SUPing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

In Idaho, the perfection of nature is right in your face. You can smell the butterscotch scent of the Ponderosa pines or the smell of rain or the ever present smell of smoke from some fire. The smell is never neutral. My nose is always awakened when I’m in Idaho.

Usually we are in Idaho to run a river so are always outside. To be outside for a week will generally wake up all your senses. There are alway sounds of nature… the wind in the trees, the sound of the running water of the river, the cry of the Osprey protecting it’s nest or hunting. And certainly the visuals are stunning. The water is so clear that you can see all the rounded stones on the bottom even at 6 feet deep, the white granite of the Idaho Batholith resists weathering to create steep canyon walls along the sides of the river, the ponderosa pines have grown thick and tall as they’ve stood in place for two to three hundred years.


My senses were fully awake on our recent trip to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River which is right about in the center of the state. The Middle Fork has been called the “River of No Return”, I think because the river is a constant gradient with the water moving rapidly with continuous small to large rapids. In other rivers it is possible to go back up the river with the right boats and paddles and upstream eddies. But that is impossible with the Middle Fork. Once you start going down it, you are on a journey and don’t know what will happen. There is no turning around once you start the 100 mile trip.


That was the case on this trip. I had brought my Stand Up Paddle board and I made the choice to paddle from the beginning even though many in the group were giving me advice to ride on a boat the first two days because the river was so shallow and fast moving and technical. I had to remember that they were all rafters and not SUPers and were looking at the river through their eyes and not someone who knew how to SUP. After all, I had been practicing all summer on the rivers close to my home which were also shallow, fast moving and technical. Technical means that there is always something in the river to pay attention to and paddle to avoid or find a good route. It is never just a relaxing float. On this river a rafter, and a SUPer, had to alway be paying attention and be ready to maneuver. I was pretty nervous since I didn’t know the river but decided to trust myself and my skills. This was my first lesson from this river.. trust myself. And, I could always get on a boat if necessary.

P1000088The first day with smoke in the sky

There were 17 people on our trip, mostly from the town where we live. Included in the group was my husband, daughter and her boyfriend and a bunch of good friends and a few people I met for the first time.  There were 8 rafts, an inflatable kayak, a hardshell kayak and me on a SUP. Pretty much everyone was captaining some kind of boat because that is the fun for many river runners. They like to read the river and row a boat.


Clear Water

I will admit that this river was very challenging and I fell in more than a few times those first few days. The river was very shallow with constant action and I felt comfortable moving around and balancing through the fast moving water. I fell in when the fins on my board, of which there are 4 and go down about 4 inches into the water, would run into a rock that I didn’t think was there, stop my board and send me flying off into the water. That started to make me nervous enough that I started to kneel more than I normally would. The water was so clear that I could see every rock and it was very difficult at first to visually grasp which rocks were near the surface to grab my fins.


SUP fins beat up from hitting rocks on the river.

In Colorado the water is filled with sediment (because the rivers flow through rock that is not very hard and erodes easily from wind and runoff) and not as clear so we learn to read the water by the evidence on the surface. Because Idaho rivers are so clear (they flow through very hard and less erodible rock) I had to learn to read the water in a different way because seeing all the rocks in the river as you float over them at 5 miles an hour plays games with your eyes and gives you a bit of vertigo. I got used to it after a day and a half and the water also got deeper as we floated downriver and more side creeks flowed in. The volume of the water in the river was growing.

The Middle Fork is so classic, not only because of it’s beauty and remoteness but also because there are hot springs everywhere. The first 5 days of our 7 day trip we soaked in hot springs.  We could all get really sore from paddling all those miles through rapids and look forward to soaking our tired muscles at some point during the day. It was paradise! If you like this kind of thing…..


The highlight of the whole trip was that we were on the river during the eclipse. Unless, as the saying goes “you were living in a cave” you know that there was a full eclipse on August 21, 2017 and we got to see it from the river. We were not in ‘totality’ but were at 98%. I heard stories from many friends who drove north to view the eclipse and viewed it with hundreds of people around them. Granted, we did not have the ‘total’ eclipse but we viewed it on the river with just the people on our trip.  And, after floating down the river putting our glasses on and off to watch the moon moving over the sun we found a hot springs to sit in to watch the grand finale.

unnamed-1.jpgEclipse SUPing        Dave Wolf Photo

P1000185Hot Springs Elipse Viewing

At the height of the eclipse it got very close to dark out and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees. Fortunately we were in a the warm water. With a bottle of whiskey.

On the river it didn’t take long to realize that I needed to be in a constant state of alert. The speed of the river never relented and full mindfulness was required in order to stay upright. The focus required to SUP the Middle Fork made me about the most present I have ever been in my life. If I let up for an instant I could hit a rock and be in the river. I earned several bruises that are just now healing up from losing my focus. It was intense and my brain was as tired as my body at the end of each day. That was another good reminder for me, to get what you want sometimes requires very intense focus and effort!

unnamed-2Dave Wolf Photo

Another lesson was that sometimes a person doesn’t need to be so damn goal oriented that they forget reason. The group stopped to ‘scout’ Pistol and Velvet Falls rapids and I made the adult and female decision to carry my board around them.  They were essentially waterfalls  and I saw no reason to challenge myself to that level. Of course my goal had been to paddle the whole river but I decided that paddling MOST of the river would be OK.

P1000075.JPGPistol Rapid   

I paddled for 6 days (and 85 miles) in one piece and was feeling very good about things. And it was fun! I remember when first SUPing through  rapids how much I had to think about what I was doing. “Flex your ankles, put your paddle in the water, keep your head up,” I would say to myself.  I had a habit of staring right at the rapid in front of me and as I went over it my head would go down, getting my weight forward, making me fall forward off the board or onto my knees. When I finally had enough miles under my belt I start to ‘feel’ the river and my body would just do what was required to balance and move and flow over the water. It is a wonderful feeling. Throughout this trip I would have to remind myself to engage my core and keep my head up but it’s easy to get nervous and forget what you’re doing. It was just so exhilarating to get through a big rapid upright and feel the speed and rhythm, and enjoy the beauty of the blue-green river.

Everyone kept talking about the last day of the trip as we finished up the Middle Fork which would then confluence with the Main Fork of the Salmon. They talked about how fun and challenging it would be. As we started out that day the river seemed to intensify and the rapids were different. The river would narrow down in many cases and funnel through one slot through big rocks, or sweep around a rock and you’d have to make a big move to avoid the next. There were big elevation drops through these funnels that made them feel more like waterfalls and at the bottom of these drops the waves came crashing back at me from both directions (laterals). On most of these I saw what was coming and was able to get to my knees but the ferocity of the water was still flipping me off my boat. No amount of balancing or paddle work on my part was able to keep me upright. Realizing that this might be the course of action through the day, I pulled over and put on my drysuit to seal me in from the cold water. I hadn’t needed it before this day.

unnamed-3Focus    Dave Wolf Photo

Good thing I put it on!!! I swam quite a bit, but with a drysuit on I felt strangely protected and had a good time in spite of it. My goal always is to A) make it through a rapid standing up, or B) if that doesn’t look possible, get to my knees in a mindful and stable way and get through upright in that manner. I’m very goal oriented that way and had to give up on that in many cases on that last day. It was good for me to give in and just say, “Oh well”. Plan C I guess. My drysuit was keeping me dry, my knee and shinguards were keeping my legs safe, my helmet protected my head and my PFD (life jacket) was keeping me afloat. Had to trust my equipment and myself and go with the flow. There are so many life lessons to be learned on the river…..

Paddling or rowing on the river is the big attraction of these trips. But just as important is the camp time. When traveling in this fashion with a whole group of people you become a family for a week. We cook meals together, clean up, set up camp, hike and soak in hot springs together. You get to know these folks quite well, like it or not. You get to know who you can trust or who you need to help, or who always lends a hand. You learn to talk to people from many different backgrounds and always know that you share the love of river life with each other. When you run into one of your river family on the street you always stop to give a hug and have a talk because a special bond has been created.

So here I am, home. Wiser and empowered, with a few new friends and more solid old ones. I’m still filled with the wonder of Idaho and of the Middle Fork River. Did that trip really happen? As my bruises fade and my tiredness goes away I’m not so sure. Good thing there are photos. They bring back all those feelings and senses I was talking about at the beginning. It’s always good for me to hold onto those and bring them back to my every day life. It helps me remember what it feels like to be challenged and to feel completely myself. If I can bring that back to my life it helps me to be a better person.