Into the Frank Church
-Rafting and Skiing the Middle Fork of the Salmon
Photos by Mary McIntyre
On top, surrounded by other snow-covered mountains, we looked back at where we had been and where we were going. Below us the river corridor was lush and green with the birth of spring and here we stood, bracing against the cold mountain breeze, ripping our skins and preparing to ski down the remnants of a burnt forest. That morning we left camp at first light, rafting 3 miles before transitioning to hiking, and eventually to skinning. We enjoyed three laps on this unknown mountain. Laughing and yipping as we slashed cornices, racing through burnt trees, and carving smooth turns down the ridge back towards the river. Transitioning out of our ski gear and preparing for the hike down we were all smiles, chatty and exuberant from the simple pleasure of skiing.
But first we had to get there. Rewind six days and we were unloading on the side of the road, sliding our boats into Marsh Creek; a snow banked trickle of water running at 25 cfs (cubic feet/sec). Bundled in puffy coats and dry suits, we were loading boxes into boats, strapping on spare oars, and preparing for the worst. The forecast looked bleak, with a chance of snow almost everyday for the next week, lows in the 20s and increasing chance of rain as we moved further down the canyon. There were nine of us, which included three boatman, each with a passenger, and three safety kayakers. For the next nine days, we were embarking on a trip into the Frank Church Wilderness to ski and raft down the Middle Fork of the Salmon.
Allie and I had dreamt up this idea years ago while working as guides for Mackay Wilderness River Trips. Rowing through the heat of the summer, we would sneak peeks at the dry slopes as we navigated the challenging rapids of the Middle Fork; envisioning ourselves hop turning the tight chutes, carving down the open slopes, and navigating the large, steep mountains that loomed above the river. We shared our ideas and excitement with others on our Mackay crew, and they being skiers as well, were instantly drawn into the skiing daydreams thatmaterialized around every corner.
The headwaters of Bear Valley Creek and Marsh Creek start just outside of Stanley Idaho, merging into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Continuing north, the Salmon River flows into the Snake and eventually into the Columbia River. The Middle Fork runs through the heart of the Frank Church River of no Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48. Designated as one of eight Wild and Scenic Rivers in the United States, it is a free flowing class IV river, known for having 100 rapids in 100 miles. It is the third deepest canyon in North America and is one of the few ways to access the Frank Church Wilderness. It is a permitted river with most trips launching between June and September. We launched in April.
The crew was made up of experienced river guides, kayakers, and reliable backcountry skiers. The technical challenges of low water and high consequence rapids required finesse and experienced boating. The foresight of the kayakers proved invaluable, going ahead to check conditions and radioing back with information on downed trees and shallow rapids, while the passengers added necessary safety and aid on the rafts, helping to pull the boats through the shallow sections and catching the shore when necessary. We had all joined together with the common goal of following our river and skiing passions, each of us bringing different skills and unique personalities, creating a wild crew of optimistic Idaho pirates.
We had three rafts each with a boatman, my brother, Mason Noyes, Mike Andersen, and myself. Mason was our lead boatman, with the fattest neck to fit in a dry suit and the whitest thing to come out of Idaho since the potato. Living up to his name, “Ma(ke)-son Noyes,” he is always having a good time. He is my brother and best friend, and while he might play tough, he is just a strong boy with a big heart. Mike is a real Idaho boy, he lives to fish, hunt, and raft. Excited about everything, he often falls victim to pranks and practical jokes, but he knows how to tie any knot imaginable and can tell you the name of every geological formation along the river. We had three safety kayakers, Ryan Holmes, Drew Hartley, and Allie Rood. Ryan, the want-a-be rugged, yet strikingly handsome Alta Ski patroller, doubles as a class V+ kayaker and tick (yes tick, not chick) magnet in the summer. Allie, popping with brilliance and excitement, jumps around in conversation and in life. Originally from Vermont, she now lives in New Zealand pushing her skiing and kayaking while working on a career in filmmaking. Drew, an aspiring Monkey Wrench gang member, knows everything about motors, and has been medically diagnosed with plantar hyperhidrosis(sweaty feet), validating that he does indeed have the smelliest ski boots in the west. We had three passengers, Martin Lentz, Mary McIntyre, and LG Trawinski. Mary, comes off as sweet, well mannered with a friendly smile, but watch out; she’s got sass! She also has a motor to set every skin track, a knack to make the best river ramen, and has artistic creativity with her camera. LG, short for Little Greg (or Little Gangster), is a brine shrimp fisherman who also works as a photographer in between telling wild stories of playing with dynamite and magic tricks with his pet frog Grumpy. Martin, we call him Green Ass Marv.Why? Because he is a quick learner, works hard, and skis fast, but still makes all the rookie mistakes. Afraid of the sun, he keeps his pale skin covered, andmeasuring in at 6’4”he can reach the back of the boat while sitting in the front of the boat. And then there is me, an Idaho girl who loves to ski and came of age on these rivers. Always wearing pink and overly competitive, my true talent is coolerology, the art of cramming, in a somewhat organized fashion, all the trip food into the few trip coolers.
Normally, boaters put on the Middle Fork at Boundary Creek, a 20-mile drive through the wilderness. Being April, there were still feet of snow on the road, so instead we launched on the headwaters of the Middle Fork. Floating the 16 additional miles of Marsh Creek and portaging Dagger Falls, a class V waterfall, before eventually reaching the Middle Fork. Marsh Creek is accessible directly off of Highway 21, just outside of Stanley, Idaho. It is known for ripping boats, tight turns, downed trees, and snow dams. This high paced creek can quickly turn a fun class III float into complete chaos with serious drowning hazards. This year, we were setting out as the first rafts down Marsh. And to top it off, none of us had floated Marsh and none of us had portaged Dagger Falls.
Nervous and unsure of what to expect, due to the low waters of winter, we started our trip walking our rafts down the creek. They were heavy; loaded with all our ski gear, nine days worth of food, and tools to help us through whatever we might face. Rowing was frustratingly difficult. The oars repeatedly ripping out of our hands as they got stuck in snow banks, rocks or the countless logs littering the shore. We would try to row, just to get stuck and forced into the water to push, pull, and pivot our rafts around and over countless dry rocks. In addition, we were unfamiliar with the river, constantly trying to read and pick the best line from a mix of poor choices. At some points we were floating through narrow channels, just wide enough for the boats, oars shipped, with huge debris filled snow banks on either side; passing remnants of avalanches that had broken and carried trees across the river. At other times the canyon opened up and we looked up at the towering mountains above us. Steep, intimidating faces, littered with cliffs and couloirs, waiting to be explored and skied.
That first day, we didn’t float far, making it about 4 miles before we pulled over for camp. We snow camped that night. Skinning out of camp through a forest of burnt trees, and peaking out on a ridge, gave us a view of the snow covered canyon we had just floated down. From here, the river looked tame and manageable, while just hours ago we had struggled to move only a few miles. The snow was variable, frozen in spots and perfect corn in others.We made playful turns through the burnt trees, breaking out into a beautiful open meadow to make our last turns just above the river. We skied straight back to camp, through the tents and into the kitchen, drawn to the appetizers and warm drinks.
We spent most of the next day cutting out and lining our boats past a river wide strainer. A river strainer is a downed tree in the water, acting like a pasta strainer; allowing the water through while catching anything that tries to pass.With their drowning potential, they are the most dangerous obstacles on the river. This particular strainer went across the entire river, forcing us to spend hours devising a plan, cutting off branches, and lining the boats with ropes through and past the strainer. It was a slow process, one that required everyone’s help with each boat, a series of ropes, knots, coordination and trust in all members of the group. Once through the strainer we entered a consistent set of rapids, ridden with obstacles and tight turns, requiring tactical and deliberate boating. The water level had started to pick up, pushing us into more wrap rocks and downed trees. Just as it got cold and the sun started to go behind the canyon, we arrived above Dagger Falls.
Shivering but high on adrenaline, we started the tiring process of portaging Dagger Falls. The falls is, impassable and requires boaters to carry their rafts around the falls. Starting the process that night and finishing the next afternoon, we derigged all the boats, carried everything up and around the falls, rerigged the boats, and lowered them down the snow covered river bank back into the water. This was not an easy task, but as Drew pointed out, “if you’re going to portage Dagger Falls, do it when there is snow on the ground.” And as Mason insisted, you might as well enjoy a beer (or three) and some whiskey pulls, duringthe portage process. After all our efforts we were ready to move on, but not until kayaker Ryan decided to casually run the drop. What’s the fun of a ski trip if you can’t go kayaking?
Finally we were on the Middle Fork where there was lots of water (at least compared to Marsh), less rocks, and familiar rapids. The banks were no longer covered in snow, but there were still patches to be found in the shade down low and runs to be had in the higher elevation peaks towering above. Headed for Solider Mountain, we left early in the morning, walking through the forest, skis on our backs, climbing a steep hill and rocky ridge before reaching snow. As we gained altitude the trees thinned and the air got colder. We made our way to the top of the ridge. Standing next to a dead tree, hoods up blocking the snapping wind, we looked out at the vast, still, and remote landscape that offered endless ski possibilities. Drawn to the north face just across the way, we pointed out tight chutes, pillowed spines, and wind protected soft snow. A quick skin along the cornice filled ridge brought us to the high point. It was a warm day and the snow was starting to cook. Drew, Martin, Ryan and I each took turns skiing this featured face. I skied defensively. It was sticky and heavy, requiring deliberate turns and focused forward leg drive. We all shared a laugh as Drew and Ryan both face planted hard, getting stopped by the wet snow. Martin skied last, dropping into a steep and exposed chute; he made three fluid turns before straightlining out of the narrowing choke and across the bottom of the bowl. Martin’s confident skiing made the snow look smooth and soft, while in reality it was challenging and tricky to ski.Still, we were chatty and excited as we transitioned to skinning and headed back up for another run.
Our next run was much better, skiing perfect corn down an open bowl back towards the river. Headed up for another run, we continued past our previous lookout point and further up the ridge to the old forest lookout on the summit of Solider Mountain. Sitting close to 9,000 feet, surrounded by the Frank Church Wilderness, this weathered single room structure once housed forest service employees, who watched the mountains for fires during the dry Idaho summers. Long since abandoned, the shingle roof was warped and caving in at points, making the cabin seem to be teetering on the edge in which it perched. There were windows on all sides, providing 360-degree wilderness views. Walking through an opening that had once served as a door lead us into the cabin where snowdrifts had blown inside, wrapping around an old table and ladder. The ladder leads to the attic, a bedroom for the past inhabitant. Other things lived here now, or at least visit this place, leaving droppings and markings around the cabin. The sun was shining and it was a warm day, we stood together on the porch letting our imaginations wonder as we looked out at the untouched wilderness. Surrounded by a winter landscape, we followed the valleys and curves, rugged skyline and patchy forest, searching out the deep canyon that housed the Middle Fork, our ticket to and from this historical lookout. The day was growing old as we started our way back towards the river, and we enjoyed skiing the smooth corn back to the river; popping off snowdrifts and carving around old trees. Lower the snow thinned, but we continued to ski, climbing over logs and sliding over dirt, playfully following the disappearing snow patches towards the river. We arrived back at camp tired and hungry, just in time for dinner.
The following day, we pushed down to Sunflower Hot Spring Camp, a cute little camp with multiple hot spring pools and a natural waterfall coming from the pools landing next to the river. Having rowed many miles that day, we had lost a lot of elevation, and we all assumed we were now too far from snow to ski.However, from camp, way up high, past two dry ridges Martin pointed out a snowy cornice that he wanted to “slash.” It would be a big approach, for maybe only 10 turns. But why not? Why sit in a hot spring and enjoy a beer when you could be groveling through thick bush up some mountain for a “slash.” So as it turned dark, we prepared our ski stuff, rigged what we could on the boat, and prepared for an early morning.
Rafting to hiking to skinning and eventually, after 4 sweaty hours, we summited an unknown mountain. We had been wrong, there were many more than 10 turns to be had, and multiple cornices for Martin to “slash.” We enjoyed three full runs from this point, again finding ourselves in a world of winter hibernation, with a backdrop of endless snowy ridges and peaks.
This takes us back to where the story began, back to the reason we all came together to do this trip. Looking past our ski tips to the river below, we were intimately experiencing the Middle Fork through our passions. As skiing was fading into spring, the rafting was growing into summer. And here, after years of dreaming, months of planning, and days of pushing, pulling and slowly working our way deeper into the Frank Church Wilderness, we had found where winter and summer met, and with it where skiing the Middle Fork transpired from a dream into reality.
We prepared for the worst and we had the best. Starting on the snowy banks of Marsh Creek, a successful trip was “borderline.” The unknowns were infinite; weather hazards, possible snow dams, low water, downed trees, rotten snow, mandatory portages, the list of cold and complicated challenges goes on. We didn’t do much skiing; the snow was variable and hard to access. If we really wanted to ski, we could have stayed in Stanley, skiing the steep lines of the Sawtooths. But we wouldn’t have learned about the strategy of lining a boat, the perils of portaging, how to transition from ski suit to dry suit, how best to rig skis on a raft, and ultimately, we wouldn’t have gotten to know each other as well as we did. Yeah, everyday was big, everyday had it’s own challenges and everyday was a little unknown, but all of that made those few turns that much sweeter.
When we first pushed off into the cold unknown, people thought we were crazy. A young crew of Idaho pirates, setting sail in our rubber rafts into the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness. Armed with our dry suits and skis, we were ready to take on the twists and turns the river and mountains threw at us. Pillaging spring corn and rolling waves, we left no trace, only our turns in the snow. Combining our skills and experience, we transformed into an unbreakable band of misfit adventurers. What others saw as a reckless gamble, we saw as success. Arriving back to civilization wealthy with memories, stories and friendships. Crazy still, but eager for the next land to discover, explore and add to our fountain of wealth.