The South of the Payette River
The Canyon
By Jason Rackley


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We ran the South Fork of the Payette Canyon run during an early summer trip to Idaho. We had been having a great time up to this point, and we were all looking forward to paddling this section.

We had run the lower Staircase run on the previous day and it had plenty of water, so we expected a nice medium flow. We dropped a car at the bottom and headed up the road, peering down into the canyon as we went. At one point we stopped to get some photos, which give a nice feel for the river..

Looking down into South Fork Canyon.

Idaho is one of my favorite places to paddle because in the Spring and early Summer you get hot weather and plenty of water. We were all pretty eager to put on by the time we arrived at the put in, because the temperature was hovering around eighty and the water looked cool and inviting.

We didn't have to wait long for some read and fun, the class III-IV rapids came one after the other as we floated downstream, enjoying the weather and clear canyon views. Most of us only had creekboats, so we were not able to fully enjoy the numerous play features on this run. I will definitely paddle a playboat on this run in the future.

Grace Thompson runs a typical drop on the SF Canyon.

Only Brian Zabel had run this section previously, but his memory of the run was a little hazy. He couldn't remember exactly where Big Falls was located, so we stayed alert as we moved downstream because this drop is a recommended portage.

Jesse Coombs runs a very fun, long rapid part way down the run

It turns out that we didn't have to worry about locating 'Big Falls'. I was out in front when we arrived, and my first clue was a big orange sign on the right that screamed "BIG FALLS PORTAGE HERE". Very helpful, but a bit of an eyesore.

We got out to portage, and soon the reason for the sign became clear. The lead-in to this falls is somewhat deceptive, because it doesn't have an obvious horizon line which usually indicates a big drop. Big Falls actually consists of three drops, each bigger and more terminal ( at least at this flow ) than the last. The biggest risk would be for rafters, IKers, and/or noob kayakers not stopping in time and blundering into the falls.

The beginning of the portage for Big Falls.

Big Falls has been run at very low flows, maybe a fifth of the flow we had, and at higher water unintentionally. At the current flow it was a deathtrap, deemed unsurvivable by our group. The final hole was the worst, a deep, powerful monster of a hydraulic backed up by the wall downstream. Nothing at all to like about this one..

Portaging 'Big Falls', the biggest single drop in the canyon. This falls has been run at very low water, but at this flow it features three giant holes in a row, ending with this terminal monster.

We portaged the falls on the left, taking the well-worn trail down to a smooth granite shelf. Getting back to the water required a little bit of teamwork and soon we were headed downstream again.

Below Big Falls the canyon gorges up in a more significant way leading up to Blackadar Rapid. This drop is named for the world-famous Idaho kayaker Walt Blackadar, who drowned here after pinning on a strainer. We arrived at this drop and I got out to give it a look, waving everyone through after I determined it was clean.

Conor Kelly charges into Blackadar rapid, a drop named for the legendary kayaker Walt Blackadar, who drowned here.

After everyone had run the drop I sat there briefly, meditating on the canyon and the significance of this drop. Walt has always been one of my heroes, a man whose boldness and determination set a new standard in kayaking. I could feel the sun on my back and the wind in my face, and I breathed in the scent of pine trees and fresh water as I paid my respects to Walt.

Downstream of Blackadars the canyon opened up somewhat, and we approached Lone Pine rapid. Brian said he vaguely remembered a hole somewhere, but couldn't pin down exactly where. I got out to scout and waved everyone through after I determined that it was read-and-run. As everyone was running the drop, I felt suddenly motivated so I climbed up and downstream a fair distance to get photos and video. It was worth it for the great view of the rapid, but I was drenched with sweat by the time I got back down to my boat..

Brian Zabel enters Lone Pine rapid

Below Lone Pine were some smaller drops, and then we arrived at Little Falls. I scouted this one and indicated the lines by hand signals to everyone else who was waiting upstream in an eddy ( boof if you want to go left, paddle hard through the hole if you want to go right, dangerous/don't go in the middle.. )

Little Falls has a horrible hole in the middle of the river, but is super-clean on the far left or right side. Jesse and Bob busted the hole on the right side, while everyone else ran the super-clean boof on the left. We were all on our best behavior at this drop because we had heard scary stories about locals who had ended up in the middle of the hole here..

Little Falls on the SF Payette. The far right or left side is the only safe line here..

Below Little Falls we cruised downstream as the rapids seemed to cool off somewhat. Soon we arrived at another horizon line, which turned out to be 'Surprise Rapid'. This drop was probably my favorite in the canyon, it is hard to describe but was super fun with big waves and holes everywhere.. good times!

Conor Kelly gets swallowed up by Surprise rapid.

We did this run in early July during a very big snow year. May and June is best during average years.

For more info, pick up a copy of Grant Amarals guide to Idaho Whitewater, an essential and thorough resource for all paddlers interested in this state. Grants book is Idahos' version of the California 'Bible', and is just as informative and entertaining as the Stanley/Holbeck guide.