Murtaugh Canyon

Flows: 500 - 30,000 cfs, dam release ( this tr shows the river at 2,600 cfs )
Location: Snake River, Southern Idaho.

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The Murtaugh Canyon section of the Snake River has it all: Outstanding desert canyon scenery, excellent playboating, and a wide array of big, punchy rapids. Best of all, this section runs in the Spring and Summer ( this trip was in July ).

Sadly, the Snake is one of the most exploited rivers in the west, and the Murtaugh run is no exception. This section is dam controlled, so in low water years it stays dry. In fact, between 2000-2004 the Murtaugh never ran, but high snow packs in 2005 and 2006 led to a surplus of water for paddlers to enjoy. Come see why this section is worth preserving!

In normal-to-high snow pack years, paddlers can experience the full range of flows on the Murtaugh. In the spring flows can range up to 30,000 cfs, which means a big-water class IV experience. In the summer months, flows fluctuate around the 3,000 cfs level, which is a more accommodating flow suitable for kayakers with a strong roll.

It is possible to run the Murtaugh down to 500-1,000 cfs, which is when the river descends into a secondary micro-gorge that is submerged at higher flows. At these very low flows ( according to experienced locals ) the river is narrow and creeky, with steep, difficult drops similar to the upper sections of the White Salmon.

If you decide to do this run, get a copy of the Grant Amaral guidebook to Idaho Whitewater. Grant's shuttle directions and general advice on this section are invaluable and I will not be covering any of that here.

The first thing Grant recommends is scouting Pair-a-Dice from the Hanson Bridge. This is a good idea, especially if no one has done the run before. Pair-a-Dice is a potentially dangerous drop if run incorrectly, so spend the time to take a look at this one from overhead. The hole on the right side of this drop resembles a low-head dam, so approach this one with care.

Scouting Pair-a-Dice rapid from the Hansen Bridge overlook. Bring binoculars!

After scouting Pair-a-Dice, we decided to go up and look at Cauldron Linn, a thirty-foot tall multi-tiered drop a mile upstream from the Murtaugh put in.

From a kayaking perspective the Cauldron was super-nasty, with no clean line over this drop at the flow we had ( 2,600 cfs ). The bottom hole was especially hideous, with a 'melt in and hope you don't die' line. Jesse sent a piece of wood over the bottom drop which eventually reappeared in much smaller pieces downstream, which pretty much confirmed our suspicions about this one. ( According to locals, this falls has been run at low flows ~600 cfs and at very high water when the left shelf is covered. )

Checking out the scenic but nasty-looking Cauldron Linn.

We put on at the regular spot described in the Amaral guidebook about a mile downstream from Cauldron Linn. I don't think I have ever paddled a river with such warm water, it felt like a swimming pool!

Just downstream of the put in was the first big drop, known locally as 'Maybelline', which is fairly typical of Murtaugh rapids. Maybelline has some huge boils at the top, followed by a long series of large waves and wave-holes downstream.. Very fun stuff!

Grace Thompson enters Maybelline.

Downstream of Maybelline was a wave hole that can only be described as epic! We hung out here awhile and took some rides. Jesse and Bob had the most success with their little playboats, but Brian got in on the action too with his larger boat..

Brian Zabel surfs it up at one of the epic playspots on the Murtaugh.

Bob Lee tears it up at the same hole..

Just downstream from the first wavehole was an extremely fast and dynamic wave. We had some great surfs here, and I was wishing I had brought my Medieval because a longer playboat could surf this one all day long!

Jesse Coombs rides another big surf wave just downstream..

Below the second wave the river resumed it's deliberate pace downstream, with big horizon lines separated by long pools. This river is pool-drop with a capital P at this flow..

Brian Zabel runs another drop just downstream of the surf wave. There are lots of rapids like this..

Soon we rounded the corner and could see the Hansen bridge far overhead. Brian and Grace followed the locals we had hooked up with and boat-scouted the left side of the right pour-over, while the rest of us eddied out to scout the left side. ( I don't advise running the right side of this drop unless you have scouted it or are with someone who knows the line. The hole in the middle is big, powerful, and quite dangerous ).

Finally the rest of the group decided to fire off the left side, which looked like fun. This line involved a strong ferry out to a small boof flake in the middle of the large horseshoe, followed by a wild ride down the middle of the huge horseshoe flume. I had a less than optimal angle on my boof and managed to get stuck in the hole on the left side of the upper horseshoe briefly, but I surfed out if it without problems..

Checking out the options at Pair-a-Dice.

Conor Kelly fires up the left-side line at Pair-a-Dice.

Below Pair-a-Dice the rapids get bigger and more frequent.

Below 'Pair-a-Dice' was a burly drop called 'Hooker'. We all boat scouted this drop, with Jesse and Bob blindly running the meat line on the left ( Jesse was using his patented 'scouting from four feet underwater' technique on this drop ), and the rest of us opting for the tamer line on the right hand side..

The next really large rapid is 'Lets Make a Deal', a river-wide series of ledges separated by basalt islands. At this flow, only doors four-and-a-half and five ( on the creek-right side ) were options. We scouted on the right hand side ( watch out for poison oak! ) and picked our lines..

Grace Thompson scopes out the scouting eddies above 'Lets Make a Deal'.

Bob, Jesse, and Grace fired off the right side line ( Door #5 ) first, with good results, while everyone else ran the left side ( Door #4.5 ).

Bob Lee lines up on the right side ( Door #5 ) of 'Lets Make a Deal'.

Conor Kelly melts through the bottom hole of door #4.5 on 'Lets Make a Deal' while Paul Abraszewski looks on.

Next up was Redshanks, which has a huge, scary-looking roostertail when viewed from upstream. The roostertail itself turned out to be harmless, and served as a useful guide. We just pointed our bows at the roostertail, then skipped just to the left of it to hit the green tongue dropping between the two holes..

Conor Kelly drops into Redshanks, one of the last rapids in Murtaugh Canyon. This drop has a nice green tongue visible here dropping between two sizable holes..

The last major rapid in Murtaugh is Duck Blind. Everyone got out to scout this one except Bob, Jesse, and Brian. This drop has a fascinating curling hydraulic formed by a basalt shelf on the left, similar to the curling wave feature on the Zambezi. This hydraulic is semi-visible in the photos below, but has to be seen to be appreciated. Bob actually went through it, ducking and riding through the tube, which was pretty cool to watch!

The line here is basically right down the middle, breaking through the large wave-hole at the top and then fighting through some munchiness just downstream. Jesse and Bob blew through it first without problems, then Brian ( boat-scouting ) went too far right and got the beat-down in the hole, so the rest of us were able to correct off of his line..

Conor Kelly gets swallowed up by the wave-hole guarding the top of Duck Blind
( note the funky tubing wave on the river-left, just downstream.. )

Conor Kelly gets launched out of the hole at the bottom of Duck Blind..

Below Duck Blind is the Idaho Connection, a series of surf waves just above the lake. I guess at high water these waves are epic, but at this flow they were not the best playspots on the run by a long shot..

One of the many falls that cascade into the canyon. This falls drops in at the surf waves known as 'The Idaho Connection.'

Below the connection was the 1.5 mile paddle out across the lake above Twin Falls, which went by fairly quickly. The take-out park was crowded with people in Jetboats and Jet Skis, so we loaded our gear as quickly as we could and hit the road..

This is one of the best summer rivers in the Northwest, definitely a must-do! The scenery is top-notch, with huge cascades of water coming out of the canyon walls, warm water, great rapids, epic play.. What else do you want? This run is located just off I84 about two hours from the Payette river drainage, so it can easily be combined with a Payette trip. If you are an avid playboater pack a lunch and plan on getting some big rides!

Flows are available at the Bureau of Reclamation website located here. The flows for this trip report are highlighted in blue below. In 2006 the flow was scheduled through August. In low-snow pack years this one doesn't run at all.

If you decide to do this run, get a copy of the Grant Amaral guidebook to Idaho Whitewater. Grant's shuttle directions and general advice on this section are invaluable, ( especially his shuttle directions ).

There is a 1.5 mile paddle out across the lake at the end of the day, so save some energy for that. Stay close to the south wall and watch out for the power boats and Jet Skis.