Tour de Powerhouse – Steve Zettels memoirs as he begins his career as a guide on the Middle Fork Salmon River
Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho’s Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness is probably the finest extended outdoor experience in the country and possibly the world for that matter.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River consists of 100 miles of spectacular scenery, whitewater, natural hot springs, wildlife, a wilderness experience at its finest.
One of the famous stretches of whitewater on the Middle Fork of the Salmon is a rapid called Powerhouse and consists of nearly half a mile continuous whitewater, ending with the entire river forcing anything that floats into a cliff wall at the bottom.
More about that later.
In 1984, I had four seasons of guiding horseback hunters in the Idaho Backcountry under my belt. Being a guide in that country typically involved the annual 50 mile trail ride to get the horses and mules to our operating area on Big Creek in the Payette National Forest. About 20 miles of the ride was along the Middle Fork. An average afternoon would consist of nearly a hundred degrees, dust, bugs, bees or flies, thirst, saddle sores and so much more to look forward to. While enjoying countless hours of this sort of pleasure each summer, I began to notice a steady parade of boats traveling downstream, the same direction as I was as I was heading, except their passengers seemed to be enjoying a completely different set of experiences including, but not limited to; cold drinks ,no dust, fishing, swimming, laughing, singing, bikini tops, bikinis without tops and so much more or less depending on how you look at it.
One thing was for sure, I was doing it the wrong way.
So it was then that I decided to trade ‘dust for bust’ and made plans to become a Middle Fork Boatman.
Those plans included finding of Middle Fork outfitter who would be willing to train me and then hopefully put me to work. I had been guiding Wilderness Horseback Hunts for four seasons and as of yet had not killed or lost anyone. I might add that my legendary prowess for napping had not yet become public knowledge, therefore I was able to, without too much effort, find an outfitter who would give me a shot. His name was Ron.
Ron was a character like no other. His story would be a great one to share, but not right now. Maybe later. What I will say about Ron is this; very few people in this world will leave a lasting impression on everyone they meet, regardless whether that meeting is for a moment or lifetime. That “impression” can vary from extremes of positive and negative, but one thing is for certain, Ron would leave it! Training on the Middle Fork meant meeting the legal requirements of floating the entire one hundred miles of the river 3 times with a licensed guide in the boat, and, not being a felon. It also meant that you should actually learn to row the boat, cook the meals, learn the hundred miles of river on and off the water and much more. Typically this training with other operations would require a summer or two. With Ron, it would take eight days.
It was late May 1984. Ron’s crew consisted of Grizz, a returning seasoned veteran and six rookies who had never touched an oar, at least not one in a whitewater situation.
Did I mention that the Middle Fork is has over one-hundred classified rapids and drops 3000 vertical feet. And so it was that Grizz, Bart, Hollywood, Austin, Cowboy, Doc and I would become Ron’s “best crew ever”. It was what he told all the guests, so it must be true.
Our first training trip began just before daylight in Stanley Idaho. Unfortunately local restaurants in Stanley didn’t open till after daylight, so breakfast would have to wait until lunch. After about an hour and a half drive, over snowy mountain passes, without tire tracks in them, insinuating that we were the first to have gotten through since the prior fall, and a quick rigging of two Green River 18 foot non-self bailing rafts.
Ron recommended high water attire of, tennis shoes, cut off jeans, a wool shirt, rain jacket, and a life jacket, a command from Ron to Grizz, “be at the ramp by noon tomorrow”, and we were off.
Grizz was captain of the first boat and the second was manned by a new arrival, Stevo. Stevo seemed confident and capable enough. The only thing about Stevo really worth adding here is that when he spoke it took a while. Not that he was slow, but his message sure was. Someone said something about 8 foot on the gauge (extremely high), which meant nothing to me, it should have, and we were off. As it was calculated later, at about mile 6, Stevo made his first proclamation. It went something like, “what the hell is thi…, and with that Stevo was gone. Considering the fact that we all wanted to hear the end of what he was trying to say plus have someone in the boat who supposedly had been here before, my boat mate, Hollywood and I, went looking for Stevo. Here he is! Goofing off and hiding in the water behind the boat. I assumed he was putting us through some “man overboard” training.
1,2,3 ,and Stevo was back in the boat and back at the oars. Stevo seemed as relieved as we were to have him back in the boat. There just wasn’t enough time in the day for him to say so. In water conditions like that and with those types of boats, bailing was a perpetual necessity. We had a 5 gallon bucket and someone was always using it.
Once again, calculated later to be at about mile 10, there was a sense that the worst for now was behind us, Stevo made his second proclamation, “One of you guys should row”. Hollywood responded first and moved into the captain’s seat. One minute later we were broadside on what became known as “Hollywood’s Wall”. A little high siding and an act of God or two and I’m sure something fractionally eloquent from Stevo and we slid off the wall and back in the current. At this moment the boat was completely full of water. Simultaneous with our realization that we are totally without the ability to maneuver until we bailed about the thousand gallons of water, someone noticed the passengers in the boat ahead of us waving frantically at us. I’m sure being the friendly guys we were and certainly not wanting to be out done, we all waved back just as frantically. It was also about then that we noticed Grizz rowing that boat from left to right with a lot of enthusiasm. It would have been nice to be in a boat that would maneuver like that but at that moment we were totally at the will of the river and the river’s will, as it turned out, was not in our best interest.
As it also turned out, the reason for all the waving and enthusiastic rowing ahead, was that there was a huge tree stretching at surface level from the left bank to a giant rock island in the middle of the river.
Stevo jumped into the captains seat as Hollywood instinctively yielded the oars to the only man in the boat with any experience.
Stevo was able to rotate the stern of the boat towards the right channel of the river. Our only hope it seemed was for Stevo to get us to the right of the rock island past the end of the log. Stevo took a stroke, then another, then another, muscles flexing, heavy breathing, definitely no time for a proclamation, again and again and again, Stevo pulled at the oars. As we drew nearer to log Stevo bent the oars and continued his Herculean effort to somehow save the day. In all, the boat moved right about 6 inches to the right. And as the boat reached the log, instantly turning broadside, somewhere between the upstream tubes going under water and the rest of us flipping under the log with the raft, I heard yet another Stevo proclamation. Part of one really. In the same cadence and the same monotone fashion as before, as he slowly submerged, Stevo bravely uttered most of the phrase of those famous words uttered so many time before him, “Oh Fu…. Unfortunately the breakfast for lunch disappeared with dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast as well. Some underwater screaming, a lot of swimming and some help from the Grizz boat and we were back in business.
With the exception of a few near misses the next 89 miles went by without event.
At the take out by noon, we were de-rigged, loaded up and headed up the road in no time in search of town and food. Unfortunately just as we hit the blacktop the truck died. There we sat for several hours while a new rig was somehow reconoirdered. Finally we entered the Salmon city limits whereupon Ron took the liberty of ordering a burger and fries for everyone. Well that was a good snack, now where’s the food.
We would have to wait till Stanley. It was late in the evening as we rolled into Stanley and Stanley was closed. No food, we head back to the bunkhouse and into bed fore at dawn we would be off to the Middle Fork again.
At some point we were awakened by Ron who informed us that, “Gents, we have slept in and there is no time for breakfast.” We could count on plenty of lunch though, as it was already packed up and ready for us on the trailer. We managed to survive to eat it. Another evening on the river, at the ramp before noon, back to Salmon for a double order of Papa Burgers and fries, much to Ron’s chagrin, then back home to Stanley. We were just a day in town and three days on the river, from being the “best crew ever”. We had a day off to gear up for a combined guest/training trip. Most of us trainees would pair up, Grizz would row his own boat and Ron would rotate through the rookie line up, honing our skills.