Monday, June 14, 2010

Backpacking the Rapid River, near Riggins, Idaho

This was an epic trip, number one on my ever growing list of things I want to do. Isaiah and I embarked on a 9 mile round trip backpacking excursion along the Rapid River to the confluence of the West Fork of the Rapid River. I've read about this place, saw it on TU TV and I just had to make this trip happen. This was a special trip as it is the first (of hopefully many) backing trip for Isaiah and the first in a long, long time for me. Not since my mid twenties have I dawned a backpack. The context of this adventure is a precursor to the upcoming hunting season and a chance for Isaiah and me to do something we've never done together before. I was ready, so was he. Memorial Day weekend, by rule is always a crap shoot for any outdoor activity involving solitude. And the weather this spring has been less than favorable. Screw it we're going anyway.

After carefully considering what Isaiah was capable on carrying, I pared his gear down to about 18lbs. Mine a solid 52lbs. Anyone that knows me well knows that packing light is a challenge for me. I've been know to pack a kitchen sink. Always prepared, I took a week to prepare my gear and took only the essentials. It probably doesn't help that a lot of my gear I purchased in the mid 90s, my gear is in good shape, a little heavy yes, but very functional and well cared for. None the less I planned on muling as much as I could in an effort to make sure Isaiah isn't over burdened with too much and most importantly has fun on the trek into the canyon.
In doing my home work I referenced books by Margaret Fuller. Trails of Western Idaho is a good one. As is The Hiker's Guide to Idaho by Falcon Press. I also learned that I have and carry way too many flies and fly boxes. I assembled 2 boxes of flies from the multitude of flies I own just to squeeze in my pack. I still came away with more flies than I'll use in any given year. Having never fished Rapid River and I wanted to be prepared for anything. I'll revisit this topic at a later date.
We arrived at the Rapid River Fish Hatchery near the town of Riggins, Idaho. This is where the trail head begins. On our arrival, I could tell that Isaiah was a little nervous. So to take our mind of the task at hand, we took a tour of the hatchery where 3.9 million salmon eggs are produced from some 3,200 fish. Impressive. So were the returning salmon. Some of them pushing 40" in length. It never ceases to amaze me at how far they have to travel, dams to cross and river to conquer in their journey to arrive at their home waters...unreal.
Enough site seeing we had work to do. Boots on, packs on, let's roll. Uh wait......their was a group of 20, a few couples ahead of us and then we went up the trail head. Damn I hate major holidays in the mountains. No worries, these folks were going in 11 miles and we would never see them again. In fact we saw a few travelers day hiking each morning and that was it. Virtually no crowds. The rain stayed at bay through the course of our hike into the canyon also. A hike which according to the guide books was supposed to be easy to moderate. Maybe I'm getting soft but that description was being kind. Isaiah struggled at first as the weight and pain of carrying his pack settled in on his young, tender shoulders. We stopped, made some adjustments to his pack, shifted some gear and had our first meaningful talk about what hunting entails and the merits of hard work and reaching goals. Most importantly why we do these things. I think it sunk in that hiking, although enjoyable, is still work and necessary to get to special places.
I set the pace knowing he'll do what it takes to keep up and he did an outstanding job. In fact at some point after our first stop. I heard joyfully humming coming from Isaiah as he settled in and strolled right on my heals. Then the magic happened. He forgot about his pack, the pain it caused him and started noticing all the wonderful things this beautiful canyon had to offer. It was truly an oasis. "Hey dad look at this!!" started to ring out with regularity. I would turn and there he was examining a gorgeous wildflower, or an oddly shaped tree or rock. He asked a lot of questions which I was happy to answer the best I could about our surraoundings. He was starting to get it......and like it. Than something really cool happened. On our fast paced walk up the trail Isaiah stopped me again to take a look only this time he pointed to the river that raged down the canyon. In the calm of an eddy was a trout, a fine specimen of a rainbow. Deeply spotted with a wide red band. At first I didn't see it, hell I walked right passed it. Then it materialized in the shimmer of the clear water. Amazing. How did he notice that? It was in only a foot of water and no more that 5 feet off the trail. Maybe I should take a lesson form Isaiah, slow down and enjoy the walk. That's what we did. Eventually we saw so many wildflowers we decided to photograph all of them and identify them from his guide book when we reach camp.I shared with Isaiah the topographic map of the trail, where we were headed and all the land marks we would cross. The most prevalent were the bridge crossing we would make and with every bridge we were closer to camp, this excited Isaiah. We always stop briefly at each bridge to take in the splendor of this canyon. Lush, green and overgrown. It was more northwest coastal forest than high desert canyon. Beautiful is the only way to describe it.We arrived at the confluence of the West Fork and the Rapid and eventually chose a camp spot where the trail widens a bit to make room for a comfortable setting just off trail. A cloud burst caught us for a brief time. Slipping into our raingear, sat on a rock under a huge old grown pine and ate lunch, waiting for the rain to pass. That would be all the rain we would see. The sun smiled on us every day that weekend.
For the next few days we fished every likely holding lie up and down the trail from camp that was calm and we knew should hold fish. Caught on all sorts of attractor dries and small streamers, the hard fighting rainbows were plentiful. Isaiah fished hard, not giving up until he caught every fish he could see in the crystal clear water in each hole we visited. I took my 7-1/2ft 3wt and Isaiah fished his 9ft, 5wt. I'm glad he did, some of those small streamers fell pray to a couple very nice bull trout. Camp was pleasant. Meals were simple, but filling. I have to admitted that the river was a little loud crashing through dead fall and boulders on its course to the Little Salmon. We didn't spend a lot of time in camp, we came to fish. But when we did we made quick work of dinner and settled into our tent and worked out a mean game of Go Fish or War. One game of War took us 3 hours to play. I had to show the boy how it's done. Every night we would review the pictures we took of one another, of the flora and fauna in the days adventure and yes we did finally identify all those wild flowers.
This was one of the greatest events of my life. If we never do it again this was perfect. Sure we had some emotionally, trying moments we worked through as we discovered our limits with backpacking and motivation to keep going. In all it was an outstanding experience. Kids are capable of so much if you just open the door of possibilities to them. Isaiah did an outstanding job. I couldn't ask for more.
I realized something about Isaiah, he is truly addicted to fishing. Passionate in all phases. He does not like not catching fish. He will catch fish or stay focused and attentive to his task until he does. When he does hook up, land and release a fish he's not done. Oh no, he wants more. A couple of times when I told him it was time to move on he was visibly angry. Hell I could have left him there for a week and he would still be casting to every single trout in that river. Don't ask me where he gets it from, but I kind of like it. (insert evil grin here)
The weekend was coming to a close and we were pressing our luck with the weather so we broke camp Monday morning as did many others that hiked farther in. With breakfast scarfed down and rods strung and at the ready we packed back out. The last bridge in the string before camp held some really nice trout so naturally we dropped our packs and vowed that each of us would catch one fish before we continued our return trip. I caught mine in swift fashion. Isaiah couldn't stop at just one and ranted in protest to putting his pack back on so we could get down the trail.....funny. As we traveled down the trail light hearted and full of memories we stopped to re-account every good fish caught, every wonderful flower gazed upon. I liked this so did he. Again we stopped at another bridge crossing and fished. Same as before I caught my one fish, Isaiah caught his 2 or 3 or whatever and wanted more. This time I couldn't blame him for continuing to bomb cast after cast. We were starting to see salmon making their way up the river. Several were withing casting distance. I didn't have the heart to tell him to stop. If he hooked one good luck. But how amazing would that be. Eventually every 11 year old's arch nemesis got the better of him...hunger. So down the trail we raced to get to the truck and to Riggins to find a mean plate of biscuits and gravy. I knew he was getting pretty hungry when we crossed the last bridge whre he opted not to fish there instead stowed his rod, hurried to get his pack on and continue the walk to the truck.

If you've back packed at all you know the feeling of a successful trip, arriving at your vehicle and taking that pack off for the last time. That was a good feeling. Isaiah was all smiles. No sooner did we get to the restaurant in Riggins then the clouds opened up and rain came down in buckets. It continued to rain for the remainder of our drive home. This didn't dampen our spirits we had so much to reflect on and talk about. A little luck never hurts either.
Before Isaiah fell asleep for the remainding drive home he beamed, " I can't wait to tell mom and sister, thanks for taking me dad, I love you."(For the rest of the pictures of our adventure click here. Enjoy!)


  1. Great adventure; great story. Isaiah will never forget this trip. Obviously, neither will you. Thank you. /skb

  2. Awesome story man. Fellow Nampa guy here.