Floating the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 [PICs]
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After a decade of guiding on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon, Matador Ambassador Henry Munter puts together a gallery of his old stomping grounds.
HAVING LEFT BEHIND my native Idaho this summer in exchange for the long days and abundant whitewater of Alaska, I’ve had occasion to reminisce about the last few years of guiding in the Wilderness of Central Idaho, on the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon River. Here is a collection of images that capture the essence of the place to which I will always return.
Campfire in the Canyon
Running the Middle Fork means getting on "river time." For most folks, going back to alarm clocks, travel schedules, and cell phones is a rude awakening from the nights spent on the beach with nothing but the sound of the river.
The wilderness areas of central Idaho are prime star viewing country, far from light pollution.
Early sun on the Sawtooth Mountains, near Stanley, Idaho. The Sawtooths are the headwaters for both the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon, although here the Middle Fork runs north, and the Main Fork runs east, until their confluence about 150 miles downstream.
a Chinook, or King Salmon, tries to fight its way upstream to its birthplace, spawning grounds, and where it will die. This Salmon swam nearly 800 miles from the Pacific Ocean, through rapids, dams, and fishing nets.
Rafting the Middle Fork
Raft Trips down the Middle Fork are usually 6-day affairs, filled with floating, fishing, hot-springs soaking, and camping. The river trail, seen here at the Wind River Pack Bridge, gives hikers spectacular views.
Frank Church Wilderness
The Middle Fork of the Salmon flows through the Heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. At 2.2 million acres, it is the largest of the Lower 48's primitive wilderness preserves. With no access by car, visitors to the Frank Church come by raft, foot, or horseback.
Big Horn Sheep
A kayaker floats past a nursery herd of Big Horn Sheep. The Salmon River is home to abundant wildlife.
I photographed this sunrise after an early morning run up to Loon Creek Hot Springs. Several of the campsites on the Middle Fork have short walks to natural hot pools.
Kayakers overlook Waterfall Creek, where the river trail leaves the river. Below is what is known as Impassable Canyon, where the Middle Fork cuts through the last of its canyon before the confluence with the Main Salmon.
The Main Salmon
After 100 miles, the Middle Fork abruptly ends, joining the Main Fork, doubling its flow. Those who continue down the Main Salmon find warmer water, and rapids with big waves and friendly pools.
Nez Pierce. Although a few homesteads remain populated on the Main Salmon, the river canyon, like the Middle Fork, is the summer home of rafters passing through, and very few others.
The Wilderness Areas surrounding the Salmon River are federally managed lands with "let it burn" policies, so long as fires don't threaten inhabited places. Here, smoke from fires north of the river makes its way down the river canyon. Until they see fire ecology at work, few people understand the importance of summer fires for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Main Salmon Whitewater
Kids sing their way down Split Rock Rapid. The Main Salmon is the first taste of multi-day, wilderness whitewater for many young rafters.
In 2011, rivers throughout the Rockies swelled with record snowmelt. This photo of June trip on the Main Salmon shows the river running full past Barth Hot Springs, usually way above the water line the are barely in view above the rafts in the picture.
On the Main Salmon, orchards still thrive on homesteads originally founded in the mining booms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Here, a black bear gorges on ripe apples.