Daily descriptions are intended to provide a description of a typical six-day Middle Fork rafting trip. Trip length, campsite selection, and group itineraries will vary.
For more general information about the Middle Fork check out this Adventure Overview of the river.
Once you finally untie your boats and float away from the controlled chaos of the Boundary Creek boat launch, the upper Middle Fork quickly envelopes you in a blanket of lush green wilderness. The first few miles are the epitome of a remote, wild, and alpine river. Dense forests of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine carpet both sides of the river. Swift water rushes through a series of nearly continuous rapids, and craggy outcroppings of lichen-covered rock overhang some of the narrower sections of the river.
The upper canyon of the Middle Fork, loosely defined as the 25 miles from Boundary Creek to Indian Creek, is characterized by this densely forested alpine landscape. Frequent tributaries tumble down mossy-banks and add flow to the lively river. For the first several miles, the views are limited to what you can see up or down the forested corridor. Occasional glimpses of higher mountain ridges hint at the vastness of the wilderness.
Around mile 10 in the sinuous lead up to Powerhouse Rapid the carpet of green timber gives way to open slopes of broken granodiorite. Freeze-thaw erosion on the exposed bedrock has resulted in massive talus piles that slope down to the river on both sides of the canyon. Another important change also becomes apparent above Powerhouse Rapid, namely the impact of wildfire along the Middle Fork Corridor.
The river has experienced several large wildfires in recent history. Significant events in 2000 and 2007 burned much of the timber along river corridor in the upper canyon. Though new grasses and shrubs have replaced most of the glaring black fire-scars, the impact on the upper canyon was significant. What once was a thick evergreen forest has been reduced to ghostly stands of silent tree trunks. As boaters round the corner below Joe Bump camp, a massive 3,000-foot face of dead and regenerating timber is evidence that wildfire is a part of the natural landscape.
The first 5 miles of the Middle Fork contain some of the most notorious whitewater on the entire river. Even though there is only one official Class IV rapid (Velvet Falls), the speed, continuity, and icy cold water make the upper middle a Class IV river with Class V consequences at flows above 5 feet. All of the named rapids present big waves and holes, but the unnamed rapids keep boaters attentive. The speed of the current (especially above 6 feet) makes it challenging for skilled rafters to stay ahead of their line.
There is no warm-up on the Middle Fork. The actions begins immediately with a series of drops called First Bend Rapid that leads into the notorious Murphs Hole, Class III/IV. This boat-eater on a 90-degree left turn 1 mile into the run routinely flips boats at high water and has resulted in at least one fatality. Additional Class III rapids at Doer’s Rock, Sulphur Slide, and Hell's Half Mile all present big waves and holes. Velvet Falls, Class IV, closes out the first 5 miles with a difficult move to river left to avoid a (mostly) river-wide ledge hole. Velvet is notorious for lots of high water carnage.
Below Velvet Falls boaters will enjoy a brief respite and soak in the Trail Flat hot springs (below 5 feet on the left bank at mile 7). The Chutes Rapid, Class III, presents another long and rocking but straightforward ride at 8 miles before a longer break before Powerhouse Rapid, Class IV.
This long rapid offers the steepest gradient on the river and is broken into an upper, middle, and lower section. These all blur together at high water and culminate in a hard pull to avoid a right bank cliff wall at the bottom. Powerhouse doesn’t seem to flip many boats, but it offers a rollicking, fun ride at flows above 4 feet.
Below Powerhouse, only a few incidental rapids are left between you and a pleasant soak in the hot springs at Sheepeater Camp.
Low Water: While the speed and intensity of the rapids definitely drops with the river levels, the upper canyon remains a challenging section of whitewater. Below 3 feet the rapids get VERY technical and involve an abundance of rock dodging with increased wrap hazards. Below 2 feet many of the rapids might seem impossible to navigate. It is amazing what a rubber raft can slurp through, especially the 22-foot commercial sweep boats! If you are not used to technical boating, plan to go as light as possible at low water and be prepared for some long miles, banged feet, and bruised egos.
Check out - Middle Fork of the Salmon River - Day 2
Reference: All content excerpted from The Middle Fork of the Salmon River – A Comprehensive Guide by Idaho River Publications.
Our mission is to inspire adventure with beautiful, comprehensive and waterproof map-based guidebooks. Owner, publisher, and photographer Matt Leidecker, grew up exploring and guiding on the rivers in central Idaho. His award winning Middle Fork of the Salmon River – A Comprehensive Guide is the standard by which other river guidebooks are measured. Printed on virtually indestructible YUPO paper, IRP guides are truly unique all-in-one resources for adventure. Each book is loaded with full-color maps, stunning photographs, and information on the history, geology, and wildflowers. Visit Idaho River Publications to explore our guidebooks to the Rogue River in Oregon and the mountains of Central Idaho.