Rapids, Wolves, and Winter

With amazingly light loads that included skis, packrafts, dry suits, winter camping gear, and a week’s worth of food, we set out to visit the Frank Church Wilderness in winter to prove a point.

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by Forrest McCarthy, photos by Moe Witschard | 2010-06-08 00:00:00-06

Who’s up for a ski-raftineering trip in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in early March? It will be cold, miserable, and dangerous, with rotten snow, Class 4 whitewater, elk, bighorns, wolves, and hot springs. Who’s in?

That’s the email I sent out to a list of adventure buddies from Utah to Alaska who are not only skilled in lightweight winter camping and backcountry skiing, but can run whitewater in five-pound inflatable packrafts. I ended up with only two takers: Mike Copeland, a hardcore winter kayaker from Boise, Idaho, and Moe Witschard, an adventure photographer from Bozeman, Montana.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 1
The author enjoying a caffeinated beverage prior to launching on the lower Middle Fork Salmon.

Congressionally designated in 1980, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness contains 2.3 million acres, creating the largest contiguous area of protected wilderness in the continental United States. Combined with the adjacent Gospel Hump Wilderness and surrounding National Forest Roadless Areas, the Frank forms the heart of a 3.3 million acre roadless wildland. Arguably, this is the most rugged and remote region in the lower forty-eight states. Additionally, the Frank Church Wilderness is home to the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon River, massive herds of elk, mule deer, big horn sheep, and - since their 1995 reintroduction - wolves.

This last attribute, while appealing to advocates of wildlife and wild places, has been the center of a seemingly endless and contentious debate between federal and state officials. Most recently, wolves lost their endangered species status in Idaho, and their management turned over to Idaho’s department of Game and Fish (IG&F), who immediately sold an astounding 26,428 wolf hunting licenses.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 8
Forrest hopping a plane out of Salmon, bound for the lower river.

As the largest designated wilderness in the lower forty-eight, the Frank was one of two locations wolves were originally reintroduced. If there is a place in the contiguous forty-eight states that wolves can exist without conflicting with ranching and other human activity, it is the Frank Church Wilderness. However, this past winter IG&F decided to mark and capture the wolves that inhabit the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness - the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. To do so, IG&F requested the United States Forest Service (USFS) grant a “categorical exclusion” that allowed helicopters to land in this congressionally designated wilderness area - a direct violation of the 1964 Wilderness Act that clearly states “there shall be... no use of motor vehicles, ... , no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport...” While the pre-existing use of small, fixed wing aircraft and an associated system of primitive airstrips was grandfathered in, the landing of helicopters outside those designated landing areas was not.

As a result, a coalition of wilderness advocates including Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Watch, and Winter Wildlands Alliance brought a legal challenge to the helicopter landings. Central to the lawsuit is how helicopter operations violate the 1964 Wilderness Act by diminishing “opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The IG&F and USFS countered that nobody visits the Frank during the winter, therefore nobody’s wilderness experience would be diminished.

Oh, yeah?

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 2
Forrest on the lower river.

In early March, the three of us, with amazingly light loads that included skis, packrafts, dry suits, winter camping gear, and a week’s worth of food, left Highway 21 at its furthest point north. The plan was to spend three days skiing forty miles over Sheep Mountain to Little Loon Creek and its confluence with the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. However, plans change.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 3
Forrest roasting weenies at the confluence with Big Creek.

Soon after leaving the highway, we crossed Marsh Creek, one of the two tributaries that forms the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The serene-looking creek was open and appeared navigable. As we skied along the packed snowmobile trail afterwards, the lure of ditching our skis, removing our packs, and getting in our boats lurked. We then experienced our first equipment failure. While making the necessary adjustments and repairs to our ski equipment, the soundscape was pierced by a posse of modified high horsepower snowmobiles. The associated stench of two-stroke snowmobile exhaust made the twenty-five-mile ski on a snowmobile trail to the wilderness boundary less appealing. With little discussion and only a few words, we found our selves backtracking to the quiet little Marsh Creek and quicker wilderness access.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 4
Our put-in: Marsh Creek.

Initially, paddling the gentle creek though the frozen landscape was reminiscent of a winter version of miniature golf: steep and technical, yet forgiving... if not silly. However, after several miles Marsh Creek left the open meadows that allowed the sun to thaw its course. The sides of the canyon slowly closed in, and the frequency and size of ice jams increased. Soon the time spent portaging our boats exceeded the time spent paddling them. Constantly in and out of the frigid water, I was grateful for the warmth of my brand new Kokatat Dry Suit. Unfortunately, one of my partners was less lucky - his dry suit leaked.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 5
Forrest on a clear stretch on Marsh Creek.

While big, warm fires, hot meals, and down sleeping bags eased the bite of the cold winter evenings, the challenging river conditions and a leaky dry suit resulted in mild hypothermia and immersion foot. Additionally, rising river flows below the confluence of Bear Valley Creek (the official start of the Middle Fork) upped the ante. The difficulty of avoiding treacherous ice jams increased, as did the consequences of not getting out in time. Exit Stage Left - Dagger Falls.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 6
Second camp on Marsh Creek - LOTS of new snow!

Near Dagger Falls is Boundary Creek, the normal put-in for the Middle Fork, and a Forest Service road that gets packed firm by snowmobiles. Twenty-three miles and a long day of hiking led us back to pavement just a few miles from where we started.

After a quick, greasy cheeseburger and a lucky ride back to the town of Salmon, Moe and I found ourselves on a little plane heading back to the Middle Fork and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The plane dropped us off on the Bernard Air Strip, thirty miles and several days upstream of the confluence with the Main Salmon, our original finish point, and our car. Snow and ice jams were replaced with sandy beaches, elk, mule deer, and bighorns. The river volume was low, but sufficient and fun. The harder rapids, including Ouzel, Redside, and Rubber, were exciting and playful. Anxieties eased as our hardship tour became pleasant and enjoyable.

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter - 7
Dragging boats on Marsh Creek.

Other then the rumbling of rushing water and rapids, the scuffle of elk hooves, the crackle of a campfire, or the howl of a wolf, the wilderness was magnificently silent and the solitude inescapable. Let’s keep it that way.


"Rapids, Wolves, and Winter," by Forrest McCarthy, photos by Moe Witschard. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/rapids_wolves_winter.html, 2010-06-08 00:00:00-06.


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Rapids, Wolves, and Winter
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/08/2010 18:13:58 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Rapids, Wolves, and Winter

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/08/2010 19:23:34 MDT Print View

This appears to be a very exciting adventure that I would like to read more about. It would be nice to read a follow-on article that lists each persons pack contents and how each item faired in the conditions you experienced. For example where did the leak in the drysuit occur and how did you repair it while in the field?

Larry Dyer
(veriest1) - F

Locale: Texas
Wolves on 06/09/2010 00:09:24 MDT Print View

I thought this was a great article with beautiful pictures of places that many of us can only dream of seeing in the dead of winter. I second the report concerning what gear worked well or as advertised and what didn't live up to your expectations.

I would also like to point out that it's somewhat ambiguous to say 26,428 hunting licenses were issued for wolves in Idaho last season. According to this article (http://www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/newshound/2010/04/inaugural-idaho-wolf-hunt-ends) and a couple others I dredged up only 185 were shot out of a maximum of 220.

I suppose it was first come first serve after you bought in. Also, the article says 31,393 tags were sold (I'm assuming the BPL article was submitted before the season ended) and that there are only around 1700 wolves in the region. However, in the process selling these tags they said $497,304 were raised for wildlife conservation.

Steven Evans
(Steve_Evans) - MLife

Locale: Canada
Re: Re: Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/09/2010 08:56:15 MDT Print View

Awesome trip. I want a packraft so bad.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Frank Church on 06/09/2010 09:05:47 MDT Print View

A wonderful report Forrest, thank you.

I love the Church. I did a ski traverse of about 90 miles across it in 1991 that included a hearty swim of the M Fk.. An amazing and quiet place in the winter.

Thom Darrah
(thomdarrah) - MLife

Locale: Southern Oregon
Frank Church on 06/09/2010 09:10:53 MDT Print View

+1 Ryan J / Frank Church

An amazing place anytime of the year!

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/09/2010 09:21:09 MDT Print View

The timing of this article couldn't have been any better as I've been mapping and researching the Frank Church for the past month with plans to explore a route in the coming year. Great photos, words, and attitude. Thanks!

Dondo .
(Dondo) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
"Rapids, Wolves, and Winter" on 06/09/2010 09:43:06 MDT Print View

Great trip report and photos, guys. For those who haven't seen them yet, check out the videos by Forrest including one of Andy Skurka skiing through Alaska.

Gabe Joyes
(gabe_joyes) - F

Locale: Lander, WY
Rock on on 06/09/2010 10:37:14 MDT Print View

Thanks Forrest, way to prove a point. I know a lot of people appreciate how you and Winter Wildlands Alliance works to protect our winter backcountry solitude and wolves.

Forrest G McCarthy
(forrestmccarthy) - MLife

Locale: Planet Earth
Thanks everyone! on 06/09/2010 13:32:33 MDT Print View

It was a great trip that I hope to do again next winter.

You can also watch the video on youtube:


Raymond Knechtel
(Nuke) - F
Correction on 06/09/2010 14:58:43 MDT Print View

EDIT: BPL pointed out that they also have done articles on lightwight rifles so I need to ease up a bit. Looking things over a little better they do cover both sides of issues well.

It's a well written article and I agree on the wilderness issues.

Edited by Nuke on 06/10/2010 10:39:15 MDT.

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
Re: Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/09/2010 15:15:57 MDT Print View

Wonderful photos and article. What a beautiful area!

However, I was disappointed to hear about the snowmobiles being there. When will manufacturers cut down on the noise and pollution produced by snowmobiles, jet skis, and other similar vehicles? If the manufacturers can't or won't, then these things should be banned from wilderness areas.

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: .
Re: Not what I sighted up for on 06/09/2010 15:19:51 MDT Print View

I read an article about packrafting in Winter with a couple of lines about wolves, not an article about wolves with a couple of lines about packrafting. Shrugs.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: Re: Not what I sighted up for on 06/09/2010 15:24:36 MDT Print View

"I read an article about packrafting in Winter with a couple of lines about wolves, not an article about wolves with a couple of lines about packrafting. Shrugs."

I read an article about LIGHTWEIGHT packrafting AND skiing in winter, with a couple of lines about wolves. I have no opinions about the wolves, so it's not something that bothers me to have mentioned.

I agree with the anti-snowmobile sentiment. They have detracted from many otherwise really peaceful skiing trips in the Yellowstone area where they seem to be like a plague. Can't they make quieter and cleaner electric vehicles??? It also strikes me as strange than an area would be banned from helicopters, but not other noisy motorised machines???

Unknown abc
(edude) - F
"Rapids, Wolves, and Winter" on 06/09/2010 15:25:10 MDT Print View

"However, I was disappointed to hear about the snowmobiles being there. When will manufacturers cut down on the noise and pollution produced by snowmobiles, jet skis, and other similar vehicles? If the manufacturers can't or won't, then these things should be banned from wilderness areas."

Great, just what we need, even more government regulations. No thank you.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: "Rapids, Wolves, and Winter" on 06/09/2010 15:36:47 MDT Print View

"Great, just what we need, even more government regulations. No thank you."

Umm, government regulation is often the only thing keeping wilderness areas as wilderness. It's not always a bad thing IMHO.

Raymond Knechtel
(Nuke) - F
They are on 06/09/2010 15:43:45 MDT Print View

"If the manufacturers can't or won't, then these things should be banned from wilderness areas."

They are banned from wilderness areas.

Edited by Nuke on 06/09/2010 15:46:40 MDT.

Unknown abc
(edude) - F
"Rapids, Wolves, and Winter" on 06/09/2010 15:56:59 MDT Print View

"Umm, government regulation is often the only thing keeping wilderness areas as wilderness. It's not always a bad thing IMHO."

I don't argue with that. I am merely pointing out that we do not need any more government regulation than there is already.

And I don't think that a few ATVs are going to obliterate the environment with their "pollution and noise". Give it a rest please. And I don't think that that should be high on the government's list of priorities right now.

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: They are on 06/09/2010 16:16:23 MDT Print View

"They are banned from wilderness areas."

Glad to hear it.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: They are on 06/09/2010 16:31:05 MDT Print View

Raymond, you'll soon find that BPL is a bit more than JUST backpacking. Whether the author's comments were one sided or not, BPL is a communal arena focused on the sharing of ideas. Sometimes polarizing comments are made, and a discussion ensues. A lot of good information (and some bad) can be extruded from these discussions, articles, forums, trip reports, etc... That's how I see it at least.

You should have been here for the Carbon flame wars, gun debates, immigration (ongoing), and many more. Often these have little to do with backpacking, but they have EVERYTHING to do with the world we live in, and that is also important. You'll find some incredibly intelligent and well-versed people here, as well as some, er, others. Probably where I'd be lumped! I usually stay out of those types of intense debates, but they can be entertaining and informative to read.

Its perfectly reasonable, IMHO, to want to get your backpacking information from BPL, and your current events/news/politics from other sources. However, BPL members and guests just have to sift through what they want to read and what they don't. The lay of the land, again, IMO.


Forrest, these types of adventures are the kind I wish I could get into!

@ Lynn- "Can't they make quieter and cleaner electric vehicles???"

They can, but what about the poor, poor oil companies that run, um, the world? Now, how would implementing technology--technology we have--that disrupts the profits of oil companies be a positive force in the market and environment? I mean, look at BP. Their market shares are down, what, 40%? I can only feel for those unfortunate oil executives.

Edited by T.L. on 06/09/2010 16:42:46 MDT.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: MidAtlantic
Re: Not what I sighted up for on 06/09/2010 16:43:50 MDT Print View

I moved into my neighborhood to live in my house, not to listen to my neighbors' children. I understand the need for parents to let their children outside at some point, but I do not want to actually see or hear the children.

What? They were here first! They shouldn't all change to suit my personal preferences! Geez.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Not what I sighted up for on 06/09/2010 16:52:05 MDT Print View

Doug, I believe you were a bit more succinct than I was.

Raymond Knechtel
(Nuke) - F
Re: Re: Re: They are on 06/09/2010 17:28:10 MDT Print View

Travis, I understand what your saying. I think stuff in articles (apporved by BPL staff) should be held to a higher standard then what we find in the forums. What I take objection to are the pro-wolf and what I take as anti-hunting comments that don't add any value to the BPL aspect of the article. The wolf issue is a big concern to me and IMHO is on the verge of hurting something I love to do even more then backpacking.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Re: Re: They are on 06/09/2010 17:49:24 MDT Print View

Raymond, thank you for clarifying your objections. Not to sound like a "middle of the road" guy, but I stay out of hunting debates because while I personally don't hunt, I have no objection to others doing it, provided it is done responsibly, legally, and in a manner that won't hurt specific animal populations, which probably falls under "responsibly."

But, I digress. This thread is really Forrest's, so I'd rather not clog up his thread with a hunting debate.

Mike Porco
(mporco) - MLife

Locale: GYE
Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/09/2010 18:10:19 MDT Print View

Forrest and Moe: I applaud your article and your trip, but mostly I am inspired by your motives: to preserve our wilderness.

Under the BPL logo, it states "Pack less. Be More." Too often we are consumed with the aspect of packing less. We obsess over the lightest tarp or the best tent stakes, but these obsessions cause us to lose sight of the larger picture. They cause us to forget to be more.

Fostering the awareness of environmental issues - whether they be motorized vehicle use, wolf hunts, or otherwise - should be an important aspect of this community. If we do not protect our remaining wild places then backpacking light will quickly become a moot topic. Yes, these issues are controversial, but they are the ones that should receive our focus.

Thank you Forrest, Moe, and the BPL staff for telling this story.

Ray - just because someone is against wolf hunts does not mean they are anti-hunting.

Forrest - did you see/hear any wolf (or other notable wildlife) sign on your trip?

Forrest G McCarthy
(forrestmccarthy) - MLife

Locale: Planet Earth
Wolves and Wilderness on 06/09/2010 18:51:46 MDT Print View

I am the Public Lands Director for Winter Wildlands Alliance. Our involvement with legally challenging the decision to allow helicopters in the Wilderness Areas was based on protecting the areas wilderness character not wolves.

Personally, I support wolves being in the Frank Church. However, that was not the point of the trip or the article. It was about up-holding the Wilderness Act and having great adventure while doing so. The 1964 Wilderness Act (and all the subsequent Wilderness Bills) IMHO, are the greatest (bi-partisan) legislation ever passed. Wilderness protection protects our American heritage of having big wild places where we can have big wild adventures. Personally, I think these adventures are even better when they involve big wild creatures - even if they might eat you.

FYI: I am a hunter that lives in Western Wyoming where there are many wolves. Currently Wyoming elk populations are almost all above target. No doubt, the wolf re-introduction has changed elk behavior. However, by adapting my hunting strategy accordingly I have had no problem filling my freezer with elk - even in the heart of wolf (and grizzly) country.

Devin Montgomery
(dsmontgomery) - MLife

Locale: one snowball away from big trouble
Re: Wolves and Wilderness on 06/09/2010 20:12:00 MDT Print View

An absolutely great report, Forrest. It's an odd argument for them to make - that somehow wilderness must have a certain degree of use in order to receive all the protection of the wilderness designation. Maybe that leads us to a new take on the old riddle: "If a helicopter lands in the wilderness, and nobody is there to hear it, does it ruin the 'primeval character' of the land?"

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/10/2010 17:52:47 MDT Print View


Well done! Thanks.

The world needs more human beings like you.

Andrew Wolff

Locale: Chattanooga
Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/10/2010 20:00:28 MDT Print View

Very nice trip and article Forrest, I only wish I were on that list of adventure buddies.

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/12/2010 12:40:27 MDT Print View

"The associated stench of two-stroke snowmobile exhaust made the twenty-five-mile ski--on a snowmobile trail--to the wilderness boundary less appealing."

Therein lies the trick. To get to the wilderness areas, you usually have to cross non-wilderness land. I dislike running into motorized modes of transport in the backcountry, too, but I gotta say if I'm on a snowmobile trail I'd kind of expect to see them periodically. The same's true paddling across lakes to a wilderness boundary, to the sound of fishing boats.

Very glad to see/hear of someone making the effort & point behind this trip.

I wasn't quite clear on how the plans changed... ie, on the initial start was the ski in a few miles or 20 before turning around? I'm guessing the cheeseburger wasn't part of the plans!

Mmmmm... Doing drag-overs in snowy, icy conditions. Awesome!

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Rapids, Wolves, and Winter on 06/12/2010 22:01:44 MDT Print View

So how many nights did you guys stay out there and how many miles did you actually travel?

alastair humphreys
(alastairhumphreys) - MLife

Locale: UK
jealous! on 06/14/2010 05:08:00 MDT Print View

amazing trip!

Brian Vogt
(slickhorn) - F
MFS Regulations on 06/15/2010 17:03:31 MDT Print View

As a whitewater boater, I'm pleased to see folks visiting this great river corridor in the off season. Kudos!

But I'm a little bit troubled by this article. It is written to publicize a trip whose point d'etre was to promote the protection of wilderness and the enforcement of the regulations that guarantee wilderness protection.

However, I don't see any evidence of fire pans or groovers, both mandatory systems for river use in the whole of the FCRNW. I'll skip the trashing on snowmobiles while hiring a plane debate, which is confusing to say the least, as that area is not under wilderness protection.

Perhaps the author could share with us why these regulations were ignored, or, if they weren't ignored, could share with us how they met those requirements. I see a photo of a fire with no firepan, which is simply not in compliance with the very regulations the trip sought to support.

So much of wilderness attitudes seems predicated on what one wants for their own trip to be first class, and not on the compromises we all have to make to ensure that wilderness experience will be there for the next person. This is a prime example. And I while I understand, even sympathize, I can't condone.


Forrest G McCarthy
(forrestmccarthy) - MLife

Locale: Planet Earth
answers on 06/16/2010 00:39:41 MDT Print View


We used an aluminum turkey pan for all our fires except, for the small fire we made at the confluence with Big Creek where we roasted hot dogs for lunch. This fire was made on a gravel bar near waterline, when the river was on the rise. Any evidence that remained of the fire was washed away within a day or two. The intent of requiring fire pans is to maintain the areas untrammeled natural character. In no way did we violate this.

In regards to a groover: we used wag-bags packed in a dry-bag.


We spent two nights on the Marsh Fork (about 20 miles) and 2 additional nights walking out from Dagger Falls back to the highway (also about 20 miles). We then flew back in for two night and the last 30 miles to the confluence with the Main Salmon.

Edited by forrestmccarthy on 06/16/2010 00:41:35 MDT.

Brian Vogt
(slickhorn) - F
thank you on 06/16/2010 09:00:18 MDT Print View

for clarifying -- and making the effort to comply.