Put the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness together with the adjacent Gospel Hump and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses and they form a sprawling country so untamed that, in 1995, it was picked as one of two locations suitable for reintroducing wolves to the continental U.S. Twenty wolves were captured in Alberta and dropped right in the middle of 6,000 square miles teeming with deer, elk, and sheep. The population has since grown so large that authorities recently sanctioned a wolf hunt.
Rafting the Salmon’s Middle Fork is the best way through the wilderness and an attraction in its own right. The lower 20 miles, called the Impassible Canyon, are a 3,000-foot-deep gorge hiding more than 100 rapids. The upper stretch is a mountain stream lined with giant ponderosa pines and rugged peaks like 8,970-foot Big Soldier and, a few days’ travel downstream, 9,295-foot Artillery Dome. In between are spacious beach campsites, some adjacent to natural hot springs. The appeal is obvious. I spent 10 years guiding multiday wilderness raft trips. I often looked up at still-snowy peaks from the raft and wanted to pull over and ski. I’m with four others who have the same vision, a team of pro skiers who’ve known each other for years: Lynn Kennen, Jeremy Benson, Griffin Post, and Drew. Lynn, an extreme-comp veteran and summertime raft guide, pilots the other raft. Jeremy, her boyfriend, will ultimately break 90 percent of the trail we climb. Griffin is a ringer even in this group, having spent the last two seasons getting paid to shred scary European lines on the Freeride World Tour. Then, of course, there’s Drew. Lynn tried to recruit Doug Fenn—Drew’s former teacher, who owns White Otter Outdoor Adventures and lent us rafting gear—for his local’s knowledge of the river, but he laughed. “I don’t think I can handle that much Drew Stoecklein,” he said.
Before I left, I told friends our chief worries were rain and temps in the high 30s. Heavy rain can jack up the avalanche hazard and raise the water level enough to make rafting dangerous. And once we’re in, there’s no quitting—the best way out is 100 miles downstream. The only consolation is that Drew has arranged a free stay at the Middle Fork Lodge, a swanky riverside ranch about a third of the way down the run that was once owned by the founder of Harrah’s Casinos and costs around $500 a night. The luxury resort has cabins with king-size beds and down comforters, a swimming pool heated by hot springs, and its own airstrip—an anomaly in this wild country. An acquaintance of Drew’s family now owns the outfit and said we could stay there to dry out and rest up. If this weather pattern continues and the camping’s anything like these outhouses, we’ll need it.