Lochsa: Wild, Scenic, Home

by | April 25, 2018

I moved to Missoula for graduate school a few years back. I had a few old, dear friends who lived here already, wonderful people I knew from my days of guiding cold river trips in my home state of Alaska. One of those friends used to fall out of touch every spring for days or a week at a time, emerging only briefly for a text message flurry with friends and family before vanishing again. He was disappearing to the Lochsa River, just on the Idaho side of the state line, about two hours from Missoula. It seemed he wanted to spend every possible moment at the Lochsa, and I couldn’t quite grasp from far away the supposed allure of this place that continuously stole him away.

That first year at the University of Montana, as a Master’s candidate in Environmental Studies, I read about the evolving history of federal protections for wild rivers; learned to view healthy landscapes as expressions of ecological connectivity; and fell deeper in love with this place that inspired intellectual creativity and tireless commitment to community.I explored the mountains around town and reveled in the common love of learning and recreation and celebration among friends. I was completely sold on Missoula.

That first spring, as the rivers began to run and the afternoons grew warmer, I went kayaking as much as possible on the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork, a canyon just west of town with violet cliffs, splashy whitewater, and big sandy beaches. And it was also in the early spring that people started to talk about the Lochsa – the buzz was palpable, like a low rumbling in the belly of our town, a frequency on which all local kayakers and their loved ones vibrated. The idea of paddling the Lochsa grew into something really big in my head. I read the American Whitewater description a dozen times, trying to string together the legendary rapids that defined a stretch of river I’d never seen. I listened to friends describe it – everyone with their own anecdotes for good and bad and really bad runs through Grim Reaper, Split Creek, and Bloody Mary. I watched a few YouTube videos of hapless rafters getting surfed and then trashed by the surging froth of the venerated Lochsa Falls. I read about the different water levels, and how some rapids get bigger with more water while others wash out. I grew nervous and intrigued by the Lochsa, anxious to see it, captivated by the lore of its whitewater and its distinction within the history of river conservation in our country.

The Lochsa flows freely – it’s not dammed anywhere along its course – and its water levels are therefore determined by snowmelt, rainfall, and discharge from tributary creeks. It flows 70 miles from the mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness toward Lowell, Idaho, where it meets the Selway River – together they form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. The Lochsa, as part of the Clearwater River system, was designated a waterway worthy of federal protection in the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Clearwater system was one of the eight original rivers promised strategic guardianship by Congress via the Wild and Scenic Act.

Lochsa, to the Nez Perce people, is a word that implies rough water. To the Salish, it is Ep Smɫí, which means “it has salmon.” To anyone who’s spent significant time there, Lochsa often comes to mean something like “home.”

Missoula’s community of female kayakers is anomalous: there are more highly skilled, highly supportive lady boaters here than anywhere I’ve lived or paddled. Each year a grassroots event called Ladies on the Lochsa brings local girls together to run the river with encouraging friends, abundant sequins, and cute ripper boys transformed into enthusiastic shuttle bunnies. The first time I saw the Lochsa was with this group of girls.

My friend and I got there the night before to camp and scout the river. En route to the Lochsa, you lose cell reception just outside of Lolo, Montana – of A River Runs Through It fame – and you don’t get it back. You drive up and over Lolo Pass, and as you crest the pass you start to tumble away from Montana and into Idaho, where the speed limit drops and the local highway patrollers are ready to slap speeding out-of-staters with hefty tickets.

The entire length of the whitewater section of the Lochsa is roadside: it parallels Highway 12 and its major rapids can be scouted from pull-outs along the road. The pullout above Lochsa Falls turns into a lawn chair circus over Memorial Day weekend; the spot at Pipeline surf wave is a cedar-shaded roadside sanctuary for neoprene-clad hydrophiles. The good news is that, on a bad day, a boater can haul herself out of the river and up to the road, tail between her legs or simply relieved to inch closer to a warm truck or cold beer. On a good day, motivated kayakers can make multiple laps on their favorite sections of the river, hitching rides or setting quick shuttles, as most of the traffic on Highway 12 in the spring is Lochsa traffic. Everyone is going boating. The corridor beckons to river lovers within a five-hour radius of the Fish Creek put-in.

The next day, on a drizzly Idaho morning, I ran the river for the first time, surrounded by 17 incredible women, some of them Lochsa newbies like me, and others – Cheyenne, Alley, Jess, to a beautiful few – veterans who called the river home. Brooke Hess, the freestyle phenom who got her start at Zoo Town Surfers so long ago, showed me down her river that day, coaching me as well as one can when the rapids get loud and my heart beats into my ears. I drank the water that day: I was indoctrinated into the clan of Lochsa lovers, people who go to Lochsa to refill their souls, to lose touch with mechanized reality, to let go of time (the Montana-Idaho time change is persistently challenging and so often it’s just disregarded), to spend days and nights with a community of river people who share profound reverence for a wild waterway where cell phones don’t work, dog-friends run free, and the high mountain snowmelt runs crystal clear.

I now have my own collection of Lochsa anecdotes that I feel lucky to share in wistful conversations about this fabled forest paradise. I’ve had my own good days on the Lochsa, some bad days, and a couple of really bad days. But mostly I’ve had really good days, where all my favorite friends share meals and hugs and high fives; where sunshine sparkles through veils of morning mist; where communities of rafters, kayakers, river-boarders, surfers, cat-boaters, Forest Service rangers, and packs of smiling river dogs converge in a springtime wave of gratitude for one superlatively wild river.

Thank you to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System for continuing to advocate for and protect waterways of ecological, recreational, and historical importance. To sign American Rivers’ petition to protect 5000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, go here. Join us on the Lochsa this spring as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.