The Curiously Cataclysmic Cutthroat Cove Rapid

6 Min. Read
Several yellow boats tied up on the shore of Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon River with dramatic canyon walls in the background
Photo: Rob Aseltine

Rapid Musings from the Middle Fork Salmon

It is late September, a sweet, serene time to be on Idaho’s Salmon River. The rush of summer is past, our crews are dialed, and I’m strong and sure of myself in the low water lines. I’m baggage boating, with no passengers on my boat, and heading to camp early with just my coworker, Dan Merc. It’s his first time down the Middle Fork—my third—so I show him the lines, although he’s an excellent boatman and hardly needs my help.

Merc and I eat breakfast with the crew. We savor our coffee, but keep the pace moving—we need to leave before the other boats and get to camp to set up. It’s a fishing trip, and this allows the bulk of the crew and passengers ample time to mosey downstream, setting flies on every available eddy line.

A man fishes off of a boat floating downstream on the Salmon River
Photo: Justin Bailie

We say our goodbyes, waving as we push off and turn our boats downstream. Merc and I row in comfortable silence all morning, relaxing into our last trip of the season. We fill our water jugs at a spring above the Big Creek confluence, and I begin to wonder if we’ll have time to stop at Veil Falls, a beautiful, cavernous overhang, a stunning tribute to the majesty of the Frank Church Wilderness. As we float past Big Creek, I stare up at the polished granite boulders lining the tributary, sighing contentedly. Three miles to Cutthroat, I think, and begin to daydream.

The first time I guided on the Middle Fork, I took a paddle boat. I was about as tense as a block of wood, watching every inch of water, studying for the answers that would help me take my boat safely downstream. I had never flipped a raft on a multiday trip before (I had flipped a few as a daily guide, but usually on purpose) and planned to keep it that way. I had excellent lines the whole trip, and gradually the tension in my shoulders let go.

I reminisce as I float below the confluence, oars half out of the water. I begin to muse about my next river adventure, throwing a few oar strokes in as a scattering of rocks interrupts the river flow. Awfully technical for flatwater, I think absently. The current begins to speed up, and I smile lazily up at the beautiful canyon walls. I let my eyes drift downstream—dang, that is one BIG rock. My gaze settles suddenly on a thumb-shaped rock sticking out of the river, better push right, NOW, just as the current abruptly picks up. Am I, am I…going to hit that rock?!

A woman rows an oar boat down a scenic Idaho river canyon
Photo: Gloria Goni

As it turns out, Cutthroat Cove, the first rapid of consequence below Big Creek, is not three miles past the confluence.

It’s more like one.

Cutthroat Cove rapid, is a small, Class III rapid at best, and generally considered Class II at low water. I hadn’t paid much attention to it on my other trips; it simply passed by. The line is left at all flows. Cutthroat is mostly a forgotten rapid, except by those who it reminds to never, never forget it.

And so, as I watch the side tube of my 18’ raft traveling towards the thumb rock in the middle of the river, I am not alarmed. To be honest, I still haven’t realized that I’ve entered into Cutthroat. As the rock looms (or rather peers—it is after all, not that big of a rock) I throw in a last backstroke with my left oar and forward with my right, hoping to spin my boat around the rock. I remain unalarmed as the large left tube of my boat begins to rise out of the water. I simply drop my oars and climb casually towards the renegade tube, which surely will drop back into the water once I put a little body weight on it. Oh my, I think as I crouch on the tube, 135lbs apparently insufficient encouragement for better tube behavior. I think I might be, oh, oh….I start to laugh as my fully loaded 18’ oar boat topples back into the river. Upside down.

A swimmer hangs on to an upside down boat in a river current
Photo: Justin Bailie

I come up from the cold water gasping, and I’m suddenly irrationally nervous, submerged in murky water. I grab ahold of my boat and swim it towards the right shore, looking upriver to make sure Merc gets through the rapid. He manages to bump down the far right side. I get close to the rocky wall on river right, the current still pulling on the boat. I scrabble my free hand along the shore, hoping, catch, catch! And finally my fingers do, finding a climber’s purchase on the slippery, flat rock wall. 

I begin to giggle again, and wait for Merc. 

It takes us, all told, an hour and fifteen minutes from the time I flip to the time I’m rowing the upright boat downstream again. Merc and I try a few tricks to get the boat upright, but in classic river style, it takes a village to get the boat back over. A sweep boat driver and his swamper, plus an entire private trip, pull over to help us, and when all hands are on one piece of rope or another, we plop the big boat back over. We catch my river map as it floats around the eddy, and a mile downstream I find my ancient water bottle bobbing in the current. The only loss is my brand new YETI water bottle, which sank into the silty haze.

When we get to camp, I offer an obligatory “bootie beer” to the river gods (if you don’t know what that is, you’ll have to ask your guide on your next river trip), before Merc and I turn the beach into a drying station. A few bags got wet, and we string drying lines all over camp. Our guests will later tell me that when they first got to camp, they wondered why Merc and I had done all our laundry on the last day of the river trip. 

Photo: Justin Bailie

By nightfall, things are mostly dry, and I’ve murmured enough embarrassed apologies to make up for the things that aren’t. 

I run clean for the rest of the trip—luckily, as my pride couldn’t take another hiccup. I do a little dance when we get to the boat ramp, no more flips for me, not this year at least! I let the embarrassment go, and dive into the next phase of my first flip: bragging. Everyone already knows, of course, before I even reach service. I joke that my manager knew about the flip before I did. I get texts with pictures of other boats stuck on the thumb rock, and stories of people dumped and near flips. Little Cutthroat Cove takes a few down every year, it seems. The river does that to you—keeps you humble, keeps you paying attention. I know I’ll tip my hat to Cutthroat for the rest of my seasons to come.

Mia Clyatt

Mia Clyatt is a professional river guide, ski patroller and an advocate for wilderness. She loves good food, good company, and open ranges.

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