The bear hunters are shooting gophers from their truck at the base of Nez Perce Pass when we arrive. It's early May, and as long as snow still clogs the high pass, their notoriously burly rig provides early-season boaters like us with the only way to access the 47-mile stretch of the Selway River—one of the country's premier whitewater runs—boiling on the other side.
"You don't need us," one says, explaining that a Forest Service snowplow driver already punched through the last remaining snowbank.
"What's the river running?" I ask.
"Three feet," the man says, setting his rifle down.
"You think she'll jump?"
"Nah, there's not enough snow left up there," he says.
We don't need to hear anything else. My boating partner Cory Ackerman and I head up and over the pass.
On the other side of the hill lies an immense wilderness not yet tamed by concrete and wire. We are in the middle of the wildest, most remote area in the Lower 48. Only one route provides any access: the Magruder Corridor Road, which divides the 1.2 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness from the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church/ River of No Return Wilderness to the south. And we're driving it.
Thick herds of elk pepper hillsides amid fat ponderosa and cedar. The headwaters of the Selway, really just a rocky creek at this point, murmur a consistent tune at the valley's bottom as the channel cuts its jagged path to the Clearwater River and beyond.
The Selway's water runs crystal-clear, percolating from high basins and filtering through granite-lined streams all the way to the river. It's so clean we take a pass on using the filter, dipping our water bottles directly into the river. Ackerman says he won't run rivers he can't drink.
Cautiously optimistic when we arrive at the Paradise put-in, I can't shake the feeling that we managed to reach one of the country's premier wilderness whitewater runs way too easily. During peak travel season, a descent on the Selway River is highly regulated, and floaters face a 1-in-30 chance of securing a permit through the Four Rivers Lottery system. This early in the year, the permit system hasn't yet begun and the Forest Service has yet to start patrolling.
The river's remote setting adds further risk, for even if we survive a shipwreck, we'll be on our own. That means alone in the wilderness with only our booties, our dry suits and our misfortune. With much of the Selway's whitewater classified as Class IV, flips are not uncommon. Experienced floaters know to bring some matches and a Clif bar alongside the requisite gear of pulleys and carabiners in their lifejacket. And they should be willing to jog out, too, if necessary.
Our boats rigged and ready for the launch, we're excited and ready for whatever portages and challenges the river might float our way.
High and rising
The bear hunters didn't think much snow was hanging on in the high country. But it feels unusually warm, and whatever remains will certainly be melting its way down into the river.
I'll be rowing my partner Ackerman's 13-foot cat boat on its maiden voyage; he'll be in his raft. I rig a makeshift wooden floor between the cat tubes and secure everything down with cam straps—everything except the river map. We'll need that for the handful of bigger rapids we'll be facing later in the day. I watch Ackerman launch, then I push off into the river.
Instantly, the current grabs my cat, twisting my ferry angle and thrusting me downstream onto a boulder. The water hadn't appeared this powerful, but just 30 feet from the launch I'm already fast on my way to a wrap or flip.
I get right to it. The boat spins back down off the boulder, and I watch my map roll into the river, never to be seen again. Good thing I packed two.