The River of Return.

Mike Curiak’s report on a recent expedition with other Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassadors and friends to Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling with many accomplished athletes through the years, but there are so many more whose names I’ve heard and read yet never gotten to meet.

Forrest McCarthy is one of the latter. Last month he invited me to join a small group on an incredible trip in Idaho

Watch the trip vid by clicking here —> River of Return

First, he drew me in with this:

I propose a challenge to the century old idea that paddling is a one-way event in the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness.

Intrigued, I dug into the details:

Starting near the confluence of the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon, we descend through the heart of the wilderness to the confluence with the South Fork. From there, two days of hiking will lead to Big Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Many miles of paddling on Big Creek and the Middle Fork will return us to where we started.

Grinning, I did a heap of mapwork and some internet sleuthing before concluding (sans grin) that maybe the whitewater on this loop was just a wee bit over my inexperienced head.

Then a funny thing happened: the Alpackettes sent a prototype boat for me to get some time in and give feedback on. I can’t divulge specifics (soon!) but parts of this boat, both subtle and dramatic, are truly revolutionary in this little niche of outdoor geekdom. I took it on an overnighter of the Gunny Gorge and realized that it had instantly upped my skill level, even and especially with a multi-day load.

With that I started looking harder at what Forrest had dubbed the River of Return, and realized that late summer low flows were probably going to be challenging but doable for me in this new boat.

The draw to see this region went back years, maybe even decades. The exclusion of bicycles from Wilderness (capital W) means that I’d skirted the edges of this massive roadless region but never been able to poke my head in and look around. And “just” hiking through held little appeal: I’ll become a hiker about the same time that I take up golf–when my body is too broken and/or fragile to ride.

When I tell people that packrafts have changed my life, I think few understand the literal sincerity of that statement. This trip is an excellent example: Owning a little boat and some light bike/backpacking gear has made the exploration of Wilderness suddenly appealing. Then along comes someone like Forrest with a unique and well-researched plan and how can you say no?

I couldn’t.

Putting in to the Main Salmon on a chilly, eerie morning at Cache Bar.

Packrafters entering the water

Jim Harris, storyteller.

Jim Harris

Forrest McCarthy, visionary and route architect.

Forrest McCarthy

Local rodent at Poor Creek campsite.

Deer on shore of river

The smoke ebbed and flowed daily, even hourly.

Smoke covered mountains<

“Cheeky buggers” award goes to the USFS, whom had the stones to demand that we pack out the ashes from our cook fires despite being surrounded by half a million acres of scorched earth.

Backcountry campfire

Heading up to run the lower, funner bits of the South Fork.

Ultralight backpackers hiking with packs

Earning it: The big hike up and over Horse Heaven Ridge.

Ultralight backpacking through a field

The trail was well maintained and easy to follow, courtesy of groups like this.

Man on Horseback

Hard to think of fire as anything other than a natural part of this landscape.

Ultralight backpacking on hiking trail

Ultralight backpacking through forested mountain

Sunset from ~9,000′.

View of sunset

I’m still unsure if we were seeing fall colors or drought ravaged vegetation–there were equal arguments for both.

Closeup of red leaf

Closeup of leaf

Our high point atop Chicken Peak, just barely above the smoke.

View from a tower

First glimpse of Big Creek: “Too thin to put in”.

Ultralight backpacking next to a river

Closeup of Yellow Leaves

At Monumental Bar the water seemed high enough to float. Just. We bumped and banged and dragged from here on down. Here Andrew McLean feathers the line.

Ultralight packrafting

Ultralight packrafting

Ooooo. Next time?

Insects on a rock

Ultralight Packrafting

The last 3-4 miles of Big Creek constricted into a rollicking fun class III+ to IV- gorge with countless boat-scoutable plop and drop moves. Had we any more water to prevent the upper butt dragging we might have had too much flow in the gorge. Didn’t really get any stills of this, but plenty of it in the video.

Out into the Middle Fork. Forrest and Jim.

Ultralight packrafting

Jim, scouting and shooting.

Ultralight backpacker by the water

Classic Middle Fork scenery. Tom Turiano at right.

Ultralight backpacker

Forrest and Andrew, Main Salmon just below the confluence.

Ultralight Packrafting

Jim Harris, Cramer Rapid, Main Salmon.

Ultralight packrafter paddling through rapids

Taking out at the put-in: Cache Bar, Main Salmon.

Ultralight packrafters disembarking from the river

Blue = floatin’, red = walkin’.

Large map

This trip couldn’t have happened without the skills and knowledge (and willingness to share them) of Forrest McCarthy, Tom Turiano, Moe Witschard, Jim Harris, and Andrew McLean. Thanks for having me along.

I’m also indebted to all of the fine folks that collectively make up Alpacka Raft. Their lifelong dedication to building innovative and durable tools for backcountry exploration is unmatched.

A big thanks to the gang at Hyperlite Mountain Gear. This was my first trip using a Windrider 3400, and the unique blend of volume, attention to detail, versatility, and all-day comfort mean that it has instantly become my go-to overnight pack.

Stills and handheld shot on a Canon S100, POV came from a SportsVue 360.

Thanks also to Kokatat for effecting a quick repair and turnaround on my drysuit–I would have been constantly chilled without it.

Lastly, thanks to Peter Mitchell for creating on short notice what the others on this trip referred to as ‘a scalpel’ or ‘a ninja paddle’ to keep my bike-beaten hands and wrists functional if not happy throughout. Probably the best $$$ I’ve spent this year.

Thanks to you for checkin’ in.

Mike Curiak

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