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.
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.
Spring time comes a little later up in the Frank Church Wilderness, making June the ideal time for flower children. During this time of year, you can spot blooms of many different species of wild flowers, such as syringa, camas, arrow-leaf balsam root, elephant head, indian paint brush, and many others.
Syringa is often referred to as “false orange” because of it’s strong fragrance that smells like citrus blossoms and permeates the entire river corridor. Camas lilies were once an important staple of both the indigenous peoples and early settlers of the region, with many reporting the root to have a flavor similar to sweet potato when cooked. Indian paint brush and arrow-leaf balsam root are almost impossible to miss, carpeting meadows with flashes of color and texture.
Because of the lush greenery and flora during this season, it is not uncommon to witness incredible sightings of wildlife and migratory birds, such as the brightly yellow and red colored Western Tananger. You can often find them flying in contrast to the majestic and cascading water falls that run at their fullest at the beginning of the season.
Whether you are rafting, hiking, fishing, or just taking in the sights, June is a great time to feast your eyes on the incredible colors and scenery that come with the springtime bloom. Don’t forget to pack your camera and grab some once in a lifetime shots!