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We hoped the joke wasn't on us. The ranger at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station had told us a few days earlier that the South Fork normally ran at about 1,200 cubic feet per second in early August. Due to the snow-laden winter and delayed spring runoff, it was now cruising at three times that flow, she'd told us. She couldn't offer specific information about Youngs Creek except to say, "Just be careful, and be sure to scout all the rapids."
But Youngs Creek turned out to be friendly. Thanks to an introductory stretch of flat water, we gained coordination and confidence with every paddle strokewhich soon came in handy. A friend had told me we'd see an impressive limestone wall and a bottleneck where the river sped up a bit, and he wasn't kidding. The towering cliffs made a formidable entrance to a gorge.
We pulled out at the top of the wave train and carefully walked the riverbank to scope out our approach. Doug and I, filled with excitement, plotted what we thought would be the safest path through the rapids. But as I was visualizing my line, I looked behind me and noticed Megan wasn't with us. I scrambled over the rocks back to our boats to find her sitting on the bank, terrified. With tears forming in her eyes she said, "I think I'm going to pack my boat and bushwhack to the trail. I'll just meet you guys below this canyon."
I'd like to say I was a comforting and understanding husband, but that's not exactly what came out. "Are you crazy? I'm not going to let you go by yourself. You can totally do this. Just follow my boat, and we'll get you through."
After further coaxing, Megan was readyor perhaps resignedto drop in behind me. This was only a Class II rapid, but when you're sitting on crashing water in a tiny one-man inflatable, about 20 miles from the nearest help, with no means of communication and sharp rock walls squeezing in on either side, the rating doesn't mean much.
It turned out to be a thrilling ride. We bounced safely through the first set of waves and pulled aside to scout the next. Megan had a big smile of accomplishment on her face. "That was actually kind of fun," she beamed.
We ran each set of rapids, carefully scouting each one, until we were out of the canyon. And then it was smooth water down to the convergence with Danaher Creek, where the South Fork begins.
The wide riverbanks welcomed our waterlogged boats. It was just past noon, and the sunshine let us dry off and tie on our first dry fly. Doug and I fished while Megan basked in her triumph over the rapids.
With every fish rise we forgot the suffering of the day before. We each landed five or six nice cutthroats before dinner, comforted that the trout we'd hiked all this way to catch were hungry for almost every type of fly.
Breaking camp over the next few days was simple: We packed our gear into dry bags and loaded up the Alpackas, which continued to impress me with their kayak-like dexterity. We encountered a shocking amount of downfall from the spring's tumultuous runoff. Three logjams were so massive we had to portage around or over them. But the boats maneuvered the rest of the obstacles with ease.