Hiking the Middle Fork River Trail Flight into Indian Creek Day 1

Hiking the Middle Fork River Trail

Flight Into Indian Creek, Day 1 The small Cessna rattled slightly, hitting a pocket of rough air as we topped the ridgeline and got our first view of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The river was wide and slow here, surrounded by gentle sloping banks of new growth pine that belied the craggy landscapes, rushing white water, and soaring side peaks that awaited just downstream. After a smooth landing by our talented pilot, I climbed out after the other passengers—two women who would be my hiking companions for the week. We then began unloading all the gear we planned to take with us on backpacking trip down the Middle Fork River Trail. Wilderness Above Salmon, Idaho: Johnny Walker Camp Cove Creek rapids from above With our gear spread out around us, we did not look like the typical backpackers. When asked to carry everything you need on your back, most people will quickly pare down their necessities, making for a barebones excursion. Not us. We were looking forward to a week of four-course meals, full camp setups, hot coffee, and cold beverages. Here’s the twist—while we planned to walk, all of our gear would go down the river with the support of the raft trip that we were accompanying. This convenience meant that we would set out each day with miles of trail ahead and only a day pack on our backs. Not only did the support of the raft trip ease our weight burdens, but it also reduced our assumed risk and simplified logistics, making the trek more approachable overall. The trail ends at river mile 78, meaning that hikers must walk back out, arrange a flight, or leave by river. For us, the rafting option was the obvious choice. For the next five days, we wandered through the Ponderosa pine forests, open sage hillsides, and rocky canyons that flank the river. The trail was like a walk through history, allowing us to explore Native American pictographs, abandoned mining operations, and homesteader cabins, among other sights. We found an easy companionship together, sharing stories as we meandered along. During quiet moments on the trail, we saw bighorn sheep, bald eagles, and river otters. Whatever the time of day, the sound of the rushing river below us was a welcome constant.  A view of camp from the trail Cameron Creek pictographs Although each day was unique, we quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm. We met up with the raft trip for lunches and daily resupplies on white sand beaches alongside shaded swimming eddies. In the afternoons, we would often watch boats take daring lines through the class III and IV whitewater—sometimes our vantage point was a bird’s eye view from a high canyon wall, other times right at eye level, but always within hearing distance of the passengers’ joyous shrieks. In the evenings, we drug our weary selves into a fully set up camp, greeted by cold drinks, camp games, gourmet meals, and soaks in the occasional hot spring. The sleeping arrangements were plush by any standards, as our raft support allowed for full-sized sleeping pads, bags, and pillows. On clear nights, we opted to sleep outside of our tents, allowing for an unobstructed view of the stars.  Not a backpacker dinner From hiking to rafting On the fifth day, we were set to complete the hiking portion of the trip. We left camp as soon as we finished our coffee and breakfast, waving goodbye to the rafters who were still milling about enjoying a more leisurely pace to the morning. By lunchtime, we arrived at the Big Creek Bridge and the end of the trail. We waited for the raft trip, congratulating ourselves for completing our trek. It was a bittersweet moment as we changed our hiking boots out for river sandals. The melancholy never set in, for we still had two days and 23 miles to go, now by raft. As soon as we were in the rafts, we were bouncing through the rollicking waves of Impassable Canyon. Experiencing the area from the vantage point of the river was a true delight after spending the past five days on the trail. We spent one more evening under the stars before rafting out the final ten miles of whitewater the following day. A lunch stop at Loon Creek Camp We reached the take-out all too soon. Had there been an airstrip nearby, I would have asked a pilot to fly us back to the beginning. A BRIEF OVERVIEW The Middle Fork of the Salmon Trail accompanies the river of the same name for 78 miles through the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Hikers will experience an eclectic mix of working ranches, hunting camps, pictographs, and historic cabins, along with hot springs, waterfalls and other natural wonders. The trail is maintained for hunters, pack strings, river runners, and backpackers so it remains in generally in decent shape. Although the elevation trends down (~2,880 ft drop), there are several ridgelines to traverse that will leave hikers short of breath. Additionally, it is worth noting that the trail system covers more miles than the river. Just beware, you will walk further than the 78 miles of river you’ll parallel! START AND END POINTS The trail begins at Boundary Creek (River Mile 0) and runs to the Big Creek Bridge (River Mile 77.8). It can hiked as a sort of loop-hike by turning around at the endpoint and returning to the trailhead. As the trail sometimes runs on either side of the river, bridges can be used to minimize repeated segments. Should you choose a thru hike, egress will need to be arranged via air or raft. In order to hike with raft-support, it is recommended to begin the trip at either Indian Creek or Thomas Creek airstrips and launch points.  WEATHER Idaho weather can be dramatic and unpredictable. Generally, June is the rainier month with cool-warm days and cold nights. Late June to August brings

Life as a Camp Cook in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

Life as a Camp Cook in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

Salmon, Idaho’s proximity to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness makes it a popular destination for wilderness visitors of all stripes. This accessibility also attracts wilderness enthusiasts and professionals who make Salmon their home year-round. These residents can be river guides, BLM and Forest Service employees, trail workers, and hunting guides, among others. This eclectic mix makes for a colorful community, full of people brimming with passion for Idaho’s wild spaces. One such resident is Kristin Baungard. I recently caught up with Kristin to learn more about her unique job as a camp cook at a remote backcountry hunt camp. Q: How did you get involved with hunting operations? Why did you become a camp cook? A: I hate to say it, but it was because of a boy. Well, I guess a man. I was in my mid-20s and had spent several summers working as a river guide on multiple rivers, but the Middle Fork of the Salmon held a special place in my heart. One summer, I fell for a guide from another company while working some Middle Fork trips. I had to leave to go work on the Grand Canyon, so I got his address. We exchanged a flurry of letters and postcards, sending them to various backcountry mail drops. In one letter, he asked me if I wanted to be the camp cook at the hunting operation where he guided in the fall. Without a second thought, I scrawled “Yes.” across a postcard, dropped in the mail at Phantom Ranch, and started planning my trip. Because of complicated scheduling, I did not see him again until I got off the plane at the backcountry airstrip. He and the other crew members were waiting for me ]with a full pack string of mules and horses, prepared to ride the 10 or so miles into camp. In my hasty postcard, I had conveniently left out the fact that I am very allergic to horses and I had never hunted, but that is a story for another day. Q: What did you think when you first saw hunt camp? Describe the setup. A: The hunt camp is in the Frank Church Wilderness near Big Creek. Guests arrive at camp by flying into the nearest airstrip, a dirt runway approximately four hours away from the outpost. When guests arrive, they and their gear are loaded onto mules and horses for the trek to camp. When we arrive at camp, the hunters separate into their wall tents. Each wall tent sleeps two hunters and is heated by a woodstove. The tents surround the cook tent, where the camp kitchen and common area are located. In camp we also have a corral for the horses and a spring for drinking water. A creek runs nearby and the view of the surrounding wilderness is astounding. When I first arrived, I was surprised by how comfortable everything was, while still maintaining the remote feel that such a huge wilderness provides. Q: Camp sounds comfortable, but I’m guessing that the hunters don’t spend much time there during the day. What is a day like for the hunters? A: The hunters wake up just before dawn when a guide comes into their tent to fire up the woodstove. They are told to stay in their sleeping bags until the tent is warm, then they can prepare for the day. After the wake-up call, everyone comes to the cook tent for coffee and hot breakfast. Breakfast is different every day, but biscuits and gravy are a crowd favorite. After breakfast, the hunters pair off with their guides and head to the lookout rock. This viewpoint allows a vista of the surrounding area, perfect for spotting game. The crew then heads out, usually on foot, for a day of hunting. Weather permitting, they stay out until dusk, when they return for dinner and a night in camp. After dinner, there is the opportunity to sit by the fire, swap stories, and admire the jaw-dropping views of the night sky before turning in and starting over the next day. Q: This all seems like a luxurious way to experience the wilderness. I am betting your day might not be so plush. What is a typical day like for a camp cook? A: I wouldn’t call it luxurious, but my typical day is pretty awesome. I wake up around 4:30 to get the fire started in the cook tent. The fire warms the tent but also provides my heat source for cooking. I cook breakfast in the dark and prepare sack lunches for the hunters. Once I have them packed off for their day of hunting, my camp chores begin. I clean up the kitchen and then straighten the hunters’ tents–restocking wood, sweeping the floors, and tending the woodstoves. After tidying camp, I turn to my horse chores. We generally have 12 to 15 horses and mules in camp. Due to our remote location, we cannot bring all the food they will need for the stint we spend out there. Fortunately, there are ample food sources in the Frank Church. We turn the animals out each night to graze, so I have to go wrangle them each morning. Generally, they stay near camp because they know where their grain comes from. After locating the horses (a task that can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours) I bring them back to camp and corral them. Depending on the day, I may saddle up a string and take them out to a predetermined location so that the hunters can ride them out at the end of the day. After the horses are taken care of, I start dinner preparation and await the hunters. My days are pretty busy but also very fulfilling. Q: If you spend so much time separated from the crew, how do you communicate with the hunters and hunting guides? A: Well, one of the best things about the wilderness is the way it

Salmon, Idaho: Gateway to the Wilderness Salmon, Idaho – Gateway to the Wildernes

Salmon, Idaho: Gateway to the Wilderness

Nestled on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Salmon, Idaho’s convenient outdoor access has long attracted nature lovers and sportsmen alike. When combined with the relatively small population, the town provides the perfect getaway for the outdoor enthusiast in search of more space and less people. One such outdoorsman was Elmer Keith.  On the eve of deer season opening day, I sat around a bonfire with a small group and asked if anyone had heard the name. One friend, an avid hunter and lifelong outdoorsman, spoke up. He talked excitedly of Keith’s life in Salmon, his published articles, and how he contributed foundational changes to the firearms community. To be honest, he lost me several times when discussing the technical details that made Keith’s contributions so impressive. What stayed with me was that although Elmer Keith passed away in 1984, he clearly left behind a legacy. Elmer Kieth ©Lemhi County Historical Society, Doris Morton Family Collection The following day, I went to the Salmon Public Library and borrowed Elmer Keith’s 1979 autobiography, Hell, I Was There. I had high hopes of frittering away a few evenings reading about Salmon life in earlier decades, aspirations that quickly dissolved when I opened the tome. Nearly 400 pages of two columned text, the book dwarfed some of the college textbooks that still collect dust on my shelves. Instead, I skimmed the thing.  Through the snippets of Keith’s life, I found a kindred spirit. Like me, he was born in another region and felt drawn to life in the West. Upon arrival in Idaho, he hunted, fished, and ran the river. He traveled the world for his work and his interests, chronicling his adventures in various published works. He eventually retired and settled into a house in Salmon, ID, with his family nearby. And he did it all in some of the most impressive Western hats I’ve ever seen. Although the town has changed since Elmer Keith’s time, the aspects he loved are still here and thriving. Many fall events have been postponed, but outdoor activities abound. Hunting season has arrived, along with the first of the steelhead run. The trails at Discovery Hill are open for walking or biking, and temperatures are holding for a river float through town.  “a river float through town” Sporting goods stores and the fly shop are ready to provide any of the gear or advice visitors may need. Although it is not entirely necessary for a successful outdoor pursuit, I highly recommend dropping in Jaxonbilt Hat Company to admire the collection. If you’ve never had the pleasure, work with one of the hatters to construct a custom-built hat. Look to Elmer Keith for inspiration, or come up with a creation all your own. The “Elmer Keith” at Jaxonbilt Hat Co. As the cold weather rolls in, I fully intend to eventually circle back to Hell, I Was There, but deer season turns to elk season, and there’s always wood to bring in. I think Elmer would understand. Heading out for elk season For information about where to stay and other activities in the Salmon Valley go to www.visitsalmonvalley.com.