Chukar Crucible in Nature’s Deep Freeze – 5 Day Solo Trip on Salmon River


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About to turn age 65 early February, what to do?  Looking around at friends whom have checked out early, why not celebrate my still going strong by doing a solo winter float to chase chukars down the Lower Salmon River?  My dogs would kiss me for such access to Nirvana.

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Thoreau’s line: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” kept running through my mind  and made me realized there is still much music to be played.  Stagnation is all about becoming a dullard and I’m just not ready for a life without song yet, and probably never will be.

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But why Salmon River?

With several solo winter trips notched  in my gunslinger psyche  on Oregon’s Grande Ronde River and one through Hell’s Canyon, shortly after the “Green Room” at Granite Rapids was named (I was on that naming trip, too),  I simply never got around to doing such a float down my backyard river.   So it seemed only appropriate I was now old enough to let my more adventuresome side out of the box again.  With only one way to keep the primordial adrenalin glands working properly, and  as any biologist worth their salt can tell you, that old Darwinian axiom about “use it or lose it,” always applies.

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And, why solo? Well, finding other crazy enough hunters that want to hike their guts out climbing steep ugly slopes for  furious flying birds with far less meat than an elk, is hard enough, let alone braving winter extremes to execute such self-inflicted punishment.

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Besides, it isn’t that I don’t like people, but as a guide, most of my time is always spent adjusting everything to satisfy other people’s interests.  Sometimes it’s nice just worrying about my own wishes.  Traveling solo assures total self-gratification and the river’s lonely sound of solitude.   No competition for campsites, fishing holes, or hunting grounds, is another rarity of welcome freedom.

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Once intellectually committed, not to an insane asylum, but to the trip, then what? Planning is ground zero,  especially when traveling alone in remote country with no satellite phone under severity of error that is like standing at the brink of a black hole.    So, topping the list for a round-trip ticket into  the cold chukar crucible this time of year is choice of boat.  As an outfitter, I have many, and hard boats are my favorite and long time specialty. Unfortunately, the degree of risk for potential flips or romancing rocks goes up dramatically in a dory or driftboat. Righting an over turned craft of any kind by oneself in icy water is thin to thinner with dogs climbing your back and  hypothermia  squeezing  insidiously at your soul.  I’m doing this trip for comfort, not survival.

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Flip potential and nemesis number one in my mind is a rapid called Bodacious Bounce. In only very low flows does a menacing back curling wave appear, like hungry jaws in the unavoidable middle of this substantial drop.  A hairline cheat run exists to the left side that requires precise oaring and timing, but one missed stroke here is like landing on the loaded cylinder in a game of River Russian Roulette. Only the bullet here is a big bad swim and no trail to hike out. Having two dogs along that jump away from waves when they should be high-siding, also doesn’t help.

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Then there is Snowhole Rapid.  It isn’t an easy place to have a clean run in a dory at low water, either.  Many steep pour-over holes barely covering the rocks require extra-precise maneuvering with tiny leeway for error.  Though I’ve threaded the needle cleanly several times in warmer weather, it is still a duress filled run with tight-wire stress and enough draining tension to empty a lake. Who needs more of that?

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To sleep better at night, my decision boiled down to bringing my larger 19’ Aire baggage raft.  I liked the idea of being high, dry, and having less likelihood of a flip.  My dogs could bounce around shadow boxing with the waves all they wanted without throwing my trim off, too.

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Paying close attention to weather is another key ingredient to successful winter trips.   Timing is of the essence to have a relatively problem free adventure. Thinking back on my previous winter runs on the GR, in my early 20’s, I remember the ice bridge crossings, jagged edges of ice rosettes, and unusual conditions when arctic cold turns the river into a consistency that felt more like being trapped in the middle of snow-cone ice that is moving at a caterpillar’s pace.  It was a race against time before the river could morph into solid ice and secure my stay for much longer than planned. Eating fish and moss all winter is not very appealing.

Soloing the Snake through Hells Canyon in my mid 30’s, was an epic story itself. Where rocks were a problem on the GR, mammoth sized rapids was the feared devil in Hell’s.  Also, the phrase, “when Hell freezes over” takes on much more significance when trying to get a hard boat down the deepest canyon in North America when it is not “hotter than Hell.”

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What could the Salmon Canyon have in store?

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With  more than a dozen ice bridges between Riggins and Wind River as I prepared for my journey,  I had to be sure none existed  at the lower end.  However, with 425 miles of free-flowing river, the Salmon slices through enough distance that geology transmutes the canyon into several different geomorphological sections. Each is affected differently by influence of elevation, aspect, and weather.

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From North Fork to Riggins the river flows due west, but when it reaches Riggins, turns immediately north until the last 5 miles, where it changes west again to collide with the Snake.  The lower end does not ice up as often and melts off earlier when it does.    Learning that there were no ice bridges in the lower gorge, in addition to a favorable long-range weather report, was my green light to go.

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Boat of choice finalized, having other essential gear for the most extreme conditions and a sudden emergency is also crucial.  The difference between comfort and keeping the grim reaper at bay is made by astute attention to detail and advanced prep for potential uncertainties. Traveling solo also adds greater danger with far less wiggle room for being dumb when situations go south.  My northern experiences boating solo and doing commercial trips in Alaska, also taught me to be on guard at all times to the nuances of nature, because often that is where weird things like to hide out.

Ever heard of a jökulhlaup? This is an Icelandic term for outburst floods caused by glacial lakes being breached and sending a disjointed tsunami down the river course that is fed by these mega ice plugs.  Camping on higher ground is essential when floating some places in the far wilds of the Last Frontier.

It is always the small things that seem at first to be quite innocuous, that often have a sleeping demon just below the surface.  It is surprising how much a simple episode can escalate into a tidal wave of tragic wipeout. One missed oar stroke, poor entry, or catching a wave wrong; breaking a leg on a high  ridgeline; falling down in a patch of prickly pear cactus; burning a hand cooking dinner;  falling off a frosty raft and getting wet in water intended for coffee;  and so on.  Karmonic vigilantism lies in wait for the disrespectful and unaware, so fine tuned weariness is always required.

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With game on, under cerulean sky and a low slung sun, my two Weims and I were off and running in my big red raft. The dogs love it as they can remain dry and have a high platform to ogle at all the surrounding chukar landscape.  It is a bird dogs dream boat.

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Frost covered every rocky shoreline and sandy beach that lived in zones of the all-day shade.  Isolated from  sun, the inner sanctum of the canyon was coated with mold-like tendrils of white ice, called verglas. It was like floating through  nature’s freezer box.  I half expected to see packages of elk burger and salmon fillets stacked in rows along each side of the river.

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 The sheer beauty of the gorge stripped of her summer clothes, is outrageous enough to make even an envious lover jealous.  A low hanging winter sun creates long shadows across the viewscape and marbles the terrain with sharp contrasts that simply are not possible any other time of year.  It conjures up various moods, as if some ancient shaman was stirring up mystical magic and sprinkling it generously over all the world.

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Excessive chasms inspire deep thoughts, about as much as high ridges inspire lofty ones.  Finding ones self alone in the middle of such largeness and solitude while hunting chukars makes me feel my smallness..  It unleashes my mind to be wild and free as if being blown by gale force winds and whipped across infinite horizons to be absorbed  by the far off hinterlands.  Getting so lost is the best way to find yourself.

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Living in the Land of Oz can’t last forever, as I was reminded when  chukars  rudely burst  into the sky and triggered me back into the real world.  When chasing ninja chukars, also known as “devil birds,”  during the winter in steep canyons it is quite important to consider how much snow accumulates, where, and in what condition it is.  Footing is treacherous enough in good conditions, but downright dangerous when snow freezes hard after a slight melt. Elk, deer, and cow carcasses can sometimes be found in gullies after taking a slip on steep side slopes in such extremes.  Unlike clawed animals, they can’t just turn over on their bellies and dig themselves a self-arrest. A tragic end for them, but lucky for ravens, magpies, and coyotes.


When I wasn’t hunting chukars, which were hard to find,  I was dodging rocks and avoiding splash. In the process,  I did see a few bald eagles, 3 or 4 otters, 10 whitetail deer, and an assortment of ducks, geese, and birds. But, no elk. Not even in the upper reaches of the canyon  did I see one anywhere.  Where were they? And where were all the chukars that normally fill this riverine niche?


My theory is that during mild winters the lower elevations are in the shade far too long during the day while birds can enjoy wind-swept ridges in the sun for far longer periods of time. Food, cover, and water is all there. They don’t need to get to the river for critical water like they do when it is hot. Nor do they need to leave the heavenly heights for food and can bask above while laughing at me far below.  They innately seem to know that negotiating through  layers of edgy lava flows can be demoralizing and the tortuously rugged steepness will wear me out before getting to their level of refuge.  Did I mention the canyon is a mile deep in places?

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So though I did have chukar for dinner, the conditions were not that great for good hunting. But they were nice for making an off beat outdoor adventure down the canyon much easier. Sure it was cold, but in a tipi style tent accommodated with heater and plenty of blankets, it was a cozy affair.  Unfathomable numbers of stars sparkled like diamonds dancing in a frigid sky, despite the inevitable pee break that was usually needed in the middle of the night. Did I mention ice box canyon before?

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While my primary goal was chukar hunting, another aspect I enjoy about solo running,  is the ease to become so thoroughly absorbed by such  moments smack dab in the middle of nowhere (or everywhere)  that one can get lost in time.  Since I have never had a wrist watch since high school, and due to the nature of my lifestyle and allergic reactions to strict schedules and time tables, I often don’t know until I need to know, what day it is.

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Such was the case by the time I got to Blue Canyon, not too distant from trips end.  It is one of my favorite places and its vertical cliffs are so steep and narrow, it is more like being far enough in the bottom of a well to see the stars in the middle of the day.  Though not able to see any constellations, it did allow for much pondering. I like that feeling of getting all swallowed up by great natural beauty and getting lost in space and time. Day what?

On the last day as I was pulling into the take-out, I reminisced about my more youthful days that helped make this type of journey possible. Having a track coach dad helped, , whom taught me early on, to always get up when I fall down, and that finishing the race is far more important than how fast you run it.   Never say die, and keep on keeping on, soon became my life-time mantra.

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Of course, I was also thankful that I was a distance runner and wrestler in those days, too. In my profession and in the crucible of chukar hunting world, endurance sports make a big difference.  65 isn’t my IQ, though it helps for running after chukars, but it is proof that doing things like this is possible to do and still live to tell about it, despite age. Keep on, keepin on, even if death is an inch or mile away.


Note: Anyone who would like to see video footage of our run through Snowhole Rapid can go to:

Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides


Chukars Last Laugh


Sugar Snow Chukar Jan 11, 2013 055

Inevitably it always does arrive, that fatal last day. The last day of any season, but in this case chukar season.  It is almost a love/hate affair. That is, I love to hunt chukars. But, towards the end of the season, after grueling climbs up the extreme slopes of the Salmon River canyon, it gets very difficult to push myself for yet another uphill battle.  A battle my heart and lungs take on with the landscape.

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So with mixed emotions my last day with both dogs on the hill was more of the same. Good and bad. Hard, yet rewarding. Dogs not minding as well as think they should, yet making wonderful tandem points, and stupendously long retrieves when birds sail way too far down the slopes. You know, those slopes I keep complaining about. Ones that seem like 45 degrees, and at times really are. And those are the easier ones. Did I mention bony ridgelines, vertical cliffs, and a variety of ugliness that us chukar hunters often find ourselves engaged with?

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No wonder people who know nothing about chukar hunting think chukar hunters are so crazy. Heck, even chukar hunters wonder that sometimes.  But once fessing-up to knowing you are crazy means you don’t have to worry about it any more. Just keep pushing those birds, don’t look back, or more precisely down, in most cases. Focus. That is the name of the game.

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My last day was a typical one, but favored the chukar, and they indeed seemed to get the last laugh. Like when a group came flying straight off the slopes high above, helter-skelter, and my swing, which was more of an  over-the-head-and-turn gymnastics  maneuver, was the perfect recipe for poor shooting success.  After the boom of gun and frustrations of watching birds untouched, I’m sure I could hear some chuckles of happy-to-be-alive birds entertained by my contorted antics on the hill.

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But, their entertainment is also mine.  Just seeing the type of flying they can do, like some kind of animated jet plane in a dog fight, is reward enough.  Although, I do sometimes luck out and manage to down one of those feathered Mig like fighters. Yet, a big part of chukar hunting is all of those ancillary shows that  always accompany the chase:  from large bucks, elk herds, fox trots,  coyote yipping, wolf tracks, bobcat scat, otter antics, and soaring eagles, to just mention a few.  And most remarkable is that all this theater takes place in a theater itself that is a good part of the outstanding entertainment.

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(Whoa – Holy “chukar feathers” – how did we get so far up?)

Viewscapes afforded by one of the deepest gorges in North America are utterly breath-taking, yet considerably confounding.  So expansive and  rugged is the terrain, that its bigness makes one feel ever more so small.  A dwarf in the cosmos. It is a vastness of unfathomable comprehension that words never adequately can explain. So, rather, I just simply enjoy it and appreciate it for what it is. Though we humans like to share our pleasures with others, often it has to suffice just to appreciate those things that are truly unexplainable. To just “know” is enough.  Thank you chukars.  You are safe from my gun and nuisance of dogs for another year now. But, be forewarned: we will be back.

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