Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Logjam in Middle Fork strands 200 rafters

River outfitters wait for resolution

Express Staff Writer

It's a nearly perfect year to take a river trip on the Salmon River. It was a heavy snow year, there's lots of water and it's hot. However, the U.S. Forest Service announced Monday, July 24, that the Middle Fork of the Salmon is now closed to rafters due to debris from two flash floods.

Rocks, silt and approximately 200 logs are now completely blocking the entire 100-mile river, Middle Fork District Ranger Tom Montoya said. Though no injuries have been reported, the river is impassable for floating parties. He added that on Monday, at least 25 boats and up to 200 people were stranded above the debris and below Boundary Creek.

There are seven permits allowed to launch on the Middle Fork each day. Four of those are commercial and three are private launches. A maximum number of people for each permit is 30, though commercial outfitters only take 24 guests.

Among other sites, the washout caused a blockage at Pistol Creek Rapids, which is one of the major rapids on the river. As well, the blockage caused water levels to drop in the Middle Fork from 1,200 cubic feet per second to 650 cfs. in about 15 minutes. It came back up to about 1,080 cfs shortly afterwards.

"There's many unknowns out there," said Steve Lentz of Far and Away Adventures, in Ketchum. "Everyone's just waiting, while the Forest Service tries to decide whether to blow it out or not. Also, there's a scatter effect. We've had a lot of logs from storms before but we don't know what will float and what will jam in."

"The last word from the Forest Service is they've flown in demolition experts who will attempt to rappel down and blow the blockage out of there," said Brent Estep, owner of Mackay River Wilderness River Trips on Tuesday. "It's going to take them all day and probably until tomorrow. We have 60 to 80 major logs across Pistol Creek. It's going to be a junk show."

Sheri Hughes, the Middle Fork River manager, said this was the biggest slide event the river has ever had.

"We have a full group out there right now who're camped at Elkhorn Campsite," Estep said. "They'll stay there tonight and maybe tomorrow. It's their second day so they've enough food, but we may have to fly the whole group out somewhere down river if it gets too long to get to the end of the river."

Estep said forest fires over the past few years have "really destabilized the area."

For now, the Forest Service is looking at options for getting stranded rafters around the debris. People who have launch permits for the Middle Fork during the next week should contact the Middle Fork District office at (208) 870-4101. The Forest Service cautions that it will be impossible to launch from Boundary Creek until the debris is cleared. The nearest point to launch below Pistol Creek is at Indian Creek.

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