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The Canyon Part I

Mar 8, 2022 | Mike Lawson Below_Sheep_Falls.jpg

Many anglers picture the placid soft flowing spring creek water that flows through the Harriman State Park when they think of the Henry’s Fork. This gentle water starts to get angry when it flows past the Henry’s Fork Lodge below the summer homes of Pinehaven. By the time it reaches Riverside Campground it becomes a raging torrent.

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When I was a toddler we were camped at Riverside Campground with some of our aunts and uncles. The men were fishing while the women fashioned a wading pool in the quieter water where the boat take-out is today. My aunt was watching us when I decided the wading pool didn’t offer enough excitement so I waded out of the rock perimeter and into the heavy current. The river quickly snatched me up and I was gone. My aunt stood petrified but my mother, who was close by, saw it happen and sprang into the fast water. I bounced off a rock and the heavy current took me down until, at the last minute, my mother grabbed an ankle and I lived to tell the tale. The only part of the terrifying experience I remember was mom grabbing my ankle. I rarely go to Riverside Campground without thinking how close I came to certain death.

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Not long after we opened our business in 1977 I heard that guides from another outfitter were floating from Riverside Campground to Hatchery Ford. The float is dangerous with several fast chutes, boulders and rock gardens. An old two-track access road descended down into the canyon from the Mesa Falls Road, crossed the river and up the west side to Highway 20. I had hiked down to the river on the Highway 20 side and I knew what it was like. The road descended into the canyon over rocks, boulders and loose gravel.

I never considered that a vehicle could get down to the river and back out with a drift boat on a trailer. I decided to go on a scouting trip to check out the boating accesses. I went back from the Highway 20 access and it was just as I remembered it. The thought of trying to drive down to the river and back over the treacherous road dampened my enthusiasm. I drove in from the other side and hiked down from there. I had never been down this way. It looked even worse than the west side.

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Guides Curt Barker, Tim Stamm and Jim Campbell really wanted to give it a run. If somebody else could do it, they could too. We decided to go in from the west side. Curt had a 4X4 Toyota truck and Campbell drove a Toyota Land Cruiser. I knew a short wheel base had the best chance. We ran the shuttle and were off. Curt and Tim teamed up in Curt’s green Clackacraft. Campbell and I jumped in my white Clackacraft.

It is difficult to describe our excitement and anticipation of this new adventure. The river ripped down through the canyon over lots of rocks and boulders. All of us were very experienced on the oars and we navigated the water without hitting a lot of rocks. There were a couple of rock gardens that were very treacherous that we carefully worked through. Whenever the river went out of sight below a bend we walked down to see what we were up against.

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The fishing lived up to expectations. It was early June and the canyon was loaded with big salmonflies. We arrived at the take-out in good order. We had to winch our boats up over a rock drop off. We loaded them on our trailers and commenced the dangerous drive up the side of the canyon. It was really bad but we made it. Over the next few years we settled on the access from the Mesa Falls Hwy mostly because it was less complicated getting the boat up on the trailer. All in all it was a tossup over which access road was the worst.

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In the early 1980s five proposed low head power plants threatened to de-water a good portion of this spectacular canyon. With Bill Manlove as our point man we organized the Henry’s Fork Foundation. Our problem was the remoteness of the canyon. Not many people had seen it and knew what it was like. Manlove and Mick Mickelson lobbied our Idaho congressional delegation in an effort to save the canyon. None of them had the slightest understanding of what the canyon was like. The first thing we needed to do was to enlighten them on a part of the river that received very little exposure to the public.. I was elected to show this precious resource to them.

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My first trip was with Congressman Richard Stallings. We went in late October and I had to break ice out of the boat. He was in awe when he saw the canyon. The following summer I took Senator Steve Simms, Senator James McClure with his wife and Governor John Evans. The road up out of the canyon was so perilous I was not comfortable with our clients riding inside the vehicle up the steep grade. They had to hike up and out. I stuck to the rules with all of these VIPs and none of them complained. Little did I know what an impression the road would make with Senator McClure.

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Former Idaho governor Cecil Andrus was serving as Secretary of the Interior. He was a good friend, he knew and understood our situation and was a great asset with the executive branch of government. Our efforts prevailed and they passed legislation to prohibit hydro development in the entire 18 mile stretch of the canyon. Senator McClure, our ranking member of congress, called to give me the news. As a side note he stated that he also had enough money appropriated to upgrade the road and the boat ramp on the east access. Now it is one of the best boating accesses on the entire Henry’s Fork.

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Hatchery Ford was originally a crossing for the stage line conveying tourists to West Yellowstone where they could board other stages to tour the park. There was a cabin on the east side not far up the grade from the river. I don’t know much about it other than it was probably used to provide assistance for the stage line. I have attached an old photo of the cabin with Carson Lewis and his stepson, David Hayes. David was a journalist for the Island Park News and wrote a book under the pen name, Seldom Seen. Today there isn’t a trace of it. I wish I would have taken some better pictures before it became a piece of lost history.

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Floating the canyon from Riverside to Hatchery Ford and from Lower Mesa Falls to Warm River can be dangerous. Stay away unless you are a very experienced boatman. We have rescued a few fortunate people who wrecked their boats and survived. Other people have died.

I’m too old to row the canyon these days but I enjoy driving down to the river and fishing with my memories. I usually drive down the improved access road. On occasion I also hike down the trail on the west side. It’s all grown over with lots of deadfall but you can still get down to the river. The fishing can be good but it isn’t about the fish. It’s about the canyon. My memories of fishing on this great river cover more than 6 decades. I’m thankful that my mom risked her life to jump into the raging river and save my life. Otherwise I would have only been a memory in the canyon.