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Idaho Ski Raft Trip – Part I

Most of us like to play in the mountains, and most of us like to play in the rivers as well.  Intuitively, of course, we know that the are interconnected:  snow falls in the mountains, melts, and flows into creeks that join to become rivers, and even mountains that don’t retain enough snow to feed rivers with runoff generate cloud lift that in turn creates rain that feeds rivers.   But despite their connection, we as recreators don’t typically use both rivers and mountains on the same outings; we typically hike, run, or ski through the mountains and then float down the rivers, many times in opposing seasons.  However, with the advent of lightweight backpacking gear, lightweight ski gear, and pack rafts it’s now possible to seamlessly connect the highest peaks with the boomingest rivers via ski rafting. 

Jeff Creamer is likely the foremost ski rafter of the perhaps tens of people around the globe who partake in this rapidly growing sport (if 10 people do it, and one more does it, that’s 10% growth!) and has done loops and crossings of the San Juan mountains in SW Colorado, a Grand Canyon/North Rim/Nankoweap cherry stem loop, last year I joined him on a horseshoe-shaped trip in the Teton Wilderness, and this spring he and a partner did a loop combining the Dirty Devil river and a traverse of the Henry Mountains in south/central Utah.  And over the winter Jeff cooked up what may be the Granddaddy of ski raft trips: linking up the Sawtooth Mountains, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Main Salmon, Salmon Mountains, and the Selway river in one, 300 mile, 2 week ski raft extravaganza. 

Idaho’s population is distributed primarily around the perimeter of the state, because smack dab in the center of Idaho is a huge swath of rugged, roadless terrain with a  handful of big rivers lacing up multiple mountain ranges.  I have called that center of Idaho The Great Green Swath, which honestly is kind of a poor moniker because a) much of it is either above treeline or is high desert, or has burned so extensively that very little of it is still actually “green”, b) it seems like the term “swath” typically has an event associated with it that creates the swath, and c) it kinda sounds like Vermont or the Appalachia, which Central Idaho definitely is not akin to.  But it does show up as a pretty green swath on Idaho maps:

Jeff’s original route was a relatively simple east-west crossing of the Sawtooths, from near Stanley up and over the mountains for 15 miles to the upper section of the South Fork of the Payette, which would then be floated down to near Lowman, where the ski portion would commence…..on a 30 mile road to access the Middle Fork.  It was highly likely that there would be snowmobile tracks on that road and it would likely be easy going, but it would entail quite a bit of mindless low elevation trudging and I could feel the heel blisters starting to form as I looked at Jeff’s route on my computer.  But to a seasoned and idealistic ski rafter, the ability to link up not two but three major rivers was indeed appealing.  Knowing this idea might generate some resistance, Jeff also concocted route B, which was a south-north traverse of the highest/best part of the Sawtooth range to highway 20, where we would be able to meet our boats and put on to Marsh Creek, the traditional start to early-season trips down the Middle Fork (when the typical put in road is still blocked by snow).    The crew had a zoom call while Jeff was on a February Grand Canyon trip, and while his original route had some appeal as a more “true” ski raft trip since we’d have to have all of our gear the whole time, there was unanimous agreement that skiing through the heart of the Sawtooths sans boats was a lot more appealing than a short ski, a mostly-roadside paddle, and a 30 mile trudge up a road to “start” the trip. As expected, when the ever-congenial Jeff emerged from his GC trip he was fine with that decision.

We chose April 8 as our start date; we wanted to push the ski season as late as possible to take advantage of longer days and warmer temps (Stanley, Idaho  -the little hamlet nestled at the foot of the Sawtooths, is one of the coldest places in the US, and is many thousands of feet below where we were going to be), but going much later could mean that we’d be doing a lot of hiking with our skis on our backs due to the snowpack having melted out already, or the temps could warm to the point that we would be punching through snow that wouldn’t be freezing at night.  But all of us were well aware that spring in the West is a volatile time for weather, and we could just as easily experience feet of snow falling on us that would slow our travel to a crawl, or torrential rain that would make skiing and camping unpleasant at best with the minimal gear we were bringing.  But ya gotta pick a date window for people to plan, so mid-April it was. 

For such an ambitious trip that is pretty gear intensive we had a pretty big crew to start:  In addition to (the world’s first and only professional packrafter) Jeff and myself we had packraft pioneer and former extreme endurance bike racer Mike Curiak (I don’t use the word “extreme” often, but with something like 17 starts to the Iditabike in February Mike has an intimate relationship with “extreme”), Jesse –  a soft-spoken geologist from Butte, Montana, Allen – a fireman from Durango on his way home from a paddling trip to the Pacific NW, Brian – an old bike race compadre of Mike’s who hails from sunny SoCal but has also known plenty of “extreme” conditions with Mike and running ultras, and our old friend Bryan who moved up to the Teton Valley from Park City a coupla years ago and has been a solid pard on a variety of trips.  It was important that everyone was on the same program for a trip like this; it’s important that everyone has invested in the right gear, which has gotta be light but sturdy and perform well (ie a solid ski setup and a good whitewater packraft), have a comparable level of skill and experience to skin and ski with a big pack and paddle class 3-4 whitewater, and just as – or more – importantly, be the type of person everyone else wants to hang out with full time for two weeks in potentially challenging conditions.  It’s a tough combination to find in a partner or two, much less in seven, but the zoom call went well and it seemed to me that there was the appropriate combination of confidence in their gear and skills and respect for the scope of the trip and the potential for the challenges that lay ahead. 

And I’ll be honest; I was not completely confident myself. Though I’ve skied many days and reveled in many cold wintery conditions, I’ve almost always done ski trips that have involved walls, a roof, and a heat source at the end of the day. I haven’t done much winter camping. A few years ago we did a shoveling trip to Alaska that did not involve an actual structure, but we did camp a few hundred yards from where a plane dropped us off and picked us up so we had a fair amount of gear, and with the same two nutjobs I was in AK with we tried a lightweight spring traverse of the Uintas that was pretty challenging, but I’ve said many times: “I’m too smart to winter camp!” and I was nervous about my abilities to keep myself warm (I had already nipped all my fingers and toes over the winter) and sleep warm enough, all with gear I could carry. It was going to be a challenge for me.

Of course there were the logistics; any river trip or other point to point journey involves shuttling vehicles and gear, and this one was particularly challenging:  we needed our boats at the end of the ski traverse, and we needed our vehicles at the end of the journey which – due to the vastness of the Great Green Swath –was hundreds of miles from the start ,and we were all coming and going from and to all different directions with five different cars.  Fortunately Bryan was willing to take this challenge on, and we finally rendezvoused in Stanley the fateful morning of April 8 with the shuttle dance in place.

And off we went into the mighty Sawtooths!

Well, first we had to consult the maps:, while still at the cars:

And then we were off into the mighty Sawtooths!

well, then we had to question Jeff a little bit:

“Look, I am sure we are going the right way!”

And finally, we were off into the mighty Sawtooths!

To be continued…..

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