ADVENTURE: EXPLORE Looking down on Sheep Falls as we scout the rapids.
Photo by Maria Wyllie

Adapting to adversity on Idaho’s Fall River.

BY MARIA WYLLIE

Only my hands and face were exposed to the relentless mosquitos, but I could still feel them biting through my DEET-soaked clothes. “This must be what it’s like in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters,” I thought.

It was early July, normally my favorite time on the river. But instead of the bikini- lounging, beer-drinking river float I’d hoped for, I was wearing wool socks with my Chacos. My warm campfire clothes had turned into 24/7 protection. The four of us ate dinner inside our tents that first night, at Alta, Wyoming’s Cave Falls Campground on the banks of the Fall River.

In the morning, I awoke to a thick blanket of the tiny devils covering my tent, testing me, or perhaps warning me of what lay downstream. Convinced it would be better on the water, we slid the boats down the steep, overgrown riverbank, shotgunned a beer and pushed off.

The two rafts were packed full with every convenience: coolers, fishing gear, cooking equipment, tables, chairs, hammocks, Paco pads, and even a groover to make that most important of experiences more comfortable. We were dialed for an epic, multiday float trip down a new river. The only thing missing was more bug spray.

Relief and a feeling of freedom washed over me as the river carried us beneath bluebird skies and the beating sun. A cool breeze kept the mosquitos at bay, and all was right in the world. I knew my 18-month-old son was safe with my parents. I could finally unplug, decompress and just be.

The Fall River begins in Yellowstone National Park’s remote Cascade Corner and continues south for 64 miles, dropping 3,800 feet until it reaches the confluence
of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River near Ashton, Idaho. Recommended primarily as a wading river for anglers, we found little beta planning the 20-mile stretch between Cave Falls and the Fall River Hydroelectric Plant. We only knew of one cement diversion dam that we could either run river right, depending on flow, or portage.

“Sheep Falls was a massive waterfall, barreling over lava ledges and running through narrow basalt canyon walls with force and fury.”

There were more unknowns than usual, but Kyle and Ryan, first cousins with 25 years’ experience running rivers together, were confident they could pull it off.

The current ran fast with white- capped rapids pushing us along; we must have covered five miles in two hours. When the water slowed, we experienced an eerie silence followed by the sound of big water crashing. A veil of mist rose from behind a large lava boulder blocking our view of what lay ahead.

We pulled the boats ashore to scout the rapid and hiked along the rising shoreline to the top of a 20-foot cliff, mosquitos giving chase. Mist rose from below, and we looked down upon the roaring Sheep Falls. It was a massive waterfall, barreling over lava ledges and running through narrow basalt canyon walls with force and fury, a tumultuous channel of white foam demanding respect.

“It takes your breath away,” said Kyle, mesmerized by the raw beauty and power.

But this was no diversion dam. How could we have missed this in our research? My heart dropped into my stomach. There was no way around, not that I could see.

The river opened up at the base of canyon, the water only slightly less turbulent, and the men plotted an entry, weighing the consequences.

My mind spiraled around “what ifs.” Fears of dying and leaving my young son behind blurred with frustration for even being in this situation, which led to anger about the goddamned bugs, and then fears of inadequacy and displacement. “What am I doing here?” I thought. “I’m a city girl with un-callused hands who just happens to live in Montana.” I wanted to cry.

My biggest fear was being useless. I wanted to help but also didn’t want to get in the way.

Kyle and Ryan blazed a trail for the rafts as they brainstormed pulley systems to lower the boats down the steep, 60-foot hillside and into the Class V rapid. It was our only choice; they had to get me, Ryan’s wife Dixie and Zeke the dog safely off the river. But they needed encouragement.

“That I can do,” I thought.

Suddenly, the bugs didn’t seem so bad. Strengthening my resolve, I decided to ignore the swarm of mosquitos gnawing on me. If I was going to help, I couldn’t let them get in my way.

We ate dinner quietly and quickly at our camp atop the waterfall; it was clear we had fully shifted from vacation mode to survival mission. “Guess I didn’t need to bring my fishing rig!” Ryan joked.

In the morning, splattered mosquitos peppered my eggs. “Take this!” I thought, swallowing them without hesitation, disgusted and surprisingly satisfied at the same time. Extra protein?

I began hauling gear down the steep single-track trail that meandered through the willows to the base of the canyon. Back-and-forth, up-and-down I went, again and again. With each heavy load, I felt myself growing stronger.

Walking along that trail, watching my feet carry me, I was reminded to stay calm and focused—to remain present as we tackled each obstacle step by step.

I couldn’t change the bugs or the river or the canyon walls or the trees that forced us to carry the boats up the steep hillside, but I could control my point of view. And being in charge of that made the difference.

Holding tightly to the line, I kept one foot on the boat and one foot on shore as we prepared to launch. My job was to make sure the river’s fury didn’t sweep our boat away. I proudly assumed my position.

We covered 15 miles that day and portaged the boats three more times. Along with mosquitos, I learned I don’t like dams. But anything seemed doable after Sheep Falls.

Nearing the takeout, we caught some big flowing wave trains that rewarded our hard work. The gift, however, was short lived. There was no boat ramp in sight, a metal ladder our only way out. We deflated the boats and began unloading and hauling once more. Up-and-down, back-and-forth. A smile grew on my face, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

Maria Wyllie is a writer and marketing professional based in Bozeman, Montana. While she proudly identifies with her Richmond, Virginia roots, she’s forever grateful for the lessons learned while exploring the mountains and rivers of the American West.