A Historic River Trip – The Story of Eliot Dubois and the First Solo Trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon

A Historic River Trip – The Story of Eliot Dubois and the First Solo Trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon

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.  

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