By Derek Farr
Sometime in early April 2011, a warm, wet frontal system came onshore in southern Oregon. From there, it spun north and east until it ran upon the snow covered mountains above the Salmon River.
What happened next was nearly apocalyptic.
Sheets of warm rain soaked the deep snowpack, melting the snow’s matrix and destabilizing its structure. Soon it liquefied, unleashing a flood of water, mud and debris that raced down the mountain. When the torrent reached Black Creek, it was a chocolate-colored monster that pummeled the very Earth. Ancient trees were ripped out of the ground without ceremony. The steep, narrow, granite walls of Black Creek Canyon rumbled. The deluge gained more speed. It scoured the creek bed down to bedrock. The debris flow pulverized everything in its path. When the torrent finally reached the Salmon River, it blasted thousands of tons of rocks, trees and soil into the river, perhaps blocking its flow for a short time. The scene must have been supernatural.
But we’ll never know. It happened in a place so remote, nobody saw it.
It did, however, leave a lasting mark on the river; it created a new rapid.
Black Creek Rapid (class III-IV) has become the Main Salmon River’s most gut-churning white-water challenge. Twenty-one miles from the put-in, we usually run it on day two. But we always scout it. That’s because the rapid hasn’t stabilized yet; its massive debris pile is slowly being reorganized by the Salmon River. In a few years, it’s possible the rapid will no longer exist as the debris pile is carried downstream. That would be fortuitous for another rapid upstream, Salmon Falls, which was the Main Salmon’s most notorious rapid before the Black Creek debris flow inundated it, turning it into a class-II ripple.
However, it’s not likely the Black Creek Rapid is going anywhere anytime soon. Some of the boulders in the middle of the river are massive. What’s more, it’s already survived two high water seasons. By most estimates, it will be part of the Main Salmon River for a very long time. For Salmon River denizens, it’s an incredible privilege to interact with geologic forces on such a primal level.
Black Creek Rapid lives at the bottom of a stunning canyon in one of the most remote places in the lower 48. Even as winter settles over Idaho’s great wilderness, it churns. Nobody’s there to see it, but our hearts remember its turbulent waters fondly. A bit of adrenaline kicks into our bloodstream. And we wait for spring so we may see it again.
Derek started guiding rivers in 1996. He lives in Idaho where he and his wife use every opportunity to experience the natural wonders of that great state.