Avoiding Disaster on the River and the Creation of FRANKENBOAT!

This is the story of the creation of Frankenboat.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River is lauded as one of the most scenic, historic, and prestigious river trips in the nation. 100 miles up the gut of the Frank Church Wilderness, floaters experience Idaho like never before. This stretch of river, surrounded by roadless wilderness, is considered to be the most remote area in the lower 48.

Our private group of 20 rendezvoused at the Boundary Creek put-in this last summer giddy for the week to come. For many of us it was our second private trip in as many years and we were jazzed to be back. We split up our bodies and gear between five rafts and, after a bit of a late start, set off on our century-mile journey in the hot August sun.

One tricky part of navigating the Middle Fork in late summer is low water. We put-in at a river depth of just over two feet, meaning rocks that normally wouldn’t be exposed at higher water would present obstacles for our oarsmen during this time of season. The first few days in particular would be challenging until we passed enough tributaries and creeks to allow the river to fill up and our heavy boats to float over these bogies.

There’s really no warm-up on the Middle Fork. As soon as the boats hit the water it’s “go time” for oarsmen. We set an order to the rafts and ran the first few class III rapids. Ethan’s boat, the gear hauler, would lead because of his experience in general and with this river the previous year. Logan would follow, then Wes, Landon, and finally Jack barking orders at a rowdy paddle boat. Doer’s Rock and Sulphur Slide, both modest class III’s, were smooth sailing.

LIVE ACTION on the paddle boat! Atta boy Jack!

At the end of Hell’s Half Mile, Ethan pulled off into an eddy to wait for the rest of the crew. I was a passenger on Logan’s raft, and as we pulled in next to Ethan’s I noticed something odd about his raft.

“Hey man, your boat looks like it has uhhh… wrinkles in it.”

His face said it all as he hastily jumped into the shallows to examine the side of the raft. As the others began to pull out in the eddy, the news surfaced: we had a problem. He couldn’t tell how large it was from the water but it appeared there was a pretty large gash in the side of the raft. The combination of low water and a heavy boat could have made any relatively sharp rock in Hell’s Half Mile the culprit. We limped the next two miles to camp to assess the damage.

After de-rigging the boat, we pulled it up on the rocks to reveal a rip larger than expected: about a six foot tear in the side of the 16 foot Tributary raft. The silver lining though was that the innards of the raft were unharmed. Although a major patch job in the rubber membrane on the right side of the craft was required, it was a manageable job. The oarsmen took an inventory of patch supplies:

  • A patch sewing kit
  • A couple rolls of Tear-Aid

The mood was apprehensive but optimistic as the oarsmen took turns with the patchwork; piercing the thick rubber with a long, sturdy needle, pulling the thread through, and repeating. It didn’t take long to determine that this was going to be a long repair job in the blazing sun.

If you’re unfamiliar with the anatomy of a raft, each boat is comprised of internal baffles that hold the actual air. When you go to blow up a boat on put-in day, you stick your pump in four or five valves and pump air into each baffle. Then, once you place the raft in the cold river water, the air condenses and the pumps go back into the valves to fill the crafts to rafting pressure. However, when you take the boats OUT of the water, that air expands in the heat… sometimes to the point where the baffles can’t hold all of it. About an hour into the patch job, the worst possible thing happened.

BOOM-BOOM

Oh $&*@.

With all of the experienced oarsmen we had on the trip, we forgot to bleed the baffles when taking the raft out of the water and into the hot sun to patch the rip. The front and right baffles exploded consecutively and sounded like two gunshots across the water. It essentially rendered half of the raft useless. So here we are in the most remote place one can think of, day one of a seven day trip, and 93 miles of river to go. The situation and mood went from bad to worse.

A deer wandered into camp to check in on us.

After the crew exchanged loud four-lettered words, it was time to devise a plan. A couple of ideas were exchanged amongst the crew, but nothing seemed very realistic. Should we try to hike the seven miles back to the put-in and attempt to find a raft replacement? Should we try to get a raft air-dropped to the Indian Creek airstrip on day three? 20 people and all of our food and gear certainly wouldn’t fit on just four rafts, so that was out of the question. Things were looking grim at best. 

Then, from around the river bend, another crew appeared and stopped to use the hot spring that was situated in our camp. We thought for sure we were the last crew on the river for the day since we got such a late start, but fortunately we were wrong. One of their guides came over to scope our situation.

“Well, you’re screwed,” he said. “We have an inflatable kayak but I don’t think that’ll help you guys much.”

Wes, who was taking a break from stem cell research at Harvard to go on this trip and is one of the coolest cucumbers I’ve ever met, piped in, “Actually - do you think we can use it?”

We all kind of exchange glances like, “what is an IK going to do to help us?” but it was clear that Wes had a plan.

Over the course of the next several hours, a small crew worked tirelessly alongside the oarsmen to MacGyver this raft back in some sort of shape. First they unzipped the raft to gain access to the compartments with the blown baffles. Then they proceeded to stuff the inflatable kayak into the areas where a full baffle would have been positioned. The kayak wasn’t big enough to extend the full length of the front and right side of the boat, so we added in a thwart from the paddle boat, four extra life jackets and two Paco pads. After blowing up the kayak, zipping the raft back up, and carefully sewing and taping the outside rubber, the “doctors” added nearly every extra cam strap to the sensitive areas of the rip for extra protection. Ethan also strapped the front of the boat to give it a bit of a lip so as not to sit in the water. Wes was the mad scientist behind the operation and Ethan was just mad enough to try to pilot it the next morning. FRANKENBOAT WAS BORN!

Three "surgeons" (Ethan, Wes, and Zach) stitching and taping the side of Frankenboat.

After careful deliberation, the boat was rigged the next morning and we carefully set off with all eyes on Frankenboat… and… it floated. For the next six days and 93 miles, Ethan, an absolute wizard on the sticks, ran every rapid on the infamously technical Middle Fork backwards. It was truly a legendary feat. We passed other camps who would hoot and holler at the snaggletoothed raft passing by and rush out to take pictures of the spectacle.

Ethan running Pistol Creek in Frankenboat... backwards.
Frankenboat in all his glory.

The crew settled down after a couple of stressful days and we were able to enjoy the remainder of the trip. The repair bill was just about as ugly as Frankenboat, but the story of the trip is absolutely priceless and is a testament to collective problem solving and keeping a cool head in the presence of adversity.

Taking flight at Otter Bar Camp.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Dusty KleinExplorer

Oregon born, Idaho forged. Dusty is a weekend-warrior turned freelance photographer with a passion and respect for the mountains. @dustykleiner