Running the Selway river trail

I had the good fortune here to run the 55-mile trail along Idaho’s Selway river, joining a group of friends as they kayaked the river. My girlfriend at the time and I were hanging out in my kitchen, chatting and making dinner. She mentioned that in a couple days she and a small group of friends were kayaking the Selway, and I immediately invited myself along. If I packed a light overnight kit, I asked her, would there be enough room in the kayaks to carry my gear as well? She said they were packing light, but it wouldn’t be a problem. I was in like flynn. So I showed up at her house a couple days later with an overnight pack that was all of about five pounds, and meanwhile the boaters have all their mounds of gear scattered across the lawn. I’d forgotten just how different packing light can mean for ultrarunning versus boating!

Boaters sure do know how to pack

A couple years ago I ran the bottom 25 miles of the river corridor with a couple friends in April and had an absolutely fantastic time. April in Missoula is generally overcast and snowy, but April in the Selway is like time-traveling forward a month. It was sunny, mid-60s, with arrowleaf balsamroot turning the hillsides yellow and the river flowing this beautiful turquoise green below. Summertime in the Selway can be ridiculously hot, and the trail is notorious for rattlesnakes. Running the trail in April avoids those negatives while taking advantage of all springtime has to offer.

The Selway is a designated Wild and Scenic river and one of the most sought-after rafting trips in the region. Its headwaters are in the Bitterroot mountains, and it flows roughly 100 miles through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Bitterroot National Forest, and Nez Perce National Forest before joining with the Lochsa to form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater river. It’s pristine, wild country, and I couldn’t wait to get another taste of it.

Our forecast called for scattered rain but relatively high temps in the upper 50s, so I figured that even if we didn’t get the perfect weather I’d experienced two years before, we’d at least avoid the summertime scorching temps and rattlesnakes.

The trail starts off hugging the river closely, winding through ferns and western red cedars seemingly more at home in the PNW than Idaho. But the upper Selway certainly gets the rainfall to support these water-loving plants, and Saturday was evidence of that. It wasn’t raining when I’d started, so I’d set off with just shorts and a t-shirt. As the afternoon wore on I added arm sleeves and then another long-sleeve layer, but the brush and rain continued to intensify. The trail is quite overgrown, and thick brush wet from the ongoing rain overhanging the trail and providing a constant cold shower in addition to the rainfall. By evening the light shivering state I’d been in for a couple hours deepened worringly, yet I still struggled between a grim stubbornness to stay warm by continuing to move, or stopping to put on more layers — which would make me even colder before it would start to help.

I finally stopped, threw a raincoat on and stripped off my shoes and shorts in order to put on long johns. With my cold, unresponsive hands what should have been a minute’s work took fifteen. The differences between boaters and runners were exposed again as I jogged into camp a couple hours later, still shivering a bit, soaked through, and thoroughly done with battling wet bushes. The five boaters were warm, dry, and happy, hanging out around a small fire and shooting the breeze. They’d already been in camp for hours! But thankfully a quick change into dry clothes and a warm meal made things all right with the world. We camped just upstream of Moose creek, or about 32 miles for the day. They were undoubtedly the wettest 32 miles I’d ever covered!

Thankfully the trail on day two was quite a bit more open, and I suffered considerably less. In this lower section it also spends much more time high above the river, and in my opinion the views are considerably better. The trail winds in and out of small side drainages throughout the day, on seemingly every corner giving you a fresh look on the river and landscape. I just happily jogged along for hours, taking a thousand pictures and enjoying the place as much as I could. I loped into the takeout with perfect timing, about half an hour after the boaters had arrived.

The only unfortunate part of the trip was I tweaked the anterior tibialis tendon in my left ankle. It flared up over the last ten miles or so on the second day, and though it never got bad enough to stop running, I could barely walk the next several days afterward. This trip was only 10 days after finishing the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, and was probably just a little bit too much sustained running for the training I’d done to that point. The tendonitis lasted off and on for the next eight weeks, derailing several adventure plans in July. But thankfully I managed to get past it by the end of July. Nothing ventured, nothing gained?

Couple shots from Brooke Hess (blue drysuit in the left pic) on Instagram. The Michelan Man doesn’t have shit on two drysuited Michelan Gals!

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