It’s 4 p.m. and beginning to rain in the heavy forest near the timber town of Weippe, Idaho. The creek looks pretty tame, too. It’s swift but placid.
The guidebook, Idaho the Whitewater State, says it’s a 15-mile-long canyon containing four or five class V rapids and a “six-mile whitewater blur,” and we wonder about our late start. Neither of us has been here before, but we’ve managed some adventures before. A year ago we’d been bumping along a dirt road among the sagebrush of southern Idaho and passed a sign that read “rattlesnake depository area” before it occurred to either of us to read the guide book. “Don’t attempt this run unless you are immune to poison ivy and can paddle class V with a smile on your face.” That had been the beginning of an grueling eight-hour day of terrifying rapids, forests of poison ivy and, poised rattle snakes.
“Do you have a headlamp?” my friend asks amidst the north-Idaho drizzle.
“Throw it in,” he says. “I’ve got some matches.”
I add the headlamp to a small bag containing two Cliff Bars, a first-aid kit and a water bottle. We finish donning life jackets and helmets and drag our boats to Lolo Creek’s gravely edge. And so begins another adventure on a remote Idaho creek.
Remembering the butterflies
An hour before I sensed a familiar feeling, the grating of my insides while traveling some serpentine highway on the way to set my kayak on the meandering sensibilities of an unknown river. It doesn’t happen much anymore. I don’t push the limits like I used to, and most of the rivers I paddle are ones I’ve paddled before.
This spring has been different.
In four weeks I’ve ticked off four new rivers, and none have been walks in the park.
I gave a speech this morning in Lewiston, and stayed longer than expected because a reporter asked for an interview. Leaving an hour behind schedule I’d declined to fill my gas tank to avoid making Sean wait any longer than he already had, and I expected the town of Greer would have a service station. Greer, it turns out, has a mere 10 or so houses, so we drove back down the highway next to the Clearwater River, to Orofino, and then returned to the river a second time.
In any case, it’s 4 p.m., and we’ve finally arrived at the put-in. That’s a late start by anyone’s standard to run a remote 15-mile canyon that’s supposed to contain class V rapids, especially when nobody in the group has floated the stretch before.
Lolo Creek is a tributary of the Clearwater River, and at the confluence is the gas station-free town of Greer. From Greer Idaho Highway 11 climbs ever skyward through slanted meadows and thick stands of timber to the Weippe Prairie, where in 1805 Lewis and Clark had their first encounter with the Nez Perce Indians, who would become their Pacific Northwest guides.
In the center of the Weippe Prairie is a town of 400 by the same name. Weippe, originally spelled Oy-ipe by a U.S. Army general during the government’s campaign against the Nez Perce, means “very old place.” In Nez Perce oy means “all,” but no meaning has been unearthed for iap.
According to the city’s Web site, Weippe was incorporated in December 1964. It is home to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at the Weippe Discovery Center, and the Weippe Prairie is rich with Camas roots, a wild tuber harvested by Indians throughout Idaho. They’re said to taste like sweet potatoes. There’s another town just up the road called Pierce. It’s the first place in Idaho that gold was discovered, back in 1860.
From the edge of the Weippe Prairie, Lolo Creek canyon descends into a deep, forested fold of mist and a mystry about to be solved.
Lolo Creek quickly twists past a floating salmon trap and into a mossy, granite-walled canyon. Within a few miles the gradient picks up with rapids coming in rapid succession. The whitewater isn’t too challenging at first, but the ramifications of a mistake this late in the day in such a remote place would be severe. The canyon walls are sheer, and there would be no easy way to hike out. We stop at every horizon to look downstream, and our progress is slow.
It’s raining, too. Not that it matters when you’re on the water, but it adds a chill. Mist clings to canyon walls, and everywhere it’s not rock it is green. A black bear cub scampers up the canyon wall and disappears behind a rocky outcrop. A mule deer browses near the water’s edge.
The lower 15 miles of Lolo Creek are pristine. It is extremely inaccessible country, and there are no signs of human intervention. The forest grows as it always has.
But people have been here. In fact, Lolo Creek is one of the locations the Bonneville Power Administration has worked to improve salmon spawning habitat in the Clearwater River basin in order to mitigate the losses suffered at the dams it manages on the lower Snake River. Lolo Creek has been manipulated to this end, “barriers” “modified” to make fish passage more effective.
The project, with a budget of $425,679, was designed “to mitigate (albeit partial) the juvenile and adult anadromous fish losses accrued through hydroelectric development of the Columbia and Snake River systems by enhancing existing habitats and accessing ‘new’ spawning and rearing habitats…” in the Lolo Creek and Lochsa River sub-basins.
The study, prepared for BPA by the Clearwater National Forest, goes on to point out that Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater River eliminated 60 percent of the highest quality salmon and steelhead habitat in the Clearwater basin.
“In Idaho, the need to mitigate for past fish losses is very critical and probably warrants priority consideration within the Columbia River Basin. Salmon and steelhead destined for Idaho tributaries must traverse a gauntlet of eight dams and reservoirs. Mortalities associated with this hydroelectric system have been and continue to be substantial . . . In Idaho, every square meter of habitat for natural production is needed to deal with the gauntlet and insure long term survival.”
The whitewater on Lolo Creek becomes more difficult as the miles pass, and we’re tiring from getting out of our boats to scramble along the steep canyon walls to scout. The evening culminates with a long rapid containing a river-wide tree half way through before thundering over a five-foot ledge and then through a jumble of tight boulders. I consider portaging, but realize the scramble along the mossy canyon wall might be more frightening than running the rapid.
Four hours after putting on this beautiful gem of a creek, the water finally calms, and the sky turns shades of pink. Still navigating timber-crowded sections of a very wild feeling creek, I worry about the impending darkness. And then a railroad trestle comes into view, and we know Lolo Creek’s confluence with the Clearwater River is just out of sight.
Sean pulls into an eddy near the bank and reaches beneath a rock in the river. He produces two cans of Coors Light he stashed while waiting for me to show up earlier today.
Exhausted, we stay in our boats for a while and drink the beers as the pink in the sky flickers, and then vanishes. The muffled twilight begins to fade, and the rain resumes.
“That is one of the best little creeks I’ve ever paddled,” Sean says.
And he’s right.