Friday, July 28, 2006

Middle Fork logjam dislodged by explosives

Rafters finally allowed to pass

Express Staff Writer

Crews with the Salmon-Challis National Forest work to dislodge part of a massive 50-by-30-foot logjam at Pistol Creek Rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Forest Service was able to remove the logjam using a variety of tactics, including strategically placing explosives and cutting away of the pileup near the river?s edge. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

To paraphrase the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is a place where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man and has been affected primarily by the forces of nature.

Early Monday, rafters plying the remote and rugged Middle Fork of the Salmon River witnessed the full truth in this statement.

Blocking the full width of the powerful Middle Fork before them was a roughly 50-by-30-foot logjam. The massive pile of large and small logs and other woody and rocky debris arrived in the Middle Fork's main channel on the back of a powerful blowout originating in the trailless Lake Creek side drainage.

After pouring out of Lake Creek into the Middle Fork, the logjam eventually lodged tightly into a winding, serpentine section of the river just downstream at the class IV Pistol Creek Rapid.

"That's where the logs lodged up," said Kent Fuellenbach, public information officer for the 4.3-million-acre Salmon-Challis National Forest.

To understand the reason behind Monday's blowout, one must look back several years.

It all started in the summer of 2000 when a series of wildfires raged on both sides of the Middle Fork deep within the massive 2.37 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the conterminous United States' largest wilderness area. The area surrounding Lake Creek and Pistol Creek, now largely burned over and exposed to the elements, was ripe for blowout such as the one that happened Monday.

Stationary rubble turned into a fast-moving torrent early Monday when a powerful rainstorm passed through the area and let loose a volley of debris.

Fuellenbach, who has worked for the Salmon-Challis National Forest since 1990, said in his years with the agency, he's never seen anything to compare with Monday's blowout. "We've never had a situation like this in that time," he said.

Backed up behind the large logjam like water behind a dam were as many as 200 rafters and 25 rafts. After viewing the logjam, the Forest Service was forced to stop anyone else from launching on the Middle Fork upstream at the Boundary Creek put-in.

"We've never had to tell people they better not get on," Fuellenbach said.

At approximately 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, Forest Service explosives experts who were flown into the area detonated a number of strategically placed charges that loosened 95 percent of the logs and debris blocking the river. The explosion, combined with cutting away at the edges of the logjam, made passage through the Pistol Creek Rapid possible by Wednesday afternoon, Fuellenbach said.

The amount of explosives it took to move the monumental-sized logjam wasn't known by Thursday, he said.

"The details just aren't coming through," he said. "It's way out in the boonies out there."

The overall operation was properly planned out and was conducted with supervision from safety officers, Fuellenbach said.

"It was a very well-done operation," he said.

Once the logjam was opened Wednesday, Forest Service safety kayakers made the first run downstream.

"They did that to make sure it was clear at least as far as Indian Creek," Fuellenbach said. Once they had determined the route was safe, the Forest Service re-opened the river to rafters, he said.

Most of the stranded rafting parties re-launched on the river Thursday morning, Fuellenbach said.

The entire event proves that travel in the backcountry can be unpredictable, he said. "It's a wilderness out there." "This is it," he added. "You get on the river, and these kinds of things happen."

Altogether, four commercial outfitters had rafting parties stuck above the logjam, Anne Marie Gardner of Ketchum-based Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters said Thursday. The company had a party of 22 paying guests, seven guides, a sweep boat and five rafts among those groups.

Instead of just sitting idly by waiting for the logjam to open, guides with the group took guests on a number of lengthy hikes in the surrounding mountains, Gardner said.

"They went up to a hot spring that people don't often get to go to," she said.

Due to the delays they incurred during their wait, the group will have to fly out of the Flying B Ranch, which will cut their trip short by some 35 miles. The group was able to finally get under way Thursday morning, Gardner said.

"They're still in there," she said.

Based on limited contact Gardner had with the group by way of satellite phone, she said guests kept their spirits up throughout the ordeal. Compared to the Middle Fork country, there are far worse spots a person can be stranded.

"That's not too hard of a hardship," she said.

Like others, Gardner said the blowout provided an excellent illustration of who is really in charge in the backcountry.

"Mother Nature is in charge," she said.

To protect the Middle Fork's magnificent wilderness resource, the Forest Service regulates the number of rafters who can be on the river at any one time. Daily, only seven combined commercial and private rafting parties are allowed to launch on the river. Most rafters begin their trips along the Middle Fork's 100-mile stretch either from the main Boundary Creek launch site, which is about 20 miles northwest of Stanley, or downstream after being flown into the Indian Creek launch site.

Several groups stopped from launching by the Forest Service this week elected to pack up and go home rather than wait and see what happened, Fuellenbach said.

Those who chose not to raft will be able to get permits next season, he said.

To make room for those trips, it's possible that the Forest Service may have to reduce the number of permits available next year, Fuellenbach said.

"It would only be a few trips."

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