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Boating—a word that most runners loathe.
It can mean everything from floating on a placid lake to an ocean-sailing crossing to a Caribbean cruise ship. But to a trail runner,
it pretty much means one thing: a complete lack of exercise. As a result, most runners tend to avoid watercraft at all costs and encourage their families to go on more terrestrial-based vacations in order to facilitate their daily endorphin fix.
However, what about a boating trip that not only offers up an unusual, fully disconnected adventure deep in one of the biggest wildernesses in the United States that also presents the ability to run hundreds of miles of remote singletrack and eat sumptuous meals each day?
A map of Idaho shows a huge swath of roadless green in the middle of the state, and cutting northward for a hundred miles through the heart of this remote area is the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, one of the
great rivers of the West. In addition to making for a world-class river trip, it’s an untapped trail-running heaven.
Our crew of 15 folks was able to get an ideal launch date in early July 2016. One of the great things about a river trip is that nearly everyone can enjoy them: our trip included some nearly retired lawyers who had barely ever slept outside, teens who wondered why they were being forced off their phones for a week, gung-ho millennials, crusty river rats and, fortunately, also accomplished endurance athletes Drew Hardesty, Paul Diegel, Zinnia Wilson and Benj Wadsworth, who were as keen to lope along singletrack and charge up steep climbs as they were to brave the rapids.
At the Boundary Creek put in, a simple campsite perched above the rushing waters of the Middle Fork, a ranger gave us our orientation talk. River newbie Zinnia gazed wide-eyed downstream where the river hurtles out of sight.
An unlikely pairing
“What have I gotten myself into?” she croaked, likely speaking for a fair number of the rest of the crew.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon is rated Class 3 to 4, depending on the flow, and aside from peak snow runoff (typically late May to mid-June), it’s the perfect combination of exciting but not scary. However, it does start with a bang.
As our flotilla of five rafts finally pushed off the rocky beach, the nervous anticipation of the crew was palpable. Just a few miles below lurked the first significant rapid: Velvet Falls, a good Class 4 so named because it’s unusually quiet and comes up abruptly. But Paul—as the designated trip leader and king of the crusty river rats—recognized the terrain as we got close to the lip of the rapid and we were able to pull over, get out and scout out our line. The crew leapt back in the boats, shoved off, hung on to the lines on the raft and crashed through the edge of the hole unscathed, albeit with a refreshing dousing of icy water.
That afternoon, we landed at camp, and quickly the beach became a flurry of activity as everything on the rafts was yanked off and deposited on the beach in an impressive gear explosion.
Rafting makes for very civilized camping—a full “kitchen” erupted out of the sand, everyone popped open a camp chair and began consuming a plethora of riverside beverages and appetizers. A cook crew started making dinner.
Said Drew, a backcountry climbing ranger in the Tetons, in the midst of the cooking frenzy, “On river trips you leave the oatmeal and freeze dried at home!”
What sets the Middle Fork apart from other multi-day river trips is its vast network of trails that beg to be run. The main artery is the aptly named River Trail; for 80 miles it parallels the river and crosses it several times on beautiful suspension bridges. Though it traverses the bank, it’s no riverfront stroll: the trail dips and climbs a lot on high-quality singletrack that at times forces dancing through white-granite rocks yet also enables blasting along buffed pine-needle trails.
Before our trip, Drew had studied the maps and realized there are several major tributary streams that offer well-established trails alongside. One day, we ran up Loon Creek for seven miles, until the lure of appetizers and beer kicked in and we turned around. Near the bottom, though, we got sidetracked with a quick soak in the Loon Creek hot springs—a perfect 104-degree pool a half mile from camp.
An unlikely pairing
In addition to Loon Creek, Marble, Pistol, Camas and Big creeks all offer reasonable climbs on great trails, some for up to 30 miles.
One afternoon, three of us started up Camas Creek but detoured on a side trail heading up to a peak. We motored up for 2000 feet for incredible views of the Bighorn Crags looming 5000 feet above the gorge.
In the Middle Fork’s last 20 miles, we hit the ominous-sounding Impassable Gorge. Red granite walls soared straight out of the river; there is no River Trail in this section. But Paul simply turned his gaze upward and declared: “Who needs trails! Let’s just go up!”
Since there’s very little vegetation to get in the way due to the open, arid and fire-ravaged terrain, going straight up the grassy hillside provided a glute-busting effort that was rewarded with sublime views down the river corridor.
It’s also in this lower section that we encountered some of the most exciting rapids: Rubber, Tappen Falls, Haystack and Webber were all exciting Class 4s that Zinnia exclaimed, “created the most fun I’ve ever had sitting down!”
Eventually, the Impassable Gorge ended at the confluence of the Middle Fork and the Main Salmon, where the takeout loomed. There, we packed up the boats, and kicked back to rest our legs