One question that haunts river paddlers around Halloween is, "Where do I go when the flow gets low?" In Southwest Idaho the answer to that question can easily be; The Snake River. This is a big river with big hydraulics that many paddlers avoid, especially novice paddlers like myself. But I thought this fall would be a great time to go, since fall is usually the lowest time of year for our rivers and this year was unusually low. I grabbed my guidebook and reviewed the map, called a buddy to man the front of my boat and headed half an hour south of Boise for a Saturday float trip.
The guidebook describes four class II and two class I rapids between Swan Falls Dam and Celebration Park. I had done this stretch in June in a raft and thought I could handle it in my Old Town Discovery canoe The weather looked good and we got to the boat launch early enough to avoid any wind at the put-in. The boat launch just downstream of the dam is well maintained by Idaho Power, the company that operates the dam.
I met my paddling partner, Troy, at the dam. He helped me unload the canoe at the launch site and we began the 17-mile shuttle to the take-out. If bird watching is your thing, this is a great trip. This stretch of the river cuts through the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, but don't wait to get in the boat to start looking for hawks, eagles, and falcons. As you drive the road above the river to drop off the shuttle car, keep one eye on the power lines or over the agricultural fields and you'll see plenty of raptors on their morning hunt. We spotted a juvenile Golden Eagle sitting on a fence post right next to the road as we headed to the take-out. He flew up as we drove by. A Northern Harrier was cruising over a wheat field looking for breakfast and several American Kestrels were perched on the power lines along the road The BLM's Snake River office has a great field guide for raptors found in the area. You can print one off their website before the trip. (http://www.id.blm.gov/bopnca/geninfo.htm)
Once we dropped off the shuttle car we went back to the put-in and got on the river. We had several hundred yards to get comfortable before we encountered the first rapid The Snake is a big river with steep canyon cliffs on both sides. The same cliffs that are a haven for the birds of prey soaring overhead tend to act as a wind tunnel. I was surprised to encounter a fair head wind on such a calm morning
As we approached the first rapid, we could hear it before we could see it, never a good sign! The map rated it as a Class II+, so being a beginner paddler I wanted to check it out. It looked like more than I wanted to handle this early in the day so we decided to portage the rapid. We carried the canoe about 100 yards downstream and had to do a little bushwhacking to get back to the river but we eventually made it back on the river and continued our trip. As it turned out, this was the only class II we had to deal with. The other rapids in the guidebook were rated at about 10,000 cfs. The flow today was about 7700. At this low flow all the other rapids were no problem and we only took a little water over the bow. On the downstream side of some of the rapids the water was very squirrelly with whirlpools and weird eddies that made keeping the boat straight a real challenge. It was an excellent opportunity for me to improve my skills as the stern paddler. One thing that was very odd was in some of the swirling water I'd have absolutely no resistance on my paddle blade after trying to do a strong forward stroke. The paddle felt like mush in my hands due to the turbulent water. It was quite bizarre.
Each of the rapids is followed by long stretches of calm water. This gave us plenty of opportunity to do some bird watching, and we saw plenty. A couple more Golden Eagles circled high up near the canyon rim. Several Great Blue Herons flew downstream as we approached only to have to fly away again as we drifted closer. As we approached the gauging station at Wees Bar, a couple of snowy egrets stalked the shoreline and a string of cormorants perched on the wire of the gauging station. As we paddled to the bank for an early lunch, the white egrets and black cormorants took off in unison.
It was still a little early for lunch so I suggested to Troy that we take a short hike up to the old rock homestead on Wees Bar then head up to view the petroglyphs a few hundred yards beyond. This area is well preserved considering the amount of foot traffic the trail saw. We snapped some photos then headed back to the canoe for lunch.
We continued downstream. Our trip was a good mix of relaxing bird watching combined with some exciting paddling. A couple of notes of caution, powerboats are allowed on this stretch and a few passed us even with the low water. Most of them slowed down for us but one guy ignored us and we had to turn into his wake to keep it from rolling us. We also saw (and heard) a few duck hunters this time of year. We had no close calls and the shots we heard were some distance away.
We got to the take-out at Celebration Park after about 3 1/2 hours of paddling and drifting. We got the gear up the boat ramp, loaded the truck and headed back to the dam to pick-up the shuttle car.
At low flow this is a good trip for an experienced beginner looking to graduate from flat water to mild whitewater. It is close to town and makes a great day trip. There is a lot to see, both wildlife and cultural sites.
Celebration Park has boat ramp, dock, restrooms, picnic tables and small archeological museum.
No fees required but the museum takes donations.
Put-In: From Kuna, take Swan Falls Road south. The road takes you to the edge of the Snake River canyon then follows the paved road down to the dam. The canoe/raft launch is a few hundred yards downstream from the dam. Take-Out: Celebration Park south of Melba, Idaho. From Melba go south on Can Ada Road. Turn right on Victory lane (look for small wooden sign pointing to Celebration park.) Follow Victory Rd. down to the park. (Better yet, just buy the book with detailed directions and great maps!!)
Kath and Ron's Guide to Idaho Paddling: Flat water and Easy Whitewater trips, by Katherine Daly and Ron Watters