Raft Supported Ski Trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River

Words By:  Alison McPherson

April can often be a confusing time of year when it comes to seasonal sports. There’s usually enough snow to keep skiing, sometimes there’s enough water to paddle, and occasionally the mountain biking trails are dry but every now and then a second winter approaches and brings a big snowfall just to keep us on our toes.

Myself, Chris Gabrielli, and Travis Comeau had a ski traverse planned but when this year’s April winter storm hit us hard, we had to pull the plug last minute and come up with another plan to utilize our precious time off. We scratched plan A and B (both skiing in Interior BC/the Rockies) and skipped right to plan S: Plan Sufferfest 2019 (as deemed by Chris after the trip).

With only 48 hours to plan, we decided to embark on a raft supported ski trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. We arranged a shuttle, got a river permit, rented a raft (thanks Aquabatics!), packed our paddling gear, packed our ski gear, and headed south to take advantage of the April season by combining two seasonal sports into one trip.

The road for the normal put-in on the Middle Fork Salmon is not maintained in the winter and typically stays covered in snow until the end of May. This left us with putting on Marsh Creek, a tributary creek to the main river. Being the first group to put on this year we had no current beta on the condition of the creek. What we did know was that multiple avalanche paths loomed over many areas and there would possibly be snow bridges and log jams blocking our way.

Marsh Creek put in for Middle fork of the Salmon
Ready to go at the Marsh Creek put-in. Something about this just doesn’t seem right… (Photo: Ali)
Raft assisted skiing trip
Very seasonally confused…. (Photo: Ali)

We soon found out that a historical avalanche cycle occurred in the Marsh Creek area recently, bringing down massive amounts of snow and debris and piles of old growth trees, both of which spanned across the entire creek making it impassable at water level. We soon confirmed that portages aren’t easy when you’re not light packers, especially when you’re post-holing through thigh-deep snow in your paddling gear.

avalanche over river
The size of this slide in comparison to Travis standing at the base of it is terrifying and humbling. (Photo: Ali)

Logjam from avalanche
One of the logjams created by a massive avalanche. (Photo: Chris)

Portaging using skis!
Utilizing our ski equipment during some tough portages. Turns out drysuits and skis can mix together!

Despite these strenuous portages and shallow waters, we made time every morning for a ski tour since after all we did have our gear with us and the amount of snow and cold temperatures made it seem more like ski season than paddling season anyway. We were treated with some excellent spring skiing conditions through burnt forested areas and were able to ski right back to camp every time (just barely!).

Backcountry turns from a raft
Ali enjoying some well-earned turns in very wintery conditions. (Photo: Chris)
low tide on ski back to camp
The snow was sometimes sparse back at camp but we still managed to ski all the way back. (Photo: Chris)

After 3.5 days of skiing in the morning and paddling in the afternoon, we eventually hit the confluence with the Middle Fork Salmon and were overjoyed with the high volume of water we were paddling into (relatively speaking in comparison to Marsh Creek, although the MF was still only at a “low-runnable” level of 2.8ft). As we lost elevation, we quickly realized that summer was upon us and we were leaving the snow behind.

middel fork of the salmon confluence
All smiles once we finally reached the confluence. (Photo: Ali)

The next few days seemed way too easy because we encountered no more portages and had enough water to actually paddle instead of taking our raft for a walk down the river. This allowed us to take our time and enjoy some hot springs, hiking, and sunshine for the remainder of the trip.

middle fork of the salmon hot springs
Enjoying a stop mid-river to warm up at some hot springs. (Photo: Chris)
Loon creek campsite
Enjoying the sunshine at Loon Creek Camp. (Photo: Travis)

Throughout this trip we experienced a lot of type 2 fun, many frozen fingers and toes, some decent spring skiing, magnificent views, cruisy whitewater, a few too many portages, luxurious hot springs, and just the right amount of sunshine after a long, cold winter. Despite the early suffering, we all took off the river with smiles on our faces and officially ready to say goodbye to ski season and hello to paddling season. What better seasonal transition could we ask for?!

Rafting with skis
Not your everyday sight: a raft with skis onboard. (Photo: Chris)