Last week found me heading for Marsh Creek and kayaking out of the Stanley Basin for a week-long, early season trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with a crew of seven. While technically not in Western Montana, I would like to think that it is well within our sphere of passion and it's certainly one of the best river trips around. What's a border anyway? Well as we know, it can be the difference between a good place to live and a bad one in parts of the world, but here in Montana I would like to think of Idaho as our usually friendly neighbor, even though occasionally they get a little red under the collar. But then again so does the Bitterroot. We were treated very well in Stanley with a soak at the hot springs and some good beers served up by dredlocks in the bar.
When we launched into the creek the next day it was gorgeous if cool at 22 degrees. The river was running pretty high, 6.5 feet at the Middle Fork Lodge gauge, but the forecast was for it to keep dropping with cooler temps and little rain. It had spiked to 7.88 feet 36 hours before our scheduled launch, so I was a bit nervous. Marsh Creek has seen its fair share of human disaster and I wanted to have a good time. And we did. We otter slid down the snowbanks and into the creek and within an hour of fast and furious whitewater and current, we arrived at the confluence with Bear Valley Creek and the official beginning of the Middle Fork. In another quick hour we were at Dagger Falls and catching our first eddy of the trip. Good thing as there was a log crossing the entrance rapid to the falls with water surging over it deep enough usually but occasionally dropping to evoke uncomfortable visions. I decided to portage while my two kayaking companions, the Bradt Brothers, portaged the log and ran the falls while I held the video camera.
Back in the kayaks and another hour sped by taking us to Trail Flats Hot Springs, the first of the rivers five accessible soaking springs. It was mostly flooded out so we soaked cold hands and feet, had a quick lunch of jerky and candy and headed out to Sheepeater Hot Springs undeniably one of the nicest campsites on the river.
We enjoyed a good amount of wine, beer and tequila that night and managed three soaks in the springs, some hacky sack and dinner before enjoying a great night sleep under our tarp shelters. It was cold in the morning, so we lounged around soaking in the springs and taking our time getting ready for the quick float to Sunflower Springs, where we had planned on joining the rest of our group who had flown in from Salmon to Indian Creek airstrip. Launching at noon and three hours and 25 miles later we rolled into Sunflower under sunny skies and with a few fun rapids and waves caught. The three other notable rapids in the upper river at this level and in my memory are Dodge Creek before the confluence and then Velvet Falls and Pistol Creek both below Dagger Falls. Dodge Creek Rapids on Marsh Creek is a long, steep section confined to a narrow channel and is in your face for awhile. The other two are quick but can require some hasty maneuvering depending on the level and logs. Velvet Falls was a straightforward left line past the hole into the burly eddy line and Pistol had a sweeper in the left line requiring a far right run.
We laid over at Sunflower Hot Springs having joined the rest of our crew there and enjoyed R and R and a little hiking.
Up above the hot springs on the ridge the views of the country and the river are stunning, with the river making a long sweeping oxbow turn and gathering Marble creek in the process. Hiking along the the spine of the ridge, a peninsula between the river bends gave the perspective required to understand better the run of the river and how it could be traveling southeast at the hot springs.
With the general trend of the river north and a deep canyon that it flows through, keeping oriented is difficult and confusing at times. And it only really matters in terms of where the sun is going to be at camp, which can make a big difference in comfort at any time of year.
We were off the next day by noon after finishing with the rapids Weber and Rubber both of which gave us quite the ride. With the river now running below 5 feet, we were into the best part of the whitewater canyon at an ideal flow, high but not too high. If I could go back next week and run it all again I would; what an exceptional trip and river.