Mens Adventure Travel Writer/Photographer Andrew Slough travels to distant corners of the planet208 720-5356

Stanley, Idaho: Middle Fork of the Salmon


It is late June when my son Robert and I meet Al Bukowsky below Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Silhouetted against the water’s glare, the owner of Solitude River Trips is outfitted in a pressed Orvis shirt, fresh khaki pants and a weathered felt hat. He appears to be in his late fifties, has a fine sense of humor and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge about the Middle Fork’s history, fauna and geology. His presence on every trip is also rare on the Middle Fork where river companies often substitute lead guides for absentee owners. What focuses our attention, however, is not Bukowsky’s attire, his age or his experience, but his drift boat.

Anchored by a stern rope to an exposed pine root, it glows with Sapeli Mahogany—a swirling African hardwood that captures the early morning light in a spectrum of gold, orange, walnut and ebony. Bukowsky shaped, sanded and finished it the previous winter and now, loaded with fishing rods, flies, water bottles and sunscreen this will be the drift boat’s maiden voyage. During the next six days and one hundred miles we will encounter one hundred class two and three rapids in this striking, but vulnerable wooden boat.bukowsky-scouts-the-rapid

Standing in the square stern and framed between the forested hills and moving water, Bukowsky is the first to admit the Middle Fork’s whitewater offers little room for error. Wood is both light and agile but the Middle Fork is checkered with rocks and Al knows that drift boats have a brief life expectancy. When a quarter inch of plywood is all that stands between a granite boulder and a cold swim, a collision that will simply scuff the bottom of a rubber raft will sink a drift boat. Even a glancing blow from one of ten thousand submerged growlers will splinter the Sapeli. Most dings can be repaired, but successive impacts will eventually weaken the boat. For that reason Al builds two a year, keeping one boat until fiberglass patches and deep white scratches mar the floor and sides. He will then sell it to other guides, or fly fisherman who will use it to ply less demanding water.drift-boat-beach

While most guides first learn to row rubber rafts, Al started in wooden drift boats. He was eighteen, a year younger than Robert when he launched a McKenzie boat into Oregon’s Deschutes, a couple of years older when he challenged the Rogue.

Now, with the late morning heat settling into the canyon, he is anxious to get underway. Instructing us to stay centered on the wooden seat, he unties the stern line and rows into the swift current, which catches the hull and pushes it quickly downstream.
What drift boats lack in structural strength, they compensate for in buoyancy and maneuverability. During those first miles Al tells us that commercial outfitters who run wooden drift boats are almost as rare as the Peregrine Falcons that nest among the Middle Fork’s sheer cliffs. Though “peregrine” is traditionally used to describe this masked raptor, a more obscure definition is “wandering” or “traveler.” The characterization fits this Oregon based guide who has been running commercial trips for thirty-one years. bukowsky-drift-boat-2In that time he’s taken actors, actresses and presidents down the river yet when I ask him who, he refuses to name names.

“It’s a matter of fiduciary privilege!” he laughs.

The first wooden boats to run the Middle Fork date back to the summer of 1926 when Payette businessman and photographer Henry Weidner, his son Wes, rancher Harold Mallet and friend and prospector Roy Herrington launched two canoes into Bear Valley’s Marsh Creek. For the next three and half months they paddled downstream on a photographic expedition that eventually reached Riggins on the Main Salmon.

Cort Conley and Johnny Carrey’s excellent book, “The Middle fork, A Guide,” details how legendary Utah River Guide Bus Hatch and his brother-in-law Royce “Cap” Mowrey followed nine years later. Hearing that river guide Parley Galloway was doing time for abandonment in the Uintah County Jail in Vernal Utah, Hatch and Mowrey dropped by to pay a social visit. Galloway’s descriptions of running major western rivers captivated the two carpenters who borrowed the old boatman’s plans to build a tough, bow and stern decked wooden dory that they first launched on Utah’s Ladore Canyon, then the Green River and finally the Grand Canyon before they felt confident enough to challenge the Middle Fork.
The Mowrey/Hatch expedition entered the Middle Fork above Dagger Falls in mid July 1935. Mowrey would later equate those first miles to “running a wheelbarrow down a stairway.” Exposed rocks holed the boats and when the expedition reached Dagger Falls four days later the men were exhausted, the boats were leaking from half a dozen holes and their sealing tar was gone. Unable to navigate the falls, they enlisted the help of local cowboys who hitched their horses to the boats and dragged the damaged hulls out of the river. Undeterred, the Hatch party returned the following July. Water levels were up and after launching two new boats with bottoms reinforced by conveyor belts the party reached the confluence of the Main Salmon six days later.

Drift boats appeared on the Middle Fork in July of 1939 when McKenzie boat builder Woodie Hindman and his wife Ruth launched into Marsh Creek above Dagger Falls. Woodie would later remember, “The holes between the rapids were not long enough to give a fellow time to spit on his hands before he was into another.”

When the Hindmans belayed their drift boat down Dagger Falls neither knew what lay around the next bend. In those early, high water years there were no river maps with instructions on how and where to run major rapids. The Hindmans scouted each stretch and ran what would later be named Pistol Creek, Velvet Falls, Tappan Falls, Haystack, Porcupine and Redside all without holing the boat, flipping or stalling on a standing wave and sinking. And when Woodie and Ruth finally reached the Salmon they described a river that pumped through the wild heart of the Northern Rockies.

It still takes six days to float from Boundary Creek to the confluence of the Main Salmon. In that distance fly fisherman will cast to tens of thousands of trout. When the hatch is on, forty fish a day is not uncommon. Bukowsky tells us that the Middle Fork’s rating as a blue ribbon trout fishery, owes everything to regulations enacted in the seventies that stipulate barbless hooks, and catch and release. The best fishing occurs in the morning and evening and though fisherman turn fish behind house sized boulders that split the current, most rises occur at the head of deep holes, or in eddies along the bank where trout wait for insects to tumble into their feeding windows.

In the first mile Al rows Robert into the shadow of a towering cliff that plummets down a smooth variegated granite wall into the clear water. If trout live in the Middle Fork, they will live here. Ranging from twelve to a rare twenty plus inches Cutthroat trout are easily seduced by large dry flies–#8 and #10 Irresistibles, Royal Wulffs and Elk Hair Caddis that imitate grasshoppers, golden stone flies and a variety of aquatic emergers. On this June morning with clouds scudding over the canyon, the trout are picking pupa off the foam lines that twist across the dark pools.
Robert has fished since he was three, young enough and long enough that his fly rod communicates fluency to his floating line. He is also leaving for the United States Air Force Academy two days after the trip ends. I have no way of knowing whether my youngest son will thrive in the Academy’s intense physical and educational curriculum. If he graduates, and that day is far distant and much in question, he will owe the military a minimum of five years, more if he decides to fly jets. There is also the chance he will be placed in harms way, which makes me pause as I watch the moving water pile against the cliff face. Along with a chance to run rapids, catch fish and sleep out under the stars, this trip down the Middle Fork offers an opportunity to spend time with my youngest son–to fill any emotional blanks that may exist before he boards the flight to Colorado Springs.

While Al holds the drift boat in an eddy, Robert lays a foam bodied Club Sandwich on the foam line next to cliff. He waits until a shadow rises up the dark face then raises his rod tip when the fly disappears. In the next instant, the hook finds a purchase and the Cut turns downstream. The line hisses through the water as the trout jumps, sounds and jumps again. A sixteen-inch rainbow marked by a bright red slash along its jaw finally tires and comes to the boat. It is a gorgeous, wild fish and wetting my hand to avoid infecting it with fatal human bacteria, I slip the fly from its jaw and release it back into the river.

Bukowsky tells us that Caddis provide the most prolific hatches. “There are times when Caddis hatches resemble a dust cloud moving up the river.” He says. During our third night at Whitey Cox campground, Caddis first appear at five o’clock then grow in numbers until it appears as if a midsummer snowstorm is sweeping across the river. By the time this winged biomass finally fades, it is nine p.m, dusk is rising out of the river and the boats are blanketed with spent insects.

Trout also feed upon Orange Stone flies that appear from late June to mid-July. Golden Stones also emerge for three weeks in July. The last of the big three are the Hoppers, which commence around the third week in July and continue through mid October. May Flies also hatch throughout the year but are small and sporadic.caddis-middle-fork

Searching the fly box that lies open on the brilliant forward deck for a Jack Cabe, (a fly so deadly it can neither be photographed, compared or described in print) I’m struck by Bukowsky’s skill as a boat builder.

Al tells me he was forced into building drift boats when Keith Steele died. “Keith was a cabinet maker who built beautiful McKenzie boats,” Al recalls. “When he died anything comparable cost a fortune.” Bukowsky’s first effort was a kit boat, which he admits was serviceable but rough. He remembers, “Around the same time, Jerry Briggs and his dad “Squeak” who built Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon dories were closing down their boat works.” Al bought the Brigg’s patterns and remaining materials and with the aid of clamps, epoxies, brass screws and resins first shaped fir ribs, around which he warped sheets of quarter inch A/B plywood. It has taken a decade for Bukowsky to refine his pattern. The marine grade A/B plywood has been replaced with Sapeli Mahogany, the vertical grain fir ribs with Port Orford cedar until it is now part boat, part Ouzel the Middle Fork dipper that flourishes among the river’s wildest rapids.

He can’t put an exact figure on how long it takes him to build one. “If all the pieces were cut out and I could stick with it six hours a day without interruptions from the phone or people dropping by, from start to finish, it would probably take a month.” he estimates.

On average Bukowsky builds two boats a winter. During most years, it keeps him busy while he waits for the mountains above the Middle Fork to charge with summer’s flows. Throughout January and February he forms the ribs, bow deck, seats and plywood floor.

Only a guide who has feathered a drift boat around rocks or scraped over a basalt ledge realizes that wood is neither durable, nor forgiving. It may not be this trip, or one later this summer, but next season when a rock punches through the plywood or the boat stalls on a wave and in Bukowsky’s words, “Fills with water so quickly, one second you’re high and dry, the next you’re fighting for shore.” He is deadly serious when he says, “The Middle Fork’s cold water will take the fight out of you.”

He won’t say if he’s lost a boat but he does admit, “If you run rivers long enough, you’ll wreck and anyone who says they haven’t is lying.”

Pulling on the oars to slip past a granite boulder, Bukowsky tells us about a retiring Middle Fork outfitter who sank a drift boat on his final commercial trip. “He was so angry, he walked upstream and kicked one of his guides out of a second boat then rowed out to the confluence. “I’ll be damned if I let this river get the better of me,” he commented at the takeout.robert-bukowsky-middle-fork

Clients cannot help but notice Bukowsky’s rolling gait and the tortured Redwing boot cinched over his right foot. To hear him tell it, he was eighteen and pheasant hunting when an accidental shotgun blast shattered the bone and left his right leg hanging by a thread. Doctors offered no hope of saving the ruined tibia and following the amputation Al fitted a serviceable prosthesis and forged ahead. Rumors exist on the strength of his boat building skills that he sculpted his own prosthesis from black walnut added elk ivory toenails, then polished the shin, ankle and foot to an ebony sheen. “That might be stretching it a bit!” he says in dismissal, but doesn’t offer to lift his pant leg to prove the rumor wrong.

The missing leg failed to slow Bukowsky down. While most of his guests struggle to maintain their balance on the smooth river rocks he pounds across the beach with camp gear–kitchen boxes, tents, folding chairs and sleeping bags—the entire time keeping up a narrative that would do a motivational speaker proud.

The Middle Fork’s hundred plus miles are a federally protected “wild and scenic” waterway. Surrounded by Idaho’s enormous Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, this combination of white water, wildlife clean campsites, sheep eater pictographs and dramatic vistas make this one of the Northwest’s premier float trips. For the next six days we spend mornings casting to Cuts, running rapids and photographing the river, cliffs and tributary streams. As the sun crosses the canyon then sets above the western ridge, we make camp at Little Pine.

While Al and the other guides set up the kitchen and start the fire for Solitude’s world famous “Middle Fork Fried Chicken,” Robert and I claim a tent then start to climb through the waist high grass toward a peak that rises above camp. Ten minutes later we encounter meadows filled yellow Balsam Root and Arnica, Scarlet Paint Brush, pink Fireweed and blue Lupis. Robert and I climb until the camp recedes to a semicircle of green tents clustered around a bright fire. I have no hope of keeping up with my nineteen-year-old son and as the rolling hills give way to scree slides, Robert leaves me behind. He is a hundred yards above me when he tells me to turn around. “I’ll catch you on the way back,” he yells to me. By now he should know that I wouldn’t leave him on the exposed face and I continue to climb until, exasperated by my obstinacy, he stops short of the peak and turns downhill toward the camp’s distant fire.

Days on the Middle Fork slip between brilliant vistas, raging white water and a captivating history. Depending on how quickly, or slowly the miles pass, Solitude guides will lead guests to old mines, “Set Trigger” Purcell’s grave, Rattlesnake Cave, Waterfall Creek, Cathedral Cave, and the cabins and ladders of “the hermit of Impassable Canyon” Earl Parrott. Wildlife is abundant in the late afternoons and it is possible to photograph Big Horn Sheep, Deer, Mountain goats and the occasional Black bear on the riverbanks.
I am grateful for the time I spend with Robert. My son is looking forward to the future, not into the past and if I had hoped to engage him in discussions about his plans, the conversations never truly materialize.

Robert fills his first three days with fishing then joins six other guests in the paddle raft. For the remaining miles to the confluence he will claim the left front tube, a place of honor reserved for the strongest paddlers. Alone with Al, I admit I’d be interested in buying his drift boat at the end of the season. Casting to the far bank I tell him, “It’s not banged up and my boys and I would make good use of it.”

Noting my lack of experience Al enquires, “Now you’re not going to do something foolish like run serious white water with it?”

“No,” I reply. “I’m thinking of the South Fork of the Snake, or maybe the South Fork of the Boise below the dam.”

Bukowsky directs me to place my Irresistible behind a rock that juts out from the bank. An impressive Cut is waiting in the sheltered pool and rises without hesitation to the brightly hued fly. Dividing his attention between the fish and boulders that animate the current, he pulls on the oars, which sends us gliding across the current. I sense this boat is a child which he refuses to entrust to an inexperienced guardian. Watching me fight the Cutthroat to the gunnel, he studies the downstream labyrinth of rapids and rocks and says, “I’ll give it some thought.” steaks-on-the-middle-fork1


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