South Fork Salmon / Lochsa Combo “Some of the best paddling anywhere” By David Farkas

April 11, 2022// Leave a comment

4 years ago I happened upon the South Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho and it changed my early summer lineup of paddling destinations. I was in California with a crew and we had just got off Royal Gorge when my phone rang:


“Yo bro, where are you?” Sean 

“Cali man just got off Royal” me

“Get to Idaho. Right now” SF Salmon is in” Sean 

“SF Salmon...what’s that” me

“Best run in the US...bring your big boy pants” Sean

You’re telling me that I need to leave Cali and head to meet you in Idaho? Is it worth it?” me

“Dude, leave now. I’ll meet you at NFC.” Sean


Sean’s one of my best buds and over the years, we’ve done some awesome adventuring together. When Sean said bring your big boy pants, I knew he meant high water and epic times. 


I knew nothing about the SF Salmon River yet his rally cry was appealing. Leave Cali during primetime to drive to Idaho for this? better be good.


That first trip down the SF Salmon made me fall in love with it. Pristine water, high mountains, no paddler traffic at all, epic campsites, and incredible big water grade IV/V. We had 6.5ft on the gauge which are proper flows and only scouted two rapids over the 2 days we paddled. It was a dream trip and I vowed to make it part of my early summer whitewater tour and have been back every year since.


Fast forward to this season and plans were laid for another trip. During my summer when I”m not teaching, I work for Tarkio Kayak Adventures out of Missoula, MT. We specialize in guided whitewater kayak trips down many of the classics in Idaho and Montana. A summer guiding season for me usually involves the Lochsa, Selway, Middle Fork, and Main Salmon. This year I was due to work a week-long Lochsa Clinic then straight into the Selway with a little time on the front end for some personal paddling. I asked my friend Drew if he wanted to join me because he was also heading to the Selway and he jumped on the opportunity. We loaded up my van and headed out for 2 weeks of good times in Idaho :) 


The snowpack this year in Idaho was less than stellar and the high water we’d hope for on the SF Salmon didn’t materialize. I had never done the river below 6 ft on the gauge and as we pulled into the 3 rivers confluence, the gauge was reading 4.5ft. I was pretty psyched to see the river at a different flow and excited to figure out the characteristics of a “new river”. We were also doing a life-style 3 day trip with spectacular weather so paddling awesome whitewater and chillaxin at epic camps made me sooooo happy.


I always find it amazing how rivers change with different water levels. At 4.5ft the SF Salmon was a different river than I was used to. It still had some punch for sure and bigger water feel, yet the rapids were really defined and there were rocks everywhere. At higher flows, there are no rocks...everything’s underwater, and the pools have big wave trains in them flowing from one rapid to the next. With our current levels, it was drop/pool, steep, and defined grade IV/V with plenty of time to relax and take it all in. 


Even though the flows were different, the lines stayed the same for the most part and I was able to route us down to Devil Creek where we did our first scout river left. This was the first time I saw rocks in the main flows. There was a giant boulder dead center that had been underwater on previous trips and it created a cool hydraulic and a split in the main flow. There was also a big log jammed in there which could be problematic if you were pushed offline. After a lengthy scout, I dropped in with Drew following behind. We both had stellar lines and a lot of smiles as we eddied out after the rapid. Most read and run grade IV/V had us eddying out at our first camp mid-day. 

Dropping into Devil Creek. Soooo much fun :)


Our first camp was on river left 1km above Mule Kick Rapid. We’d stayed here before and our friend Dan called it “Bitch Slap Camp” because you paddle flat water and then get slapped by Mule Kick the following morning. This camp is awesome and on a prior trip we found a fresh immature grizzly skull here. Breaking this run up into 3 days provides tons of awesome camp time and we made the best of it with IPA’s and tasty food. 

The following morning we made a lengthy scout of Mule Kick high up on river right. There were 2 friends of ours who joined us for this lap and they had never been down before. I thought it best to take our time and show them around so we scouted a few of the bigger rapids. Clean lines and big smiles after Mule Kick had us fired up for the day. 


We rallied bombing down all the rapids and boat scouting where appropriate. I was psyched to remember the lines and everyone was having one of the best days of their lives out there. We finally got to Deer Creek rapid, the last and biggest one of the trip, and we hopped out to scout river right. There’s a sweet and easy trail that follows the entire rapid, making scouting easy. Deer Creek is a long rapid broken down into 3 sections. There’s the entry drop consisting of a big wave train into a catcher's mitt wave hole that you run right or left. Then the middle section of waves and holes that can provide a serious beat down. Swimming here would be life-threatening. Then the finale that at 4.5ft gets run down the left against the wall. At higher flows, the river splits over a rock garden and you can run it right or left. We charged through the entry drop, paddled down the middle, and eddied out river left to get out and scout the bottom section. Mobbing down together through the bottom and celebrating in bluebird sunshine was a moment I’ll always remember.

We camped downstream from Deer Creek Rapid on river left. It’s the last good camp before the confluence with the Main Salmon and it’s sweet. Sandy beach, big forest, and flat. The next morning we paddled down to the confluence and out the Main Salmon enjoying another safe and fun lap down the mighty SF Salmon. I was super stoked to show some friends down and even more stoked to spend some quality days on one of my favorite rivers.


After the SF Salmon, we headed over to the Lochsa, another Idaho gem. Tucked away in the Clearwater National Forest, this river is legendary. If you’re lucky to catch it early in the season, you get big water grade IV/IV+ whitewater in a rainforest environment...unusual for Idaho. There’s fantastic camping, hot springs, and 2 sections of whitewater distinct from each other. The upper 15-mile section above Wilderness Gateway Campground has continuous grade IV/IV+ whitewater. It’s fast and furious and paddles very quickly if you’re just routing down it. The cool thing is that if you’re camping at Wilderness Gateway, you can paddle this section and hop out at your campsite. Take a lunch break, have a cold beer, and then get back on the water for the lower 15 miles of drop/pool whitewater with Pipeline surf wave tucked into the run, about ⅔ of the way down. It makes for a brilliant day of paddling. My preferred boat for the Lochsa is a half slice because the water is so deep, the surf waves so plentiful, and the eddie lines so epic, that anything but a half slice would be a drag. Plus you get to surf Pipeline over and over again. 

We spent a bunch of days on the Lochsa before I had to head to Missoula to check in with work. Funny thing is that I left my friends at Wilderness Gateway only to return 2 days later with the Tarkio Crew. We posted up at Three Rivers Resort and rallied every day with our clients. I saw my friends every day on the river and paddled together when we could. The Lochsa is a beauty and a must-hit if you have the time and are in the neighborhood. It’s a better run with more water.


By. David Farkas


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