July 1992 – Northwest Parks and Wildlife Magazine – Written by Bob Zagorin

Picture this. You told the folks back home you were going camping for a week in “The River of No Return” Wilderness. They were duly impressed. No doubt visions of Lewis and Clark came to mind.

Now, here you are floating high and dry in a McKenzie drift boat, some twenty miles downstream on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Every so often, you flick a fly line to break the monotony of the beautiful scenery. Around a bend in the river, camp comes into view.

This is no ordinary camp. Your guides have set up a complete wilderness kitchen. Dinner is already under way.

Better yet, someone has set up your tent — a big, beautiful tent with a full-sized inflatable camping mattress inside. A hot shower is waiting and there are even ice cubes for your cocktail. All around you is the special beauty of the Middle Fork canyon. Like you told them, there’s nothing like roughing it — in style.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon runs 106 miles through the heart of Idaho’s Frank Church “River of No Return” Wilderness. This wilderness, more than two million square acres, includes some of the most rugged backcountry in the lower forty-eight states. There are no roads and only a few landing strips and private ranches — grandfathered in 1968 when the Middle Fork became one of America’s original eight Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The river canyon itself is justly famous. From the Forest Service launch at Boundary Creek, the first twenty-five miles drop twelve hundred feet through almost continuous rock gardens. Here the river runs through an alpine forest of lodgepole pine and Englemann spruce. In high water, the strong current makes for difficult boating; in low water, there’s very little margin for error. No wonder the guides who run drift boats down this canyon are known as the very best.

The middle fifty miles meander through rolling hills covered with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Here are the best opportunities to flyfish for cutthroat trout. The Middle Fork is restricted to “catch and release” angling, and the cutthroat population is quite healthy. These mostly twelve-to-sixteen inch fish hit al sorts of caddis, stone, and salmon fly imitations. The fishing is good, but that’s not what makes this trip special.

Along the way, dozens of tributaries tumble into the main river. By the time Big Creek enters, the Middle Fork has at least tripled its flow. Then all that water gets squeezed into a narrow gorge — the “Impassable Canyon.” The last twenty-five miles include dozens of class three and four rapids with famous names like “Rubber,” “Redside,” and “Porcupine.”

Oregon outfitter Dave Helfrich has been running trips on Middle Fork since 1948; 1992 will be his 44th season. His dad, Prince Helfrich, was a Middle Fork outfitter (starting in 1940) before him. Dave’s brothers, Dean and Dick, have also worked the river, and his son, Ken, is considered one of the best boatmen in the Northwest. Chris Olsen, the guide in charge of the camp and kitchen, has been a professional on this river since 1960.

That experience is evident on the river as these highly skilled boatmen take speial care to insure a “safe and sane” experience. While private rafters, who have never seen the river, crash on through the big rapids, the Helfrich crew, with hundreds of trips under its belt, still stops to scout.

If there’s no substitute for experience on the river, it is something to savor in camp. If your idea of wilderness cooking is hot dogs over a campfire, you will marvel at the full scale outdoor kitchen that mysteriously appears each evening at camp and then disappears each morning after breakfast.

Actually, there is no mystery. A fully loaded pontoon boat floats on ahead of the Helfrich party and arrives at the campsite about 2 p.m. With the help of a “swamper,” usually a youngster learning the ropes, Olsen has three hours to set up camp.

The kitchen includes a Dave Helfrich-designed modular, upright propane stove with three burners and a full-size griddle. Not all the cooking takes place on the stove, so the kitchen also includes fire pans. All fires in the wilderness must be fully contained in fire pans, and all the sahes must me carried out of the canyon on each trip.

And, the, there’s cooler after cooler filled with food. All the meat and vegetables are fresh and almost all the baked goods are made from scratch. here are the highlights of a typical dinner menu for a six-day trip including five evening camps:

Day one — New York strip steak with fresh green salad, fresh vegetables, dutch oven biscuits, and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream.

Day two — Fried chicken made from whole fresh birds, skinned and quartered on the river, cole slaw, fresh broccoli, dutch oven corn bread, and spice cake for dessert.

Day three — Fresh Idaho trout, dutch oven baked potatoes, fresh green salad, fresh zucchini, french bread, and ice cream and cake.

Day four — Two-rib pork chops, corn, salad, dutch oven yeast bread, and a fruit salad.

Day five — Cornish game hens, four-bean salad, dutch oven biscuits, and cheesecake with raspberries and whipped cream.

By now, you may be wondering how they can keep all the meats and vegetables fresh for a week in the wilderness. Well, here’s how. On the third day, Helfrich flies in a thousand pounds of supplies, including three hundred pounds of ice, to an old airstrip in the canyon. That also explains the ice cream for dessert that night. Usually the guests are so impressed they help carry the supplies from the landing field to the pontoon.

You may have also noticed that almost every meal features dutch oven baking. If nothing else, you will leave the Middle Fork with memories of this baking technique, which originated on the great cattle drives of the Southwest. Woodie Hindman, an early guide and one of the developers of the modern McKenzie-style drift boat, brought the dutch oven style from Texas to Oregon in the ’30s.

The “oven” is a cast-iron or aluminum pot with legs so it doesn’t smother the coals below. The lid is concave and gets covered with coals. In fact, Helfrich recommends that 80 percent of the coals go on top. Dave built the two dutch ovens his outfit uses and a special round fire pan to hold them.

One of the favorite dutch oven breads is the hard-crusted, yeasted “jackass” bread. Apparently, this recipe originated from the early sheephearders. They would dig a hole in the ground in the morning, put their dough in it, go off to tend their flocks, and come back in the evening to fresh, warm bread. Don’t ask me where the “jackass” came in. It’s possible that after baking all day, only a jackass could bite through the resulting hard crusts.

The dutch oven is also featured at breakfast. You haven’t lived until you’ve had dutch oven cinnamon rolls, with fresh coffee, in the wilderness. But, then, I forgot about the fresh buttermilk pancakes with their secret ingredients, Coors Light. Dave says it makes them rise. I think I better book another trip.

About the author: Bob Zagorin spent the last fifteen years as a journalist in western Oregon and became well known during the last nine years as the outdoor reporter, senior reporter, and assistant news director with KEZI-TV in Eugene. During his years as a journalist, he won numerous awards for outdoor reporting. He is currently executive director of Oregon Guides and Packers.

Published in Northwest Parks and Wildlife Magazine in July 1992

Click here for Dave Helfrich’s famous buttermilk biscuit recipe:

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