Sleep In The Dirt

Raft-To-Ski: The Middle Fork of The Salmon River

Essays From the Field
High above the Salmon River, the conditions were perfect for some skiing.

Spring is the best time of the year. As kayakers and skiers, it’s the time we can do both of our favorite things. The mountains are prime to venture high into the alpine, and down in the valleys the rivers are surging with snowmelt. So, in March of 2018, it was only natural that we decided to do a raft-to-ski trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church Wilderness.

Plans came together quickly, and in a flurry of gear organization, shuttle logistics and some talk about how we were going to stay warm, we converged upon central Idaho from various parts of the West. The idea was to snowmobile 20 miles to the put-in, raft 100 miles to the takeout, and ski a bunch along the way. What could possibly go wrong?

Winter float trips require a lot of gear, not to mention the snowmobiles to haul it all.

There was a specific moment on the approach when I questioned whether this was the best idea. I was skiing behind the third snowmobile, and as we came around the corner, we encountered a yard sale: one of the cargo sleds had flipped, and gear (and beers!) were everywhere. We collected the wounded soldiers and re-rigged the sled before setting off again down the lonely, snowed-in, forest service road. Some miles later, we stopped once more to check out a single set of wolf tracks that crossed the path. It was at this point that the gravity of what we were doing started to set in…

Almost ready to float, but definitely ready for adventure.

We were 20 miles from the Stanley highway and we had 100 river miles between us and our takeout. It still seemed like the middle of winter, and we had nine days to go.

Always ready for some fishing, no matter the season.

Surprisingly, everything went smoothly. Ski touring straight from our riverside camp up into the alpine was more idyllic than we could ever have imagined.

The untouched backcountry lines were well worth the trip up.

I’ll never forget waking up one of the first mornings, not to my alarm, but to the excited footsteps of my friend Erik Johnson. His ski boots constantly squeaking past my cozy Battle Mountain tent in the predawn hours while running around camp to make coffee and get everyone moving.

The Middle Fork has abundant designated campsites to park your raft and camp for the night.

Ski touring and winter camping are all about temperature regulation, especially when in such a remote environment, and so it was essential for us to be able to bundle up when the weather set in. Each day, we’d wake up in the dark, and start walking up through the Ponderosa pines, gaining the ridge along with the sun. Ski touring to our high point of 10,000ft. The options seemed endless. Cirques with enough lines for everyone, perfect tree skiing in burn zones, and of course, corn skiing back down to the river.

The crew rises early and ferries across the river to enjoy some steep lines. Taking the "short way" back to camp. No tracks, no problem. Exploring new lines with old friends.

It was satisfying to be able to ski in a place so remote, and to access it under our own power. And even more satisfying to return to the river after a long day to lounge in the afternoon sun, fishing, eating, and soaking our feet in the ice-cold water.

Soaking sore feet in the ice cold Salmon River after a hard day of skiing.

Johnson, more affectionately known as ‘Chomps’, was the mastermind of the trip. Nothing gets him more stoked than ski tours that start in the dark and making coffee for his friends on the side of the river.

Early to rise, early to descend. But you have to work for it first.

More highlights (and hilarity) ensued as we made our way further downstream. Seemingly out of the blue, we found ourselves in the middle of a full-on snowstorm on day four. We had prepared ourselves for this possibility, but in actuality it was comical, and very cold. I’ll never forget looking around and seeing everyone doing squats while standing in their inflatable kayaks in the middle of the river, attempting to stay warm. Or the emergency eddy stops to regroup and hurriedly make jet-boiled hot drinks and huddle around a makeshift fire. Winter camping is really gear intensive and thus, we were quite dependent upon our Battle Mountain tents as shelter, and the toasty Fire Tower puffy jackets to keep us warm, especially in slower times like during transitions or back in camp. I remember one early morning, the crew had to bundle up in various Big Agnes jackets to stay warm as we ferried across the river headed to a new ski zone.

Staying warm requires a lot of preparation and possibly a puffy or two.

Probably our favorite piece of Big Agnes gear we brought was the Battle Mountain tent.  We likened them to ‘cozy fortresses’, with really great features like convenient pockets to organize gear, an ample vestibule (with enough space to get in and out of ski boots), and hardy enough to withstand big snowstorms, all while keeping us warm.

I’ll never forget the warmer times, sitting in hot springs and watching my friends pull trout-after-trout out of the river, mere feet away from me.

Soakin' and fishin' are just two of the many ways to spend your days on the Middle Fork.

At the end of the trip, we got to do everything we love: ski, paddle, camp, spend time with friends we love, and cook meals on the banks of a beautiful river in one of the most majestic tracts of wilderness in the lower 48. It was too good. Yahoo! Here’s to spring of 2019 and every one after that…

Want to re-live the adventure with the whole crew? Check out their two-part series on YouTube, and don’t forget to check out their other videos! Part 1Part 2

Mountain Mind Media is a group of friends passionate about creating high-quality media and telling great stories. Our roots are firmly planted in the world of whitewater kayaking, but our branches extend to other adventure sports that keep us spending as much time as possible exploring the natural world. Brendan Wells, the director and lead cine at Mountain Mind has an education in Environmental Stewardship and is passionate about protecting the places we love most. When the Mountain Mind team is not exploring a new remote river or mountain, we put our energy into community education and conservation of our shared wild places. Follow our adventures on Instagram @mountain.mind.media, on Facebook @Mountain Mind Media, and on YouTube @Mountain Mind Media.

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