Seven strangers

Each of us had met at least one other person on the trip at least one time. Morgan, the permit holder, invited Merritt. Merritt, (whom I’d met once), invited me. I invited Mike (whom I’d met twice). Mike invited Fin and so on, until we were seven. Our connections were less than a degree of separation and we were about to have eight days on the Middle Fork Salmon River in common.


Rick Sylvester, Mike Walkinshaw, Mike Finzel (Fin), Jami Rains, Haven, Merritt Edmunds, Morgan Milligan, ready to launch!

Admittedly, my greatest motivation to go on the trip was to paddle a new river, and I had heard great things about Idaho’s whitewater. It was a rookie move though, to jump on a trip for that reason alone. I knew from so many years of climbing and traveling that your experience ultimately depends on two things: who you’re with and your own attitude.

Hiccups occurred through the whole trip- forgotten this, unplanned that, missed turns. But what’s an adventure without slow boats and false starts? We were a funky group, but we were not without our golden moments.

It started with what should have been a 12 hour drive turning into a 16 hour caravan from hell with no A/C through the mid summer Nevada desert. Making the most of that situation would make anything else on the trip a breeze.

Even though he must have been exhausted after having picked me up at 5:30am, I felt pretty sure that Mike continued to drive because the sun was beaming straight in on me and if we traded, he’d have to sit in the hot seat. I decided I could at least turn the table figuratively by asking him every personal question I could think of while I digested the answers along with ice I scammed from a cooler.

Mike took the bait. With an exhausted stash of 90’s CDs, there was no excuse to not tell the long version of each story. Turns out we have a lot in common, but in my heat induced paralysis, all I could do was nod uh-huh and periodically reach back and close the broken back window latch that kept sliding open.

By morning the reset button had been hit and my eyes were glued out the window at the expanses of flower filled meadows and jagged peaks of the Sawtooth mountains that rise to the southwest of Stanley, Idaho, the last outpost town before putting on the river.

Chaos reigned at put in, as always, and everyone had an infinite amount of adjusting to do on boats and gear. With a crack of 3pm start, our three rafts and three kayaks were launched and paddling the swift roller coaster of water a brisk six miles down to our first camp.

Camp #1

Camp #1

The whitewater was not that remarkable with the water being at the easiest level possible. A couple days of continuous fun class II-III and a few IV’s led into days punctuated by rapids here and there and a lot of flat water in between.

pistil rapid

Pistol Rapid

Hot springs were the novelty for me. They were everywhere the first half of the trip. On the river banks, in the cobble bars, seeping out of the hills and up side creeks.

Predawn solitude at Loon Creek hot spring

Predawn solitude at Loon Creek hot spring

Our layover day was across the river from Sunflower hot spring. It conveniently rained making it even more enticing to soak.

Courses of bocci ball, Thai shrimp curry, gin and tonics, hammock naps and 100 miles of paddling took us downriver.

Happy hour on the river

Happy hour on the river



mmm, delicious, mmm mmm delicious!

mmm, delicious, mmm mmm delicious!

By the time we joined with the main Salmon and reached the take out at Cache Bar, we had gone through forests of ponderosa pine, giant barren burns, and the Impassable Canyon. We had been blessed along our journey by a Shoshone woman who told us about the Sheepeaters who used to live along the river in the warm season. We had moments alone and moments shared.

River view

River view

I came away knowing that I had made new friends and experienced a new stretch of water. And typical for me, I was burned out on group travel, group decisions, group everything. Mike and I were ready to be on our own pace and in our own place as we thought about making our way back to Santa Cruz.

Of course, that meant we really didn’t want to leave at all and we were lured into sticking around Idaho for an extra day to paddle the south fork Payette River. This Canyon run turned out to be the most exhilarating whitewater of the trip.

It's good karma to pick up hitch hiking kayakers. Especially when it's hot.

Picking up kayakers brings good karma. Especially when it’s hot.

I love being on the water with few people and the tight walls of the Canyon and Mike’s poor memory of the run made the day even more thrilling for me. To humor me, Mike and I stopped to scout most of the class IV rapids, none of which were difficult, but had the unknown factor making them intimidating, at least to me. Mike seems to never do much more than slightly raise his eyebrows at any size whitewater.

We portaged and had lunch at the 40 foot macking tiered waterfall Big Falls. Just watching this rapid and imagining going through it amped my nerves up. We seal launched off the end of it and continued down to where the canyon constricted even further, all but blocking off options for scouting and totally making my day as far as excitement levels. A few more fun roller coaster rapids, a big boof and the water fanned out again to a broad flat, easy going flow. We paddled out at the golden hour with the horizon full of flying insect halos, warm air on our faces and the low sun reflecting off the water.

Seal launch below Big Falls rapid

Seal launch below Big Falls rapid

It was painful to have to leave, there were so many more kayaking options. But Mike was my ride home, not to mention my paddling partner and he was all frothing about some job he had to get back to. So we left on a rainy day, and drove through clouds of all shapes and colors back to California. Idaho will have to wait till next spring to be continued…

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