A word from the Editor: “Woodie Hindman introduced Prince Helfrich to the Middle Fork in 1940. Woodie pondered the navigability of the Middle Fork as he floated past the confluence of the Middle Fork and Salmon Rivers on a previous trip. Having successfully convinced his wife, Ruthie of this adventure, the two of them launched their 14-foot McKenzie boat in Bear Valley Creek on July 20, 1939. It was a harrowing and beautifully invigorating trip. Woodie’s next trip in 1940 introduced Prince to the Middle Fork. Thus began Prince’s affinity for that river.” – Roger Fletcher

My First Middle Fork Trip – by Dave Helfrich

The year was 1948. I had already been guiding on the McKenzie for a number of years. I was pretty small for a kid of 16, but one day my dad says to me, Let’s make a run tomorrow on the upper McKenzie, and if you can follow me through, I’ll let you do the Middle Fork with us. I probably didn’t weigh 130 pounds, but I decided, Yeh, that’s what I want to do; I want to do the Middle Fork. We put in at Olallie Creek, ran the fish ladder, and the rest of it down to do about Paradise. I guess I passed the test, because I’ve been doing the Middle Fork ever since. 

So off we went to Idaho and the Middle Fork. We had a caravan of six plywood boats, three per trailer. One of the biggest sights was when we pulled into Sun Valley to the main lodge there. There was great excitement. What’s going on? What are you people going to do with those funny little boats? 

The McKenzie boats were typically stacked for travel. From left to right is George Godfrey, Veltie Pruitt, Oscar Bussell and Prince Helfrich loading up for a trip on the John Day river (1939). 

There were two groups there besides us. One was a movie group working there, and the other was a bunch of Kappas from the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. There were all kinds of beautiful women around, and here are these so-called executives coming in, and playing it for all its worth. Girls climbed up on the boats, and they took pictures and all that kind of stuff. I’m sure these guys were wheeling and dealing for later on in the night. 

We stayed that night at the Challenger Inn. These guys were drinking really heavy, and I’m surprised they made it back to their rooms okay. But the next morning they got up and were ready to go. Some of them still had their wine soaked T-shirts on. Everybody was pretty well hung over, but we loaded them up in the van and headed to the river with our caravan of boats and the guests. We had a limo lined up to take them over from Sun Valley to our launch site. 

The Dudes traveled from San Francisco to Sun Valley by train. At that time, and I don’t remember which train company it was, a train was used to haul skiers into Sun Valley area. So these guys booked a trip on that train from San Francisco to town. 

When we got to Stanley, our driver into the launch site said, There’s no way you can get into Bear Valley Creek at this time. He told us that the only way to hit the river now is to put in on Marsh Creek. 

The Middle Fork has two tributaries, with Marsh Creek being the larger one. It kinda comes out of the northeast and it’s the first one we find driving out there. It’s a nice little stream. It’s not big roaring water. We launched there, and we took off into the unknown. So mind ya, none of our group – Dad, Woodie, Veltie – none of them – had ever boated this section of the river. We just knew it was about 5-miles through there to the Middle Fork. 

McKenzie Drift Boats on the Upper Middle Fork of the Salmon River

We started down through there, and god, it drops fast. Back in those days each boat had one guest, the guide, the guest’s luggage, the guide’s luggage, and one of the food boxes. So we started down through there, and stopped to scout rapids, especially those steep fall offs. I lucked out that day. I put one little pooch mark on the side of my boat. It didn’t hurt anything. 

But one of the guides, Jack Lowry, had a big guy in his boat who liked to stand up all the time. The Dude was standing up, and Jack wasn’t paying much attention. He hit a rock. His boat swung around into the current, and it swamped against that rock. So here’s all that water coming into the boat, and all that gear floating out and down the river. We were out there trying to retrieve everything: oars, rod cases and other stuff. 

So there was Jack’s boat trapped against that rock. We got somebody out there on that rock, probably Everett Spaulding, and he put a rope on the boat. We pulled on it, and by golly, we peeled that boat off the rock. It wasn’t damaged very much. There was one cracked rib. We camped there that night, and Woodie repaired that rib. 

Prince told me that the Middle Fork starts out real easy and it gets tougher as you go down. Well he hadn’t been down that section up there and he didn’t know what he was talking about. As the guides stood around talking Prince said, You know that’s some of the toughest water I’ve ever run from Marsh Creek down to Bear Valley Creek. We ran the rest of that aggressive little tributary, and we finally made it to Dagger Falls. 

We had to stop at Dagger Falls. It’s an impossible spot. There was a bridge there, and when you saw that bridge, you’d better be heading to shore. The only way around is to portage all the stuff and boats. That was a big job in itself. It was about 300-feet up to level ground, and then 500 or 600 feet of level ground before we dropped back down to the river again. We made that portage and then headed on down the river. We had fish that night. There was no problem catching fish at all. In fact, we ate lots of fish. 

With one guest per boat, I felt like it was important to take good care of my guest, so I took good care of my guy. When we’d get into camp, I’d find him a good spot — we didn’t have tents in those days. Usually, you’d have an air mattress, so I’d blow it up and fix things up for him. And when he got up in the morning, it was the same situation. I’d pack things up and get them back in the boat. One of the guides thought that was ass-kissin’, to take that good of care with your guests. I told him, I’m not doing anything else, so I might as well help out my guest. He couldn’t see the point. I could. 

The guests got pretty lively in the evenings, running around the campfire, and drinking whiskey. One night, this guy was running around just in shorts. He fell into a pile of brush right down there close to the river, and he fell into the edge of the river. He got wet, got up, and he said, Man, that’s cold! Ten dollars to any son-of-a-bitch who will get in there! So Spaulding said, I got Ten. Spaulding peeled off Ten bucks, dropped it on the table, took off his clothes and swam out to the middle of the river, and came back. The guy said, that’s the easiest 10-spot I ever lost. 

At that time we had six guests and that required six McKenzie river boats and we had three McKenzie boats for baggage. Woodie was running the heavy baggage boat and he had a box that he had built in his shop that fit snugly into its place in the boat. It set down in there in great shape. It wouldn’t wiggle around or move; it was built to fit. In that box he kept all of his cooking stuff, all of his silverware and pots and pans and stuff like that in his chuck box. 

Things were so much different in those days. We didn’t have refrigeration. We didn’t have ice boxes. We didn’t have coolers or anything like that. In those days you prepared for dry camping and that meant lots of bacon, ham and living off the country the best we could. We had fish about once a day. Each guide would take his guest off to find a nice pool. And except for what we ate it was all catch-and-release. All the guests would chip in five bucks and that money would go to the guide whose guest caught the longest fish. Well, that was pretty competitive and as luck would have it I won that prize. My guy told me early on that he didn’t want to fish that hard. So he said, You go ahead and let those guys fish and you fish too. So I fished a real nice little pool that came off a tributary into the Middle Fork. This big old Dolly Varden came up and grabbed my fly. He was 18 1/2 inches long, which won the prize that day. 

Barron Hilton gifted his pistol to Dave as a token of appreciation for a great trip

The guides talked about sharing tips. One or two said they would like to share the tips, while others were working their butts off. This one little guide, and I won’t mention his name, but he was the same one who told me I was ass kissin’ when helping my guest, gave me a hard time. When it came to the end of the trip my guy left me 20 bucks and he said there is more coming. He went over to his duffle bag and asked, Where is that pistol? He said, It’s in this duffle bag somewhere. Barron got it out, unloaded it and handed it to me and said, Dave, this is your gift. This was about an $80 pistol, so I got a $100 tip that day. This little whiny guide wanted me to split the difference. I wouldn’t do it. I said, No, this is a gift and it’s something I would not buy on my own, and I’m going to keep it. 

This was Barron Hilton that had the gun, the hotel owner. Barron was 26 years old at the time. Anyway, on that trip he and I would go out from camp with the pistols, far enough away so we wouldn’t bother anyone. And we did that several nights in a row. I have kept that gun all these years. I carried it for a long time in the mountains, and on the rivers. I’m gonna give it to my son, Kenny. 

Read Prince Helfrich’s Obituary: https://www.helfrichoutfitter.com/prince-helfrich-obituary-1908-1971/

Read Dave Helfrich’s Obituary: https://www.helfrichoutfitter.com/the-loss-of-a-legend-obituary-for-david-p-helfrich/

Skip to content