By Steve Stuebner
With every snowflake that falls in the Idaho mountains from this amazing series of April snow storms, the stoke level for the summer rafting and jet boat season for Idaho rivers is rising rapidly!
More than 2 feet new snow has fallen in the Idaho high country just in the last week, increasing snowpack levels in all of the key river basins that count for whitewater rafting and jet boat trips – the Salmon, Snake, Middle Fork Salmon, Payette, Lochsa and more.
“I’m optimistic, with these spring storms we’re getting right now, it’s not nearly as dire as last year,” said Jared Hopkinson, owner of Rocky Mountain River Tours, an outfitter on the famed National Wild and Scenic Middle Fork Salmon River and National Wild and Scenic Salmon River.
“The spring weather pattern can be almost more important than the snowpack right now. I think we’ll be just fine. It’ll be a great water year,” Hopkinson says.
National Weather Service forecasts are calling for continued cool weather through the end of April with above-average precipitation. That will allow additional snow to pile up in the high country and postpone any rapid melt-off for several weeks. That will help preserve the snowpack we have.
Snowpack levels in Idaho range from 95 percent of average in the Clearwater River Basin, 80-88 percent of normal in the Salmon River and Middle Fork Salmon Basins, to 75 percent and counting in the Payette River and Snake River Basins.
With less than 100 percent snowpack, that means high-water peaks that can shut down rafting and jet boat operations in May will not be a factor this year, increasing the length of the spring/summer river season. Reservoirs that catch the snowmelt and release water flows slowly for irrigation also provide a continuous water supply for rivers like the Snake and the Payette.
Idaho’s outfitters report extremely strong bookings for the Summer 2022 rafting season – in fact, some outfitters are booked solid from June – August on the Middle Fork or Main Salmon – so if people are interested in booking one of Idaho’s famed week-long wilderness river trips, three-day trips or day trips, they should inquire right away, officials said.
“We still have some space in August, but June and July are packed right now,” said Kurt Armacost, owner of Hells Canyon Raft with his wife, Heidi.
“Now that national travel is opening back up, it’s been getting really busy,” said Hopkinson, an officer in the Middle Fork Outfitters Association. “A lot of us are definitely booked out far in advance. But right now is a good time for people to inquire about trips, because it’s time for people who have already put down a deposit to send in their second payment. If they’re going to cancel, they’ll do it now.”
Even for day trip rivers, Phil White with Bear Valley Rafting outfitters on the Payette River said with many new people moving to the Treasure Valley, business has been brisk.
“We’ve had some really big years in the last couple of years,” he said. “The bigger corporate groups are starting to come back to go rafting. That’s been really good for us.”
Even so, there are plenty of openings for day trips with Bear Valley on the Payette River, White said. He expects the rafting season to kick into gear after May 1, weather-depending.
The same is true for jet boat tours, says Homer Brown, owner of Hammer Down River Excursions in Whitebird, Idaho. Brown has openings for Hells Canyon scenic tours from Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburg Landing or Heller Bar, fishing trips in Hells Canyon or the Lower Salmon River, and scenic tours on the Lower Salmon.
“The water situation looks just fine for our operations,” Brown says. “I think it’s going to be a really great season. I’m excited about it.”
Brown has been running fishing trips already on the Lower Salmon River. With a heated and enclosed cockpit, he can keep guests warm in between hooking bass, steelhead or sturgeon. He’s also offers a four-hour evening cruise from Hammer Creek near Whitebird to a sandy beach downriver for a BBQ steak dinner. Scenic tours of Hells Canyon and the Lower Salmon are always popular, with trips going out daily.
Armacost’s rafting crew takes three days to float from Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburg Landing or five days to Heller Bar near Lewiston. Guests fish for bass and trout, stop to see homesteads along the way, do side hikes, and tour the Kirkwood Ranch and Museum, where former Gov. Len B. Jordan and Grace Jordan raised sheep back in the day in the deepest canyon in North America.
Armacost also brings heavy fishing tackle to fish for sturgeon. “When you pull a 6-foot fish out of the water, that’s something the guests haven’t seen before,” he says.
Hells Canyon river flows are expected to range from 8,000 cubic feet per second to 15,000 cfs this year. “That’s pretty ideal,” Armacost says. “You won’t have any huge flows on the Snake this year to worry about.”
Three Rivers Rafting is gearing up for a busy season doing day trips on the National Wild and Scenic Lochsa River, a super popular whitewater day trip, scenic paddling trips on the lower Selway River and Lower Salmon River trips.
“The Lochsa is winding up, and we just got another snowstorm yesterday,” says Hunt Paddison, owner of Three Rivers Rafting. “Things are looking great for the Lochsa.”
Snowpack in the Lochsa drainage is 95 percent of average, so the river flows should be solid through May and June, Paddington says. Their day trip bookings are filling up for the season, too. “We’ve got a few Sundays left, Mondays or Fridays, so people should get in touch if they want to go,” he said.
One unique offering: Three Rivers offers rowing clinics for private boaters on the Lochsa. Inquire with Three Rivers for more information.
Idaho Guide Service is gearing up for running day trips on the Hagerman section of the Snake River, multi-day Lower Salmon trips, Salmon River day trips in Riggins, and scenic tours on Billingsly Creek, a new feature, said Daniel Gardner, co-owner.
“We’ve also always got our eyes on the Murtaugh,” a Class 4 section of the Snake River near Kimberly. “If the water comes, we’ll attack it,” he says.
The Gardners operate their river business out of the Billingsly Creek Lodge near Hagerman. People can rent rooms there, venture out on day trips nearby with Idaho Guide Service, and maybe cap it off with a hot springs soak at nearby Miracle or Banbury Hot Springs or a delicious meal at the Snake River Grill.
“We’re super excited to run the Hagerman section of the Snake – that’s our bread and butter,” Gardner says. “It’s pretty much always 4,500 cfs because of the natural spring flows. It’s reliable and consistent. I’m grateful to have a river that’s always got plenty of water.”
Steve Stuebner writes about outdoor adventure for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.