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BLOG: 97 Miles of Smoked Salmon River

20 years ago I was a river bum who dropped out of college so I could get 200+ days a year on the water. The downside was scrounging for change in the donut shop parking lot so I could afford a 59¢ breakfast.  These days, as co-owner of Clavey Paddlesports I can afford more donuts than my doctor allows but I rarely get more than one good river trip a year.  So when Jim Marsh, the publisher of Canoe & Kayak Magazine invited my wife and me onto the Main Salmon during the busiest part of the Clavey summer season, I told Tom and Jeff my mother was gravely ill and I’d have to be gone for at least a week.

Originally, I was going to grab a raft and all the trimmings from our rental warehouse and drive the four days up and back to the river. Tiring but worth it. But then, because I’ve built up all this good karma over the years, Sheen Coles of Aire offered up a new 15′ Wave Destroyer cataraft along with all the bells and whistles and dry box and cooler and oars and even a coozie for my beer.  How could I say no to that?  I couldn’t.

Not only could I now trade the 12 hour drive to Boise for a 2 hour flight but I could sit back and let Sheena drive an Aire truck, with an Aire trailer, hauling Aire boats and filled with Aire gas, all the way up to the put-in.  Plus, on the way back from the river I could show my wife the North Fork of the Payette and tell tales of a time when I was considerably more manly if not too terribly bright.

Now I did a trip down Cataract Canyon with the crew from Canoe & Kayak a few years back so I knew for sure this was gonna be worth my while. For this trip they hired the pros at Middle Fork River Expeditions to buy all the food, carry all the gear, find the best camp sites, make all the meals, carry and set up the groover, point out all the big holes and not let us float past the hot springs by mistake.  It’s all the whitewatery goodness of a private trip without any of the hassle.  All the wife and I had to do was load our boat down with 5 days worth of beer, wine, gin and tonic, throw our dry bag in the dry box and begin looking for the best holes to try and flip a cat.

But the many lightning fires of the Salmon River Basin conspired against us, and our dreams of rowing a light, frisky cat down the river ladened with only our personal gear and our beer was dashed by the fire closure of the access road.  17 miles upstream of the Corn Creek put-in, we pulled into Cove Creek and decided to consolidate an extra day’s worth of rowing and paddling into the same duration on the river. It was here at Cove Creek that I bumped into Bob Volpert, the original owner of Clavey. We talked a little about the success of his new book, Halfway to Halfway, a collection of river stories, and then I made the mistake of telling him that I had never been on either the Middle Fork nor the Main Salmon before.  Was there anything coming up on this first day? He told me to watch out for Cramer Creek, a class IV after the confluence of the Middle Fork of the Samon. That gave me a little something to think about as I backed the trailer down the ramp. I always find this funny because I don’t think too much about a class IV rapid when I’m on a class IV river, but put a class IV rapid on a class III river and I become…a little thoughtful.

The three rafts and a river dory that belonged to MFRE had been shuttled up the river and were thus waiting for us at Corn Creek. For the group of kayakers, of which our group was mostly comprised, this meant nothing more than the knowledge that the first day of paddling would be 17 miles.  But for Sheena and myself this meant loading our cats with everybody’s beer, liquor and personal gear.  Now 17 miles is a pleasant day on the river in a lightly loaded cataraft but when your cooler and dry box are both dragging in the water, the boat rows with all the gentle glide of a dead cow. Of course, I’m 225lbs and as long as we didn’t run out of beer I knew I could row all day.  But Sheena is exactly half my weight and she doesn’t drink.  How she managed to push that barge along to where the rest of the boats and crew from Middle Fork River Expeditions were waiting for us, I’ll never know.  Fortunately, there was Chip and Stacy and their 14′ Hyside to carry the non-kayaking passengers or Sheena and I would have been rowing Aire’s newest series of boat: the Aire Submersible.

Par for the course, my lovely bride and myself were the last ones to push off from shore.  Jaime, our trip leader and head guide for MFRE had borrowed an inflatable kayak from another outfitter and was hurrying down the river in an effort to make miles.  By the time I cleared the bank and spun the boat to head down stream, Sheena, who had started rowing mere moments before, was already disappearing into the smoke that prevented us from seeing more than a few hundred feet downstream.  It was great start to a bad Stephen King movie.

Throughout the day our boat was getting lighter and lighter by twelve ounce increments and eventually pushing my dead cow along the current wasn’t so bad.  On the riverbanks we would see the scarred, smoking remains of what the river left behind and wave to the smoke jumpers who surely begrudged us our carefree living a few meager feet from where they worked so hard.  As we looked up the canyon walls we couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was burning.  From where we sat, the it appeared as though the rocks themselves were on fire.  C’est la vie.

The river on this upper stretch was pretty flat and by the time we got to the infamous Cramer Creek Rapid, dead cow or no, I was looking forward to a little action. Nicole held the cat in the eddy while a number of us scrabbled over the rocks for a look at the run.  I could see Cramer being class IV at higher water but at this level it was a class III all day long.  No matter what you wanted to rate it, it was a good time and certainly the biggest rapid on the river so far.  Best of all, Cramer meant we were just around the corner from camp.  And a good thing too. I was pretty much done with beer and peanuts and definitely ready for a real meal and a little G&T to boot.  And when we pulled onto the beach across from the boat ramp at Corn Creek that’s exactly what we got.

The next morning we awoke with a start as someone shouted the fire was breaking over the ridge to the east. Sure enough, there it was breaking though the trees at the top of the canyon. It got bigger quickly and so bright you couldn’t even look at it. Within moments it was so big and so bright and so hot that it had actually separated itself from the top of the canyon and was now drifting into the sky. Fortunately the sun was far enough away that there was no actual risk to us down at the base of the river canyon. There was, however, a significant risk to the person who yelled fire for some serious mockery every time the sun came up.

I won’t bore you with all the dull details of our little float trip down the river but I will take a moment to highlight a few of my favorite moments:

•Seeing a family load their raft down with every single item they could possibly lash down to it, a hundred feet from the river and then pick it up and carry it down to the water. I remember counting at least three hernias.
•Watching Klaus von Sherburne from Shred Ready SUP that river like the Eveready Bunny on meth.
•Deciding to run Mallard rapid to the right and the realization that we were not going to make it.
•Ejecting Jim Marsh, the publisher of Canoe & Kayak from the back of the cat like an original Bond car.
•MFRE’s dutch oven Prime Rib that was far and away the best I’ve ever had (I did mention I’m 225 lbs).
•Enjoying a cocktail while my wife teaches Mae (whose age we will never know) the fundamentals of SUP Yoga on moving water.
•Having Jamie, who was following Jim, who was on a SUP following me, yell, “Jim! Don’t go there! Scotto’s wrong!”
•Watching 105 lb Sheena Coles crush the field of competitors in Hunker Down.
•Meeting yet another awesome group of like minded river runners who could easily spend 18 days on the river together (Did you catch that reference Marsh?)
•And without a doubt my number one favorite moment during five days and 97 miles on the river was far and away and without a doubt Jim Marsh sitting on his kayak which was tied to the top of the front tubes of my Wave Destroyer, opening the cooler, leaning over the lid, reaching deep into the cooler to grab a beer and then falling forward onto the cooler lid and thus trapping his arm inside the cooler. His trapped arm prevented him from removing his weight from the lid and his weight on the lid prevented him from pulling his arm from the cooler.  Had I not been laughing so hard that I was unable to breath and the tears streaming down my face not blinded me from springing into action, I really don’t know if I would have helped Jim free his arm or instead freed my camera from its case so as to document the situation for proper posterity but by the time I could breath properly Jim’s screams of agony had reached a crescendo and as a result, in a moment of fraternal weakness I made a move I will most likely always look back with regret: I helped free Jim’s arm from the cooler.  A true C&K journalist would have done the right thing, immortalizing the moment forever in digital imagery.  Alas, I’m just a simple Clavey boy.

And so, with a combination of generous meals and gentle prodding from Jaime, and his band of merry men from MFRE, we managed to survive the fires, rapids, rattlesnakes and possible liver failures of what is definitely the best river trip I’ll do this year (and possibly the next).

And good news fellas!  It looks like my mother’s gonna pull through for at least another year.

Thanks again Jim.

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