Nature Is Never Closed : Jesse Brucato
Middle Fork Salmon
The Middle Fork of The Salmon. The River of No Return. The Frank Church Wilderness. The largest swatch of land in the continental US without road access. 2.3 million acres with another million in the adjacent Gospel Hump wilderness all roadless. Access to these remote areas is granted by bush plane and river corridor. This breathtaking section of the Idaho wilderness has quickly established in my mind as one of the most majestic places on earth.
An absolute bucket list river trip for seasoned and budding boaters alike, it is a weeklong adventure into some of the most pristine wilderness that can be accessed in the lower 48. Once occupied by the Shoshone Indian tribe, also known as Sheepeaters, this corridor specifically has an extensive and intriguing history. Around 1860 fur trappers and miners alike were beginning to venture into this wilderness for survival exploitation. Homesteaders took to claim this land and war ensued, and establishment of a few settlements and eventually airstrips became all that has been developed in this region. Hot springs are strewn aplenty about the river corridor, making this trip one of the most relaxing experiences one could wrap up into a float experience. Along with these tranquil pools exist many rapids, one hundred in 100 miles they say, due to much geologic activity in the area. Considered by many as one of or if not THE crux of the run is a rapid on a sharp right bend in the river, right above a confluence of a creek that at times is the same size of the river, and very aptly named Pistol Creek.
I had floated this river four times before, all at lower water levels than this mid June excursion. Most consider this the perfect time of year with spring runoff high in the sawtooth mountains extending well into July. We were in what my eyes consider to be the most breathtaking wilderness during it’s most exciting and turbulent time of year. Perfection. A group of 24 plus myself had driven down two nights before, camping at Boundary Creek area and preparing our boats to launch the next day. In a classic high mountainous regional twist, it decided to snow a few inches on us overnight, and June 15th we put onto the river of no return. Ominous as it’s namesake says, we were in high (albeit frigid) spirits the first day. It continued to snow through the afternoon and into the evening. Thank goodness we were camped at a hot spring!
The next morning, we arise to speckles of clear sky among the drab gray and snowfall we had been accustomed to the 24 hours prior. There is nothing quite like having the sun poke out on you in the middle of nowhere! The group rejoiced and started to find their cold weather gear that was hung up in our mega tent. After a nice morning soak we started to tear down camp and made moves to our boats. The weather was increasingly warming as the late morning hours turned. By noon, we were mostly packed and getting ready to shove off. My boat-mate, Rob Shaw, and I discussed layering situations and our rapid itinerary for the day. We had been in full drysuits with plenty of wool between those and our bodies the day before, and it seemed overkill to a point to wear them again when the sun was out and temperatures were nearing 60 degrees, if I had to guess. Plenty warm for long sleeves and splash pants in June, right? I look over to a much more experienced boatman than myself, as he is birthing his curly blonde mane through the neck gasket of his drysuit. He proceeds to shrug at me and says “for the water, not the weather.” Wise words from a sage river runner. We decide to don ours as well.
Oddly enough, that thought permeated through my head as I double checked straps on our boat, making sure everything was secure. It was a surreal experience for me that morning, almost if I knew trouble would be afoot later that afternoon. I double wrapped our group dinners fixings with all of the extra ziplock bags we had, which is something precautionary that I have not done previous. There was no shortage of confidence in my mind, but better safe than sorry right?
Rob and I have a quick discussion as a couple of the first boats launch. “We’re running the meat right?” I quip at him as he’s clipping his water bottle to the bow. “Hell yea! That’s what we came for!” he says in response. “Awesome, let’s smash” I think to myself. I am so ready. The day before had been brutally frigid, so we had agreed to be conservative and see how we fared. Today, it’s time to get a little wet. We take off somewhere in the middle of the pack.
A couple bends and a couple rapids later I notice that my boat is second to the lead. I’ve noticed that my large tubes and raised floor have let my boat track, or decide direction and speed with a bit more grace than some of the other crafts. Rob and I share some whiskey and a laugh about how great today has been. Continuing with this safety third mentality that is quietly a constant reminder to stay sharp, I decide to attach my throw bag onto my person as opposed to the raft. “Pistol’s coming up soon, I might need this” I murmur to myself as we round another bend. Someone might need this, and I’ll be ready.
Lake creek rapid is a very innocuous rapid that is rated a 2+ (out of 5) in our guide book and one I had not given much thought to in the past. At this high water level, however, there is a massive boat-eating hole on the right side of the river. Easily avoidable, but what’s the fun in that? We see the lead boat drop in, disappear, and immediately come surging back out the top, spray aplenty, and nearly vertical. A large hit! This is what we came for. I say to Rob, “we running this?!” with exuberance in my voice. He responds back with a “Let’s go baby!” Famous last words. We drop over the horizon line and as much as I feel straight in my ways, the wave was devious in it’s own right, breaking off of the right shoreline a bit more diagonal than I had anticipated. A last second adjustment was attempted, but we dropped in with the line that we had set up for. It was like dynamite going off underneath the raft. We smashed, surged, faced towards the sky in an instant, and like a tree falling in the woods, slowly and forcefully began to flip. It was on. As I watched Rob fall out and knew I was shortly next, I could hear nothing but my adrenaline flowing through my brain, as if your favorite pump up song was on full blast and you were standing in front of a wall sized speaker. I entered the water under the boat with a shit eating grin on. Game time.
I surface holding onto the chicken line that surrounds the raft, for situations oddly just like this one. Flipping a boat is never planned and also never not an exciting moment. Bobbing and taking a breath I try and assess the situation. Rob must be on the other side of the raft as I don’t see him anywhere. The water is churning and moving, unaware of our suddenly dire situation. We’re a mile or less from Pistol Creek Rapid, which like I said is as formidable as they come on this run. So much for our group pulling over to scout! All I can think about is getting back up on the raft, but between the frigid temperature of the water (it is snowmelt, after all) and PFD (life jacket) with a large chest pouch on the chest, it was evident that getting up top would me more difficult than I had imagined. Coupled with the fact a foot entrapment under the boat heading into the beast of a rapid would probably not bode well for my long term health. I made about six attempts to get up, all in vain. Nervous of my boatman and my owns’ safety, I was gassed but relentless in attempts.
One last try, I figure, before i’m being dragged through this rapid mercilessly behind the boat. As I get ready I hear a familiar voice yell behind me, “USE MY KAYAK!” Ryan Doughty, the person who got me into boating in the first place, is at my back and at my rescue. My fucking dude, I think to myself. I put a foot on his boat and swing the other over the top tube that is two feet in diameter. Breathing about as hard as any human can, I roll over and take a split second to collect myself. Rob is still in the water but holding on to the other side of the chicken line. He’s looking just about frozen but still alert at this point which I am so thankful for. I yell at him to get up on the boat and try to give him a tug. I almost slide back in myself and have to let him go. We are making the bend and dropping into the rapid at this point. My heart is racing and all I can think about is helping Rob up somehow. Things become blurry at this point but between his climbing attempts and my tugging we manage to get him on top of the raft as we crash into the first waves, all the while Rob avoiding being squished between the boats and the wall. Nightmare fuel.
Rob ends up scurrying to the raft immediately behind us, trying through all this calamity to rescue us and stay close. Easier said than done. Nadia grabs him while Josh commands the rig through this turbulent water. Not out of the woods yet, but progress. Joe Love comes up behind out of nowhere with my oar in his lap in his kayak. Madness, I didn’t even know it was unattached to the boat. The blade was gone but style points to him for rescuing gear in the middle of Class IV. I look downriver and realize my boat is strapped behind Knappy’s, another savant of the river. I leap to his boat as he is navigating the meat of Pistol. Heart racing, absolutely gassed just trying to catch a breath. I am somehow sweating furiously and near hypothermic simultaneously. Human speedballing, I guess. We end up through the rapid, still not out of the woods.
The Middle Fork is notorious for it’s ever present swift current, which makes boat rescue exceptionally difficult. Remember that rope I attached to myself for (hopefully) someone else to rescue? Well I jump back on my upside down boat and attach it to one of the D rings mounted on the side of the boat for gear and rescue. Josh is now trying to push my raft into an eddy, a slow pocket on the side of the river. He says “When I say go, jump off and belay the boat to shore!” I’m still not sure if he said GO or NO at this point but I gave a jump almost to shore and started tugging my hardest. No avail. She decided to keep on going downstream, now with the rope as another hazard floating in the river. Chaos. I’m temporarily helpless, but another boat in our group quickly comes floating by. “Swim to us!” Kyle Love yells, and I don’t ask any more questions. I get to his boat, and he instantly and emphatically throws me into the air, across the boat and I starfish on the other side. “He’s damn strong” I remember thinking, eyes wide and still coursing with adrenaline. In this maneuver he actually had fallen into the river himself, and our rescue situation continues. I scramble to help him back into the raft and with the help of another boater on the raft, we get him back in.
As Kyle becomes safe and situated back on the boat we end up floating past mine. Josh has somehow corralled it into an eddy and along with Nadia they are fully extended, hanging onto a couple of the most sturdy tree branches available. I plead to pull over but it is just not an option at this point. I decide to jump back into the water and swim to shore.
A quarter mile, maybe less up the scree deposited river bank I scramble, careful to avoid foot entrapments or steep and slick surfaces. Slightly negligent to my own health I feel a desire to get back and help the crew clean up my mess. Likely trudging through some poison ivy as well I heeded no mind until I came back onto the rescue situation. By this time Rob was safely on shore, not quite hypothermic but not quite his most excellent self either. I felt terrible, but I guess that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. Glad he’s okay, the gang updates me on the situation and laughs to catch my breath for a second before we flip this bad boy over. The boats had been tied up to shore by the time I made it to our recovery zone.
After a breather, we set up a z-drag rope and pulley system designed to use as a mechanical advantage. Josh has a chuckle and exclaims “I’ve had these for 10 years and never had to use ‘em!” We all get a good laugh out of that. We then flip the raft over, assess the damage, and tighten up anything lost or broken. Thankfully I only lost an oar blade and a bundle of wood. Relatively meager for the mileage my craft endured upside down on a rocky bottomed, winding and turbulent river passage. We have a quick lunch (Still dry! Thanks double bag!) and are on our way. No more shenanigans for us as we still have some miles to make before camp.
Once we get there and set up the essentials, it is the hot topic around the campfire. As I sip on some whiskey, laughing and remembering little tidbits of the wildly unexpected detour, someone comes over with a beer and says “It’s time.” The ol’ river tradition of booty beer, when you swim accidentally or make any sort of rescue requiring mistake, the punishment is one full can of suds out of your shoe, or booty as we call them on the river. I emptied that shoe into my mouth until every last drop was accounted for, to applause and laughter from the whole crew. Delicious. I dove into my recount firsthand, with it being a toast and chug I will remember and celebrate for the rest of my life.