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September 1998

Not Exactly Roughing It On Idaho’s Salmon River Trail

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River Trail is a 100-mile-long backpacker's dream that comes complete with muscle-soothing waters and the occasional glass of wine with your four-course dinner.

I’m enjoying the solitude on an exquisite jewel of a white-sand beach. It’s my last night on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and my heart is aching that I didn’t schedule a few more days to sit by the river’s edge and listen to what it has to say.

Suddenly, I hear a splash. I swivel my head in its direction and spy a tiny, blue catamaran angling toward my beach. The oarsman notices me just as he touches shore. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t see you.”

“No problem,” I tell him, half meaning it.

“Say, I wonder if you’d mind company tonight?”

“Uhhh, well, I guess…”

“Great! My hunting buddies are a mile up the river. I told them that if anyone was on this stretch of beach I’d just hike back up and we’d make camp at their raft. Are you sure you don’t mind? It’s no problem if you do.”

I hesitate long enough to let my disappointment show, then assure him, faintly, that it would be fine. He reaches into his raft, pulls out a 12-gauge shotgun, and aims it skyward. Blam, blam. I nearly jump out of my skin as his prearranged signal reverberates among the canyon walls and echoes between my ears. This evening is taking on a life of its own. Ten minutes later, when the night has grown so dark that I can barely see halfway across the river, a great homemade spectacle of a raft right out of the movie Waterworld sweeps around the bend and glides into shore. Two men jump off carrying cases of beer.

Oh well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I crack open a cold one.

I didn’t really know what to expect on this 100-mile hike, but I found it all-and more. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (MFSRFCRNRW, for short, sort of) is a collection of paradoxes. It is superbly wild, yet smattered with small ranches. It’s as fine a trail as I’ve traveled, but utterly devoid of hikers. I enjoyed days of undisturbed privacy, but nights of unanticipated-and not entirely unwelcome-socializing. The trail itself lies at the heart of the largest designated wilderness area in the Lower 48, but it’s easily accessed by air service, which I’ll take advantage of at hike’s end.

Airplanes and ranches in a wilderness? Well, sometimes to preserve a canyon you have to bend like a river, a lesson well known to legendary Idaho Senator Frank Church. Besides his renown in foreign policy, Church was revered and reviled as the floor manager for the original 1964 Wilderness Act, author of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the point man in later efforts to designate four Idaho wilderness areas, in-cluding the granddaddy of them all, the one that now bears his name. To push this gigantic 2.4-million-acre wilderness through Congress, Church and his allies had to incorporate a few things you wouldn’t expect in a primitive area, including 24 gravel airstrips used by hunters, fishermen, ranchers, and forest-service workers since the 1920s. They also grandfathered in a few historic ranches that continue to operate on private land within the reserve.

The River of No Return Wilderness Bill was finally passed in 1979, one year after President Jimmy Carter rafted the Middle Fork with Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. In 1984, as cancer laid Church on his deathbed, Congress renamed the wilderness in his honor. About the victory he’d wrangled against stiff opposition, Church said, “The winners are the people of Idaho, who will enjoy the finest wilderness in the West, the crown jewel of the National Wilderness System.”

High among the spoils of this triumph is a collection of the finest hot springs this side of Hades. This fact didn’t mean much to me when I initially planned my hike, but that was before I met Leo Hennessy. Leo is an avowed hot-springs fanatic. As the nonmotorized-trails administrator for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, he felt the professional need-nay, the duty-to christen my journey properly by accompanying me to one of his favorite soaks. Three miles of trail and two thigh-deep crossings of Bear Valley Creek brought us to a rivulet that steamed as it dropped from pool to pool. There, just before the tiny stream’s warmth was lost to the frigid creek, we lay naked in its soothing waters, watching a brilliant Milky Way burn through the blackening sky.

“You know,” said Leo, while steeping in Earth’s exquisite brew, “if you walk just right you can probably repeat this experience most every night down the canyon.”

Cooling off between dips, we searched the map for tiny blue circles indicating hot springs. There it was. Tomorrow night I’d rest in the blue circle labeled Sheepeater. Never mind the roughly 28 trail miles separating here and there.

In the morning, we soaked again, then Leo accompanied me to where Bear Valley Creek and Marsh Creek converge to form the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Leo had to leave to return to “the office”-in his case, to construct yurts for winter campers high in the mountains above Boise. “Poor me,” he sighed at the thought of heading back to the daily grind.

“Build ’em snug,” I teased, “’cause I’ll be back with a pair of skis.” Then I spun around and strode the splendid trail. At 6,500 feet the hillsides were thick with Douglas and alpine fir, the air sweet with duff and moisture. Soon the woods opened to reveal autumn-tinged aspen groves dotting the rocky hillsides like gold flecks in a miner’s pan.

I fairly floated down the trail that day, past four horseback riders with handlebar mustaches and cowboy chaps, past two footsore hunters humping bloody sacks of elk meat out of their deep-hills camp, past abandoned log cabins hinting of mining dreams gone sour, and down, down, down the otherwise empty trail until, wearily, I reached Sheepeater Hot Springs and its riverside campsites. There I stood barefoot in the river, letting its numbing waters cool my flaming knees. A search through warm mudflats led me to a 103°F pool into which I slowly eased with a reclining “ahhh”-the ideal closing to a high-paced day. I love motion but my body wasn’t in tune with the kind of pace I’d kept that day, and I was glad for the soothing heat.

The morning sun was still well below the skyline when I struck off the next day. Gentle valley walls rose some 5,000 forested feet to ridgelines, and the cool air of the shadowy canyon made for perfect hiking weather. A few miles downstream an armada paddled by. Three kayaks and a support raft looked uncannily like PT boats surrounding an aircraft carrier. A few miles farther still, I met the paddlers at the Indian Creek Forest Service guard station, where boaters must check in; backpackers, being a relatively rare breed hereabouts, are exempt from most such regulations. As it turned out, we’d shared camp the night before, but because Sheepeater is such a sprawling site, we’d seen nothing of each other but our distant tents.

In another couple of miles one of the kayakers paddled toward me as I cruised down the riverside trailway.

“Hey!” he yelled up, “Care to join us at camp tonight?”

I replied that I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to hike that day. When I’m in motion I sometimes just like to let the end of the day tell me when to stop rather than fixing on a particular destination.

“It’s called Sunflower Hot Springs, on the other side of the river. I’ll give you a ride across if you want.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll signal if I feel like stopping.” I really wasn’t in the mood for the company of strangers. Observing a few boaters as I hiked didn’t bother me-after all, the total count of humans I’d seen each day had been lower than I could expect on almost any trail within striking distance of a major city. Better yet, I’d seen no signs at all of fellow backpackers.

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