south fork of the salmon river

Save the South Fork of the Salmon

July 2, 2021// Leave a comment

The South Fork of the Salmon has been on my list for about 15 years now, and when I heard that there might be a giant mine installed on the banks of the river, I decided I needed to make it a priority for this year. I turn 40 this year, so what better excuse for a multi-day trip in Idaho on this epic river system. I sent out a group text to my large crew of paddling friends from over the years, who are now scattered around the country. "Guys, I'm turning 40 this year, let's go do the South Salmon". The "I'm in" replies were way more than I expected from a group of busy dads, and the excitement of seeing everyone on the river again began to grow. As we got closer to the June 5th put-in date, with our eyes on the flows and weather, we planned on running the Secesh River into the South Fork of the Salmon and spending a total of three days paddling. 

We all arrived at Vinegar Creek launch site on the Salmon river, which is where we take out for this trip. As the evening progressed, all the guys who I haven't seen in a long time start showing up. We are hanging out, eating and drinking, and catching up and at the same time watching a really badass jet boat launching waves on the vinegar creek rapid. Long story short, Sean Lee starts chatting up the driver, laying down the charm, and before we know it we get invited on board for a jet boat ride with him and his two sons. He kicks on the engine and blasts Bruce Springstein on the stereo and off we go. Launching over 8 foot tall river waves and blasting up this rapid, he suddenly whips a u-turn and the side of the boat just sinks. We were all terrified that the huge jet boat would flip for sure. But, apparently he knew what he was doing, and the next move was to gun it at full speed downstream catching air off the huge wave. What a way to start our trip!

Considering that we had folks coming in from all over the country with too many vehicles to have a shuttle company transport, I found an excellent shuttle driver in Yellow Pine Idaho that was willing to load all of our kayaks onto his trailer and drive the whole crew from the take out at Vinegar Creek on the Main Salmon to the put-in of the Secesh. Bill and Cindy showed up at the take-out at about 9:30 am on Saturday and we loaded boats and stuffed people into their two cars to begin the long-ass drive to the Secesh. On the drive we were graced with incredible stories from Bill and Cindy about growing up in the country in Idaho and spending days in the wilderness with nothing but a fishing rod and a sleeping bag, wandering from lake to lake on a diet of trout and berries. Cindy told stories of living in Yellow Pine and how she developed a love for country cookin'. Sean Lee, with his natural charm, enjoyed asking Cindy what sort of foods she really loved to cook.

"I really like making fresh biscuits and gravy, but I don't get much opportunity to make it anymore since my husband doesn't eat it.", Cindy replied. 

"I love biscuits and gravy!" Sean says, "How cool would it be if you brought us biscuits and gravy at our camp tomorrow morning?" Sean said jokingly, but with that famous charming smile he's been using to get what he wants his whole life. 

"I could do it!" Cindy says with excitement. "Where are you guys camping?" 

Well most of us assumed this whole concept was a joke, but we told here where we were camping the first night, which happens to have road access. Then we forgot about the idea completely as we geared up to run the Secesh. Leif Embertson, a SFS veteran, has run the Secesh and South Fork numerous times, naturally fell into the leadership role as we got ready to go. We decided that due to the sheer volume of logs across the Secesh and the continuous nature of the whitewater, it was best to pair up and keep distance between each group so we didn't get bunched up above any strainers. The Secesh starts out mellow and gradually builds into very continous techincal whitewater. Most of it is read-and-run, but there are a couple that deserve a scout from shore. The biggest challenge of this river is the constant wood. Most of the strainers had sneak routes either under, over, or around, but we had to portage on shore about 6 or 7 times. I didn't really realize how long and stacked with whitewater this run was going to be. Day 1 was physically and mentally demanding from constant paddling and manuevering to being always heads up for lurking wood. The hills in this drainage had burned in a fire years ago, so the amount of full size trees in the river was astounding. The Secesh is packed with whitewater too. Some of the drops were long steep boulder gardens, while others were nice clean boofs from 3-6 feet tall. This river kept up the action all the way to our campsite. Due to our super late put-in, we arrived at camp pretty late too. After about 20 miles of constant whitewater and portaging, we were cooked. It wasn't long until we had all finished our dinners and hit the sack. 

"Nick, wake up." Sean shakes me awake. "Bro, if you want biscuits and gravy, you better get up now before they are gone." 

"No way!", I exclaimed as I jumped out of my sleeping bag. I made my way over to the camp zone and there was Cindy with a huge crock pot full of homemade biscuits and gravy. I couldn't believe my eyes. She even brought coffee and fruit. I can say with 100% confidence that this is the first time someone has brought us food on a multi-day whitewater trip. It's also been a long time since I've had some homemade biscuits and gravy, and I can tell you that Cindy knows what she's doing. We all chowed the delicious country breakfast while chatting with Cindy and Bill and hearing more awesome stories of country Idaho. We all felt really lucky to have found these two great people. I'll have to thank the raft company that referred me to them. 

After filling up on biscuits and gravy and drinking about 5 cups of coffee, we were all jazzed up to go kayaking. We still had a few more miles of the Secesh before the confluence with the South Fork Salmon. It felt pretty cool to go from a smaller volume creek with maybe 800 cfs to a big river with about 6,000 cfs. I have no idea what the actual flows were, but the SF guage was at 4.5 feet, which seemed like a great flow. Leif, our fearless leader, led us down the river and routed us blind into some big rapids. Forrest Noble, who loves to go right into the biggest holes, always provides some great entertainment for the rest of the crew. The rest of us are all trying to avoid going through the holes, while Forrest just plows into them. As I'm paddling hard through a big rapid I look over to see Forrest getting tossed around in a big fluffy hole. He always finds his way out and ends up with a big smile on his face. "Swappin ends and makin friends" he says regularly. That's pretty much his motto in life. 

We needed a break from sitting in our kayaks every now and then, so we scouted a few of the bigger rapids. This first big one was Devils Creek. It had a huge entrance hole followed up by a nasty looking ledge on the right. As we looked at it, you could see a nice clean line that skirted all the holes. While the ledge on the right looked scary, it was clear that we wouldn't be getting anywhere near it unless you really blew the line. Leif went first and got set up down below with his camera and throw bag, followed by Will, the young blood charger of the group. Sean and Andy came through next and Andy narrowly missed getting flipped in the big hole right by the nasty ledge, but as always, he recovered like a champ and cleaned the rest of the rapid. After Devils Creek, the stoke was high and we got rowdy running the rest of the rapids blind until we got to Fall Creek. There were so many rapids that I lost count. Some had names and others were just big class 4 rapids that were full of huge waves and the scattered hole here and there. 

By the time we got to Fall Creek, the weather was cold and cloudy, and we were all freezing from being doused all day long. You cover a lot of miles on the South Fork, and Fall Creek Rapid is the last big rapid before camp. We decided to scout from above Scissors, which is a big rapid upstream of Fall Creek. That way we could warm up by taking a long walk along the bank of the river. Throw in a few sets of jumping jacks and we all felt ready to blast it. We tackled these two rapids in a few separate groups so we could get some photos. From the top of scissors to the bottom of fall creek is a really long sequence of big whitewater. The final rapid involves punching a big hole and then scrambling hard to avoid the wall on the left side of the river. Oliver and I were the last two through the rapid and all of our friends were hooting and hollering in the eddy at the bottom. We were all gracious to arrive at an incredible camp just downstream of the rapid. 

This 2nd night we were able to really hang out and enjoy a big fire and lot's of stories from everyone. At one point I realized that we had a range of guys from Will Grubb at 26 years old to Forrest at 53 years old and every age inbetween. It was pretty cool to see this giant gap of ages all coming together to take on this adventure. The paddling community is small, and the commraderie that comes out of this sport is uncomparable to any other sport I've been a part of. It's pretty rare to see a 26 year old side by side to a man twice his age and bonding the way kayakers do. I feel pretty lucky to have been on numerous adventures with every one of these guys over the past 20 years, hearing their stories, and creating new ones every time. And then to bring them all together for one trip was the best way I could spend my 40th birthday. Thanks to Sean Lee, Paul Heffernan, Will Grubb, Oliver Deshler, Leif Embertson, Andy "Kato" Blakeslee, and Forrest Noble for making an epic trip. I'm grateful for the friendship that I have with everyone one of these guys, and the rest of the crew that couldn't make in on this trip. 

Written by Nick Wigston


The South Fork of the Salmon is now under the threat of a giant gold mine being installed in it's drainage, which will destroy the pristine water quality of this river and the ones it flows into. As people continue to ravage the earth for it's "valuable" resources, we take away resources that aren't so obviously valuable, yet their value is realized through small individual experiences every day. You can't quantify the need for keeping these rivers pristine to enhance these experiences, but I can tell you that it's worth more than it's weight in gold. Salamander Paddle Gear and Shred Ready Helmets is located in Boise Idaho, and the Salmon drainage is part of our core. We need these rivers and we support them being protected. We have a new comemmorative helmet to Save the South Fork. $20 from every one of these helmets sold goes towards raising awareness about the mine being built in the headwaters. Click here to order one for you and for your friends. Together we can save the South Fork of the Salmon. 


Leave a comment