I’m rafting Idaho’s undamed and untamed Middle Fork of the Salmon River. My plan is to fish all 100 miles of it with a small, telescoping tenkara rod. At the first alarming yell of ‘bump’ on day one, I know casting is not in the cards. We’re braving a late-season 6-day run. Ideal water level is three feet. We have well under two.
“This is the lowest I’ve ever ran it,” says Gary McDannel, Middle Fork rafter for 30 years. “It is nasty, but this trip is still top of the list.”
Only seven rafting groups a day are permitted to be in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The absence of people, power and roads is what I call Middle Fork magic. We’re floating through a secluded wonderland of rugged terrain, rapid water, hundreds of animals and just as many wildfires.
“A lot of people come to the wilderness and ask about bears, snakes and other things they are scared of,” says Tim Nolan, U.S. Forest Service river checker. “Trees are the most dangerous things you are going to encounter out here.”
Towering trees torched by flame topple into the river often and the pyro-patchwork quilt of Mother Nature’s wrath grows darker every year. This year is no exception. A new wildfire is quickly turning blue sky to smoky gray. The burn is downstream from us. The Middle Fork’s magic starts shifting from airy light to heavy heat. We’ll be living in wildfire by day four, but I’m still hopeful for fish.
At hazy sunset, my throat is smoke sore and my nose is a bit bloody from the conditions, but my hopes are realized. We’re camped near a tributary. As soon as my tent is up, I’m down in the water. My tenkara rod tricks one fish after another. Six to eight inch trout with 12 to 14 inchers every so often. All wild.
I sleep well dreaming of fish only to wake up to fire. We’re rowing passed hot orange flames surrounded by yellow shirted firefighters. We count black bears, chukars and big horn sheep. Everything, and everyone, is hanging low and close to the water to avoid burning.
Sleep is uneasy our last night. There’s no fishing and not much talk. All eyes watch the ridge roast on the other side of the river. It’s like looking at a lot of little campfires across the way then realizing there isn’t a campground over there and there’s certainly no other people around.
At the take out ramp the next morning, a heli-tanker hovers over my head, sucks up a hose full of river and dumps it on the fire. Mother Nature doesn’t want it. She keeps right on billowing. The Middle Fork’s magic has morphed and I leave the wild with thoughts of fishing flooded by fire.