The Middle Fork of the Salmon starts at the Boundary Creek boat ramp with a punch. Idaho’s other multi-day sections ease you into your vacation with some flatwater and maybe a fun wave train. On the Middle Fork, First Bend Rapid drops boats straight into a section of almost-continuous, technical and creek-like whitewater. It’s gorgeous country, the river cutting through dense lodgepole, fire-scars, and scree slopes. The heads-up boating is well worth the risk…as long as you are ready for it. About four miles into this first section of whitewater is a rapid called Velvet Falls.
Something about Velvet Falls captures the imagination. With the exception of high water, I don’t find it the hardest rapid in this section. But it is the most charismatic, the whole river channeling over a river-wide ledge of bedrock, then pooling underneath in a deep green swirl. At high water, a giant, river-spanning hydraulic forms, and most boats skirt along the left shore to avoid a rodeo in the foam. As the water drops, the run shifts to the rower pulling behind a large, triangle shaped rock on the left shore then running a slide over the ledge. At low water, I simply gain a little speed and push my boat straight into the gut.
Invariably, as we tighten personal floatation devices and give safety talks at the put-in, a guest will ask me about Velvet Falls. “Is it really a waterfall?” they ask nervously. “Should we walk around it?” I assure them it’s a ride not to be missed but that I also understand their fear. I tell them that I had the exact same worries my first time running Velvet Falls. As we hold above Sulphur Slide at mile three, waiting for the boats in front of us to run through, I’ll tell them about my first-ever Middle Fork of the Salmon rafting trip.
I was seven years old and it was my first time whitewater rafting in the wilderness. Both my parents had been river guides before I was born, so we were on a private trip, where a group of people draw a permit and navigate the river without an outfitter or guides. I was kind of a nervous kid to begin with and I must’ve picked up some of the stress of the adults as they discussed the first few miles of whitewater.
The water was low, but mistakes would be of high consequence, especially with kids on board. Somewhere in their conversation I heard mention of a waterfall, and decided that not only did I want nothing to do with that waterfall, but that I also was going to walk around every rapid on the river. On a whitewater rafting trip. Truly, parents don’t get enough credit for dealing with what their children put them through.
My only memory of the first few miles of whitewater was worrying a hole with my thumb into the foam pad of the box I was sitting on, all the way down to the metal lid. I was perched on the front seat of a small, yellow raft, with my dad at the oars. The group pulled over at Sulphur Slide to take a look at the entrance to the rapid. I insisted I would walk around this rapid and for whatever reason, maybe not wanting to scare me off boating for life, they agreed. Anyone who has laid eyes on the first twenty-miles of the Middle Fork Salmon will attest it is not great country for cross-country walking, especially with a nervous seven-year-old in tow. Moreover, Sulphur Slide is a relatively long rapid. By the end of the walk, my mom, who had escorted me on my trek, knew something had to give. The next two rapids were read and run, then the river funneled into Velvet Falls. As I resettled myself into the front of the raft, they plotted quietly.
One of the defining features of Velvet Falls is that if you aren’t looking for it, you don’t always see it coming. Nestled at the bottom of a Class II rapid, it’s a near-perfect horizon line. At low water, the only clues the drop is there are a roaring sound and the occasional vertical splash of water. Assured we’d pull over before the waterfall, we were on the lip of the falls before I realized I had been duped. Our boat slurped over the bedrock into the calm pool below, the cheers of the others echoing around us. I looked back at my dad with wide eyes, then slowly began to grin. “That was so… FUN!” I said. I didn’t insist on walking another rapid for the remainder of the trip, and have since learned how to lean into my fear of the river, rather than shying away.
I tell this story to my guests because I want them to remember that not fearing the river isn’t actually the goal. A healthy respect for the power of whitewater and the isolated-nature of the wilderness is essential towards making grounded choices in risky situations. As a seven-year old, Velvet Falls taught me that risk also comes with reward; confidence, endorphins, and a whole lot of plain ol’ fun. My parents knew that it wasn’t their job to protect me from everything dangerous in the world. Instead, they found the balance of understanding when to hold my hand and when to push me forward. I’m indebted to them for my love of whitewater, love of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and especially, my love of Velvet Falls.
Middle Fork of the Salmon photos courtesy of the LaFortune Family