That’s the email I sent out to a list of adventure buddies from Utah to Alaska who are not only skilled in lightweight winter camping and backcountry skiing, but can run whitewater in five-pound inflatable packrafts. I ended up with only two takers: Mike Copeland, a hardcore winter kayaker from Boise, Idaho, and Moe Witschard, an adventure photographer from Bozeman, Montana.
The author enjoying a caffeinated beverage prior to launching on the lower Middle Fork Salmon.
Congressionally designated in 1980, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness contains 2.3 million acres, creating the largest contiguous area of protected wilderness in the continental United States. Combined with the adjacent Gospel Hump Wilderness and surrounding National Forest Roadless Areas, the Frank forms the heart of a 3.3 million acre roadless wildland. Arguably, this is the most rugged and remote region in the lower forty-eight states. Additionally, the Frank Church Wilderness is home to the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon River, massive herds of elk, mule deer, big horn sheep, and – since their 1995 reintroduction – wolves.
This last attribute, while appealing to advocates of wildlife and wild places, has been the center of a seemingly endless and contentious debate between federal and state officials. Most recently, wolves lost their endangered species status in Idaho, and their management turned over to Idaho’s department of Game and Fish (IG&F), who immediately sold an astounding 26,428 wolf hunting licenses.
Forrest hopping a plane out of Salmon, bound for the lower river.
As the largest designated wilderness in the lower forty-eight, the Frank was one of two locations wolves were originally reintroduced. If there is a place in the contiguous forty-eight states that wolves can exist without conflicting with ranching and other human activity, it is the Frank Church Wilderness. However, this past winter IG&F decided to mark and capture the wolves that inhabit the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness – the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. To do so, IG&F requested the United States Forest Service (USFS) grant a “categorical exclusion” that allowed helicopters to land in this congressionally designated wilderness area – a direct violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act that clearly states “there shall be… no use of motor vehicles, … , no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport…” While the pre-existing use of small, fixed wing aircraft and an associated system of primitive airstrips was grandfathered in, the landing of helicopters outside those designated landing areas was not.
As a result, a coalition of wilderness advocates including Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch, and Winter Wildlands Alliance brought a legal challenge to the helicopter landings. Central to the lawsuit is how helicopter operations violate the 1964 Wilderness Act by diminishing “opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The IG&F and USFS countered that nobody visits the Frank during the winter, therefore nobody’s wilderness experience would be diminished.
Forrest on the lower river.
In early March, the three of us, with amazingly light loads that included skis, packrafts, dry suits, winter camping gear, and a week’s worth of food, left Highway 21 at its furthest point north. The plan was to spend three days skiing forty miles over Sheep Mountain to Little Loon Creek and its confluence with the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. However, plans change.
Forrest roasting weenies at the confluence with Big Creek.
Soon after leaving the highway, we crossed Marsh Creek, one of the two tributaries that forms the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The serene-looking creek was open and appeared navigable. As we skied along the packed snowmobile trail afterwards, the lure of ditching our skis, removing our packs, and getting in our boats lurked. We then experienced our first equipment failure. While making the necessary adjustments and repairs to our ski equipment, the soundscape was pierced by a posse of modified high horsepower snowmobiles. The associated stench of two-stroke snowmobile exhaust made the twenty-five-mile ski on a snowmobile trail to the wilderness boundary less appealing. With little discussion and only a few words, we found our selves backtracking to the quiet little Marsh Creek and quicker wilderness access.
Our put-in: Marsh Creek.
Initially, paddling the gentle creek though the frozen landscape was reminiscent of a winter version of miniature golf: steep and technical, yet forgiving… if not silly. However, after several miles Marsh Creek left the open meadows that allowed the sun to thaw its course. The sides of the canyon slowly closed in, and the frequency and size of ice jams increased. Soon the time spent portaging our boats exceeded the time spent paddling them. Constantly in and out of the frigid water, I was grateful for the warmth of my brand new Kokatat Dry Suit. Unfortunately, one of my partners was less lucky – his dry suit leaked.
Forrest on a clear stretch on Marsh Creek.
While big, warm fires, hot meals, and down sleeping bags eased the bite of the cold winter evenings, the challenging river conditions and a leaky dry suit resulted in mild hypothermia and immersion foot. Additionally, rising river flows below the confluence of Bear Valley Creek (the official start of the Middle Fork) upped the ante. The difficulty of avoiding treacherous ice jams increased, as did the consequences of not getting out in time. Exit Stage Left – Dagger Falls.
Second camp on Marsh Creek – LOTS of new snow!
Near Dagger Falls is Boundary Creek, the normal put-in for the Middle Fork, and a Forest Service road that gets packed firm by snowmobiles. Twenty-three miles and a long day of hiking led us back to pavement just a few miles from where we started.
After a quick, greasy cheeseburger and a lucky ride back to the town of Salmon, Moe and I found ourselves on a little plane heading back to the Middle Fork and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The plane dropped us off on the Bernard Air Strip, thirty miles and several days upstream of the confluence with the Main Salmon, our original finish point, and our car. Snow and ice jams were replaced with sandy beaches, elk, mule deer, and bighorns. The river volume was low, but sufficient and fun. The harder rapids, including Ouzel, Redside, and Rubber, were exciting and playful. Anxieties eased as our hardship tour became pleasant and enjoyable.
Dragging boats on Marsh Creek.
Other then the rumbling of rushing water and rapids, the scuffle of elk hooves, the crackle of a campfire, or the howl of a wolf, the wilderness was magnificently silent and the solitude inescapable. Let’s keep it that way.