Sixty-two lucky souls per summer will draw a Selway Permit, entitling them to enjoy 48 miles of uninterrupted Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness via the Class III-IV river that runs from Paradise Gauge, Montana to Selway Falls, Idaho.
The rest of us eager mortals have to duke it out in the 7-8 day gap between when permit season ends and the put-in road closes for a chance to experience the pristine Selway wilderness. Given that it was a high-water summer all around the West, our group took it a sign that this was THE year to blitz the Selway. When we arrived to the put-in early August, a park ranger told us that about 90 people had put on the first day of non-permit season, quickly sobering us to the possibility that we might not be getting the remote experience we'd bargained for. At that point it was four days into non-permit season, and by the time stowed our keys/cars/cash for Karen, the local shuttle driver from Darby, Mont., the crowds had thinned out and we were on our way downstream through one of the West's most famous wild rivers.
Paddling the Selway for oneself is the only way to fully experience its grandeur - these words can't do justice. For nearly all of the 48 miles you can see clear through to the bottom. The river is positively teeming with wildlife. Our group was floored to see crops of freshwater mussel beds, truly the mark of a healthy river. We saw huge red cedars, giving the place an ancient, jungle-like feel. We saw a black bear pulling an exhausted steelhead from an eddy — a fish that had migrated from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia, the Snake, the Clearwater, and finally the Selway before spawning in this Eden of a river. Let me put it this way, if we had seen a dinosaur drinking deeply from the river's bounty, it wouldn't have seemed out of place given how wild this place was.
We were also supremely fortunate that our trip coincided with August's Perseid meteor shower. I recall struggling to sleep one night through a light thunder storm, being pelted with stone-sized drops through my bivy... only to wake up a couple of hours later to clear skies and meteors streaking through the stars every couple of minutes.
The whitewater, too, kept us giddy and thrilled for all three days. We were four kayakers and two catarafts. Some of the larger rapids required some creative maneuvering on behalf of our cataraft ladies, but they styled it. Having the larger watercraft along allowed us to eat like kings and queens for the whole trip. The difficulty of rapids picks up considerably in the last two days after Moose Creek kicks in and nearly doubles the flow. Rapids like Ladle and Wolf Creek gave us a broken oar, one hairy swim, and some great memories all around.
We took off on a Sunday, having to make a quick bee-line back to the concrete walls of civilization to return to the habitual bump-and-grind that affords us these types of adventures. Coming off the Selway was like coming out of "The Land Before Time"; we were all suddenly back to cars, work, having to feed the dog and so on. That said, my gorgeous memories are still vivid, and I look forward to any future opportunity to return and experience the Selway wilderness portal again... to ascertain if the steelhead really are as big as I remember, and the water as crystal clear as I recall.