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South Fork of the Salmon Wild and Free
An On-line Book by Jerry Dixon
Published by the Idaho State University Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Opinions expressed herein are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.
Text and photographs © 2001 Jerry Dixon and used by permission (see permission notes).

Chapter 3: Clear as Gin

AS MY FRIEND LIAM GUILAR said, "Like all great river trips the South Fork of the Salmon begins on a dirt road." 

With Dana Olson and Pete Walka, I am packing my boat at the end of a dirt road for another descent on water, clear as gin, flowing over white rocks.  They have decided to join me on this return trip down the river in this, the last year of the 20th century.  I have finally moved into the modern world with a plastic boat, finally retiring my fiberglass boat when duct tape would no longer hold its split seams together. 

We push off and float into the first narrow gorge as Canyon wrens call from the weathered granite walls and heat shimmers off the water.  In 1973 I swam this first mile section with Jeff Fereday looking for spawning salmon in the deep pools on our way to visit George.

*                    *                     *
The South Fork was first kayaked by J. Cal Giddings and party in September 1972.  Using fiberglass boats, Mae West, kapok-filled life jackets and techniques that would appear primitive today, they ran all but the major rapids and published the story of their adventure in the American Whitewater Journal

When I first kayaked the river in August of 1975 with Marsh Jones, I had a kayak shop in McCall and knew of only 16 boaters who had gone before us.   Cal was a professor of chemistry at University of Utah and the man credited with bringing whitewater boating to Utah.  He also introduced me to kayaking and took me on my first river trip soon after this South Fork trip. 

The early 1970's were a golden age of kayaking in Idaho and the west.  In 1971 Walt Blackadar had made his epic descent of Alsek's Turnback Canyon and brought international attention to big water boating.  In 1973 Walt raised the ante in Idaho, running the South Fork in high water soon after breakup, and in the process almost losing a boater.  I heard a story from a packer (which is not recorded in Never Turn Back the classic biography of Blackadar) in which the packer helped rescue Blackadar from a tight spot on the river.  Close calls aside, it was a successful trip and Blackadar may well have been the first to run all the rapids of the South Fork.  Cal, not to be outdone, responded to the challenge by making the first descent of Big Creek, not far from the South Fork. 

Walt Blackadar.

We float past the Willy Ranch and I see the charred remains of the cabin where George died in the 1992 fire.  It seemed so ironic that he should die a few feet from where his father first camped 100 years ago. Now there are no permanent residents on the river until Pony Creek.  The primitive roads that were cut into the homesteads have washed out and the few old timers gone.  It is one of the few places in America that seems to be getting wilder. 

Every rock and riffle are familiar to me as we float by.  Dana and Pete are far superior boaters but they graciously let me lead as I have memorized virtually all the rapids before I ran first ran it almost a quarter century ago.  Right below the Willy ranch I point out the foundations to an old bridge that spanned the river, "It was a wagon road.  They were actually able to take wagons between the Fritser and Willy ranches." 

"What happened to it," Pete asks. 

"High water of 1954 took it out.  The bridge was engineered with supports that came below it to the canyon walls.  High water of '54 cleaned it out.  George had some great pictures of it before it went.  But probably all his photos were lost in the fire." 

Pete Walka below Hettinger Ranch

We eddie out at the Fritser Ranch and camp on the beach.  I take Pete and Dana up to see the ranch that now is a empty.  The fields are going back to native grasses and the water ditches, tended for almost 100 years, are sliding into the river.  Even the South Fork trail which in past years was a life line on the river is in disrepair. 

The next day we scout Devil's Creek rapid from the trail and then do a short portage on the right as I did on my first journey down the river with Marsh Jones in 1975.  In 1982 I soloed the rapid when all my companions chose to portage.  This was the rapid that Cal Giddings called Redhorse rapids when one of the kayakers of his party got broached for a short time but the name never stuck. 

Below Pony Creek and near the old Hinkley place the river has changed channels.  Most probably the high water of 1997 caused the river to move to river left, whereas before the run was on the right.  At Amacher cabin the cable car is missing and we find it in the river almost a mile further down. 

It is amazing to me that I remember every rapid and what they looked like at high, and low water, even though I have not boated the South Fork for more than a decade.  By contrast I have boated the Main Salmon often since 1975 and sometimes still confuse the order of rapids.  But then again, the South Fork is not the sort of river you take lightly.  I hiked the entire South Fork and even swam portions of it before ever kayaking it.  It's a river imprinted on the silver emulsion of my mind.  I first saw her from the open door of a DC-3 jump ship flying to a fire, and fell in love immediately.

*                    *                     *
Elk Creek rapid makes an impression at medium flows.  At high water it is a maytag, a maelstrom of water and rock where the entire river flows into a wall before turning right.  In 1975 Marsh Jones and I were in the lower section when his attention was diverted and he dropped into a hole.  Marsh was a football coach and looked like he could still play lineman.  For possibly five minutes he tried everything to get out; ferrying back in forth, rolling upside down and pushing his paddle to the bottom, reaching upstream.  Nothing worked.  Finally I saw him shrug then pop his sprayskirt so his boat filled with water, washing he and his kayak downstream. 

I was able to get his boat to shore with a minimum of damage to the fiberglass.  Marsh took a tough swim but managed to hang onto his paddle.  It was the first time in our many years of boating together I had ever seen him swim.  Later he told me that it was there he decided he had enough of Class V rivers, "Blackadar told me that you had to save a little strength to get out.  I could tell I was running out of energy in there, I saved just enough to swim." 

This is also the rapid that caused Ron Watters to have a "conversation with God" in 1976.  He was following Ron Frye through the upper section, missed a cut and dropped into a hole.   As he was being maytagged he thought, "I just might not get out of this one."

Just then another kayak dropped into the same hole while Ron was upside down. The blow to his boat was enough to free him.  With his boat sloshing with water, Ron was able to paddle to shore and stagger out.  He vowed to burn his boat right there so there was no chance he would have to get back in the maelstrom.  "Then I saw a paddle floating in the eddy.  I knew someone was out there swimming and in big trouble.  But the last thing I wanted to do was to get back in that damn rapids." But back into the river Ron went, eventually helping tow one his companions to safety and finishing the trip. 

*                    *                     *
Dana, Pete and I float to the South Fork bridge.  Here on river left are the ruins of Karl Amacher's lower cabin.  There is a trail built by this Swiss miner between his two cabins but is not used now.  The South Fork bridge was built in 1949 in part using smokejumper labor.  Del Catlin, the jump foreman that hired me and who made the night jump in 1945 that liberated Corrigador in the South Pacific told me, "We worked on the bridge all day then played penny ante poker most of the night." 

We camp below Pony Creek which is now urban sprawl in the wilds. Nonetheless, for the second day we have the river to ourselves and the sand is warm below our toes and the river lulls us to sleep.

End of Chapter 3 . . .
To continue with the story: Chapter 4
To go to the previous chapter: Chapter 2
To view maps of the South Fork: Maps
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The book South of the Salmon Wild and Free is copyrighted (© 2001 by Jerry Dixon) and has been used by permission. Links to these pages are welcome, but if you wish to reprint or reproduce significant portions of it, you should first obtain permission from the author Jerry Dixon at: [Return to top of this page]


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