December is the darkest month, but it also brings a ray of hope for whitewater boaters longing for summer voyages down Idaho’s most-storied rivers.
If you want to paddle the Selway, Middle Fork Salmon, Main Salmon or Snake River through Hells Canyon, you’ll need a permit – and the time to apply for one is now. The application period opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 31.
Just picture it: A weeklong trip down a remote Idaho river, running major rapids by day and camping on sandy beaches at night. Your family is there, your friends are there, and you could be, too. So what are you waiting for? Get busy with that permit application.
Each of the above-cited rivers is exceptional, which means there’s overwhelming demand for launch dates during the prime boating season. To distribute launch dates fairly, the U.S. Forest Service doles out the highly coveted permits via lottery.
Most lottery applicants are losers, but the cost to apply is about as much as a six-pack of beer. If your name isn’t drawn, well, it just wasn’t your day. But if you are successful, you’ll have months to organize your equipment, plan your menus and edit your guest list. (Warning: You will have lots of friends if you draw a permit.)
Here’s a thumbnail sketch of each river, along with a recap of the odds for landing a permit:
Cold, clean and clear as bootleg gin, the Selway offers the deepest solitude of Idaho’s permit rivers. When it’s running big, in May and early June, the Selway also is the most fearsome of the four. The average gradient is 28 feet per mile, which is pretty steep, but the drop increases to 50 feet per mile below the Selway’s confluence with its largest tributary, Moose Creek. Fortified with water from the creek, the Selway embarks on a 2-mile rampage through some of its most celebrated rapids – Double Drop, Wa-Poots, Ladle and Little Niagra.
The permit section through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is only 47 miles long, but the real beauty of the Selway is that only one party can launch per day. Sixty-two permits are allocated to private, noncommercial parties. In 2017, the last year for which data are available, the odds of drawing a Selway permit were a miserable 1 in 72.
Bonus fact: The Selway was one of the original eight rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act when it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.
Middle Fork Salmon
More than twice as long as the Selway’s permit section, the Middle Fork Salmon is a 104-mile romp through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Though generally easier than the Selway, the Middle Fork dishes up plenty of formidable rapids, including Velvet Falls, Pistol Creek and the frothy maelstroms that lurk in Impassible Canyon.
Just like the Selway, the Middle Fork is another of the eight charter Wild and Scenic Rivers, which means motorized boats are not allowed. Don’t expect solitude, however, because upward of 10,000 people paddle the Middle Fork every year. Unlike the Selway, paddlers on the Middle Fork must pay Uncle Sam a recreation fee of $4 per person, per day.
There are several private ranches and lodges along the Middle Fork and at least six backcountry airstrips. Small planes are a frequent sight.
There are a few hot springs, most of which are pretty grubby, but the ones at Sunflower and Loon Creek are outstanding. Speaking of outstanding, there are a number of Native American pictographs scattered among sheltered rocks along the banks. Some of the artists had rather inflated opinions about their physical attributes.
Better warm up your lucky rabbit’s foot because, at last count, the odds of drawing a Middle Fork permit were 1 in 34.
The permit section of the Main Salmon begins about eight miles downstream of the confluence with the Middle Fork. It’s a 79-mile run that’s largely sandwiched between the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the south and the wonderfully named Gospel Hump Wilderness to the north.
The camping is outstanding, with dozens of majestic beaches hemmed by the Salmon River’s signature tree species, the stately ponderosa pine. It comes at a price because, just like the Middle Fork, Uncle Sam collects a recreation fee of $4 per person, per day.
The rapids are considerably easier than the Middle Fork’s, thanks in large part to all the dynamite deployed long ago by skittish boat operators who served the Main Salmon’s backcountry cabins and lodges.
The banks of the Salmon are littered with the detritus of more than a century of failed human endeavor. There are derelict mines, deserted timber camps and a tournament selection of large, weird-looking pieces of abandoned machinery.
The Salmon was long known known as the River of No Return, an ominous name for a fairly mundane practice. Back in the day, the boats of choice were heavy, wooden scows to carry cargo to and from the river’s many settlements. Since it was impractical to haul these boats upriver for a second run, they were dismantled at the end of each voyage and the planked lumber used to build new structures. From the perspective of the boat, it was truly the River of No Return.
Any trip down the Salmon River must include a stop at the home of Sylvan Ambrose Hart, aka “Buckskin Bill,” who was the original Idaho survivalist. He built a wonderfully idiosyncratic settlement at Fivemile Bar during the Great Depression. Highlights include a blacksmith’s shop and a fortified stone turret, from which Buckskin Bill would greet federal land managers with a hand-forged blunderbuss of enormous caliber and dubious accuracy. College educated, he was frequently photographed wearing a helmet in the style of Spanish conquistadors.
At last count, the odds of drawing a Main Salmon permit were 1 in 29.
Hells Canyon of the Snake
The good news is the odds of drawing a permit are about 1 in 9, and there is no daily recreation fee. The bad news is it’s usually hotter than the hinges of Hell, there are only two outstanding rapids, and the canyon has all the ambiance of the Daytona 500 on race day.
Jet boats prowl the water during daylight hours, so Hells Canyon is not a place for those in search of peace and quiet. Once the sun sets, however, a powerful sense of calm settles over this deep and evocative canyon.
It’s worth a visit. Maybe even two.
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