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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. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2010-06-08 00:00:00-06.


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Rapids, Wolves, and Winter
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Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
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 T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
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.