with the logs and boulders provide new irregular sized and shaped substrate and benefits spawning fish, while the added woody debris provide good cover for juvenile fish. Increased spawning activity in the water and the resulting biomass that adds to the ecosystem provides nutrients for the bug life and juvenile fish. This in turn helps all populations of fish and animals in the ecosystem.
Over the next few years we can also expect to see much of the finer sediment washing down stream to replenish the beautiful sandy beaches along the river. The big sandy beaches at Elk Bar, Otter Bar, Parrot Placer and many other loved beach camps should be even more spectacular with this new sand being deposited.
Part of why this river is so special is that it is wild, it is free flowing, and completely untamed. Nobody wants the water to be muddy on their fishing trip, or to have to change their vacation plans. Luckily we do have the option to fly in to launch the trips if we are faced with the issue of the river becoming blocked again. This year’s events posed a substantial challenge to boaters and river visitors, but it is a good reminder that we are simply guests in one of Mother Nature’s most amazing wild places. Come see it for yourself.