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Mainstream: Answering the Call of the Main Salmon River

When water is low, there is still an option


After a full day on the water, it's unlikely there's a more tranquil setting than one of the white sand beaches adorning the banks of the Main Salmon River. The complete freedom that goes hand-in-hand with this stretch has become a requirement for many Idaho summer recreationists. Sure, it isn't the Middle Fork, but in snowpack years like 2012-2013, it is absolutely the place to be.

I had the pleasure of tackling the red-headed stepchild of the Middle Fork in late June, and while the degenerate little brother of Idaho's staple river allows jet boats on its nether regions and doesn't have the dramatically changing scenery of the Middle Fork--even the shuttle run is a pain, requiring a roughly 12-hour drive from put-in to take-out to pull off this 79-mile stretch (without a jet boat service)--it's still a stunning trip. And with flows remaining near 5,000 cubic feet per second on the Main heading into August, the prospect of getting pinned on one of the many rock gardens of the upper Middle Fork doesn't sound nearly as appealing.

With a dismal snowpack and hot early season temps, boaters who pulled a Middle Fork permit for August will face an unfortunate reality that occurs on the undammed, natural flowing river--a very boney trek downstream through a whole lot of rocks.

The Main Salmon's handful of large rapids, epic scenery, thick forest and high mountain desert mix, huge beaches, sound fishing, exemplary bird watching and more relaxed pace make it a great four- to six-day run for intermediate boaters--or experts looking for a more relaxed option.

With flows running at about 6,000 cfs at the put-in at Corn Creek, my group of 17 river rats lucked out. Point of reference: Last year, the Main was running at around 12,000 cfs on the same date. In the past, I have felt resentment at not having pulled a Middle Fork permit. This year, I was happy to be on the river and reconnecting with a stretch that I had long taken for granted.

We spent the evening of June 24 at the put-in, rigging boats and half of our group greeted us at 6 p.m. aboard the Arctic Creek Lodge Jet Boat, and their three-and-a-half hour ride from Vinegar Creek near Riggins proved the more efficient approach. Our drive took more than eight hours from Boise.

The next morning, we gathered around the U.S. Forest Service kiosk for our talking-to, offering info on new rapids, wildlife warnings, standard river etiquette and a few safety tips before we double checked our rigging and jumped in the boats.

Afternoon showers didn't dampen our run through Rainier Rapid or an evening of revelry at the large, sandy Blackadar camp. Good company sharing old river stories under an unpredictable Central Idaho sky--one of the finer experiences in life.

Day two brought us through the recently created Black Creek Rapid--the result of a flash flood. Cooler temps lingered, so we stopped for a soak at Hot Tub hot springs--a large pour-over pool. That night we set up at Magpie camp, a beautiful, treed, sandy beach. A nice recirculating pool just upstream made for a bountiful go at the Main's native cutthroat population. We cooked dinner before endeavoring to celebrate an unplanned, impromptu birthday bash for one of our group. We proceeded to pass a bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey before establishing a wheelbarrow race beer chug course.

On day three, the weather cleared and we were treated to the most whitewater action of the Main. The rancorous Class 3-4 series comprised of Bailey, Five Mile, Split Rock, Big Mallard and Elkhorn rapids comes on quickly, and can make or break your Main Salmon experience. Most of the Main is fairly timid, but this sequence is the exception to the rule. With large pour-overs, sticky holes and a few tricky sneaker lines, day three on the Main certainly gets the blood flowing.

On Big Mallard Rapid, my solo line left was smooth, apart from kissing the edge of a giant boat-eater hole at the rapid's exit. The interface between my boat and the hole was so jarring that I spilled my giant plastic goblet of mixed nuts, which I had precariously strapped to the cooler in front of me.

Then, the fifth boat in the line miscalculated its way directly into the hole. With the next rapid just around the corner and all four boats upstream--and unable to corral the flipped, unmanned boat--I rowed hard, tied the now fully unraveled bowline to my frame and dug hard back to the nearest eddy.

Not an hour later and another boat flipped on a Class 2 rapid. It can happen to anyone. A member of our group cited a piece of river wisdom that they had picked up along the way, "There are two types of boaters: Those who have flipped and those who are going to flip."

We made it into Pain Creek camp without any more mishaps and set up shop for costume night. The hilarity of the garb lifted the spirits of those who had the misfortune of flipping a boat that day.

The next morning, two of the more adventurous from our group swam across the river to partake in a daring rite of passage on the Main--the Pain Creek cliff jump. The roughly 70-foot freefall isn't the tricky part, getting up there is. A treacherous shuffle up a poison ivy-covered bank to a loose rocky overhang is more likely to claim your life than the jump itself. Fortunately, they made it without incident and enjoyed the camp-wide cheers across the river.

Day four, we took on a relaxed pace down to Buckskin Bills alcove, where we stopped for a refresher course on some Idaho wilderness history and topped off the coolers with ice. We passed Mackay Bar through Ludwig Rapid before setting up camp at a swimming hole.

Day five, we made our way through a handful of timid rollers, Class 2 rapids and a ton of flat water before setting up our last night's camp at Maxwell Bar. This enormous white sandbar with adjacent creek and huge recirculating eddy made for a nice afternoon of paco pad floating, wallowing and fishing. The trip had gone in the blink of an eye, and we all started to get that old feeling that we would have to go back to reality all too soon.

Day six, we had a short, 8-mile run to Chittam Rapid and the Vinegar Creek take-out. Despite a pair of flipped boats and some unpredictable weather, the trip was a success.

While the Middle Fork remains Idaho's premier river, don't pass up a chance to run the Main. It has proven to be a nice alternative, especially in low water years--with epic camps, beautiful scenery, solid fishing, storied history and a few nice rapids to boot.