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Navigating Idaho's Wild Water

Rivers will be running hard this summer

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Up-to-date water flows can be found through the U.S. Geological Survey at usgs.gov. For more information on snow pack and runoff projections, check out the USDA's National Resource Conservation Service SNOTEL program at wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snow.

With spring slowly fading into summer, it's time to start talking river trips. A very long, wet La Nina winter has left much of Idaho soggy and gray, but this fact of life isn't all bad ... depending on whom you ask.

For some it's a little too much of a good thing. For others it sets up nicely for endless summer fun on Idaho's river systems.

In Boise many folks appreciated the excellent ski year that accompanied the huge 2010-2011 snowpack and welcome big flows on the rivers with equal zeal. And, indeed, big flows are on the horizon.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, the May 2011 water outlook indicated that "cool temperatures combined with above average April precipitation delayed snowmelt and allowed Idaho's snow pack to continue building."

Snow packs range from 125 percent to nearly 200 percent of average across Idaho, with accumulation at or near record-high levels in Eastern Idaho. The NRCS shows that creeks are flowing swiftly and warm temperatures will soon increase the rate of melting snow. Until then water will be released from reservoirs to make room for the 125-250 percent of flow that is predicted for Idaho through July.

Translation: Idaho's rivers will be bumping this summer, if not already. The Salmon River Basin--Middle Fork and Main--should be running at high flows well into the summer months. Pushing 137 percent of average snow pack as of May 1, these legendary stretches face their most plentiful sourcing--year to date--since 1997.

With more than 5 feet of snow remaining on some Central Idaho summits, and overnight temperatures still hovering around freezing, it may continue to look and feel like winter for some time in certain parts of the state.

But apparently, the lackluster weather has not put a damper on early season rafting for people seeking recreational river thrills. Ben Florence with Bear Valley River Co. in Banks is looking forward to a great year on the Payette River.

"We are ahead of last year for bookings and have been sending out guided trips since April," said Florence. Florence isn't concerned about huge flows scaring off potential customers.

"If the South Fork [of the Payette River] gets too high, we can always run the Cabarton and the Main," Florence said.

Snowpack and high flows may make some of Idaho's most sought-after boating spots dangerous in early spring, but they ought to be in excellent shape for summer and will likely extend the recreational boating/rafting season in some areas by several weeks.

Tyler Thomas is a third-generation Idaho boater and owner of Boise-based whitewater accessory manufacturer Pulse Fabrications. He is gearing up for the coming generous water year.

"Big volume rivers like the Main Salmon and Hells Canyon can see tremendous spikes if warm weather hits a snowpack like we've seen this season," said Thomas.

But swift, high waters can mean danger and rivers don't teach lessons lightly.

In July 2006, hundreds of boaters were stranded by a massive log jam on the Middle Fork of the Salmon above Pistol Creek. It took several days for the Forest Service to dislodge the jam, which led to disruptions up and down the river. In July 2008, the Middle Fork of the Salmon was again a strict teacher. That was a month of big blowouts, when a number of creeks and tributaries with erratic flows spiked quickly, which caused huge amounts of debris to rush into the river and change the flow of several rapids. A Class Two rapid might easily change to a Class Four overnight because of a log jam or new hole formed by the addition of a large boulder.

In May of this year, a rafter drowned after being thrown from his boat on the Lochsa River.

Conversely, in the same way that high water can cause dangerous rafting conditions, it can also make running rivers easier if flows overrun rapids that are tricky to navigate at lower levels. A large hole can turn to nothing more than a fun wave train at high water.

As of June 6, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River was running at 7,240 cubic feet per second (5.84 feet), which is only 1,470 cfs higher than historical average. On the other hand, the Owyhee River near Rome, Ore., was running 3,600 cfs (5.23 feet), which is nearly 3,000 cfs above historical average for the same date.

Year after year, Idaho boasts some of the best whitewater in the world--and the 2011 will be no exception. If you plan on getting wet this summer, play safe and be mindful of the unpredictable temperament of many of Idaho's wild waters.

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