Friday, March 19, 2010

Winter Middle Fork of the Salmon

Author on another winter multi day on the South Fork of the Payette

The Middle Fork of the Salmon is one of the United States most popular wilderness runs, mentioned in the same breath as the Grand Canyon and the Rouge River. This March I had the opportunity to run the Middle Fork in a truly interesting way for my first trip down that river corridor. The plan was to park at highway 21 and ski in 40 miles to Little Loon Creek over 3 days, then paddle down 60 miles of the Middle Fork of the Salmon where our cars will be waiting.

On Sunday morning, we drive to the Seafoam pull out for the start of or Middle Fork journey where we bust out the skis and grab our packs and began skiing in while our shuttle driver takes the car down to Salmon, Idaho. The weather is nice, clear, and sunny and not too cold, only sitting in the 20’s, which is great travel weather, especially this early in the year.

We are on the trail for several hours, not making great time and decide to discuss our options. We have roughly 40 miles to ski and are making pretty poor mileage. We decide that our best chance of finishing the trip is to go back to Marsh Creek near the highway and put in there, adding an additional 60 miles to our river trip, but we figure we can make up for it in the additional 4 days we’ve got to move on the water.

Once we reach Marsh Creek, we blow up our pack rafts and put into what we think is an open channel with 3 foot snow banks on both sides. It is clear of snow bridges as far as we can see with roughly 20 cfs in the creek, enough to float our packrafts.

We make pretty good time until the first snow bridge, about ½ mile downstream where we have to hop out of our boats, lift them up onto the top of the snow bank while standing in the creek, then climbing up after it. Sinking waist deep into the snow, trudging for 20 feet, and climbing back into the boats we continue down stream, hoping that we don't find too many portages. Shortly after we got back into the boats, after maybe 100 yards, come to our second portage, followed by our 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc… This continued on until nearly dark when we decided to quit the punishment and camp for the night.

Making camp consisted of wading through waist deep snow, digging out a place for a campfire. packing our sleeping spot, and flailing through the snow to try to gather enough wood for a campfire so we could make dinner as none of us brought a stove to cook on to try to keep weight down. We also left behind the water filter to lighten our loads further. The trips to the Marsh Creek to get more water for hot drinks and cooking was quite an ordeal in itself, the snow shelf overhanging the creek made it hard to get down to the water without getting your feet wet. But we make the best of it, cook up a few steaks in the coals, and drink some hot tea before going to bed under the tarp over the boot packed snow.

The following morning I awoke to frost in my beard and a cold clear sky. We broke down camp early knowing that we had a long day ahead of us if we wanted to make it down to the confluence in the remaining 6 days. Once on the water, the morning started off similar to the way yesterday ended, with multiple portages and dragging the boats through the shallow, cobble filled creek because of low water, only instead of a nice clear day, the clouds had rolled in and it was spitting snow. Some of the portages were short, but most of them were long affairs up to a third of a mile with every other step supporting our weight teasing us into a sense of security until we’d take our next step and fall through the snow waist deep and struggling to pull ourselves out of the snow to make the next step.

At some point during the morning my dry suit begins to leak and cold water leaks in every time I finish another portage. My feet go numb, then my ankles, eventually up through my knees. I try to wiggle my toes and I can see them move through my shoes but cannot feel a thing. I can’t even feel the water sloshing around below my knees in my dry suit. I start to get really cold and tell Forrest and Moe, my partners in this trip, what is going on and that I am going to need to stop and build a fire or I will become hypothermic. We discuss our options and decide that we are making such poor time that we need to keep moving and that we will stay communicating about my condition and keep pushing on, dealing with the consequences later or once they get too severe. My motor function gets weaker and weaker as we continue struggling down stream hoping to make some mileage.

It gets to the point where I can’t really talk that well without slurring my speech and I am shivering uncontrollably. I do some jumping jacks to try to get blood flowing again and we decide to keep pushing on. At this point, I am looking forward to each grueling portage so I am out of the water and working hard, dreading the occasional boating that we are doing other than for the fact that we are making even some distance down stream. I start thinking to myself about the severity of the situation and that we are 2 days out from the road at least in any direction. I hit the proverbial wall, my thoughts turn very negative and I begin wondering what the hell I am even doing in this situation and why I would even consider being on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the winter. I think about how I have a very awesome girlfriend at home and how I could be at home with her sitting on the couch watching a movie or eating an awesome dinner, instead I'm freezing my ass of in the middle of nowhere in a landscape full of snow. I think about how much I just want to lie down and rest, but the thought of Tara at home keeps me moving. I am cold, tired, and hating every moment of this trip. I have decided that I hate snow, I hate boating. I hate wilderness. I hate snow. I want to be home.

At one point while I'm in this negative mindset we make the longest portage yet. Only this one doesn’t warm me up at the end. We get back into the river and continue down stream, Forrest first, followed by me, followed by Moe. As I round a blind corner I see this ice bridge directly downstream and catch a micro eddy at the lip and struggle to portage the bridge, falling into the creek on the downstream side of the 3 foot wide bridge into waist deep water and struggling back into my boat to signal Moe to eddy out. He misses the eddy and pins, Forrest is nowhere in site. I watch downstream as Moe pulls himself through the ice bridge and pulls his boat off. I am shivering uncontrollably now and can’t even string together a sentence. As Moe gets back in his boat and we round the corner we find Forest in his boat. He just swam in the same spot. We discuss the situation and decide to camp for the night.

Forrest digs out the snow and builds a fire while Moe sets up boot packs and sets up a shelter while I take care of myself, changing into dry cloths and moving in close to the fire and sucking up the hot drinks to get my body heat up still wishing I was anywhere but where I was and questioning my judgment for ever wanting to go on this trip in the first place.

I am still cold but no longer shivering when we call it a night. It is snowing big giant flakes and we are hoping that it will bring the temps up to near freezing for the night.
I can’t sleep much during the night because I'm worried about not being able to feel my feet still. The morning brings about clear skies and very cold temps to start out the day. My feet are still numb but they don't hurt and aren’t black from frost bite so I figure that it can’t be too bad. I'm still cold but no longer shivering.

While inspecting my dry suit, I notice that all my seam tape has pealed off the seat and legs of the suit. I also have a 2” tear in the leg where I can only guess some ice cut the suit. I repair it the best I can by drying it out over the fire and trying to duct tape up the seams. I also put my dry bags over my feet and roll them up into my waterproof rain pants and duct tape those seams as a second dry layer under my dry suit. At about 10:00 am we bust camp and put on only to immediately portage the first of many snow bridges of the day.

The dry suit layered with dry bags and rain paints works well, only allowing a little water in as I finally warm up a bit. The portaging becomes a little better too although we have a new 5-6” of fresh snow from the night’s snowstorm and the number of snow bridges doesn’t ever begin to let up. Soon after leaving camp we get water from a side creek and it nearly doubles our flow, allowing us to make better time but also making stopping above the ice bridges more critical. We do not want a repeat of yesterday’s incident. Something like that could be fatal if it led into a 15 foot snow bridge let alone a ¼ mile one.

At about 3:00 pm we make it down to Dagger Falls where we discuss our options. We are making horrible time and we know that downstream there are still some major snow bridges across the river. When we hike up to look at Dagger Falls we find snowmobile tracks with snow on top of them and we figure that the whole hike out of Dagger will have a snowmobile packed trail. We opt for the hike out, figuring it’ll be an easy 17 miles from the falls. We decide to hike for a few hours and make it to the top of the ridge and down the other side, maybe 3 miles before we set up camp in the dark, camping on snow for our 3rd night in a row. Only my feet are numb at this point and I can still wiggle all of my toes. We are all glad of a change of pace from the paddling/portaging Marsh Creek offered. We melt water for snow; eat a big meal and go to sleep in relative comfort, using our packrafts as extra ground pads to keep the cold out. During the night we hear whooping cranes flying overhead, going who knows where in the starry night.

The next morning sun sees us with high spirits with us figuring we have only about 15 miles to the highway. We are getting out of this damn place today! We fry up some bacon, eat a few pop tarts, and melt some more snow for water before breaking camp at 8:30 am to begin walking through the boot deep powder along the snowmobile tracks to the highway. The going is easy and good and we all go at our own pace. Forrest up ahead followed by Moe and then myself taking up the rear. The sun is shining and the air temp isn’t bad. I even strip down to my t-shirt at one point to take advantage of the bright sunlight radiating off the snow.

At about 2:00 in the afternoon we reach Bear Valley, I notice the sign says that it is 33 miles to Stanley, I know that there is quite a bit of that 33 miles on highway 21 so I'm stoked. I take a bit of a lunch break and take off with high spirits. I can even move my feet and they are no longer cold. Although I still cant feel them.

Just past the airstrip I notice a mile marker buried in the snow. It says 8. My spirits drop, but only a little. I now starting thinking about spending another night out, sleeping on the snow and I promise myself that will not happen. I will not sleep on the snow another night.

Hiking along a road give a person a lot of time to think about things. For a while I think about life and my mindset two days earlier. I think about how negative I was and decide that I was being overly negative, but that there is some truth in the things I felt. Being selective of expeditions isn’t a bad idea. Being comfortable and warm at home is a good thing, and most of all I couldn’t wait to see my girlfriend Tara. That was the strongest motivating factor throughout the trip up to this point and the reason I kept myself pushed so hard.

At milepost 6 I reach to grab my water bottle only to realize that I lost it at some point. I use my cup and fill it up out of a spring, getting my feet wet in the process.

At milepost 5 I run into Moe and Forrest resting in the road. It’s starting to get towards evening and we discuss if we are going to camp out or push on. We all vote to push on to the highway tonight and maybe hitchhike into Stanley if we can and get a motel room. Forrest blazes on ahead with Moe following behind and me pulling up the rear, each going at their own pace.

Milepost 5 to 4 was the most brutal of the entire trip. It consisted of hiking up to the Cape Horn Summit, probably a 1500 foot elevation gain. It hurt. Bad. I made myself go without stopping or resting, taking 6 inch steps and keeping my head down, trudging along. Not wanting to see how slowly the terrain was passing by.

The remaining miles went by quickly and in the dark. All down hill I nearly jogged down the trail until I got to the highway where, to my surprise, Forrest and Moe had found a snowmobiler warming hut fully furnished with wood where I stepped inside out of the cold.

That evening was great, drying all of our gear and drinking a toast to a successful trip down Marsh Creek in early March and our 23 mile hike out we had that day. I fell asleep snuggled up next to the wood stove, truly warm and dry for the first time in days.

Waking up the next morning, I can barely walk. My feet were about double in size, swollen and painful. I pop a couple of Ibuprofen as we prepare to hitchhike over 200 miles from Banner Summit to Salmon Idaho.

The hitchhiking goes so smoothly, I’ve spent more time trying to get a ride 5 miles up the road at Banks than I spent trying to hitch the 3 different rides we got getting to Salmon. The last leg of our journey was anticlimactic after all the hardships we’d faced over the last several days. Once we reached Salmon, we all shook hands, laughed a bit over the misdirection our trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon took and went our own ways with mine being a 5 hour drive back to Boise where I have never been happier to end an expedition.

I have never felt like I’ve failed so badly at something I’ve set out to accomplish as I have in the days following this attempted Middle Fork Salmon trip. I have recently come to realize that although the trip didn’t end the way we had initially planned by navigating down the Middle Fork Salmon, it was not a failure. We did successfully paddle down Marsh Creek during the first few weeks of March and hiked from Dagger Falls back to Highway 21, a fair expedition in itself. I still can not shake the feeling that it was possible to paddle all 120 miles of the Marsh Creek/Middle Fork in a 1 week period if we would only have pushed downstream instead of picking the already traveled path. I still sometimes feel like a failure in this expedition and don't really enjoy talking about the trip to friends or family. I have written this trip report mostly for myself to help understand the things I have discovered about myself through this journey. This experience has been one of the hardest I have had in my life and I feel that it was unsuccessful. I still am trying to wrap my head around this trip and all the lesions I will take away.

One thing I do know is that I’d like to try to do the Middle Fork in the middle of winter again, learning from the various mistakes I made and the various lessons I learned. Maybe not next winter, or even many winters from now, but at some point I would like to self support the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the winter using all human power, putting in at Marsh Creek and taking out at the confluence with the Main Salmon, over 120 miles down stream. Overcoming all of the shortcomings that I feel I had this trip, portaging the many snow bridges and continuing downstream at Dagger Falls where before I did not have the courage or the willpower to follow the difficult path, even further into the wilderness and overcome the shortcomings that I have had in the past.

Until then, I am going to recline in my chair with a blanket and a warm something to drink and enjoy being in comfort just a little more.

*NOTE: The swelling in my feet went down after about 4 days, and the numbness has gotten better but still persists in the toes. It turns out I have “Trench Foot” or “Submersion Foot” which is similar to frost bite but without the freezing.


Unknown said...

Mike, that's a great story, glad you shared it, and that your feet are healing.

“There are no failures - just experiences and your reactions to them.”

casualcamper said...

Sounds like a brutal experience. Your a heck of a lot better man than I am.
I'm glad you made it out and your feet are healing.


Unknown said...

Love ya Mike, you are nuts but I love ya

Unknown said...

What an epic! I'm glad you guys made it out of there!

Linda said...

Mike - Almost wish I hadn't read, but once I started I couldn't stop. Good thing I saw you on Skype, otherwise I wouldn't believe you survived! Please - Do Not do that again! Linda

MarilynGolfer said...

I think you and Tara should go to the Carribean and warm up for a week, after reading that. It was breathtaking. When you think of Lewis & Clark & Sakajawaya (spelling) and their struggles, I think yours were equal in the cold and freezing. You kept your sanity, you are in a .001% of the population who challenges themselves, the opposite of sit on your ass people watching tv all day. I agree with Linda tho. You could have lost your feet! You made me think about my life. My challenges are nothing like yours, but they are challenging none the less. Marilyn