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Be First Recipients Attempt South-to-North, Multisport Traverse of Idaho
Posted on July 18, 2011

Be First recipients Steve Graepel and Chris Minson are attempting a variation of the Idaho Centennial Trail for a south-to-north, multisport traverse. The 840-mile route will forge a new line through Idaho’s most beautiful and wildly diverse sections. Our Be First program is an opportunity to get sponsored when you go for your own summit, whatever that may be. To learn more and submit your proposals, visit Be First.

By Steve Graepel

“I’m moving to Idaho,” I shared with my coworkers.


“He said Iowa,” corrected another.

“No, I said Idaho.”

“Is that a square state?”

“Not really,” I responded. “I think it abuts one ….”

I wasn’t surprised by the ambiguous response my announcement received. While I’ve been visiting Idaho for years and have lived here for the last seven, it’s not really “on the way” to anything. Much of the state is too remote to support a sustainable infrastructure. In fact, it has more roadless area than any other state outside Alaska. It’s also the only state outside Alaska where bush pilots still deliver the mail on a weekly basis. During the summer months, mountain towns can double in size from firefighters, not tourists. Furthermore, Idaho natives often prefer its inconspicuousness.

Career, a growing family and wanderlust are a combustible recipe, so with the move, I boxed up most of my mountaineering gear and cancelled the subscriptions. Fortunately, Idaho provided enough distraction to keep the angst at bay. It hosts more than 3,000 miles of runnable whitewater, has 17 million acres of public wild land, and Boise has immediate accessibility. Five minutes out my door and I’m running or cycling single track. Put in an hour or two on the legs and I’m at 6,000 feet, overlooking the Boise National Forest with a view all the way to the Sawtooths. Mini-epics can be found within a few hours of driving and 24 hours of weekend.

The inspiration behind the Idaho Traverse was born out of micro-expeditions, exploring Idaho’s gems.

On a backcountry ride, I jokingly shared with a friend that “one could ride the fire roads all the way to Canada.”

He responded, “Maybe you could ….”

Maybe I could … I thought to myself. Soon enough, I was down in the gear den, working maps for a weakness through the state’s longitude. With a wide-angle perspective, I traced a line via a few key river systems that flow north before they eventually spill west off the divide towards the Pacific. The Bruneau, the Middle Fork, the Selway … timed right, it seems one could theoretically divine a partial route north and cycle and fastpack between the drainages.

But timing is a significant crux. The Bruneau River is fueled by snowmelt off the Nevada alpine steppe. In good years, its season runs 3-4 weeks. The Middle Fork of the Salmon runs through the Frank Church Wilderness and is thus highly regulated by the Forest Service; paddlers wanting to go it alone need to lottery a permit. The Selway is even more restricted; during its narrow season, only one party a day is permitted to run this pristine wilderness river. Furthermore, snow covers Idaho’s mountains for nine months out of the year, and I’m not even mentioning the hundreds of miles of riding required to connect the rivers. The odds for success seem extremely stacked to nature’s side.

Pitching the idea to those with experience, I heard everything from “You’ll never lottery a back-to-back permit for the Middle Fork/Selway” to “You can’t run the Bruneau in July—it’s virtually a rattlesnake hibernaculum.” Most suggested I tackle it over a series of seasons, but that’s not my modus operandi. My adventure roots, stemming from mountaineering and backcountry travel, has fully embraced the alpine philosophy of fast and light. I optimistically laid down a plan that threaded an “alpine-style on the horizontal” route from the Nevada line to Canada:

  • Run the Bruneau: 40 miles, 1-day
  • Ride to the mining town of Atlanta: 100 miles, 1 day
  • Ride to the Middle Fork of the Salmon: 100 miles, 1 day
  • Paddle the Middle Fork: 100 miles, 3-days
  • Hike to the Selway: 60 miles, 2-days
  • Paddle the Selway: 100 miles, 3-days
  • Ride to Kelly Forks: 100 miles, 1-day
  • Ride to Mullan: 100 miles, 1-day
  • Ride to Naples: 100 miles, 1-day
  • Ride to Canada: 60 miles, 1-day

At best, the route could go in 15 days … albeit, 15 monster days.

Talking with rangers, we found that the Selway’s season runs through the end of July, after which its flow is typically too low for rafts, so the Forest Service lifts the restrictions and rafters are free to launch after July. Thus, August 1 became our expedition’s Rosetta Stone from which we worked backwards to the start and provided us with a window of proposed launch dates for the Middle Fork. We pooled our friends and pitched for permits. Nothing. We tried to pick up river cancellations. Empty handed. In a desperate measure, I even cornered an Idaho State Congresswoman after spin class, begging for a letter of recommendation to support our appeal to the lottery. The appeal also failed.

With our hands now tied by bureaucracy, it was back to the maps. A little studying yielded a weakness to the east. Loon Creek runs deep into the Frank, where it joins the Middle Fork halfway through its course. If we took it, we’d free ourselves from overshooting or undershooting the tightly regulated Middle Fork. Furthermore, we discovered if we run part of Big Creek (30 miles downstream from Loon), and we don’t camp, we’d buy ourselves the last 30 miles on the Middle Fork free of permits. There it was, our golden ticket through The Frank.

So that left us with the persnickety Bruneau River (and several hundred miles of fire roads). In a “normal” year, the Bruneau runs a few weeks in spring. But this year has been anything but normal. Idaho had upwards of 200-250 percent levels of snow … all translating to high rivers running long past their calendar season. We’re currently seeing the Bruneau run at 1,300 cfs, where we would expect well below 500 cfs. If it stays above 1,000, we could have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pull the hat-trick.

Our basements are full of cuben fiber, carbon fiber, titanium, and down. We’ve literally logged hundreds of hours and thousands of miles on our legs. We’re wired to go and our rucksacks are stripped down to the essentials. We’re two weeks from boats on the water, and the improbable is shifting towards “hey, this might actually go!”

Author: - Monday, July 18th, 2011

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