Will the Middle Fork Salmon Debris Flow Impact 2023 River Trips?

7 Min. Read
Rafters on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River June 2022

Rafting Outfitters Poised to Navigate Any Uncertainties on the Middle Fork Salmon River This Season

As anyone who floated the Middle Fork Salmon late last summer knows, the experience on the river was largely characterized by one thing: wildfire. 

There was the 130,000-acre Moose Fire burning in close proximity to the river, dumping smoke into the Salmon River drainages and making travel to and from Salmon, ID more difficult. Yet beyond the immediate threats of wildfires in the area—whether through smoke, travel delays or active fires burning in the Middle Fork drainage—there was also the ash-stained water from the extensive debris flow near Ramshorn Creek

The debris flow occurred in mid-August in a drainage that had been impacted by the 2021 Boundary Fire, which burned enough of the vegetation in the drainage to cause widespread erosion with some unseasonable summer rains. The slide pushed enough mud and wood into the river to effectively clog it to normal use by boaters. 

A group of rafters trapped by the Middle Fork Salmon debris flow near Ramshorn Creek - August 2022

If you spent any time planning a trip down the Middle Fork Salmon late last summer, you know all about the ensuing logistical difficulties that the debris flow presented—Boundary Creek put-ins were promptly taken off the table, except for those willing to portage over the significant rock, mud and debris that had clogged the river at and below Ramshorn. Some parties became trapped above the debris fan. Subsequent log jams from Ramshorn to Velvet made the potential for portaging all the more unappealing for rafts and commercial outfitters—though many kayakers and pack rafters reported making it through with some ease. 

For those who put in at Indian Creek, the debris flow was still ever-present in the ash-stained water that persisted for the remainder of the season; now, the uncertainties of last summer are escalating as the 2023 season approaches and the debris remains. 

I took a float down the Middle Fork in late August last year, and was simultaneously in awe of the influence that fire had in the drainage and bummed about the muddied water, which complicated my objective to fish for cutthroat in the river’s typically-cerulean waters. The debris flow was a prescient reminder of the wildness of the Frank Church Wilderness, though—an ode to the humility needed to allow this space that we value for its wildness to, well, be wild. Wilderness giveth and wilderness taketh away, as it were. 

The questions that arose in the immediate aftermath of the flow were naturally geared towards what could realistically be done. Salmon-Challis National Forest, which would be responsible for any ensuing decision, said that they’d wait until after spring run-off to see what could feasibly be done. The solution of yester-year—dynamite—would be antithetical to the principles that the concept of “wilderness” was founded on. Additionally, explosives at low flow was a recipe for producing more log jams downstream. Maybe spring run-off would be significant enough to clear the debris? 

Debris flow blocking the Middle Fork of the Salmon River - August 2022

“We have to play [it] by ear—we’re operating these trips in a very dynamic atmosphere in a designated wilderness area, so when things happen, things happen,” said Dustin Aherin, President of the Middle Fork Outfitters Association. “The current debris flow that happened in [August] of 2022 sure seems situated to be able to move out with our spring flow. I’m actually not anticipating it to be a limiting factor with using the upper 20 miles of the Middle Fork Salmon to get our season started.” 

Aherin’s outlook for a big high-water push is probably good news for folks who are beginning to plan trips this year. It’s ultimately impossible to say what exactly will come of the debris, though, and officials at Salmon-Challis National Forest aren’t venturing any guesses about anticipated impacts to the river in coming months. 

“There are too many variables and unknowns to speculate,” Amy Baumer, a public affairs officer at the Salmon-Challis National Forest said. “We will have to wait and see how natural processes impact the river this spring. We just don’t know how this year’s snowpack and runoff will impact the debris flow.” 

OARS rafts on a secluded stretch of the Middle Fork Salmon River

While there aren’t many answers yet as to how the river itself will look in the summer, the Forest Service does have a few construction activities planned for the areas and infrastructure impacted by fires, debris flows and general recreational usage. 

“The big known impacts to boaters this year will be the planned construction activities that will affect access to and from the river during the 2023 season,” Baumer said. 

2023 construction activities that Middle Fork Salmon boaters need to be aware of this summer:

Stoddard Bridge Replacement: 

  • Throughout the boating season, expect delays on the Salmon River Road near the Stoddard Creek Trailhead of up to 60 minutes during daylight hours and up to 8 hours between 10 pm and 6 am.
  • Additional closures may occur from 8 am to 12 pm and 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm from September 8 to October 2, 2023. Details will be provided at least 30 days in advance.
  • The Stoddard Trailhead, including the primitive boat ramp, will be closed for the entire 2023 season.

East Fork Fir Creek Bridge Replacement:

  • A section of Boundary Creek Road #579 (between Cape Horn Summit and Bruce Meadows) will be closed August 7-15, 2023. An alternate route to Bruce Meadows is available via FS Road #582 from Lowman, ID.

Boundary Creek Road General Maintenance:

  • A full closure of Roads #579 (between Hwy 21 and Bruce Meadows) and #568 (from Bruce Meadows to Boundary Creek) will be in place with no access to the boat launch from September 5-15, 2023 for the replacement of culverts and a bridge installation over Dagger Creek. Boaters will have to fly into the Indian Creek Launch Site or one of the other river access points downstream of Indian Creek.
  • Beginning July 5, these roads (#579 and #568) may be closed for up to five hours each day from 10 am to 3 pm. Boaters will need to access Boundary Creek outside of those times.
  • When the road is open to travel, there may be multiple delays of up to 30 minutes. Expect to encounter construction traffic from 6 am to 6 pm Monday – Friday. Outside of the full closure, no work will take place on weekends or federal holidays.

Regarding these activities, Baumer said that “every effort will be made to communicate these changes to boaters with as much advance notice as possible.”

“We appreciate your patience and understanding with the short-term inconvenience these projects will cause. In the long term, these projects will greatly benefit boater traffic and public land access,” she added. 

A plane flies over Idaho's Salmon River in the Frank Church Wilderness

In any case, Aherin maintains that the uncertainties of the coming summer are par for the course for outfitters that operate in such a dynamic wilderness environment. 

“I don’t think anything that we’re dealing with is a bad thing—it’s just part of the natural environment,” Aherin said. “And if we need to adjust our operations based on the inability to access this particular resource at a given point, we’re going to do that. Part of the charge of being an outfitter operating in a wilderness setting is that there are things that are completely totally out of our control, that we can’t mitigate, we can’t overcome other than shifting our business’ operations.” 

“It’s not the first debris flow that’s caused a river-wide blockage, and I guarantee it won’t be the last,” he said.

Related Reading: What’s so Special About the Middle Fork of the Salmon River?

Photos: Rafters on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River – Rob Aseltine; Boaters caught upstream of the debris flow on the Middle Fork Salmon River August 2022 – Eli Kretzmann/Boundary Expeditions; Debris flow on the Middle Fork Salmon River August 2022 – Eli Kretzmann/Boundary Expeditions; Boats on a secluded stretch of Idaho’s Salmon River – Rob Aseltine; View of the Salmon River from the air – Rob Aseltine

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